My isolating experience in a guide dogs support group

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.

  1. Steve left a comment on March 29, 2015 at 3:50 am

    Thank you so much for writing this, I think you’ve expressed something which many feel, but which many fear to discuss.

  2. Joanna Toner left a comment on March 29, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Hi Holly! I got my first guide dog when I was 19, 3 months in I was ready to hide at home and never go out again! Nobody had warned me about how much attention you get with a guide dog, and it drove me mad! I qualified after 3 weeks in a training centre then 2 days after care in the city I was moving to for University. It just didn’t click with me on class how I was going to incorporate the strict training and way of doing things into my real life! I just didn’t quite get how I was meant to go to the supermarket with her. It probably didn’t help that prior to uni I’d been away at college, but that’s not quite the same as living independently, so it was probably bad timing for it all. I too stuck with it, and found that as I got more confidence and as I got older things got easier. But the general public still drive me nuts!

    Keep going
    Jo

  3. Karl Denning left a comment on March 29, 2015 at 10:52 am

    What a great post, a partnership does take a lot of work & time. If & when it clicks it can be life changing, but has with other types of relationships. As for people always stoping you whilst working, ask yourself would they if you were using a white cane, I am sure you know the answer. But as with other parts of everyone’s life there is good & bad in all things. Your dog makes you more socially connected but with that comes people wanting to gain knowledge of you both. Being in a guide dog partnership can be a truly life changing thing but it all starts with a massive step of faith, really glad you stuck with it

  4. Brian Moore left a comment on March 29, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Hi: Thanks for posting this. I have worked a dog for 12 years but don’t currently have one. I remember very clearly when I got my first one, really struggling with keeping him. I am a big dog lover so that was never the issue but one of the things that I hear about guide dogs all the time is how they will increase your independence. This was never true for me. I can go the same places with or without a dog and don’t find using a cane at all a traumatic or really difficult experience.
    Are there things which are easier to do with a dog? sure there are. parking lots, large oepn spaces with no land marks. HOwever, finding a specific door or exploring a completely new building etc I find easier with a cane.

    These dogs can be wonderful but they are not magic. Ultimately, the objective is to make your travel experience better in some way. If that is not happening, regardless of the reason, then it is time to consider if this partnership is right for you. A dog is not at all right for every blind person. They come with lots of extra work and responsibility, potential expenseand lots of other little added things to consider. packing food everytime you travel can actually be a real issue. You are also correct, that there will be a lot more social intereaction with the general public. oFor some people, this is a good thing, but in my case, it was not always welcome either.

    Over all after this many years of having a dog, I have concluded that the positive bits outway the negative aspects of having a guide dog. While I don’t have one at the moment as my second dog retired just before christmas, I will likely get another at some point. However, this ia a choice and is not at all the solution for everyone. For some people, a cane is the prefered method and that is entirely their choice and not at all inferior to a dog. sure it is different and requires some slightly different skills but it works as well and better for some.
    Your feelings are not at all uncommon. For the first 6 months of having a dog, I really struggled with working on this type of partnership. That is no coment on the dog, the cschool or the puppy raisers. They all did a very good job but ultimately, it has to be about if this dog is going to enhance the life of the blind person.

  5. ttorie left a comment on March 29, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    I am sorry you felt you had to leave the group. I suppose i can see it from both sides-the puppywalker wants their dog to do well, and it may be that the puppywalker does not understand or is not told about guide dog ownership. I have experienced puppywalkers asking me why a dog stops at a kerb, for example. They just weren’t told about that aspect. Even though they should have been. Most have probably never met a guide dog owner in their life.

    I do believe in letting the puppywalker know their dog is settled, and if that’s all the guide dog owner wants to say, then that’s grand. It does make me sad when the puppywalkers have no trace of how their pup is.

    I have done talks and the person who is accompanying me has said “What about the positive things” when i tell of Ushi’s antics. However i do believe in painting an even picture. I will start off with the negatives, then do the positives.

    Having a guide dog is a lot of work. I used to hate people telling me that as i felt they were just saying that to put me off, but they weren’t. Most of the time Ushi is grand, but if she is having a deva day then it’s almost like being back at square one. Your dog can influence your feelings towards it. When you have a bad day, you do take a hit to your confidence.

    I wouldn’t be without a dog now, but it deffinetly takes some ajustment.

    Take care,

    x

  6. webboy42 left a comment on March 29, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    It irks me when I see people referring to a guide dog as a mobility aid while at the same time implying a blind person is all that matters. I won’t guilt trip anyone by harping on about the work that goes into raising a guide dog, and nor will I despise someone smart enough to realize that things aren’t working for them early on, but I won’t stand back while guide dogs are objectified and considered less important than a blind person. Guide dogs aren’t just mobility aids, they’re intelligent trained dogs, so if someone is going to give one up, it had better be because the partnership isn’t working, and preferably before the dog’s spent most of their life with one person, rather than because the blind person’s convenience is more important than a mobility aid. When you choose to become a guide dog user, you’re deciding to accept the responsibility for a dog’s health and welfare, not just getting a tool to be used and thrown away when it no longer serves its purpose. The decision to use a guide dog should never be taken lightly.

    • Holly left a comment on April 7, 2015 at 6:32 am

      That is exactly why I gave myself a year. A year to build a partnership, to work at it, and ultimately, if that hadn’t worked to make the right decision. After a year of ownership, my dog wouldn’t have yet turned 3, and that’s early enough to go to someone else…someone else, who if it hadn’t worked, could have built a great partnership, who could have let her work to her full potential…who could have benefited. No, it’s not about throwing away a dog when it stops being convenient, but if you get a dog, and it’s not working then you do have to think about yourself. Because if you leave it, for years, and the partnership has never worked it’s likely you won’t work the dog enough, you won’t go out, both the dog, and the blind person will suffer for it. And I wouldn’t let myself do that. I gave a time scale and worked within it, had things not gone well I would have made the difficult, but ultimately I believe the right decision to give her back. Obviously I’m glad I didn’t have to do that, but I would have never kept a young, exceptionally well trained dog to just sit around because it wasn’t working for me. And that’s where my objections lie, that puppy walkers seemed disgusted my partnership wasn’t this magical story of love at first sight, because a lot of partnerships aren’t. They take time and dedication to build and for someone knew to having a guide dog it can be difficult, especially if nobody is telling you that these feelings are ok and acceptable to have, that it’s not always perfect straight away.

  7. Elin left a comment on May 5, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks for this post. You’re experience resonates with me now being almost 4 months in to being a first time guide dog owner. It’s so exhausting, frustrating and challenging sometimes that I have similar thoughts and douts it seems you had. I try to be honest with people about how much hard work it is, but it’s difficult when, in my situation, most seem to have expected my life to have been utterly transformed and for everything to be plane saling right from the first day. I agree with your feelings about the group too. I stay in the group to pick up handy tips and tricks, but don’t feel comfortable enough there to aire my not so positive feelings sometimes. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one 🙂

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