I’m so excited to have my dear friend and fellow disability blogger, Anneliese, once more grace my blog with her wonderful, wordly presence. Anneliese is many things–many wonderful, wonderful things–but today, she brings her experience and wisdom as a two-time guide dog handler to the blog, and I’m so happy to share her perspective with you!
This post is part of a blog swap. Anneliese and I are each writing a post about advice we’d give to new guide dog handlers and publishing it on the other’s blog as a way to build community and share different perspectives. You can read my post on her blog and guess what… it’s another list!
Now, onto the post!
Dear future leash holders,
I hope you’re giddy. I could hardly keep my feet on the ground when I got the call. I hope you’re starry-eyed, that you see potential magic in every imagined future. Whether this has been a childhood dream come true, or a joyful consolation for a midlife complication, you’re at a very important threshold over which you won’t step alone. Your two feet will be joined by four paws, and so the journey begins.
It was 2009 when I began this journey, and that’s why I’m writing to you now. I’ve been around a few blocks with a couple of different dogs, and I’d like to share with you some wisdom I’ve tripped over along the way.
I thought about trying to organize this letter into something trendy like “Three Life Hacks for Guide Dog Users.” But I kept coming back to a single foundational principle: knowledge is power.
Scientia est Potentia
You’re going to receive several weeks of formal education. You’ll learn about laws and guidelines, and hear lessons presented as rules and stories meant to teach morals. They’re all very valuable, but they are just the beginning of your canine education. And, to be frank, not much of a beginning. There’s so much more to learn!
Food, grooming, discipline, fears, toys, social skills…you’ll learn about them all, and more. But it will merely be a vocabulary with which to frame more and more nuanced questions as your experiences and needs dictate. You must not stop learning. Not ever.
Your instructors will most likely tell you, quite honestly, that they can’t prepare you for every situation. But I doubt they’ll encourage you to do your own research beyond finding a local vet. They’ve been training dogs and users for a long time, so they think they’re pretty good at what they do.
They are, of course. But what they do isn’t what you do. They train dogs, and train users. You LIVE.
Living is different than teaching.
And so you must learn. You must learn, and keep learning. With every new dog you’ll live differently, and so you must continue to learn. Learn from other users, from blogs and books and podcasts. Learn from instructors and YouTube experts. Learn from your own instincts, and learn from your dog.
Knowledge is power. It’s the power to say “no,” the power to decide for yourself, the power to recover from mistakes and turn them into triumphs.
It takes power to say “no.”
No, others may not interfere with how you work your dog.
No, others may not take up your time and energy simply because you dared to bring a dog out in public.
No, that activity isn’t suitable for a dog guide, even if it is legal.
No, you don’t need to feel guilty for saying “no.” You know why these “no’s” are important, what the cost of ignoring them are, and how to execute them properly.
It takes power to decide.
In a world of hyper-availability we are inundated with advice and choices from every possible channel. Your school may provide you with a set of recommendations for how to find a vet, what food to give your dog, how often to groom, but doggy bodies are as varied as human bodies. Their minds and experiences, your environment and finances, and a hundred other variables all add up to this: what you need might change.
I’ve gone through half a dozen types of food, three vets, and a revolving door of treats and training techniques trying to meet my dogs’ needs. Between allergies, injuries, career and house changes, and the natural progression of a dog’s life, I’ve had to make an endless series of decisions I didn’t expect when my instructors gave me their formula for dog guide success.
I learned from each decision, but each decision required the will to deviate from that formula. I needed to know I was making the right decision. SO I learned, and then I chose. You can, and will, do the same. Your decisions will rest on the foundation of what you know, so build it strong.
Power of the Expert
Power is a hot topic these days. It seems people are obsessed with how much power they have in their personal lives, social lives, professional lives, in politics and finance. They’re even more obsessed with how much power they don’t have, and how much more power other people might have.
Whether your disability has been a life-long companion or a new acquisition, you’re likely very aware of the fact that people who can see seem to wield a great deal more social, economic, political, and personal power than you. This can be frustrating, limiting, and even dangerous at times. It’s probably one of the reasons you decided to ditch your cane in favor of a dog guide. I certainly preferred being “The girl with the German shepherd” to “the skinny white chick with the flimsy cane” walking around my college campus.
Social psychologists who study power have categorized it into several types: reverent (sometimes called referent), assigned, legitimate power, expert power, and so forth. What the instructors and trainers at your dog’s school have is expert power. Those with expert power have specialized knowledge about a particular subject that allows them to solve problems important to others.
But here’s the thing: those instructors got into their field of work because they are passionately dedicated to empowering you. They want to give you power. That’s why they train dogs, and give you lectures and coach you and offer support. And any rule or guideline they provide that seems constricting or less applicable to your particular situation is only given because you have less expertise than them.
The true realization of their dream, empowering blind people, would be for you to take the expertise they poured into you and multiply it so that the problematic guideline can be adapted to your unique lifestyle. Take the vocabulary they give you, enter it into Google and Amazon and Spotify and YouTube and other learning sources. And build your own expert power. These experts you learn from are giving you more than a well-trained dog and some basic education; they’re giving you the tools to learn more.
Recognizing this earlier in my dog-working career would have changed a lot about my dogs’ lifestyle, healthcare, and maybe even longevity. It would have saved me money, given me more networking and career advancement and educational opportunities. But I meekly submitted to the expert power around me, failing to realize its inspirational intent or potential.
I gained expert power out of desperation, but I won’t wait to be desperate again to follow any line of curiosity that comes my way.
Dear doggy-destined friend, remember you are at the beginning. Like a high school or college graduation, graduating with your dog guide is when real education begins.
May tails wag and treats flow freely in your future. May you stride with purpose and pleasure down busy streets and through crowded conferences. May you never walk alone again.
Love from Anneliese and Greta