I’ve now been a guide dog owner for five years and I have experienced the positives and negatives that goes with being a Guide Dog owner when out in public.
I’d like to think I’m rather laid back when it comes to interaction with the general public and often attempt to educate where possible. But sometimes, the public just know better, so they think.
Recently, I have had two incidences happen where a member of the public began stroking Bailey while we were out, once in a queue, the other time I was just sitting down to eat lunch, when an individual came over to pet Bailey. While I was in the queue, I kindly said, please do not distract him, I had the handle in my hand still and hadn’t dropped it so Bailey knew he was still working. I’d always been taught, if the handle is resting on the dog’s back, if you as an owner feel you don’t mind someone petting, providing they ask, then it is OK for the dog to be patted and given attention too. However, some people think they can stroke Guide Dogs and other assistance dogs just because without asking the owner. So when the lady informed me that it was OK because he wasn’t working, I became quite annoyed. How dare someone tell me when it is OK and not OK to pet my working animal. He is my eyes and despite his resilience, which comes from his laid back disposition, he still loves attention. So I informed her, he was still working, he was still being asked to do things for me and he was in working mode with the handle in my hand. The hard thing to explain to the public is the dog is still working when they are in harness, regardless of the position of the handle and it is vital they still ask. I’ve had a similar experience while his handle has been dropped where I was paying for something and a member of the public started petting him and he was pulling on his lead so correction was needed but I accept he’s a dog, attention is great for him so the correction is more about alerting the public to the situation rather than disciplining him. I could have dropped my wallet or bag or anything. While he’s at the side of me, I expect him to stay there calmly and without distraction, he does it very well.
The second experience I had was last Saturday while I was with some friends in the city. We had been doing a street collection for Guide dogs all morning and it was warm so all Bailey and I, and my friends wanted to do was sit and have some lunch and relax. I’d removed his handle as I often do when we’re sitting for a while, [Some owners remove the entire harness but I find he goes into pet dog mode and have been asked if he is a working dog so for everyone’s sake, the handle just comes off], and was sorting myself out after having tied his lead to my chair when he got up and started wagging. When I insisted he lay down by my chair, a man said, “It’s OK, I’m just stroking him.” To which I rather abruptly replied, “I’d rather you didn’t, he’s working” to which he apologised. This could have all been avoided if he’d merely asked.
I must point out that I am not usually so off handed with the general public, I aim to educate where possible but recently people have been becoming more insistent that they know when they can and cannot pet my dog. I often say, if asked, sure, go ahead. But the presumption that anyone can pet him whenever they feel without asking me is getting a little too often.
Whenever I am told, “I know I shouldn’t stroke him, he’s working,” I will reply, if you ask me, I’ll happily drop his handle for you to pet him. I’m not stupid, I know the public fund our guide dogs in the UK, and I appreciate anyone who fundraises, donates, volunteers and works with them but just because you may have donated, does not give you the right to pet a working animal. Just because you love dogs doesn’t mean you should pet everyone you see. I know they are gorgeous and they are calm and gentle but they are our working partner and they ensure our safety. Once too often, a guide dog will get distracted by someone patting them in harness and someone will get hurt by either being walked into something or veer into a road. And the majority of owners will allow attention and will answer questions but we have things to do and places to go and we know our dogs well enough so next time you can’t resist the urge to pet, try and ask first if you can give the dog some attention. And if the owner says no, they probably have their reasons so please do not get offended. Its like having a celebrity on your arm with these gorgeous animals sometimes so please be considerate.
Some facts 1. Guide dogs, while in harness should not be petted without asking the owner first. 2. No matter how hungry you think a dog is, it does not need feeding. If you are concerned, contact Guide dogs. But they are meant to look lean and healthy and no matter how much they look, longingly at your sandwich, please do not give them any. They are on strict diets and it is essential they are kept at a constant working weight. 3. We do sometimes have to tell them off. They may sniff, they may bark at another dog, the owners know their dogs habits. Please do not feel concerned if an owner tells a dog no, or corrects something. You should not be seeing violence toward a Guide Dog though. I hope this would be a very rare experience but if you see hitting/kicking of a working animal, contact the appropriate organisation to investigate. 4. They can play, not in harness though. They will go for free runs and can interact happily with other dogs/play with toys.
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As I said, I on the whole have positive experiences and hopefully with time, the negative ones will be eradicated because of education.