I am not my dog

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.

  1. blindbeader left a comment on June 12, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    Thank you for writing this! While I doubt I will come to the same conclusion as you’ve reached when it is time for Jenny to retire, I do get tired of the constant questions. I am fairly social by nature, and sure, I don’t mind talking about Jenny, particularly when she’s being a bit of a drama queen, but one can always tell that someone is more interested in the dog. For some this isn’t a bad thing, and ultimately makes blind people seem more “approachable” than we might otherwise be perceived, but it does get annoying.
    Great work!

    • Holly left a comment on June 12, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      Thank you. I’m hoping that I adapt to it a little more as I get older and worry less about these things.

  2. Jolena Foster left a comment on June 13, 2015 at 12:20 am

    I appreciate you writing this post. I don’t walk with a dog but as a person who walks with a cane I can tell you that I get asked sometimes why I don’t get a guide dog. I simply tell them that it requires a lot of commitment and work with the dog. You blogged about that sometime ago. But my point is that I do get talked too when I’m walking with the cane. I remember one of my friends who has a dog had people come up to her and trying to pet the dog, and if they wasn’t doing that they were asking the same questions as they asked about your dog instead of asking about her. I for one am glad I don’t have a dog for that reason. It’s not that I want the attention focused on me but I want people to talk to me and I know that there are some of my friends who when they see a dog they go crazy about dogs.

  3. Flash Bristow left a comment on June 13, 2015 at 7:16 am

    Hi Holly! You raise a very good point, but I think it should be broken in two:
    1) dog as assistance
    2) owning a dog in general

    See, I think the interactions where people assume you must be better off with a dog than a cane are rude and presumptuous. You’re right, disabled folk don’t just cry into their pillow – in fact when ppl on the bus see my chair & say “you’re so brave..” I just say “look, I *could* stay at home and cry… But I only get one life, I might as well get on with living it. This is me, this is what I got.”

    But the other things – dog’s name, age, gender, blahdiblah – that’s part and parcel of owning a dog! Every time I walk Commodore, I’ll run into people who say “lovely dog, what’s their name? Oh, how old is he? Does he do x and y?” Us dog owners know each other by the dog – we rarely know the owner’s name! I’m just “Commodore’s owner”. I have little kids who specifically look out for Comm in the window on the school run, and friends who visit just to see him, not me.

    So yeah, it’s wrong to make assumptions that a dog trumps a cane. But if you’ve got a dog, you’ll always get the same questions, and most of us answer them proudly every time, each believing that theirs is the best dog in the world ☺

  4. Raqi left a comment on June 13, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    You make some valid points here; I’m going to play devil’s advocate here for a minute & offer that you might think of it this way. Whilst it is unfortunate that people can’t feel comfortable coming up & approaching you to discuss something other than your dog, either because they’re clueless or afraid of saying something offensive, perhaps it can work to your advantage if you take the initiative & deflect the conversation accordingly. perhaps taking initiative with a blind person intimidates them for whatever reason, but the dog gives them something neutral that they can use as a premise for opening a dialog. Instead of hoping they will ask questions about you, your interests, etc., perhaps you could deflect the focus away from your dog by asking them questions about themselves. I’m not trying to imply that your feelings about this are somehow invalid, nor is there anything wrong with expressing frustration, but you may find yourself disappointed if you expect this to change drastically. If you want to be seen as a separate entity, then the sooner you deflect that interest away from your dog & onto something more neutral, the happier you will be with the ultimate outcome. Try changing the subject or, instead of expecting them to ask about you, perhaps you can ask about them. People love talking about themselves, & sometimes this is the key which permits them to view you as an actual person, rather than just a blind lady with a dog. If you are a comfortable cane traveler, then you must have gotten a dog because some part of you likes dogs; sighted people like dogs, too. Maybe you can ask if they have a dog, since they’ve approached you so directly. I realize the dog doesn’t define you, but remember, parents with small children get this sort of attention from other parents. As long as you have a dog, this will be the case. Can you turn a cumbersome conversation into a fluid one simply by shifting the focus? Give it a try & I think you will find the results surprising. At the very least, you will have numerous sighted people to practice on. Best of luck to you.

  5. torie left a comment on June 13, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    Usually when i get the questions, i’ll ask if they have a dog. I think it’s just part of being a dog owner.

    The same questions can become a bit wearing. I think it’s mainly just curiosity more than anything.

    When people get annoyed because every blind person does not have a dog, i just tell them that not everyone can cope with the responsibility.

    I don’t like the “they have changed my life” thing that people expect. Yes for some guide dog owners, a dog really has changed their life or saved it or whatever, but with me, i can use the cane, but i would rather have a dog, and yes i am more confident now but my life hasn’t neccessarely changed or Ushi hasn’t saved my life. I do understand again that this may be the case for a lot of people though.

    I think people can relate to the dogs and maybe they feel nervous and don’t know what else to ask.

    I suppose the same could be said about cars. I’m sure people who drive get asked when they got their car and the make and model and how much more independent you are if you have a car.

    People like something to relate to i suppose.

    I hope this comment makes sense though.

    Take care 🙂

  6. Shea left a comment on June 14, 2015 at 7:35 am

    I see what you are saying, but I can’t say I agree with your analysis of the situation or your proposed solution. I thoroughly enjoy most every aspect of being a dog user. I don’t mind people’s questions because that’s how people react to any person with a dog, not just blind people with guide dogs. In fact, I caught myself doing it the other day. I am in Scotland just now for missions work, and there were complications with our paperwork that meant my dog would not be able to accompany me on the trip. I have never been away from Oleta for more than a couple hours for four years streight, so I’ve been going through withdrawal, which means I’m obsessed with dogs. Any opportunity I get to pet a dog, I take it. On a walk recently, I was walking with my cane of course, and we encountered a woman sitting at a table with her dog. I immediately started asking all the normal questions. Boy or girl, what’s her name, breed, age? But I soon realized I hadnt asked anything of the woman herself. She beat me to it by asking our names and what we were doing so far from home in the states. Through that exchange, we discovered her name, and that she had actually been going to church with our church, with which we have been doing missions work. We had missed her at the service because they had been away on holiday. Crazy coincidence, or Gods providence, but through her dog we were able to meet someone from our church we hadn’t seen before randomly on the street. So cool! yes, her dog got my attention, but ultimately I’m much more interested in the woman’s life then in her dogs.
    So I guess I’m trying to say two things. Peoples questions about your dog are not necessarily coming from mal intent. People are naturally attracted by fuzzy creatures, that’s just the reality. The questions don’t necessarily arise from not caring who you are. You can make the best of the opportunity by turning the conversation to things you consider more interesting. I think there’s a way to do that with tact, and I have met some pretty awesome people and made some pretty cool friends through that interaction., and while they enjoy Oleta, I am positive that they are not only friends with me because of her.

  7. Donna W. Hill left a comment on June 19, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    After about 40 years of trying to accommodate these questions, I usually now respond with, “Can you explain to me why you wish to know that?” If they don’t say that their friend or loved one is thinking of getting a guide dog, they usually say “Just curious, I guess.” At that point I launch into a general, non-blindness-related discussion about curiosity.

    I respect the idea of being socially polite, and I’m willing to do that, but that doesn’t mean I jump like a rabit to answer people directly every time they ask me something. I thought when I was 20 that answering every inane question would help break the ice, but it hasn’t led to one new friend in 40 years.

    I hope you can deflect them and continue enjoying having a guide dog. Be blunt; say you don’t talk about your dog in public, say this isn’t the time or place. Just smile and go about your business. In the case of a healthcare professional, tell them you aren’t there to discuss your guide dog, explain that it is best to ignore working dogs or ask them if they have dogs. People like to talk about themselves.

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