Years before I was old enough to work with a guide dog, even when my vision teacher, parents and I were not sure whether I would be a worthy candidate for a guide dog due to my slow gait and medical circumstances that would have made it very difficult to go far away from home to a training program for a month all by myself, the prospect of having a guide dog thrilled me. A lot of this excitement could certainly be attributed to witnessing an older blind friend of mine who got her first guide dog three years before me, travel with such independence, graceful speed and confidence while my cane and I clunked our way down the sidewalk far behind. But almost equally exciting was the notion that almost like the relationship between mother and child, this guide dog would be my responsibility. This responsibility would encompass not only physical care, but also being his advocate and not being afraid to make my own decisions about what is in his best interests, or what is necessary for our success as a team and then stand by these decisions in the face of criticism. My friend confirmed my belief, based on her own experience that taking on this responsibility would make me feel like an adult by increasing my confidence and assertiveness immeasurably. But as I approach two and a half years as a guide dog handler, and as I reflect on the eager anticipation of taking on this responsibility, a reflection inspired by an Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, the theme of which is Decisions, I realize that in my naive ignorance and excitement, I never anticipated how upholding this responsibility would be easier said than done. Don’t get me wrong. This responsibility, along with other unpleasant responsibilities like having to take him out to relieve himself every day, even in winter (smile), are responsibilities I would never want to trade in for the cane, and the longer I work with Gilbert, the more I know that my confidence and ability to advocate will be honed. But upholding this responsibility has not been without periods of self doubt and frustration.
Before I continue, I should mention that I recognize that I am not a perfect dog handler, but other than maybe Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer, is anyone? Though I am not a parent, I am sure the same question could be applied to parenting as well.
I have heard new mothers talk about how when they bring their baby home from the hospital, they are determined that “we’re going to be perfect parents and do everything the experts say you are supposed to do!” only to discover after the first day or week that perfection is unrealistic if not impossible. I can totally relate to these parents because I had this utopian determination in my first week with Gilbert my guide dog, only to realize that perfection is unrealistic in the real world.
Yet another commonality between parents and dog handlers that I have heard numerous stories about is having to deal with people who are not parents or do not have assistance dogs, criticizing you and holding you to unrealistic expectations for caring for your child or dog. I know I shouldn’t beat myself up over this criticism because in the same way that it’s easy for someone who has never had children to criticize a mother for a poorly behaved child at a restaurant, it is easy for someone who knows nothing about assistance dogs to criticize me. Even so, I cannot help feeling the occasional twinge of self doubt, frustration, and even discouragement in my journey with Gilbert because of this criticism.
When I imagined what advocating for myself and a guide dog would look like before I had Gilbert, I imagined myself slapping the wrists of people in public caught petting Gilbert without asking my permission, or telling my college peers no when they asked if Gilbert could have table scraps. While I have had to do a little bit of this kind of advocacy, now that I am a guide dog handler, I have come to find that advocating for Gilbert isn’t always so easy and straight forward. I think a major reason for this is that before Gilbert, when I imagined advocating for Gilbert, I imagined that I would only have to worry about this responsibility in the presence of strangers. But in reality, I have come to find that often it is not strangers I need to be concerned about. It’s my own family.
By far the most frustrating source of criticism has been over my “no treats or table scraps” policy. When I go out to restaurants or eat in my college cafeteria, the occasional person who has tried to sneak Gilbert table scraps was respectful and understanding when I told them I didn’t want him eating table scraps. This has not been the case with some members of my family, most notably my older brother.
My grandma who lives just three miles from us went through a phase early in my career with Gilbert where she bought a box of milk bones, and every time she came over, she would greet him at the door with a treat without asking my permission. If I could, I would try to get to the door first, confiscate the treat and have a polite but firm talk with Grandma about why I didn’t want Gilbert to have treats, but the next day, I would be immersed in homework or something, and would not realize she was here until Gilbert came galloping happily up the stairs to announce her arrival with the crunch-crunch-crunching of a treat in his mouth. Every day, I would tell her I knew Gilbert got a treat and that I would like her to stop, but was met with the same response every time: “Aw, one treat won’t hurt him”, and then she would change the subject. It was only after both my parents sat her down and had a talk with her that she finally understood I was serious about this rule and stopped bringing treats for Gilbert. I still feel a little hurt that she wouldn’t listen to my authority as his handler alone, but at least she did stop bringing the treats. My brother on the other hand is a different story.
My brother lives in an apartment about half an hour away from us, but will come home for dinner occasionally. But ever since I have had Gilbert, the peace of these family dinners has been marred by his total lack of respect for my decision that Gilbert is not to have table scraps. Every visit, it’s the same story.
“Gilbert,” he says in that seductive doggy voice, “want some chicken?”
Gilbert is well trained, but still what dog could resist that voice? So he jumps up from his spot beside me and prances happily over to my brother.
So I have to put down my fork, frantically call him back to me or grab him by the collar and pull him away from the temptation saying for the millionth time, “No, I don’t want him to have table scraps!”
“Why not!” he protests, “it’s just one piece of chicken!” and then makes me out to be a mean owner for never letting him have treats.
I tell him that maybe a few table scraps are fine for a pet, but Gilbert is not a pet. He is a service dog who has to be well-mannered in places like restaurants, and if you teach him to expect table scraps during meals, he will lose these manners, start begging and then I won’t be able to take him to restaurants anymore.
“He won’t lose all manners and start begging just because I give him one table scrap!”
“Maybe not, but it’s not worth taking a chance, and besides, it’s not just his manners, but his health I am concerned about,” I say, pointing out that the school still legally owns Gilbert, and if they see that he is getting fat in a follow-up visit, they could take him away.
“Well, if you are so concerned about him getting fat, how come you never work him or take him for walks?”
This is what really makes my blood boil. For the record, my brother only comes out occasionally, maybe for an hour or two every two weeks. Sometimes when he visits, we do go out to restaurants and I often leave him at home in his crate for these outings since he is kind of big by guide dog standards, which means that often when he is with us, someone ends up having to sit with their legs crunched. When I do bring him, I often do sighted guide inside the restaurant since aisles between tables are narrow, which the dog trainer said was alright. At home of course, I don’t need to work the dog because I know the house like the back of my hand, so the times he happens to see me, I don’t work the dog. But he isn’t around the rest of the week when I work him all over my college campus, and take two mile walks on park trails and our country road when the weather is decent. Of course, where I live, there are days when I don’t take Gilbert for walks if the ground is covered with ice in winter or on hot muggy summer days. Maybe some guide dog handlers would say I should buck up and take him for walks on these days anyway, but walking in that kind of weather is unsafe and unnecessary in my opinion, and thus I have chosen to take the approach of being extra strict about his diet to make up for these days. He eats one cup of food in the morning and evening with no treats except from the vet–hey, I wish I could have a treat myself after putting up with cold metal instruments, pressed against my chest and jabbed in my ears and down my throat, not to mention shots–and the mail lady when she occasionally delivers a package to the door. Gilbert met this lady on the third day of training, and I don’t know if it is because he can smell the fact that this lady also has a yellow lab who is about the same age as Gilbert, but Gilbert loves her to pieces! When anyone else rings the doorbell, he runs to the door wagging his tail but is basically his calm well-mannered self. But when she comes to the door, he dances in circles and practically breaks the door down with excitement. The treats she gives aren’t milk bones but smaller ones broken in half, and I figure he probably burns the calories of this treat and then some in expressing his love for her! (smile) But I digress. Since the vet says he is at a perfectly healthy weight, I see nothing wrong with this approach, and my brother’s lack of respect for this decision frustrates me to no end! But at any rate, I do work him and take him for walks whenever I can, so his accusation that I don’t work him are ungrounded!
His next attack is that I pick and choose the rules I want to follow. Case and point: “The dog trainer said he was not to have table scraps, but didn’t he also say you are supposed to sleep in the same room with Gilbert?”
I did sleep with Gilbert for the first couple months, and yes, I think technically, guide dog handlers are supposed to sleep with the dog for bonding reasons. But while Gilbert and I match beautifully in daytime hours, our sleep styles are completely at odds. I am a very light sleeper, jolted awake by the slightest noise, and Gilbert is a noisy sleeper. If he is not snoring loudly or barking in his dreams, he is fidgeting, standing up, adjusting his position and then flopping down on the floor of his crate again with a thud. I can put up with these habits on vacations when we have to sleep in hotels, but on an everyday basis, I came to the decision that our daytime bonding would be much more successful if both team members got a good solid, undisturbed night of sleep. Maybe this is choosing the rules I want to follow, but I see nothing wrong with that. After all, the training program legally owns Gilbert, but for all practical purposes, he is my dog, and thus just like a parent, I feel I have the right to make my own decisions about what I do with Gilbert based on what works best for my situation, even if some of these decisions may be at odds with what the experts recommend, and the right to have these decisions respected, not criticized. And for the record, the fact that he doesn’t sleep with me has done nothing detrimental to our bonding. In fact, since my dad often wakes up before me, he will let Gilbert out of the crate, and as soon as that crate door opens, Gilbert races upstairs to lay right outside my door.
My brother’s final attack is that he sees Gilbert licking crumbs splattered on to the floor all the time and I don’t say a word about it. I try to argue that for one thing, the crumbs he picks up are minuscule compared to a whole hunk of chicken, not to mention the fact that he finds these crumbs on his own. In fact, the dog trainer even said once that if he licks up a crumb on the floor, so long as it wasn’t dropped for him on purpose and I don’t praise him for finding it, this behavior is not the end of the world. I agree with this philosophy because unless I have him on leash 24/7, catching him every time he licks a crumb off the floor would be unrealistic. So now my brother’s tactic is to “accidentally” drop things. He hasn’t admitted this, but every time he comes over, while he has eased up a little with the usual arguments, I seem to hear an inordinate amount of food hit the floor, and maybe it was a legitimate accident, but in the most recent visit when I heard not one but four almonds my brother was eating drop to the floor, I had to wonder. When I heard Gilbert getting close to the sight of these dropped almonds, I grabbed him by the collar and marched him out of the room until Mom promised me the almonds had been picked up.
One friend suggested I keep him on leash every time my brother comes over and maybe I should do that. But it irks me that in public, people respect my decisions but in my own house, I have to keep close tabs on Gilbert because I cannot trust all members of the family not to give him table scraps!
While my parents got to attend my training sessions and are thus very supportive in my efforts to enforce this rule, their authority has not been near as effective at getting my brother to stop, and I feel like it is because even they think I am a little more rigid than necessary about this rule. One visit, they even tried to convince me to cave and just let my brother give him a treat. He doesn’t come home that often after all, so it probably wouldn’t do any harm. Maybe not, but my brother is not four! He is 24, an age when I think “no table scraps” shouldn’t be a hard concept to grasp! When they respond with “aw, don’t let him get to you! He’s just teasing you! That’s what brothers do!” it is pretty clear that this is a battle I will have to fight alone.
Fighting this battle is draining, leading me to question if maybe I am too uptight on this issue. But with the combination of unanimous support of this decision when I wrote about this issue on the National Association of Guide Dog Users discussion list, and just my increasing confidence the longer I work with Gilbert, I am coming to realize that it is not perfection that makes a good guide dog handler. No one is perfect after all, and I have already admitted I am not the exception. What makes a good guide dog handler is the ability to not be afraid to make your own decisions about what is in the best interest of the team, and stand by these decisions despite criticism, which often comes not from strangers, but family. So while the battle may be draining and discouraging, the longer I work with Gilbert, the more confidence I develop to stand up for these decisions because Gilbert’s health and our success as a team is well worth the fight.