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"Is That A Blind Dog?"

by David Froggatt, Liverpool, England

As a dog guide handler for 17 years, I am no longer surprised by the clear-thinking, sure-footed work of my dogs when negotiating obstacles or working in congested city streets. But I am still capable of being taken aback by questions and assumptions of people who know little about such dogs or their work.

Not realizing that a dog guide and blind handler are a partnership working in harmony, many people think that the dog needs no training, functions without any input by his handler and is a mind reader (although that's sometimes true). They believe that the dog automatically knows which direction to take when there is a choice of routes and can judge when it's safe to cross a busy road. "Can the dog read traffic lights?" is a regular enquiry. In other words, my dog is superhuman--or should that be super canine?

I once heard the following: "That dog knows where to get off the bus. He counts the stops." A friend with her dog guide in an unfamiliar area asked a passer-by for directions. The man squatted and spoke the instructions into the dog's ear.

The relationship between owner and dog guide is one of mutual trust and confidence. Full concentration of both partners whilst out and about is essential for their safety. But of course the dog's concentration is not always one hundred per cent. He or she may be distracted by another dog or by a cat sitting on a wall. A flick of the leash and a brief command will correct this. But people can sometimes be a greater distraction--especially those who want to feed or pet the dog when it is working.

I am always alert on buses for someone who wants to give him anything from a burger to sweets. A man who asked permission to feed the dog once gave me a chocolate bar. I replied: "He's on a diet, but I'll eat it." If a dog guide becomes accustomed to accepting food from strangers, he will watch anyone in the street who is eating instead of concentrating on guiding his owner.

After the training period, when the dog and his partner have formed a bond, anything seems possible, and the world is to be explored. Each time I take on a new dog and the partnership begins to gel, I get that feeling of liberation--of independence. It is a marvelous sensation; I am no longer reliant on friends to help with the weekly shopping or on taxies to get into town. I can go anywhere at any time, though I was once asked if I have to give up the dog each night.

The frank, honest curiosity of children about dog guides and their purpose is often embarrassing for parents. When a child asks a loud question on a bus, the mother will usually hush the youthful questioner, though some will explain how the dog helps me. One little girl with a large voice asked her mother if my dog was a boy or a girl. "A girl," the mother pronounced. The child peered closely at the dog. "No, mummy, it's a boy--look."

There is always the person who has a long one-sided conversation with my dog. One woman talked to him for quite some time without addressing a single word to me. Eventually she said, "You're a gorgeous handsome boy. I'd love to take you home." I said, "May I bring the dog?" There was the lady who said, "Hello darling!" When I replied, she was shocked. "I was talking to your dog," she said.

I have a personal preference for the German shepherd, so have always used this handsome breed. The public is divided between those who like me, love the shepherd and probably have one at home, and those who heed the unfair reputation the breed attracts as vicious and unpredictable. This attitude has an occasional advantage when I encounter a group of boisterous teenagers who are less inclined to play tricks or abuse a dog guide and his partner when they are approached by a large shepherd.

Assumptions sometimes obscure the obvious. I was free-running my dog in the park one day, wearing the harness over one shoulder and walking along using my white cane, when a lady asked, "Is it a police dog?"

Dogs, like people, are individuals, each with their own distinct character. I now have my fourth dog guide and have been fascinated to observe his personality emerge as he transferred the bond he had with his trainer to me--growing in confidence and settling into his new life. Much of the joy in this relationship springs from the moment when the partnership begins to meld. I hope we shall be working together for many years.

Along the way, of course, I shall continue to answer the many questions posed by people on buses, trains and in supermarket queues. To the query most often posed--"Is that a blind dog?"--I reply, "I hope not!"

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