“I Want to Get a Guide Dog Just for the Hell of It”

Well readers, it’s that time again! It is time for another Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, which you can participate in if you would like by going to http://thetroubleisme.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/announcing-the-3rd-assistance-dog-blog-carnival.

     The theme this time is “reactions”. I know that writing about the public’s reaction when they see a service dog was discouraged, and understandably so since it is universal and already well-traveled territory. But I really felt compelled to write about the public’s reaction to Gilbert for two reasons. First, my last entry for the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, the previous entry in this blog, and the past few weeks of my life as a busy college student for that matter, have been too serious, so I think a little comic relief is in order. (On a completely unrelated side note if you read the previous entry, when I went to church the following Sunday, the gospel reading was the story about Jesus restoring sight to a blind man. Of course, the reading focuses on restoring sight in the metaphorical spiritual sense. But still, isn’t that ironic?) But second and more importantly, although Gilbert’s official occupation is Guide Dog, he has gone above and beyond the duties of this occupation and embraced the occupation of Public Relations Assistant as well, an occupation for which he was never trained, but one which he performs with a beautiful grace and natural talent. I can understand how people with assistance dogs don’t like feeling as though strangers are more interested in interacting with the dog than the person. I have certainly felt this way occasionally, but I get the sense that this doesn’t irritate me nearly as much as it does for other assistance dog handlers I have met. This is what I want to focus on for my entry–my reaction to the public’s interaction with Gilbert.

     One spring day last year, my sophomore year of college, I had just crossed the street and was walking up the sidewalk to the door of the student union for lunch after a morning of classes when I heard a couple boys walk past. “I want to get a guide dog just for the hell of it,” said one of the boys under his breath to his friend upon seeing Gilbert, perhaps not aware that blind people have an alert ear. Maybe some will see me as a terrible ambassador for the service dog community after this admission, but I was not irritated at all by what some might have considered a flippant statement. It didn’t even cross my mind to give him either a “be careful what you wish for” lecture nor a “service dogs aren’t issued just for the hell of it. You’re not going to become one of those idiots who will try to pass your untrained pet off as a service dog and make life difficult for people who really need them, are you?” lecture. Instead my reaction was to laugh hysterically, for days. In fact as I write this and remember back on that event a year later, I am laughing anew.

     That was definitely the most hilarious and memorable reaction to Gilbert, but every day is full of the more typical public reactions.

     “Hi Gilbert! Hi Allison!” girls will call as I walk down the sidewalk.

     “He is so cute!” students will whisper when I go in the computer lab to do research or something and sit near them.

     “I just love your dog. He makes me miss my dog back home,” or “I love how he is just so relaxed. I wish I could lay on the floor and sleep through classes,” students will tell me after class.

     “Puppy!” or “Doggy!” little kids will shout excitedly in church, and at stores and restaurants. I volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, where I spend one hour a week with a child at her school, and when my “little sister” was in first grade, she told me that she tells people she gets to have a big sister and a big brother, her big brother being Gilbert. Isn’t that sweet?!

     This semester I have an English teacher who begins every class by getting down on the floor and petting Gilbert, and last week, I met with my group for a public policy project in the coffee shop of the library when a boy I have had classes with in the past burst through the door and went nuts when he saw Gilbert. When Gilbert responded by standing up, wagging his tail and being absolutely adorable, a politics professor I had last year called across the coffee shop “That’s a vicious cold-blooded killer you’ve got there Allison!” Needless to say, all the stress I was feeling about the demanding group project melted in to laughter.

     Most guide dog programs I have heard of train the dogs to ignore anyone who pets them while in harness, a policy which most guide dog handlers I know stick with. But the program Gilbert came from is a little more lenient. The guide dog trainer told me that I could allow people to pet him while in harness, as long as I wasn’t actually holding the handle and walking. This is a good thing because had it been a strict school that advised handlers not to let people pet the dog at all while in harness, I am not sure I could have adhered to such a policy. I have nothing against people who don’t let people pet their dogs as I respect the “your dog, your rules” philosophy. I understand the logic of such strict policies and sometimes when Gilbert will get distracted if friends walk by, I wonder if I should be stricter. But every time I consider this, it occurs to me that Gilbert is the reason I have friends to begin with.

     I really don’t have self-esteem or confidence issues, honest. I think I just recognize that while in an ideal world, it would be wonderful if being blind was just as insignificant a characteristic as hair color when it came to how people treated me, the reality is that to sighted people, blind people are scary.

     For teachers, this fear manifests itself in the concerned tone of their voices when they meet me for the first time. While I had a few friends, back in the good old white cane days, I think a lot of students considered me armed and dangerous. As hard as I tried not to swing my cane too wide, it is impossible not to inadvertently trip students walking through such crowded hallways between classes. In middle school especially, when students saw me coming, they learned to clear the path for me.

     Even if students didn’t mind being tripped every now and then, I think a lot of students felt uncomfortable approaching me because the cane gave me a demeanor of awkwardness. Of course there is tremendous value in the power of education to alleviate the public’s apprehension, but even with all the education in the world about blindness, I suppose if I had been sighted, I would not have known what to think of a blind person having to find her way around by sweeping a stick in front of her, announcing every table leg, garbage can or open door she passes with a glamorous ping or clunk!

     But from the very first moment Gilbert and I walked on to the college campus, I noticed that pity and concern was replaced by envy and amazement, and awkwardness was replaced by grace and confidence.

     Instead of finding every obstacle with an obnoxious clunk, Gilbert leads me beautifully around obstacles so that usually, I don’t even know they were there. Of course, Gilbert’s presence still announces to the world that I am blind, but he can make the announcement in a “Ain’t I cute and amazing?” kind of way, as opposed to the cane which seemed to announce “here comes a blind person! Look out if you don’t want to be tripped!”

     When teachers meet me for the first time, they still have questions and concerns about how to accommodate me if they have never met a blind person, but I have noticed that seeing Gilbert seems to put them at ease, so that their apprehension doesn’t last as long because Gilbert’s sweet, innocent presence downplays my handicap, whereas the cane seemed to magnify it.

     But the most wonderful and noticeable aspect of Gilbert’s presence is that I feel like he conveys to students that being blind isn’t such a terrible thing. Of course, I am sure that none of my friends would seriously wish to go blind, but I can tell by the way many of them interact with me both directly and through hilarious overheard comments like “I want to get a guide dog just for the hell of it”, that I am envied, seen not as the handicapped kid, but “the kid who gets to take her dog everywhere.”

     I have loved this change in perception so much that it has been well worth the small sacrifice of Gilbert’s discipline to allow people to pet him. It is also why I have no problem with people more interested in talking about Gilbert than getting to know me. They are still talking to me after all, aren’t they? And after their curiosity about Gilbert is satisfied, many of them stick around and get to know me. And what do you know! Before long, what started out as curiosity and adoration of Gilbert often blossoms in to a full-blown friendship!

     Years before I came to the college, another blind student also had a guide dog who is still remembered fondly by long-time faculty members and administrators. One of these people mentioned to me that when the student graduated, she was presented with her diploma, and the dog was awarded a bone. I have heard of dog handlers who asked that their guide dog not be recognized in the commencement ceremony, and I do understand their logic. Guide dogs get to sleep through every class after all, and I like to joke to friends that Gilbert doesn’t lift a paw to help me with my homework. I am not going to formally ask that Gilbert be honored of course, as that might make me look silly. But if the administration chooses to recognize Gilbert the way they did the previous guide dog, I will accept it, because even if Gilbert didn’t have to pay attention in class or stay up all hours of the night writing papers, he has done so much to help me make friends and help people become more comfortable with blindness that I think he ought to be honored with a bone and a degree in Public Relations.

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