The “Dog Day” Experience

Guide Dog Partnership
Guide Dogs are probably the most widely recognized type of assistance dog. Equipped with a harness with a long, semi-rigid handle held by the blind handler, a guide dog strategically navigates around obstacles, indicates to hazards in the team’s path and intelligently disobeys commands that would be dangerous with which to comply. With up to two years of extensive training, a guide dog offers his handler the safety and confidence she needs for all manners of independent mobility.

Guide Dogs have traditionally been trained by nonprofit organizations or guide dog schools. Members of the blind community attend these schools for about a month at a time to train with their first guide dogs. The first couple of days are usually dedicated to orientation and lectures.

In many cases, students have preceded their lives as guide dog handlers with years of cane use and help from other people acting as sighted guides. Embarking on the journey of guide dog partnership will be like nothing they’ve ever experienced and may open doors which were previously inaccessible. Though many students live full, independent lives both before and after becoming a guide dog handler, they report preferring the increased degree of dignity guide dog partnership offers in comparison to alternative mobility options.

Dog Day
The day has finally come, when students know they are about to meet their guide dogs for the first time.  This day is wrought with intense emotion, as it is a moment students have been dreaming about for months- sometimes years.

Imagine what it would feel like to know, well in advance, that you were about to meet your best friend for the next decade. While it goes without saying that you’d be looking forward to this moment, it makes sense that you’d likely have a severe case of butterflies in your stomach. Will your new partner be all that you hoped for? Would you click right away? Would he be the breed or color you strongly desired? Did you make a mistake attending guide dog school? You have months of anticipation built up. How could you be expected to wait a second longer?

Speaking about her own Dog Day, Emily Sheets, handler of a guide dog from The Seeing Eye, expressed to me so poignantly, “When we were told to go to our rooms while they went over to the kennels to get our dogs, that’s when I simply refused to wait any longer, but had to anyway.” If that doesn’t sound like a day filled to the brim with excitement and tension, I don’t know what does. Emily goes on to talk about just how much her nerves had affected her, “I forgot my leash so I had to dart back in my room to get it. Talk about nervous when I literally was just told to bring the leash and leave it up to me to immediately forget to grab it.”

After minutes drag on like hours, it’s time.

Each guide dog is brought to his or her new handler by the student’s instructor. Students are told the dog’s name, how the name is spelled, the sex of the dog and the dog’s breed and color.

This is the point at which the new handler puts her hands on her new partner for the first time.  Feeling out his features, she notes the blockiness of his head and the texture of his fur.  She finds out whether her dog is the type to greet her as an old friend or may be briefly disappointed to find that her dog prefers to stick by the more familiar person in the room.  She’ll speak the dog’s name for the first time and may offer some treats.

All the eagerness, anticipation, worry and excitement of the past several months culminates in these first moments together.  This is just the beginning; this is Dog Day.

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