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Maps, Menus, and More Myths About Guide Dogs

Editor's Note: Devon Wilkins is from Collingwood, Ontario. She is Canadian Vice-President of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, a director at large of Guide Dog Users of Canada, and founder and editor of The Harness, a magazine for people who use assistance dogs. She also serves as Director at Large for the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.

A few years ago, at the Montreal Comedy Festival, an individual was planted on one of the city streets with a guide dog and a map. In true Candid Camera fashion, the individual asked passers-by to outline the route he should take in order to reach a particular location. Only too willing to help, a number of people actually crouched down, map in hand, and showed the dog the route to take.

Then, there's the lady in Victoria who eventually lost her patience when a restauranteur wouldn't take a few minutes to go over the menu with her.

"Do you suppose my guide dog is going to read it to me?" the customer asked sarcastically.

"Well, yes," the surprised restauranteur stammered. "I really did think he would."

These are two particularly glaring misconceptions about guide dogs, but there are many others that are much more common.

"How does your dog know where you want to go?" children frequently ask when Oak and I visit their classrooms, most often during White Cane Week.

I answer that question with one of my own.

"Does your parents' car know where to take you?"

I go on to explain that like someone who gets behind the steering wheel, I need to know the streets to cross in order to reach a specific destination.

Speaking of intersections, contrary to popular belief, guide dogs can't tell when the light is green. The blind handler needs to determine when it's safe to cross by listening to the direction of the traffic. But if a handler, totally unaware of the presence of a hybrid car making its way into the intersection, gives the "forward" command, the guide dog is trained in what is called intelligent disobedience. The handler needs to practice this traffic technique often to keep the guide dog on its toes.

Another important fact for the public to remember is that guide dogs are dogs first. They aren't robots that are immune to distraction, any more than anyone else is. Given the choice, who of us wouldn't want to play rather than work? But in this particular instance, a moment of inattention on the part of the guide dog could have fatal consequences for both dog and human partners.

That's why it's vital that when a dog is wearing its harness, members of the public should refrain from calling, playing with, feeding, or otherwise distracting it. I tell children that the harness is the dog's uniform. You wouldn't bother a doctor who was stitching someone up, or a police officer in the midst of handcuffing a suspect. In the same way, you shouldn't distract a dog that is in harness.

That doesn't mean that you can't stop to pass the time of day with the human member of the team. You might even be able to have a word with the dog if the human partner is agreeable, but always ask first.

A misconception that has no doubt cost the five training programs across the country plenty of fundraising dollars is that guide dogs are trained by the CNIB (formerly known as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind). Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that for many years, CNIB tried to discourage clients from applying to guide dog training centres. Now, however, they have realized that guide dogs are here to stay, and they allow their orientation and mobility instructors to prepare people for their month at the training centre, and to assist in dealing with problems that might arise during the course of the relationship between guide dog and handler.

The mention of training programs reminds me to remind you that not all guide dogs are Seeing Eye dogs. The Seeing Eye is only one training centre, albeit the first in North America, which is located in Morristown, New Jersey. There are five training programs here in Canada, and several in the States.

If you want to know whether a guide dog would be suitable for you or your loved one, or if you have a question that you've always wanted to ask, don't hesitate to contact the national office of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians to ask for a brochure that has recently been written on the subject. Alternatively, visit the website of Guide Dog Users of Canada at: www.gduc.ca