My experiences as a young GDO

In July I wrote quite a detailed and personal facebook post about my experiences of being a guide dog owner. It was after an interview I did for guide dogs and I shared my thoughts first of how blindness is portrayed in the media and then my experiences as a young GDO. At the time I didn’t want to post it on here, I knew I was likely to face some criticism and wanted to share it with friends and family only. But I’ve come to realise that whether people agree with me or not these are my personal experiences, I can’t change them or the way I feel and so sharing them isn’t an issue.

“Some really interesting discussion has been raised on twitter this morning about having a guide dog and the way blind people are portrayed in general in the media.

The interview with me isn’t accurate. My confidence hasn’t improved all that much, I had cane skills an I could have gone to college. But I don’t mind that it isn’t, guide dogs need to make money and the interview doesn’t have any sad music or talk about how I could never leave the house either, so it’s certainly not terrible!

But I suppose the bigger question is why they do it. Organisations like the RNIB really have no excuse for adverts like the help Emma campaign, they could have done it in a much better way and still made money from it. But quite simply the thing the public know guide dogs for is well…dogs. They don’t necessarily know about my guide and the other services they provide so the charity really do have to capitalise on the one thing the public know about. Do they always do it well, I’d argue not. Sometimes I cringe a bit, but maybe that’s because the story they are telling doesn’t reflect my life experience, rather than it not being true.

I know people who actually couldn’t leave the house and the dog did give them that confidence. Up until relatively recently those were the only stories guide dogs showed, at least they focussed on them. I would say there has been a shift, they are doing more with young people and showing how very active, confident people get dogs as well. Being unable to leave the house isn’t a prerequisite for getting a guide dog, there are lots of very confident, independent people who choose to get one because they see it as a good alternative to a cane. But I suppose in reality that doesn’t draw in as much money, and whether I like it or not I respect that guide dogs does have to do what will bring in the money.

However, going back to the interview I did it really isn’t as bad as I initially thought. Yes, it’s as though I’m not talking about me but did it say I was helpless before the dog? No, it didn’t. So I think when you compare it to other blindness related videos by other organisations it really isn’t so bad.

I’d argue that guide dogs are not miracles. They are like any other working dog, whether that is in the army, the police or working with another group of people with a disability. They are extremely well trained and perform functions based on that training. So although a guide dog can change someone’s life it’s more about where the person is at than the fact that a guide dog is a miracle creature. I’m not trying to diminish the value of guide dogs, for some people they really do make an amazing difference to their life and restore confidence and independence. But they aren’t right for every blind person which is something the general public doesn’t realise. I can’t count the amount of times people would come up to me and say my life would be better with a dog before I got her. Funnily enough this point was raised on twitter too, how people perceive dogs as being of more value than a cane and a lot of families or just complete strangers try and talk a blind person into getting one because they think it will help them. For some people that is true, but we aren’t all the same.

And now to whether working a dog is easier than using a cane. I would argue that once again this is a very individual thing. I love working Isla, she’s a good dog and is extremely adaptable meaning she’s able to cope with my lifestyle. But are there disadvantages? Yes, there are. I write about the public attention we get a lot on this account and I know some GDO’s don’t see why I find it so bad. I know some guide dog owners who actually like it, and that’s fine. But for me it’s by far the worst thing about having a dog. I find it stressful, I feel like people are closing me in and that I’m trapped. I’m not very good at dealing with people and I don’t always know how to answer questions or respond to their actions. Sometimes I’ll tell them to leave me alone and come across as rude and other times I stay silent and they just keep stroking the dog. Perhaps that’s a reflection on me and makes me a not so great guide dog owner, but I really do struggle with the attention. I find it hard to even talk to them sometimes and that’s when I stay silent, other times the attention has built up and I just can’t deal with it. The one thing I liked about using a cane was people didn’t notice me. Sometimes they’d come up to me but they had to talk to me directly because my cane isn’t a great conversation partner. But with a dog they act like you don’t exist and I find it hard to know how to break down that barrier. I “know” all the right things to say, but in reality I find the attention overwhelming. It feels like an overload, like I have too much to listen to and I can’t then deal with it enough to respond, or I don’t respond in the way I should.

Was Isla worth it? She is so, so worth it. But that’s because she is a dog who adapts to my needs perfectly. I don’t know if I’ll get another dog after her because of the problems I have dealing with all the public attention. People say I’ll “grow out of it” but it’s a fundamental part of who I am. I don’t always find people easy to understand, and although I am fine at holding long conversations, and actually talk quite a lot, that environment is impossible for me to navigate on a logical and emotional level.

This has moved on from what I initially discussed, but I hope it helps people understand a bit more where I come from, my views on the media and also why I respond more to certain things that happen to me and Isla than others.”

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