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Dear Stranger, my Guide Dog is a Representation of Me.

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired, Students

by Caitlin Mongillo, College Success Program mentor, and blogger

Dear Stranger,

I forgive you.

I forgive you for only seeing the dog by my side and not the smile on my face. I forgive your comments on his gorgeous coat, and not on my straightened hair or meticulously applied eye shadow. I forgive you for complementing his exemplary training, rather than my Master’s degree or generous spirit. I don't forgive you for your hand reaching out to touch his shoulder, your whistle to get his attention, that crust of proffered bread that you absolutely needed to toss to him. Just as I am honest with you about his propensity for diving into any body of water he sees, I’ll be candid with you and tell you it’s taken me a bit of time to get to this place of both forgiveness and understanding. For, dear stranger, it isn’t always easy to hold the same conversation eighteen times a day. Sometimes, I feel like I even dream the phrases please don’t pet him, he’s working, actually he’s a yellow lab, not a golden retriever, and I’ve had him for two and half years now, I say them so often throughout the course of the day.

When you are accompanied by a lovable dog, the questions come with the territory. If I want to run and grab a cup of tea on my lunch break, I know that I may want to budget five minutes of extra time for discussions with people on the street about dog behavior or how it was possible that my dog and I independently crossed a busy intersection. By now, I am used to the questions; whenever possible, I try to be polite and use the opportunity to educate another person about blindness or guide dogs. However, sometimes I am in a rush, and I am not as generous in my responses as I should be. At those times, I ask your forgiveness, dear stranger.

I want to be a spokesperson for my community, but sometimes I am harried, just like you, and forget the position that my minority status affords me. When you are accompanied by a guide dog, you are always on display. There are times when I leave my dog at home, just so my husband and I can enjoy a date together without consistent comments about my dog, his training, or his behavior. I understand, dear stranger, that you may really want to engage me in conversation about my dog, but sometimes I just want to enjoy the sun on my face or my book or a cup of tea. There are times when my dog is distracted by a bird or a sound or a friendly passerby, and I need to correct him with a firm word or a tug on his harness. Dear stranger, I know sometimes you’ve witnessed these corrections, and sometimes you have not understood why I have issued them. I ask, in those times, for your understanding. I assure you, my dog’s feelings have never been hurt by a firm reminder to shape up and I can promise you that I have undergone extensive training to deliver a tug on his leash which will not, in any way, hurt him. Try to remember that he is my eyes, and if he is distracted we can both be put into dangerous situations.

When you work with a guide dog, you need to always be aware of what your partner is up to. Sometimes this can mean plucking a half-masticated piece of food out of your dog's mouth, or interrupting a conversation with friends at dinner to reposition your dog under a table. It can look like running through a blizzard in the biting February dawn to take your dog out because he is sick, or spending your last $40 on dog food over clothes and coffee. Having a guide dog means being aware of your environment. I often ask myself if a location is too loud, too crowded or seems unwelcoming for my dog. Having a guide dog means you don’t always get to put your own needs first, because there is a furry being attached to you who counts on you just as much as you do on them.

Dear stranger, please understand that having a guide dog takes work. Applying to receive a guide dog in the United States is often compared to applying for university. There are applications to fill out, letters of recommendation which need to be written for you, interviews to be conducted with program staff and more medical forms than I care to remember. And, after all that, sometimes a guide dog school may not accept you. If they do, you then need to wait for a period of time between several weeks and several months for a dog whose temperament, walking speed and personality match your own.

Then, you will attend a training program, most of the time away from home and family, for a period of between two and four weeks. Though your meals, lodging and travel expenses will be completely free, you will have to walk several miles a day, wake up at the crack of dawn, and learn an entirely new way of traveling. If it sounds, dear stranger, a bit like boot camp, it is. The blind or visually impaired individuals you see walking on the street with guide dogs have been extensively trained. If we might look confused sometimes, dear stranger, it is fine, even encouraged, to ask us if we need help or some directions. However, please do not grab our dogs or explain to them the directions, we are the captain of the team and will need to relay your information to our dogs in the way we have been taught.

If you’re thinking it’s a lot of work to be partnered with a guide dog, you would be correct. It takes time and dedication and awareness to make a successful team. Sometimes, the guide dog lifestyle is downright gross. However, for many individuals, it is the lifestyle we choose. For all the moments that I have to reach into my dog’s mouth to pull out a wad of gum or remind a member of the public for the twenty-second time in one day not to call to him as he’s working, there are far more equally glorious moments of partnership. I wouldn’t trade the gross, the taxing, the tiring times for anything, because it means I have had just as many moments of safe street crossings, indications to sets of stairs I could not see and flawlessly remembered routes.

Dear stranger, I ask for your understanding. For the moments when I have been curt or unappreciative or not as patient with you. I hope you can see that choosing to work with a guide dog is not easy, but, for me at least, it is altogether worthwhile. I need you to know, dear stranger, that I forgive you too. For all the times you have failed to see me, forgotten to compliment me, or only asked after my dog, I gladly excuse that. I choose to take your compliments towards my dog as a reflection on me. After all, it is I who keep him clean, practices his obedience with him, and ensures that he is behaving appropriately. By you notice his remarkable training, you are reminding me, indirectly, of all the time I have put in to make sure he is the dog you witness in your business; quiet, sweet, and incredibly intelligent. My dog, in so many ways, is the self I want always on display. I am proud every day of his affection for others, his zest for life and his unending loyalty. So, dear stranger, I understand your awe when you see him, and I feel the very same way. He is, really and truly, pretty spectacular.

Sincerely yours,

A girl and her dog

More about the author:

Caitlin MongilloCaitlin Mongillo is a social worker and program director at an unemployment agency in Bridgeport, CT. Currently, Caitlin works with people with disabilities and homeless families to assist them in accessing training, resources, and education to assist in attaining steady employment. Caitlin received her MSW in 2013 from Stony Brook University and her BA in English and secondary education in 2010 from Manhattanville College.

Caitlin spends her free time reading, writing, and hanging out with family and friends. She loves to travel and learn new things. She is excited to share her educational journey with the next generation of blind students and hopes that her experiences, both good and bad, will be able to help other students as they progress through higher education.