A Rose by Any Other Name is Not Always a Rose
It is becoming increasingly common for disabled handlers of service dogs, other than those who are affected by blindness, alone, to handle service dogs who perform guiding skills. These service dogs guide their handlers under various circumstances that are specific to the handler’s disability. In short, these scenarios typically involve the handlers becoming overwhelmed or incapacitated by symptoms associated with their disabilities.
For example, a psychiatric service dog may guide his handler, who is experiencing a panic attack, to a safe place. Other examples include people who are disabled by medical conditions that cause symptoms like: migraines, syncope, and seizures. These disabilities can disorient their handlers in a manner that renders them unable to independently navigate their environment. A service dog can be trained to respond to scenarios like these, by safely guiding their handlers to places of refuge.
With substantial understanding of its safety limitations, this work can offer these service dog handlers a higher degree of security and independence. Unfortunately, without adequate understanding of how a service dog can exercise this skill and the limitations of such work, asking him to perform it can be far more dangerous than proactively taking alternative safety measures.
What Makes a Successful Guide Dog Team?
Before we can differentiate, and, in some cases, draw a parallel between a partnership between a blind person and his guide dog and a person with a disability that results in intermittent blindness or disorientation and his service dog, we must understand what makes a guide dog team function. While guide dogs can perform some unbelievable behaviors, to keep their blind handlers safe, there are limits to what they can be trained to do.
A blind person, who works with a guide dog, uses various skills to maintain an awareness of the environment. It is this awareness that contributes to the team’s ability to safely navigate their surroundings. While much of the team’s mobility is dependent on a combination of direction from the handler and the guide dog’s ability to keep the team safe from environmental hazards, the most significant factor is the handler’s readiness to entrust the guide dog with the team’s lives.
Guiding Vs. “Guide Work”
Guiding is intense work. Many people who have service dogs, who perform behavior similar to guiding, refer to what their dogs are doing as “guide work.” In many of these cases, this terminology is used to convey that the service dog performs some aspects of what a traditional guide dog’s job involves, but to a lesser degree or in a different manner. This is where it is crucial to differentiate between a service dog who is guiding and a service dog who does work that is similar to guiding. What is often referred to as, “guide work,” would be more appropriately referred to as “leading.”
Interpreting The Intersection of Leading Work and Guiding
For the purposes of this theory, “leading,” can best be described as a dog who utilizes various skills to communicate to the handler in which direction he should advance, to navigate from one place to a specific destination. The primary differences between leading and guiding are the demands of the dog’s role, while utilizing either skill.
For example: A dog who works in a manner that translates to his handler that, “We need to go this way to get where you want to go,” could be described as leading. A dog who works in a manner that translates to the handler, “Tell me where we need to be and I’ll get us there safely,” would be described as guiding.
Leading does require the service dog to have a heightened awareness of the environment and the handler must be able to trust his service dog to perform this skill safely and effectively. In both situations, it is also necessary for the handler to maintain a certain level of awareness. A completely disoriented handler, with no sensory awareness of his surroundings cannot be expected to safely handle a service dog, even if the dog is providing a high level of assistance.
A dog who is leading understands the task at hand: to assist his handler in getting from point A to point B. In many cases, that is all the handler needs. For example, a disoriented handler may need his service dog to help him find the exit to a building. While the handler may be disoriented, he can still maintain enough sensory awareness of his surroundings to navigate them safely.
Both roles require the service dog to shift roles from leader/guide to follower, when appropriate. This is true of most service dogs, as there are times when they must understand that their assistance is not always needed, in the same manner. Even guide dogs, whose primary job is to guide their handlers around their surroundings, have cues that release them from that role, trading it for that of a service dog who, more often, looks to the handler for direction.
The Danger of Unrealistic Expectations
A safe service dog team can be described as: A handler who has an accurate grasp on his service dog’s strengths, weaknesses and limitations; and, ultimately, a realistic understanding of what he and his service dog can and cannot do, in a manner that is safe for both of them. With such understanding, a handler can ask from his service dog, what he knows the service dog can offer.
When the handler knows that his service dog cannot offer the assistance he needs, in a safe manner, the cautious handler will, when possible, avoid putting he and his service dog in such a position or take additional or alternative safety measures. These concepts apply to any form of service dog work; not just those jobs which involve leading or guiding.
An individual whose needs demand a dog who can mitigate a significantly decreased sensory awareness of his surroundings, caused by intermittent vision loss, severe disorientation and other similar impairments would not be safe with a dog who does leading. A service dog whose job will require him to guide at some times, but not all, must still be trained to the standards that a guide dog would be. This is work that cannot be performed at a substandard level. If an individual expects a service dog to guide and the dog’s capabilities are limited to leading, that person would be in more danger than if he were to use an alternative means of mobility.
An example of a dangerous situation, in which the handler expects his service dog, who has only learned the foundation skills of leading, to guide may transpire as follows: As a result of an episode that causes intermittent blindness, a handler becomes disoriented, and needs help getting to a safe place. He knows his dog knows how to get, from where they are, to a designated safe place, so he instructs the dog to proceed accordingly. Upon setting out on the journey from point A to point B, many troubling factors become clear: The service dog understands how to get himself from one place to another, but has not learned the fundamentals of reaching that destination as a team and does not know to take environmental elements into consideration, during navigation. Now, not only is the handler at a disadvantage, caused by his disability, but the service dog is also grossly unprepared for what is to come next. The dog is not prepared maintain the alertness necessary to avoid the variety of obstacles the team may encounter; stationary, moving, overhead and those which are unpredictable. He does not know to adjust his pace to prevent his handler from tripping on uneven terrain and in tight spaces. He will fail to indicate to steps and curbs, posing a risk for his handler to fall. Navigating in areas where there is vehicle traffic is extremely unsafe. Combined with an adequate level of awareness, a dog who is trained to guide can much more safely and effectively meet the demands such a scenario, with his handler.
The fundamentals of the theory behind guiding versus leading may hold true to most service dog teams, other than guide dog teams. However, there are exceptions. There are service dogs who can safely guide their handlers from one place to another, when the handler is entirely disoriented. However, in most scenarios, it would not be safe to expect this of any team. In cases like these, alternative means of safety should be pursued, like training the service dog to ensure that the handler does not attempt to navigate an environment, when he is entirely disoriented.
A Time and a Place
It is important for the trainers and handlers of service dogs to understand the distinct differences between guiding and leading, each skill has its place in service work. As with any task or work, a service dog must perform his job in a manner that is best suited for he and his handler.
Important factors to take into consideration when determining whether a dog can or should perform guiding or leading:
- The dog’s size and structural soundness. Guiding requires a delicate ratio of the dog’s size to the handlers. Leading also requires a dog of considerable size.
- (The dog’s temperament) Does the dog have the confidence and steadiness to make independent decisions, utilize problem solving skills, etc.
- (The dog’s training) Has the dog received the appropriate forms of and extent of training to perform the specific job that will be asked of him?
- (The handler’s trust in the dog) Can the handler trust his dog to make safe or reliable decisions or will he constantly be second guessing the dog? Without complete trust, the service dog will not perform his job in a manner that is consistent with the handler’s needs.
- For those who have chosen their own service dog- Did the handler take his needs for either form of assistance into consideration when choosing the dog? Not every dog who is cut out for certain forms of service work is cut out to take on the responsibilities of guiding.
- Does the handler have the appropriate equipment for the dog to guide or lead in an effective manner, while keeping the dog’s comfort and physical stress into consideration? Inappropriate equipment will hinder the dog’s ability to perform his job effectively and can even cause physical damage to him.