How I see it … what does “working” mean for a Guide Dog?

Since becoming a guide dog handler, one of the things that comes with it is more public wanting to interact. However, not with me with my Guide Dog Sienna.

This post will give examples of recent interactions we have had with the public while Guide Dog Sienna was working in a 45-minute timeframe at a shopping mall.

The environment and previous or planned activities need to be considered while we are working as a team. However, any unexpected distractions can cause knock-on effects that may compromise our safety.

I have found that people are inherently curious about Guide Dog Sienna and often want to interact with her. What I find interesting is that often they do not interact with me or are disinterested in subjects that do not relate to Sienna. Most of the time, I encourage curiosity and take every opportunity possible to educate those around me about access needs.

For example, when I asked someone to stop patting Sienna while she was actively guiding me and needed to concentrate. The person replied, “but she is just too cute and I wanted to pat her”. What this person and some others don’t seem to understand fully is that the dog is there for their handler, not for them. Their purpose and job are to detect dangerous situations or obstacles and ensure their handler is safe.

Earlier this week, Guide Dog Siena and I were at Sylvia Park Mall with a friend. We had had a long day already and stopped in very briefly for one thing and were actively limiting the time we spent there to around 45 minutes maximum.

As context, we were both woken to the earthquake and Te Aroha at 0330 and with the poor weather (rain and high wind), Sienna was not concentrating as well as she usually does. She was very excitable, wanted to play more than usual at home and when we were out, was very distracted and needed extra time and encouragement. For me this means that I need to concentrate more, it also means that she is more likely to interact with the environment around us which could ultimately be unsafe.

Photo of a golden Labrador in harness in the sit position.
I am working – my harness is on.

Our first interaction was with a shop assistant, who got visibly excited to see a dog, kept circling us, not interacting with my friend or me and reached out to pat Sienna. Sienna responded by wagging her tail and watching the shop assistant. I was lucky she was doing this in the small section of vision I have and I could therefore intervene. I asked her not to interact as Siena was working and needed to concentrate. She went completely silent and backed away and left before I could talk with her more and another shop assistant came and asked me if she could help.

The interaction in the shop caused Sienna to be even more distracted by her environment and she kept turning to face the door. As a result, I needed to concentrate on her rather than the task I was there to do. This was made more difficult by large cardboard boxes being unpacked on the shop floor, my need to move around these and Guide Dig Sienna trying to lead me to the door to leave (her reaction when she has had enough shopping). The extra cognitive load and responses to the environment for both of us prolonged our time there.

The second interaction was at the cafe. My friend went to the bathroom and I ordered. I asked the server about the menu and she kept pointing at the overhead sign and asked if I could just read it over there even after I had explained the reason I was asking was that I could not read it. I had Sienna sitting between me and the counter while I ordered. I then asked about cold drinks and she pointed to a small printed sign saying just read this. I explained again I could not read it and asked if she had flavoured tea. The queue behind us was growing and the assistant looked stressed, so I asked for a soft drink that I knew would be available (but didn’t want) and turned to find a table to wait for my friend.

I asked Sienna to turn around and find a seat. She was about to start doing this when a woman caught my arm, which distracted her from this task and meant she was left without me following through on an instruction to her and had to stop and talk with this person.

The person who caught my arm said if you need some help, I can help. I know exactly what it is like. I have had keratoconus. I thanked her and explained I was okay and had ordered. She then repeated what she had said, expanding on her story about her keratoconus experience. While her words were genuine, I understood she wanted to talk about her experience. I acknowledged how hard that must have been for her and explained I needed to go.

At the next table, there was a large family, two adults and four or five children. The two youngest children kept leaving their table and trying to get to Sienna. Their parents managed the other children and actively worked to keep the younger two away. Although this was distracting for Sienna, I appreciated that they understood Sienna was working and explained this to their children.

On our way back to the car, we were stopped by a woman while we were walking (quite fast). She didn’t interact with Sienna but talked with me (a nice change). She explained that she volunteered at the Guide Dog Kennels and wanted to know Sienna’s name as many dogs she cared for do not go on to work.

In my experience, most people know not to interact with their Guide Dog while working. However, what seems unclear to many is what working means. Is it only while they are walking? The short answer I use is when she’s wearing her harness. If a child pets Sienna without asking or makes a fuss to their parent about wanting to pat the dog, I use this as education and I often show them how the harness comes off and that they can pat her when it is off but not on.

This was not the most convenient mid-stride, but a breath of fresh air as most people assumed I was training Sienna and when I explained she is my guide dog and fully trained, they either seemed to be less interested or said, “but you don’t look blind”. I will leave unpacking this for another time.

The subsequent encounter was the real issue. While I was having a conversation with the volunteer from the kennels, another stranger walked up briskly and started patting and fussing over Sienna, who was sitting, waiting perfectly for us to finish talking. I said to the woman, “excuse me, please don’t pat her. She is working”, and she seemed taken aback by this request and said something like “but, I like dogs”, and left us to finish our conversation. Sienna was getting increasingly distracted each time a person stopped me or interacted with her and I could tell she just wanted to leave the mall.

I finished the conversation with the volunteer and directed Sienna toward my friend’s car. Sienna was extraordinarily distracted and as a result, walked herself and me straight into a big metal 1.5 meter sign (video signage). We were both unhurt but if this had happened about 10 metres away we would have been in the busy carpark which is even more dangerous.

What I have learned is that many people do not actually understand what working means for a guide dog. Some believe it is when they are walking along or actively guiding but it is more than that it is when they are wearing their harness. For this reason, I do not allow others to pat her while in harness. I know some handlers do let people interact while in harness but the majority do not to make this delineation clear to both the dog and public.

As a result I plan to change my language and be more descriptive instead of just saying she is “working”.

The key message here is consider the consequences of your actions. Even though guide dogs are cute and well behaved and are in public places they have tasks to perform and any interaction or distraction of a guide dog could in turn cause harm.

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