Many people just don’t understand the ups and downs of being a guide dog handler. Sure, most folks can appreciate the challenges, like having to be blind or significantly visually impaired to be eligible to work a guide dog, or, the dedication it takes to train with one. Yet, the daily routines and tasks may be a bit esoteric for the non-initiated to appreciate.
Here is a situation my current guide dog and I have been facing; I hope the details aren’t too vague or beleaguered. I would add this situation to the category of occupational hazards for working guide dog teams. Not a deal breaker but something that could become a challenge if not addressed with care and patience.
Our office has a rear entrance with a vestibule. The first door opens out and, on the right, the outer door opens out and to the left. One must open the first door, slip past it, let it close, and then go through the second door. Sounds simple, right? Not so with a guide dog. There is barely enough space for one person to get around the inner door when exiting; when entering, one must let the outer door close, then open the inner door slowly or risk injuring the dog. On the way in, the dog must be given the opportunity to come around on the right of the person, then be ready to step back with the person as the door is pulled open. It is confusing and takes practice to navigate it safely for the handler and dog.
We managed to avoid an issue for five years, but then our luck wore out.
Bailey got bonked with the door one day last week and yelped in pain and surprise. He wasn’t paying attention and got hit in the head while we entered, then the following day, as we were walking past the stairway door in my building, he and I were almost hit as it was swung into our path by our neighbor. Neither of us was hurt, but the next day bailey stopped in the hallway and I had to pressure him forward to walk past the door. I imagined his thoughts as we passed, “Is that door going to surprise us again?”
Being door shy is a problem but totally workable to overcome. We worked on the office door issue first, with treats and praise. First session went well, and I think he will be fine. I also used praise to urge him past the stairway doors in my building, which he seems to have relaxed about when passing.
It is these occurrences that remind me he isn’t quite human and will behave in ways I might not be sympathetic about at first. I must remind myself to think like a dog, and go back to guide dog training 101: how can I help my dog feel confident again? When I apply it, I find the solution to a hurdle like door shyness. The most satisfying part of overcoming something like this is that I helped my dog with the issue, we found a way to solve the problem together. I used the skills taught to me by a group of expert instructors who love what they do. I listened to my dog, applied the tools, and made it easier for my dog to adjust and get past the negative experience. The bond of mutual trust is the cornerstone of a great team — and when trust is present, something like door shyness can be overcome with it, using reliable training tools and care.