Katherine Corbett just wants people to leave her guide dog alone.
“I would prefer for people to pretend that my dog is invisible,” Katherine says. “Honestly, the best compliment you can give a guide dog user is, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t even notice you have a dog!’”
Katherine has been blind since shortly after birth. She lives and works from home in a rural area near Wisconsin Dells, but lived in Madison for years. While in the city, she acquired Quartz, a guide dog that had been trained at The Seeing Eye® training school in Morristown, New Jersey.
Guide dogs are specifically trained to help people who are blind navigate in the world. They are a subset of “service dogs,” a broad category that includes animals trained to work with people who live with a range of disabilities and medical conditions, such as autism, seizures, hearing impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder and others.
The interaction between human handler and guide dog is complex enough that most observers don’t recognize the subtle communication taking place. As a result, strangers often don’t appreciate that a guide dog is not just a companion, but a working animal performing a job.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives service dogs full access to public spaces, including restaurants, retail stores, housing and public transit. Those accommodations don’t apply to emotional support dogs, which provide comfort and companionship but are not considered service animals. While the ADA says you can take your guide dog into a restaurant, there are limits to this access. Service dogs must conduct themselves properly. The right to have one’s guide dog in a restaurant ends the moment they start snatching rib tips from the plate of an unsuspecting diner who is engrossed in conversation.
To avoid tricky situations, Katherine kept Quartz away from certain kinds of places because she anticipated distractions. “There are places I wouldn’t take her: to amusement parks, to bars, to concerts, to water parks.”
Quartz is now semi-retired, but for years she was key to Katherine’s ability to get around independently. Katherine also uses a white cane. Each of these tools is best suited for certain applications.
For Katherine, the biggest advantage to having a guide dog was the speed with which Quartz enabled her to navigate busy sidewalks, streets, restaurants and parks. “With a cane, you have to kind of process feedback as your cane is encountering obstacles, whereas the dog will just take you right around the obstacles,” she says.
“And Quartz was really great at parting crowds,” Katherine adds. “She would nudge people with her head to get them out of my way.”
Like all types of partnerships, trust is a critical component of a successful working guide dog team. Katherine often needed to cross E. Washington Ave., a busy six-lane road that bisects Madison’s east side. “There were times where I would tell her ‘forward,’ and she wouldn’t go,” she says. “And then I would hear a car turn in front of me even when I had the right of way. So I would have to trust that if she wasn’t going, there was a good reason for it.”
Quartz wasn’t always working, however. She was trained to understand that when in harness, it was all business. When the harness was removed, she could play. “When the harness comes off, she runs all over the house and rolls around,” Katherine says. “She sometimes plays fetch. She has two dog beds, and she sleeps in our bed. She gets treats every day. She’s spoiled!”
For many guide dog users, the biggest challenge is interference from well-meaning members of the public. Katherine encountered this situation fairly often.
For example, Quartz would be in working mode and some stranger would start petting her. That kind of external attention can distract a dog and result in a dangerous situation. “My best advice would be, do not talk to the dogs,” Katherine says. “Don’t ask the dog’s name, because that is a cue for the dog that should only be uttered by the owner. Do not pet the dog. Do not ask to play with the dog.”
To learn more about guide dog etiquette and how to best interact with a working guide dog team, read some tips from Vision Serve Alliance.
We also touched on guide dog etiquette in our short animated video “When You Encounter Someone with Vision Loss,” which is available on our YouTube channel.