Guide Dog Class Lecture: The General Public
The choice to travel with a guide dog increases the likelihood of interactions with the public. Many of those interactions will not be initiated by you. Similar to the pregnant woman who finds herself approached (and sometimes touched) by strangers who offer unsolicited comments and advice, you should also expect to draw attention and contact from people in your environment. Many guide dog handlers welcome the high-profile status that is part of working with a dog. Whether you do or not, you’ll need to be prepared to manage exchanges with the public in the most productive and effective manner possible. Your communication style will influence the way the public reacts to you and other people who use service dogs.
The Public Can Be Helpful
It is natural to enjoy working in a community that is accepting and positive towards guide dog teams. There are also situations when you can turn to the public for specific help. When a verbal description of an unfamiliar area is needed, a sighted person can provide information and confirm your location. Individuals can give you directions to a destination and may provide further assistance in locating a destination if you request it. Pedestrians, merchants and public service employees are potential sources of help.
Some people can unintentionally give confusing directions. To receive useful information, ask specific questions in a manner that cues the person to answer more clearly. For example, while pointing at your parallel street you could ask “Is this Jefferson Street? If I continue straight ahead, what is the name of the next cross street? “Or, “Does this intersection have a pedestrian walk button? May I take your arm for a moment so you can show me where it is?” Or, “I believe there is a florist on this block. Have I passed the entrance? No, it’s two doors farther? Thank you.”
The Public Can Be a Hindrance
Unsolicited and unwanted help can be firmly, but courteously, refused. Though their intentions may be good, you should discourage people from interfering in your work with your guide dog. For example, if a well-meaning pedestrian grasps your arm to “help” you in a street crossing, immediately set the harness handle down and "heel” your dog across. Once in a safe place, you may then want to educate the person how best to help next time.
Public Comments on Your Handling
Simply working a guide dog draws attention. For most people, seeing a working dog is a treat. On rare occasions however, you may encounter someone who is staunchly against the idea of a working animal and disapproves of your relationship. These people do not understand the rich and meaningful life a guide dog leads. You are unlikely to change their minds and probably do not need to spend time trying to convince them otherwise.
Then again, any reasonable person can become concerned if they perceive a dog is being handled unfairly. Managing your dog’s behavior is a part of your job, and you can thwart most public criticism by the regular practice of following any appropriate correction with praise/reward for the proper response. Also, look for opportunities to interact positively with your dog just for the heck of it. The obvious affection you give your dog will be seen by the people around you and will help them to accept the fact that you need to set rules of behavior and reinforce them. An effective handler never appears angry or frustrated when managing their dog. If you receive repeated criticism about your handling or treatment of your dog, take some time to reflect. Have you been fair and clear in your communication and interactions? Have you focused as much on what your dog has been doing right as on the mistakes that have been made? Effective control balanced with genuine praise and rewards are key to success with your guide dog. And when control and praise is balanced, a team not only communicates well but presents itself positively in public.
Because you use a guide dog, you have responsibilities in addition to those of the typical pedestrian:
- You need to pick up after your dog.
- Because people are curious about guide dogs, you will be in a position to educate. We recommend having your dog sit when you stop to talk. If you allow people to pet your dog, have your dog sit first and maintain good control. If you do not want them to pet your dog, be polite when letting them know your choice.
- Pedestrian clearance errors will occur. Please say, “Excuse me” before you rework.
- You should keep your dog clean and well groomed.
- You are responsible for managing your dog’s behavior.
While accompanying you in a public area, your guide should be fairly unobtrusive when he is not on guiding duty. Manage your dog so he does not sniff, disturb merchandise or solicit attention from others. When you need to use both hands to conduct business, it works well to have your dog sit. Loop your leash over an arm so both hands are free to handle your purchases, deal with paperwork or make a transaction. Realize that others may not want to interact with your dog. When attending a class, conducting business, or in a shared workspace, tend to your dog and don’t assume that he is welcome in other people’s spaces.
You have the right to use your guide dog in public places. Know and understand the laws in your area that pertain to working your dog. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed. The ADA often provides greater protection for individuals with disabilities and takes priority over local or state laws or regulations. However, a business may exclude any animal, including a service animal, from a facility when that animal's behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Consequently, any dog that is very dirty or out of control does not have an automatic right to be in a public accommodation.
Many bus companies now provide training for their drivers and special equipment on buses to assist people in wheelchairs, passengers with hearing loss, and passengers with visual impairments. Some companies have their trainees ride on a bus under blindfold to emphasize the importance of calling out stops clearly. When you encounter a driver who provides good service, consider writing a letter to the bus company acknowledging the driver’s efforts. If you have a negative experience with a bus or taxi driver, don’t hesitate to get their name and vehicle number and call the company to report the incident. Companies need feedback if they are to improve service.
Assistance with Access Discrimination
GDB is available to assist alumni who have experienced access problems by communicating with the specific companies or organizations denying access; providing resource material (wallet-sized cards stating local penal codes, literature, references and training); and addressing access issues in public service announcements, interviews, conferences and literature.
Common Sense Decisions Regarding Access
There are situations when it is not practical or even safe to take your guide dog with you. For instance the presence of a domesticated dog can distress animals in a zoo, wild animal park or circus. The experience could greatly upset your dog too. In collaboration with the San Francisco Zoo in 1994, GDB investigated the effects of a guide dog in a zoological garden. With zoo staff present, training dogs of varying temperaments were taken through the zoo. Several of the guides became distressed to the extent that they were unable to perform effective guidework. Many of the species of zoo animals became very anxious. Several hoofed species started to panic, while some of the big cats became aggressively agitated.
Based on this experiment, it is safe to assume that any dog could have serious fear reactions in exotic animal settings. Call ahead and see what kind of accommodations exist if you need to work your dog to the venue but do not want your dog inside. It is likely that the facility is prepared for this situation. There are also places where your guide is allowed, but may not be practical or pleasant for your dog. Some examples include firework displays, loud or crowded concerts, or emotionally charged demonstrations where tempers may be flaring.
Access and etiquette information is available on our website. Our Support Center is also a good source of information and support regarding these subjects.
You can stream the audio of the class lecture here, via a Soundcloud widget. If using a screen reader, please select the "Play" option below.