I joined a guide dogs facebook group and it was a mistake.
A really big one actually.
I recently decided to join an informal guide dogs facebook group. I’ve always been interested in finding out more about my dogs parents and a friend suggested that perhaps some people there would have heard of them. So off I went. I’ve always been nervous of joining such groups as you never quite know what you’re getting into.
Sadly, my reservations were 100% justified.
Someone wrote a really wonderful post about the highs and lows of guide dog ownership, early mornings, picking up poo etc and I thought it was great. A lot of people commented, adding their own experiences and so I thought I’d do the same.
When I first got Isla I had no idea what I was doing. I imagine many guide dog owners feel like this, they get this crazy, barely grown up dog suddenly living in their house and have to be responsible for it. But for me, it went deeper than that. I’d learned how to work her, we qualified after 10 days, I could groom her and free run her and all the other necessary things. But I didn’t feel a bond with her, as a working dog. She is a wonderful dog to be around and I loved her company but absolutely hated to work her…because of other people.
I received so much unwanted attention when working her. People would come up and want to touch her, to ask me a million questions, to tell me about their dogs. I never had a moment to myself and it was awful. I couldn’t go to the shops without someone coming up to me. For some people this is great. They love the social aspect of a guide dog but for me it was totally overwhelming. I couldn’t focus on myself, I didn’t feel comfortable. I felt very awkward with complete strangers asking me personal questions.
And so I considered sending her back. By this point, I’d had her for around 6 months. She was young enough to be given to someone else and I knew she would be great. I never, ever wanted to give her up, because as a dog, as an animal I had bonded with her…but not as my working dog. I spoke to my dad about this and he told me to give it some time. It was a miserable point in my life, made more so because I didn’t feel like I could turn to other guide dog owners. I felt like they would tell me I was a failure, that I wasn’t worth a guide dog, that I was the kind of person who gives them all a bad name. I only told one other GDO about my feelings, someone I knew who would never think to judge me, and I was right she didn’t.
After my year was up, the year I had given myself to decide I chose to keep her. I’d worked on my anxiety to a point that enabled me to go out and handle people. I wasn’t, and I’m still not perfect with it, but I was coping. However, had I not been, I would have returned Isla for her sake, not mine. She deserves to be worked, to do the job she’s trained for. And if I couldn’t give her that then I knew it wasn’t fair to keep her.
In brief I explained this on the group. I wanted people to know there’s no shame in having these feelings, that whether you choose to keep the dog, or give it back, nobody should look down on you. Your feelings are your own, and although guide dog ownership can be wonderful for some people it isn’t. There is absolutely no shame in admitting you can’t cope. You are a strong person if you can stand up and say that something isn’t working.
The others on this group didn’t seem to think so. I got people asking how my dog coped, as if I didn’t care about her. I was told it’s awful for puppy walkers to hear these stories when they put in so much effort. Other GDO’s said if you just think about how much the dog loves you it will work. In short, they confirmed all the anxieties that stopped me seeking help at the time. 2 and a half years from getting my dog, they made me feel guilty for ever having those feelings. Another GDO told a story about how she worried and cried, but her dog licked her tears away so then she never worried about the partnership again. If that worked for her, then great, I am genuinely relieved she never had to go through what I did. But other people jumped on that comment, saying that we should all read her story and that will show how good guide dogs are. In short, they pushed out people who haven’t had the perfect, magical miracle dog experience.
So to all the people who were scared, who couldn’t speak to anyone, who had to be quiet because they felt like nobody would listen, there is nothing, nothing wrong with your feelings. And if you are feeling like that now then it’s ok. You will know in time whether the partnership will work. Give it a year, and you may grow as a person and a team. You may develop coping strategies and survive this very bumpy time. And if you don’t then there’s equally no shame in saying it’s time to stop, that this isn’t working. Because at the end of the day guide dogs are a mobility aid. Yes, a lot of work goes into them and I appreciate it, I really do. But what every single person has to remember who is involved with the raising of a guide dog puppy is that ultimately it is about the blind person and how they feel. Please, please don’t make it about yourself. I know that you put in work, I know it and appreciate it. But constantly reminding me of it makes me, and I’m sure others feel terrible for how we felt, or feel. You should be putting in the work to help someone, not because you want a return. Maybe that sounds selfish, but what would you rather see, someone who keeps a dog and is miserable or someone who admits that it’s not right, and the dog moves on to a better environment. And if that person is finding it hard but needs time support them. Don’t tell them all you want to hear is positive stories and it’s disappointing to hear that they aren’t happy. Nobody wants to be a disappointment. Nobody. And it is very easy to feel like one.
I felt like one, for one awful, terrifying year. And in trying to help other people I was made to feel that way again. These groups should be there to help everyone through all their complex feelings. Don’t just ask for good stories, for perfect, model partnerships. Those can take time to form. Sometimes people have to work through very complex emotions before they can achieve that.
Ultimately, I left the group. I realised if all puppy walkers and other GDO’s want to hear are these wonderful tales of magic dogs then it’s not right for me. I’m about reality, both the good and the bad. My feelings are my own and I shouldn’t feel like I have to justify them. I would still like to help other people who are going through a similar thing to I did, so if anyone see’s this blog and wants someone who can empathise…you know where I am.