Patty Slaby of Arcadia has found many benefits to living and working with her guide dog, Carter. “Walking in and out of medical facilities, church, stores, businesses and just taking walks,” Patty says. But the partnership demands that both participants stay focused and play by the rules. “You must be aware of what your dog is doing when moving about as well as when in the down or resting positions.” Patty and Carter’s relationship is one built on trust and extensive training and instruction.
September is National Guide Dog Awareness Month. And as frequently as the public may observe a guide dog at work, there is much to learn about how a dog enters a person’s life and what’s happening when the partners are in action together.
Orientation and mobility instruction offers people with vision loss a variety of approaches to navigating independently. Guide dogs are one of them. But they’re not for everyone. “Some people just want to have a companion,” says Certified Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist Brent Perzentka of the Council. Brent says those individuals may not be the best candidates for a guide dog. He points out that these are working dogs first and foremost. “Some people want to have it for defense, but they’re not trained to defend you. That’s another misconception,” he says. Still another misconception is that a guide dog will know how to get a person from A to B. “You still have to know how to get to the coffee shop,” Brent says. In other words, the dog is not responsible for figuring out your ultimate destination.
“Contrary to what a lot of people think, guide dogs are usually best suited for somebody who’s already independent and able to get around pretty well on their own,” Brent continues. He says the best candidate is an active person, someone moving around independently every day. “I get a lot of people who think if they get a dog, they’ll go anywhere,” he says. “But before considering it, you have to show you know how to navigate on your own.”
Patty, a member of the Council’s Board of Directors, agrees. “Not everyone is suited to a dog,” she says. “You must demonstrate patience, love and trust, and be able cue into your dog’s needs. Just like people, each dog is different.” Carter is Patty’s second guide dog. Her first, Reagan, retired at age ten. Reagan still lives with Patty and Carter.
People interested in obtaining a guide dog apply for programs at schools located around the country. The process is somewhat arduous for the human, just as it is for the dog. Many schools require travel to attend and a time commitment of two weeks or more in residency to complete the program. Applicants must show certification or instructor’s approval regarding their mobility, often including a video example, before being admitted to a program. Applicants must also show that their home is a clean, safe environment for a dog. Brent says most schools cover costs like travel and lodging.
Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Rachel Pavone of the Council also has some experience with guide dogs. Rachel became interested in guide dogs in high school and enrolled in a program in her home state of Michigan as she prepared to move away from home for college.
“The only tricky thing for me was that I had never owned a dog,” Rachel chuckles. “I lived in a cat household.” Her current guide dog Glory has been with her through her college years and into her career. Next year, at age eight, Glory will retire. She’ll move in with Rachel’s mom when Rachel takes on new guide dog. She’s happy Glory will “stay in the family.”
A dog’s journey into guiding a person who is blind begins as a puppy. That’s when it’s placed in a foster home to prepare it for guide dog school. Usually around the age of two, the dog is returned to the school program for training. “Only about 50% of the dogs will make it,” says Brent.
Getting around safely in a new way was a big consideration for Patty when she sought her first guide dog. “I served as an itinerant teacher of blind and visually impaired students moving about to many settings in a given day,” she recalls. “I knew I was needed in classrooms where there were behavior challenges and children who were allergic. But I still thought the dog would provide greater independence for me.” Working with a guide dog continues to serve her well to this day. “I love being able to walk more confidently, moving through various settings with ease, moving somewhat quicker, and providing that wonderful partnership throughout my environment.”
Patty says she feels lucky to be with Carter. “I’m so happy to have my dogs. It’s a valuable partnership that I’m fortunate to have, and I’m enjoying the experience.” She closes with her favorite command: “Carter forward, let’s go!”