Having a dog can be a good thing. For some, it is a smoother, more effective way of travel. For others the cane is by far the better option. Both are perfectly valid experiences, what works for one blind person doesn’t for another. I have come to loathe the perception that my life must have been awful before getting Isla. I think the media is partly responsible for this, feeding the mentality that guide dogs are always best. Cane users are seen as incompetent, or desperately lonely blind people who must be longing for a dog. That quite simply isn’t true. And just because a person might find guide dog travel better for them doesn’t mean they had no life before getting a dog.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’ll be going to university in September and I’m concerned that people will choose to speak to me because I’m holding onto a very cute looking dog, not because I’m a genuinely interesting person…though that’s debatable I suppose! I know some guide dog owners love the extra attention they receive, they feel like they are connecting with more people and it gives them the opportunity to make friends, however for me it’s been a miserable experience. I would rather two people come up to me directly in a week and ask me about the band shirt I’m wearing and whether I’ve seen them, than 200 who want to know my dogs life story. I’m not my dog and I’m desperately trying to break free of that perception. I’m also not public property, I’m a real girl with feelings who would like to be shown the same basic respect others deserve.
To illustrate this, I want to talk about several interactions I’ve had this past week.
On Tuesday I went to the dentist, the guy is new and he was very nice to me. However, he didn’t ask me any questions about my life, besides the obligatory medical history. Our brief conversation revolved around my dog, and how I must find things easier now I have her. The problem I find with this isn’t that people ask, it’s how they phrase it.
“So, your life must be so much better now you have her.”
They aren’t actually asking me if I prefer using a dog or a cane, instead they assume that it is the case. I know people don’t mean it, or probably don’t even think about it. Perhaps it seems like I’m being overly sensitive and it’s a simple issue, however I hear this day in day out. I know that it is how people think, they have this idea that a dog is best for everyone. Canes are seen as your training wheels, after which you progress to a dog. And I always want to tell people no, that isn’t true. But no matter how nicely you explain it many get upset, or even offended. They have this view that a dog is best and telling them no goes against everything they have ever seen in the media. Yes, a person may prefer guide dog travel but that doesn’t mean before they got a dog they sat at home and cried into their pillow.
I did however have a very nice talk with a lady who worked in a shop whilst I was looking for a dress to buy. She was far more interested in describing me the dresses and helping me look for them than asking me personal questions. I shouldn’t have to find experiences like this refreshing, but I do.
However for the rest of the day most questions I received from shop assistants whilst I was paying involved the following:
How old is your dog?
Is it a boy or a girl?
What’s its name?
How long have you had it?
Is it your first dog.
I don’t mind that people ask exactly, but I always get asked this set of questions. I know people don’t realise that I’ve had to answer them hundreds of times before. It honestly gets tiring and boring, and I wish their attention could be diverted elsewhere.
The same happened when I went to get my hair cut. People came and sat next to me while I was waiting, asked me their questions about Isla and that was it. And this is why I hate it. People don’t talk to me because they actually have an interest in who I am, they just want to know about my dog. I would rather people didn’t speak to me at all in that case. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but it is something I think about a lot. I don’t want to put people off approaching guide dog owners but I wish they would think about why they are actually doing it first. If you think that person might need help, and you go up to them to ask that’s fine, if they say yes, by all means help and if they say no, please respect their decision. But if the only reason you speak to a person is to quiz them about their dog and then effectively ignore them…what’s the point?
I understand that for some dog owners the interactions are welcome but personally I don’t enjoy it. I want to go to university and meet people who like the same things I do, who want to spend time with me because they see something that interests them. I don’t want people to spend time with me because they get access to a very friendly dog. I don’t know how I can ensure this, besides trying to figure out why people are actually talking to me. I don’t want to become popular on campus because everyone loves my dog. Ultimately in that situation I mean nothing, it is Isla who people are interested in. It’s the reason why I’m so sure I won’t be getting another dog. I travel well with a cane, yes, dog travel has its benefits but for me the attention I receive because of it is far more negative than any of the positives can add up to be. I wish I didn’t feel this way, but I know it won’t change. I don’t like huge amounts of attention being placed upon me, and I would rather receive very small amounts and be valued as a human.
Dog handlers are real people. Their dogs may look very friendly, but please remember that there is a person holding onto that harness and we all deserve to be valued for the people we are.