Guide Dogs Enhance Independence and Offer Companionship
September is National Guide Dog Month and celebrates the work of guide dogs in the United States, raising awareness, appreciation, support and money for guide dog schools and organizations.
In 1929, The Seeing Eye (www.seeingeye.org) became the first organization in the U.S. to breed, raise and train guide dogs. Today blind citizens and their guide dogs form teams that are protected by the American with Disabilities Act. In July, 2007, I entered the program at Guide Dogs for the Blind in Portland, Oregon. After four weeks of training, I returned home to the Washington, DC area with a 60 pound Yellow Labrador named Sultan.
Sultan has been with me every day, except for two weeks this past July, when he needed time to recover from surgery. I wasn’t able to work from home during Sultan’s recovery. Instead, I worked shorter days and had family members stay with Sultan when I was out. Taking Metro without the confident pull of Sultan was a scary experience. I got off the train at the usual location, but the 100 feet between the exit of the train and the escalator seemed like miles. I became confused and worried that I would step off the platform without my dog at my side. I knew it was time for Sultan to ease back into working when he followed my every step at home in the morning. At first, I kept things easy for him during our commute by taking a taxi to and from the train station.
The ADA, as amended in 2011, allows service animals to work with their handlers in practically any place of public accommodation. Generally, this is not much of an issue and I have taken Sultan to a multitude of locations, including baseball games, movies, plays, synagogue, restaurants, and homes where other animals lived.
Some people are amazed to learn that Sultan (and actually all guide dogs) stays with me during airplane travel. I have found that he is more comfortable in a row where there is a seat in front, not the bulkhead. Sultan will comfortably curl up with half his body under the seat in front of me and maintain this position for several hours without any difficulty.
A guide dog is a great companion, but there are times I will leave him at home. For example, traveling to the zoo was not a comfortable situation for Sultan, and I believe the bear that got barked at was not very happy either. Also, if my family is going out to dinner, then returning home, I will give Sultan that time to rest from his responsibilities.
When you see someone with a guide dog there are some rules of etiquette to follow:
- Please ask the handler before touching or speaking to their guide dog.
- Please don’t offer food while a guide dog is working. It breaks the dog’s training and concentration so.
- Please do not grab the animal’s harness.
Guide dogs enrich the lives of their handlers and others around them. Sultan has brought joy and continuity into my life as my sight has continued to deteriorate. If asked, I would recommend training to use a guide dog to anyone who could benefit from one.
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Jonathan Cohn is a New Editions Section 508 Analyst for the Department of Veterans Affairs contract. He has over 25 years of software development experience working for companies like Sprint, UUNET Technologies (now Verizon Business) and National Science Foundation. Jonathan was initially diagnosed with a retinal degenerative disease when he was very young and has been active in several blindness related groups.