15. Distractions

Earlier, I said I would write more about distractions, so buckle up your seat belt!

Let’s start with three visualization exercises. Try to imagine these situations as vividly as you can. 1) You are driving down a city street and suddenly your car gets a mind of its own and veers left; it crosses on-coming traffic, goes up onto the opposite curb and stops across the sidewalk. You’re okay, but badly shaken. 2) You are riding your bike down a path and you lose control, leaving the path and running through some bushes, across a lawn, and hitting a tree. You bang your head on the tree and have a large bruise on your forehead. 3) You are walking across a parking lot when a motorcycle roars by close enough to clip you on the elbow. You freeze – the motorcycle comes back and clips you again, hard enough to knock you down. You’re dazed and can’t see straight any more, but you hear the motorcycle bearing down on you again…

Now let’s replay these visualizations as if you are blind and using a guide dog. 1) You are walking down a city sidewalk and your dog sees a familiar person across the street. The dog decides to go for a visit and suddenly moves left into the street and across traffic. You hang on to the harness, not knowing what kind of emergency would cause your dog to react by getting you off the sidewalk and away. Then you realize the dog was simply distracted from its work, putting your life in danger. You’re okay, but badly shaken. 2) You are walking down a path and your dog sees a squirrel and gives chase. You’re surprised by the sudden move off the pathway – perhaps there was an oncoming bicycle that the dog was avoiding. By the time you realize what’s happening, you’ve been scratched up going through some bushes and banged you’re head on the tree that the squirrel climbed. You have a large bruise on your forehead. 3) You are walking across a parking lot and your guide dog stops to greet someone else’s dog. The encounter turns aggressive and the other dog’s owner loses control. The other dog attacks you and your guide dog. Your guide dog freezes, not able to fight or flee because the harness and you are attached to it. You’ve been knocked down and the owner of the other dog uselessly shouts at their dog to stop; all you hear is the snarling sound of the next attack about to land…

These situations are real.

Distractions of any kind are a big problem for guide dogs. Their training helps them resist natural distractions such as squirrels, cats, other dogs, scents, etc. But MOST distractions are caused by people and their pet dogs. If “L” is distracted by something, then a verbal or leash correction must be used to regain control and focus. This is not fair when she is taunted by people, kids, or uncontrolled dogs. However, if she is not corrected, she will begin to think that it is okay to visit a friend, chase a squirrel, or interact with unknown dogs who might be dangerous.

Bode’s harness had a bright yellow sign, and “L”’s harness will have one too. It says: “PLEASE DON’T PET ME – I’M WORKING”. Although it refers to “petting”, it really means do not distract my dog. Let’s talk about what a “distraction” looks like.

A distraction is anything that calls “L”’s attention away from me to you. This includes eye contact, whistling, making cooing sounds, snapping your fingers in her face, putting your hand down to be sniffed, calling out to her, offering her food or dog treats, sending your kids over to pet her, sneaking a pet yourself… Believe me, I’ve seen it all. I can’t stress this enough. She is working any time the harness is on, even if she is lying down and appears to be resting or sleeping. If “L” gets greetings and/or pets from others while in harness, she will most likely be distracted and will need to be corrected. That’s not fair to her when the distraction is caused by unthinking people. If such attention is allowed to continue, she will become solicitous and will seek attention from passing strangers; if she sees someone she regularly gets pets from, she will go doggie crazy to get to them while working. Seeking attention from other people puts me in danger, because she could very easily walk me out into the street, fail to avoid obstacles, or not stop at a flight of stairs while being distracted. To keep her focus on me so that she remains responsible for my safety, all her needs must be met primarily by me – that includes feeding, grooming, and loving. It is hands-off for Jim at first as well, and even over time, I must be the main person in her life with Jim playing a distant second.

The same goes for greeting other dogs while she is working. I can’t tell you how often people walk their dog up to us and ask if their dog can visit, telling me that their dog is friendly and just wants to “say hi”. No, your dog cannot say hi. “L” must ignore other dogs while she is working. Again, if she becomes accustomed to greeting other dogs while she is in harness, she will be distracted. It might look okay while walking on our quiet island roads, but if I allow it once, she will expect the same elsewhere. If she knows she can greet other dogs while working, it would be easy for her to drag me into the street if she sees a dog on the other side, or for her to make a diagonal street crossing to get to another dog on the opposite corner. I know of blind people who have been killed in this way. I won’t take that risk.

There is also a serious risk of “L” being bitten or growled at by a strange dog, and this could seriously jeopardize her working as a guide dog. I know of many guide dogs who have had to be retired after being attacked by so-called friendly dogs. Again, a risk I don’t want to take.

“L” is my eyes, and my life depends on her focus and safe guiding. Think about it this way: you wouldn’t interact with and ask to pet a working police dog. “L” has a professional life that is every bit as stressful and complex as police work. She is not a community pet. The best and most simple rule for people to follow is this: pretend she isn’t there; interact with me, not my dog. (BTW, I believe if we followed that simple rule for all pets, we would have a lot more well-adjusted dogs in the world.) “L” might sometimes seek interaction with you, and I might not be immediately aware of her behaviour. If this persists, please let me know so I can re-focus her attention onto me and away from you. This can especially happen when we’re all sitting together on the ferry. Bode has been known to rest his chin on a “friend’s” knee while we are making the crossing. I know this feels special to the lucky owner of the knee, but please let me know so I can maintain my dog’s manners and focus.

There are some who believe that working dogs are ill treated by being deprived of love. Don’t worry about that. It is never “all work and no play” for a guide dog. When “L” is at home and not working, she is treated much like any other dog, but with attention still paid to good house manners. She can play with toys, Bode (my retired guide dog), and me. In time, Jim will be able to play with her as well, as he is a significant member of her “pack”. Yes, she can visit with people when she is off duty, out of harness, and with my permission. She can play with other dogs while not working, but only with my permission and only with dogs I know to be of good temperament. “L” must depend on me just as I depend on her; that is what forges our bond and working partnership. A guide dog is not deprived of love and attention. A guide dog gets tons of praise and satisfaction through its work, and tons of love through play and attention paid by the handler.

Go To Chapter 16: Targeting, Indoor Work, and the Beginning of Trust

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