Assisting Guide Dog Handlers Following Attacks on Guide Dogs: Implications for Guide Dog Teams
By Cheryl A. Godley and Marc A. Gillard
Attacks by dogs on dog guides are traumatic for dog guide teams. One variable that affects a team’s recovery is how handlers cope with emotional responses to the attack. This article presents a three-stage model for assisting handlers that is useful for handlers and dog guide instructors. Attacks on dog guides by other dogs remain a troubling issue that is being addressed by dog guide schools and communities of dog guide users. Lectures and instruction during training teach handlers to address distractions and attacks by dogs and teach safety and self-advocacy strategies (telephoning law enforcement or animal control agencies). Brochures defining responsible pet ownership and the effects of dog distractions and attacks on dog guide teams are available to the public (Responsible Pet Ownership, 2007; When Your Pet Meets a Seeing Eye Dog, n.d.). E. Simone (personal communication, March 21, 2011) of Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), reported that as of January 2011, 36 states had enacted dog guide protection laws. All U.S. states and Canadian protection laws are available on GDB’s web site.
The authors express their appreciation to Patricia Auflick, director of Casper College Library, and Jeanette Murrell and Steve Wolfe, librarians, for their invaluable assistance in researching and locating reference materials for this article.
Although resources are being mobilized to address attacks on dog guides, there has been little focus on how such attacks affect the dog guides’ handlers and how to assist handlers following the attacks. This article examines the relationship between dog guides and their handlers and the potential impact of such attacks on handlers, given this relationship. A three-stage model is presented to assist dog guide instructors to support handlers while coping with and moving through the experience of a dog attack. The model may directly serve handlers in addressing their own recovery from an attack on their dog guides. Although the model has not yet been empirically validated, it may serve as an impetus for future research and exploration.
Review of the literature
The relationship between dog guides and handlers is close. Studies have explored the relationship between handlers and dog guides based on the physiological and behavioral responses of dogs (Fallani, Prato Previde, & Valsecchi, 2007; Naderi, Miklosi, Doka, & Csanyi, 2001; Odendaal & Meintjes, 2003).
Others have approached the relationship from an esoteric perspective, stating that dog guides and handlers are “soul mates” (Toliver, 2005). Handlers may perceive that dog guides are an extension of themselves and play a role in self-definition and social identity (Sanders, 2000). Olson, Samco, and Brown-Leist (2002) posited that handlers are at risk of experiencing significant grief in the event of the death or retirement of their dog guides. Thus, it is not surprising that when dog guides are attacked, their handlers are also affected.
The consequences of dog attacks have a negative impact on the lives of handlers and impede their ability to live their lives freely (Bennett, 2001). Law enforcement and emergency workers are being informed about significant and potentially devastating consequences of attacks on dog guides (Fraizer, 2010). The consequences of attacks on dog guides include the loss of mobility for handlers when the attack occurs, vulnerability to injury by the attacking dog for dog guides and handlers, the inability of handlers to defend themselves, and the inability of dog guides to defend themselves because they are harnessed and leashed. Guide teams may be exposed to traffic or other environmental dangers if dog guides are incapacitated (that is, if an attack occurs in an intersection). Financially, “the price of loose dog attacks to both the blind handler and the dog may be extraordinary. Such attacks can be costly in terms of injury, veterinary care, dog guide retraining and replacement, emotional trauma and loss of mobility for the blind handler” (Bennett, 2001, p. 6). Another financial consideration is the possibility of lost wages as a result of injury or mobility. Roberts of The Seeing Eye (cited in Bennett, 2001), wrote a letter representing the perspective of “most, if not all, such schools” (p. 9) describing the consequences of attacks on dog guides as “tragic and costly” (p. 8).
Data on the frequency of dog attacks on dog guides is not readily available. Francis of GDB (cited by Conner, 2010) presented the findings of a survey completed by 119 dog guide users in the United States and Canada that reported that “42 percent of guide dog users have experienced some form of attack on their guide dogs, and 89 percent have experienced some form of interference from another dog while using their guide dog on a public walkway” (p. A:10). G. Kutsch (personal communication, March 21, 2011) of The Seeing Eye, noted that this survey was conducted in 2003 by Guide Dog Users Incorporated. G. Kutsch (personal communication, March 28, 2011) cited preliminary findings of a 2011 survey by The Seeing Eye that revealed that “44% of guide dog teams have experienced at least one attack and 83% have experienced interference by an aggressive dog.” E. Simone (personal communication, March 25, 2011) stated: Guide Dogs for the Blind has noted that incidents of dog attacks on working guide dogs from their program have remained at a relatively consistent level over the last five years, however there seems to be an escalation in the severity of the attacks and need for emergency veterinary care for the injured guide dog, immediately following an attack. Extensive research has not been conducted to determine the exact cause for this phenomenon, but one could speculate that the increasing popularity of more aggressive breed dogs may be a factor.
Because of the dearth of information on the frequency of dog attacks on dog guides, little data are available to compare the frequencies of attacks among and within countries. Individual reports of dog attacks on dog guides become available through media coverage. Otherwise, the literature in this area is limited and suggests the need for future study.
In addition to the paucity of information on dog attacks on dog guides, even less has been written about the effects of attacks on handlers. Brooks, Moxon, and England (2010) explored the variables that were involved in 100 dog attacks on dog guides in the United Kingdom. These variables included the severity and impact of the attacks on guide work, the characteristics of aggressor and victim dogs, the genders and breeds of aggressor and victim dogs, the time and location of attacks, the severity of injuries, and whether aggressor dogs were leashed. This study was unique in that it noted that the emotional well-being of 48 of the handlers was affected when their guide dogs were attacked: “Handlers’ emotional reactions to the attack included being angry (14.6 per cent), shaken (29.2 per cent), wary/ anxious of dogs or the area (18.8 per cent), upset (18.8 per cent), shocked (14.6 per cent), losing confidence (8.3 per cent)” (Brooks et al., 2010, p. 780). This information indicates that such attacks affect handlers psychologically and emotionally.
Given the close relationship between dog guides and their handlers, it is possible that handlers perceive that these attacks are not only on their dogs, but on themselves. This may especially be the case when handlers perceive that their dog guides are an extension of themselves. Dog guide instructors in the field have interviewed handlers whose dog guides have been attacked by other dogs and have described the attacks as traumatic (Simone, personal communication, October 7, 2010). A DVD (Branton, 2004) was developed to educate the public and law enforcement agencies on the importance of police and legal protection for dog guide teams. In this presentation, handlers whose guides were attacked were interviewed. One handler shared her long-lasting physical and emotional response to working her dog guide after the dog was attacked. She described her physical anxiety and emotional response, including apprehension, anticipating another attack every time she senses a dog is near: “But my reaction is the same to any dog after the attack. The adrenaline hits my system, the hair on the back of my neck tingles, my knees become shaky, and I have to remind myself to breathe and to maintain my wits.” Two other handlers who were interviewed described the negative impact of the attacks on their dog guides. In one interview, the woman became tearful, expressing disbelief that she was not assisted when her dog guide was attacked. She had no way of knowing the extent to which her dog was injured. In the other interview, the man equated his dog being attacked with “a hit and run.” A videotape by Brooks and Moxon (2010) showed a dog attack on a dog guide in a subway station. Few people, if any, would debate whether the attack on the dog guide would be considered traumatic to both the dog and the handler.
Given the position of dog guide schools that they are available to handlers following attacks on their dog guides, dog guide schools are likely to be able to facilitate addressing these difficult situations. The obvious focus is placed on dog guides
following attacks. Less obvious, however, is the effect of attacks on handlers. Given that attacks on dog guides may be considered traumatic experiences, there may be ways that the staff members of these schools may assist the handlers. The advantage of dog guide staff assisting handlers is that they are familiar with the dog guides, the bond that exists between dog guides and handlers, and the unique mobility challenges of handlers.
“A traumatic event is an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world” (“Traumatic events,” 2010).
Traumatic events encompass a wide variety of experiences. They include “violent personal assault” and may involve “observing the serious injury or unnatural death of another person due to violent assault” (American Psychiatric Association, APA, 1994, p. 424). Therefore, an attack on a dog guide may be considered traumatic, since the handler may perceive the attack as a personal assault and may have witnessed the attack. The trauma may produce “an emotional or psychological shock that may produce disordered feelings or behavior” (Venes, 2001, p. 2229).
“The likelihood of developing [posttraumatic stress] disorder [PTSD] may increase as the intensity of and physical proximity to the stressor increase” (APA, 1994, p. 424). Therefore, it is not unrealistic to consider that a handler has the potential to experience psychological or emotional consequences, depending on the nature and resulting consequence of the attack. Some individuals are able to cope with traumatic events and move on with their lives, but others are not so fortunate. The effects of trauma may include the development of specific psychological responses, including depression and anxiety. The types of anxiety may be broad or specific and may include phobias, generalized anxiety, and PTSD. Of the possible responses to a dog attack on a dog guide, depression may take the form of feeling “blue” or “down,” hopeless, and helpless; experiencing the loss of initiative and energy; and engaging in crying spells. In the case of phobic anxiety, handlers may develop a fear of dogs, working a dog guide, dogs off leash, or exposure to the site where the attack occurred. With generalized anxiety, handlers may exhibit a heightened level of arousal that may penetrate all areas of their lives and activities. They may worry about unimportant details and may experience increased muscle tension. In the case of PTSD, the handlers may experience flashbacks and nightmares. They may avoid reminders of the attack or may be unable to recall part of the attack. Numbing of emotions and the lack of interest or enjoyment in activities are common. Insomnia, anger, edginess, and difficulty concentrating are possible. “The person’s response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror.”. . . “These emotional responses affect an individual’s ability to function in everyday life” (APA, 1994, p. 424).
For the handlers, these responses may influence their ability to interact with their dog guides. Emotional responses may be communicated to the dog guides through behavior or potential physiological changes. For example, anxiety and fear may be communicated through the harness and inflection of the voice while giving commands. Extreme fear may leave handlers emotionally paralyzed, which may make them ineffective in directing and making choices for the team. If anxiety interferes with the handler’s ability to interact with the dog guide, then the guide team may be rendered ineffective.
The theoretical model presented in this section is unique to the situation for which it was developed (coping with dog attacks on dog guides). It is not a debriefing (Mitchell & Bray, 1990) or treatment (Follette & Ruzek, 2006) model.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy assists clients in developing and maintaining constructive thought processes and behavior in coping with the difficulties they encounter. Readers are referred to Follette and Ruzek (2006) for cognitive-behavioral treatments for trauma. The model is most consistent with a combined cognitive-behavioral and empowerment approach. Cognitive approaches teach individuals that there are multiple ways to view an event and that how they view the event is a choice (Neenan & Dryden, 2006). Empowerment is “the capacity of disenfranchised people to understand and become active participants in matters that affect their lives” (Bolton & Brookings, 1998, p. 131). Individuals are encouraged to identify challenges and transform them into constructive activities (Cattaneo & Chapman, 2010). The model does not require implementation by medical or mental health professionals to be used effectively. It is recommended that one dog guide staff member be assigned to follow a handler in processing an attack. This approach provides consistency in knowing the history of the attack and the effect of the attack on the dog guide and allows the staff member to achieve rapport with the handler that may build trust and a willingness to share his or her experience. It also offers the staff member the opportunity to gauge the progress of the handler and the dog guide team in recovering from the attack. The model gives handlers an opportunity to be heard and supported, and to move through the potentially negative effects of a dog attack, and presents coping strategies that may mitigate acute emotional stress as the result of an attack. The model consists of three stages, each of which is described as it pertains to handlers following an attack: evaluation or stabilization of the dog guide team, coping with the attack, and empowerment of the handler.
Evaluation or Stabilization of the Guide Dog Team
This stage would be addressed following the acute crisis of an attack. When a handler whose dog was attacked contacts a dog guide school, he or she will likely have already endured interactions with police officers, animal control officials,
emergency services professionals, and veterinarians, if necessary. A protocol immediately following an attack is not identified. While in training, dog guide schools address options with individual handlers in response to dog attacks. Responses to attacks vary according to individual experiences. It is possible that the handler was not attacked by the dog that attacked the guide dog. In other cases, the handler may have been bitten by the attacking dog or experienced other physical affronts (such as being pushed down, bruised, or scratched). If the handler was physically involved with the attacking dog, it is recommended that he or she be evaluated by a medical professional not only to ensure that the handler was not harmed or receives appropriate medical treatment, but to initiate documentation of the attack. The same consideration is to be applied to dog guides. Although a handler may perceive the dog guide is intact and unharmed, it is recommended that a veterinarian evaluate the dog guide, since it is possible that physical damage may not be obvious.
Coping with the Attack
Processing the attack: Giving a handler the opportunity to feel heard following an attack may reduce the possibility that the handler will internalize the experience, creating stress. If a dog guide instructor is interacting with a handler following an attack, the details are likely to have already been processed while addressing the status of the dog guide. Once the dog guide is assessed, the focus may be directed to the handler. A kind, caring, unhurried, empathic approach may give a message that it is safe and acceptable to discuss the experience. The handlers may talk about where they were when the attack occurred and the sounds and smells they experienced, and may describe the sequence of events and feelings leading up to, during, and following the attack. A wide variety of emotions may be expressed and observed, all valid and appropriate, including disappointment, sadness, fear, anxiety, hate, and rejection. The handler may feel minimized and invalidated. Therefore, it is necessary for the staff member to provide empathy and support, to listen, and not to question the handler’s feelings or emotions as right or wrong. It is not uncommon following a traumatic event to experience increased arousal, such as difficulty sleeping or concentrating, irritability, or outbursts of anger (APA, 1994). A handler may report shakiness while working with the dog guide if he or she perceives that another dog is near or is working at the site of the attack. Recognizing that his or her body is responding atypically may be unsettling and may create anxiety. It is important to normalize this experience. Once the handler has processed the experience, it is appropriate to ask how he or she may be supported. Some handlers may be clear about how they would like to proceed in the support process, while others may not. Some handlers may want to talk with instructors who understand attack experiences, while others may want to explore how their behavior may affect their dog guides. Others may identify questions or concerns that may arise over time. If a handler does not identify a need for support, then alternatives may be presented, such as talking again in a week to explore how the dog guide and handler are recovering and how the dog guide team is functioning, or giving the handler tasks to complete with his or her dog guide (for example, to observe their response and the dog guide’s response to other dogs, work alternative routes that may avoid problematic dog areas, and expose themselves and their dog guides to friendly dogs). Options may vary, depending on the nature and extent of the attack. If a handler does not want to talk about the experience, then periodic follow-up telephone calls (every other week for a month) offer the opportunity to discuss the incident at a later date. Some handlers may request no additional contact. This request needs to be respected.
Self-care strategies for handlers: We suggest that dog guide schools develop a brochure that identifies self-care strategies for coping with the stress of an attack that is in a format that is accessible to handlers (in braille or large print or on an SD rd or the school’s web site). The brochure may be made available to handlers during training and following the processing of experiences of the attacks, so they may implement the strategies for coping with an attack. Workbooks are available that reinforce and further develop strategies for coping with stress (Burns, 1999; McGrath, 2006). Such strategies include self-nurturing, time orientation, engaging in positive self-talk and thought stopping, and recognizing choices in life.
Self-nurturing: Self-nurturing involves engaging in activities that are revitalizing and refreshing. These activities include a wide variety of enjoyable, pleasant, and fulfilling interests or hobbies, such as listening to or playing music, cooking, and reading. Physical exercise and eating a well-balanced diet are healthy ways to nurture oneself. Rest and sleep are imperative. Abstaining from using alcohol or substances as a means of coping with stress is necessary. Relaxation and body awareness exercises may assist in alleviating stress and tension in muscles and may enhance sleep. Nurturing oneself involves taking time to rejuvenate and replenish energy resources for coping. Time orientation. It is important to live in the present. A present orientation contributes to feeling effective in one’s environment. This is especially important following an attack on a dog guide because the handler may think about the past attack and relive the attack in his or her mind, which creates anxiety. Handlers are encouraged to learn from the experience, focus on the present, and identify a plan of action for the dog guide team.
Self-talk and thought stopping: Handlers are encouraged to observe their thought processes. If they engage in negative self-talk related to the attack, they are encouraged to stop these negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. For example, if a handler thinks, “All dogs off their leashes are terrible and ferocious,” he or she may replace that thought with, “Not all dogs off their leashes are ferocious. I will be aware of dogs off their leashes and will address each situation as it arises.” Another example may be, “I’m afraid my dog guide is going to get attacked again” which may be replaced with “I do not know whether my dog guide will be attacked again, but right now we are safe and are working well. I have a plan of action for addressing a dog that approaches us.” The purpose of engaging in positive self-talk is to not be unrealistic with messages we give ourselves, but to be realistic, supportive, and positive.
Recognizing choices in life:A handler has a choice of whether to focus on the attack or learn from the experience and move beyond it. Conscious effort is required to move forward, so that the attack is not his or her focus. Social support and networking. A response to stressful events may be to isolate oneself. Handlers may feel as though they do not want to be around others following an attack on their dog guides. It is important that they remain socially engaged. Social support, understanding, and encouragement may assist handlers in moving through the experience. Handlers may be surprised at the support, assistance, validation, and empathy they receive from others, especially if they felt abandoned in their attempts to seek assistance following an attack. Being around others offers handlers an opportunity to redirect their focus away from the attack, which may have occurred while they were alone.
Empowerment of the Handler
As is the case with most dog attacks, handlers may be left feeling powerless, helpless, and perhaps hopeless. They may feel violated by the attack, especially if the owners of the attacking dogs do not take responsibility for their dogs’ actions. They are encouraged to identify positive, proactive ways to empower themselves. There is no limit to how empowerment may be accomplished, depending on the handler. Handlers may empower themselves by educating the public about leash laws and laws providing special protection for dog guides, informing the public about dog attacks through television and newspaper coverage of the incidents, writing letters to the editors of local newspapers expressing concern related to the incidents, meeting with representatives of local law enforcement or animal control agencies to discuss the attacks and how they may assist handlers and their dog guides if future incidents occur, and so on. Notifying special-interest groups may serve to promote the cause of educating the public about dog guides, their work, and resources invested in training dogs for guide work. Handlers may legally empower themselves if the owners of attacking dogs are known. Speaking engagements at schools and sharing information with students and teachers about dog guides, their training and purpose, may heighten public awareness of appropriate and inappropriate behavior when encountering a dog guide. All these activities may serve handlers in a positive manner to increase awareness about dog guides.
Considerations for staff members: It is not easy to hear horrific accounts of violence on dog guides. It is likely that staff members of dog guide schools have invested much time and energy in the cause of using dog guides. Hearing about these experiences, in itself, may be traumatic. Thus, it is important that staff members who assist handlers following such attacks also have an opportunity to process their experiences. The staff members may share feelings and concerns with other staff members or the staff counselor after assisting the handlers. They may prefer to process experiences formally (with mental health professionals) or informally (through support networks of friends). Formal processing may involve the use of Employee Assistance Programs or health insurance, if available, and may be an option if a staff counselor is not available. Processing by formal means ensures that the information that is addressed remains confidential unless otherwise identified prior to the consultation. Processing by informal means requires staff members to maintain the handlers’ confidentiality.
Referrals to medical or mental health professionals:Staff members who are assisting handlers following dog guide attacks may find themselves in a difficult situation, depending on how the handlers respond to the attacks. They are not to be placed in a position of functioning as mental health professionals. Rather, they are encouraged to suggest that the handlers seek consultation with licensed medical or mental health professionals if they observe complications in coping (that is, if the handlers do not appear to be moving through and beyond the attacks, appear depressed, or do not seem to be functioning) or the handlers’ ability to cope is diminished (if the handlers are not eating, are staying in bed, are missing work, are socially disengaging, exhibit a decreased interest in activities, are unwilling to use dog guides, and so on). Referral sources may include professionals who are trained to evaluate the potential need for immediate intervention, including physicians, other medical professionals, or mental health professionals like psychologists, counselors, or social workers. If the handlers indicate that they are feeling suicidal, then they should immediately be referred to the emergency room of their local hospital or a medical or mental health professional for evaluation, since these feelings indicate a high risk to their safety (When You Fear Someone May Take Their Life, n.d.). These instances are likely to be rare and typically involve underlying mental health problems that may complicate reactions to stress.
The model presented in this article is intended to provide assistance to dog guide instructors and handlers following attacks on dog guides. It takes into account addressing attacks, expressing thoughts and feelings following attacks, and ways to cope with and move beyond attacks. The model is a first step in developing an approach to assist handlers that is organized and structured. Empirical study of the model is necessary for validation and refinement. For example, it may be discovered that dog guide instructors perceive that providing direct guidance during the stabilization stage is more helpful to handlers than is offering them an opportunity to direct their own support. Studying emotional responses to dog guide attacks through case studies, surveys, or other types of research may reveal specific or unique trends in the emotional responses of handlers, which may indicate the necessity for revising the coping strategies presented in the model. Similarly, handlers may discover other effective ways to empower themselves. The model has not yet been implemented. Implementing the model is likely to come from dog guide schools. Coping strategies may be posted on the web sites of dog guide schools, brochures may be developed to address the three stages of the model and be made available to handlers. The model may serve as a means to organize the process of coping with an attack. It may provide mental health professionals with a better understanding of the complexity of issues involved in experiencing attacks on dog guides.
The role of handlers in communicating with their dog guides is an important variable involved with the post-attack behavior of dog guides and the recovery of the team. Post-attack instruction by dog guide instructors with handlers typically involves explaining how handlers’ responses are readily available to dog guides and how the responses can be either helpful or a hindrance to achieving desired guide work and behavioral recovery. Instructors have observed that if handlers demonstrate confidence and composure and effectively communicate them to their dog guides during the initial exposure to dogs following an attack, then the potential for recovery of the team is increased.
We contend that if handlers are given the post-attack support that is suggested in the response protocol described here, then their potential to develop emotional and mental health problems may be lessened. In addition, the ability of handlers to support their dog guides after an attack can be improved by dog guide instructors and dog guide organizations addressing the emotional responses of handlers and helping them to understand the positive or negative influence they may impart on their dogs’ behavior. The ultimate goal is to increase the probability that dog guides will continue to be successful companions and mobility aids for handlers.
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Cheryl A. Godley, Ph.D., psychologist in private practice, Windy Ridge Psychological Services, 1607 CY Avenue, Suite 302, Casper, WY 82604; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marc A. Gillard, licensed guide dog instructor and orientation and mobility specialist, Guide Dogs for the Blind, 350 Los Ranchitos Road, San Rafael, CA 94903; e-mail: email@example.com.
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