I have a friend, a person who is blind who has been partnering with guide dogs since the mid-1990s. Both her dogs have been labs, one black, one yellow, and, around the turn of the millennium, when I was trying to decide whether a guide dog would be right for me, I asked her why she had chosen to use a guide dog and whether or not she was happy with her decision. She told me that deciding to use a dog for orientation and mobility was the best decision she ever made. I have to say, I agree with her. I am working with my second guide dog, both of my dogs have been German Shepherds, and the positive differences my dogs have made in my ability to travel independently and to present myself to the sighted world as capable and competent, and my general feelings of well being, safety, and being cared about while working with my guide dogs are so great as to be immeasurable.
One day a couple of years ago when the friend whose candid assessments helped me to decide to choose a school and get my own guide dog was getting off the subway and beginning to walk to her office, she found herself surrounded by a group of outspoken demonstrators who identified themselves as representing PETA.
“How dare you treat that dog so cruelly!” one of the PETA group screamed at her. “You ought to be ashamed!” another chimed in.
When my friend told me about the encounter and described how she could hardly disentangle herself from the group of demonstrators who had surrounded her and her dog, I was amazed.
“Are you sure they were from PETA?” I asked my friend. How could they be so misinformed, I wondered aloud. What could possibly make them think that you are mistreating your dog?
I am a person who intentionally buys tooth paste and soap and all kinds of household and personal-care products that are labeled, “cruelty free,” to indicate they have not been tested on animals. When I buy meat, I choose beef from farmers that raise their cattle on grass because cows are not designed by nature to eat grain, and it’s eating grain that can make them sick and susceptible to E Coli and other bacterial infections; I buy pork and bacon that comes from pigs who are not fed antibiotics and whose lives and deaths are described as “natural” and “free of cruelty; I purchase chicken and turkey and eggs from growers whose birds are allowed to gorge themselves on grubs and grains growing in a cage free environment; I choose seafood that’s on a list of “Ocean Friendly recommendations from the Monterey Bay Aquarium; and I try to rely on meat and seafood that has been raised, from beginning to end-of-life in a stress-free, cruelty-free environment. I grew up on a farm and I enjoy the protein that comes from meat, but two of my six children are committed vegetarians – One chose the vegetarian life-style when he was seven and felt bad about the Thanksgiving turkey – and I supported their choices to reject eating meat. I learned to balance proteins and often cooked two main-course entrees so we could be sure they were getting proteins that were just as healthy and complete as the meat-eaters in the family. Our family has a cute yellow pet cat, and my guide dog is a much loved and well cared-for member of our family.
Once in a while I’ve thought about my friend’s Metro-station encounter with PETA and wondered if her persecutors were just representing some over-the-top fringe group. While hoping that my guide dog, Tess, and I don’t ever have to experience such an unpleasant encounter, I just assumed that those demonstrators who accused my friend of being cruel to her little black lab, who, incidentally, was wagging her tail in a friendly way, in harness, during the whole incident, were not representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, many of whose goals I agree with.
I guess that was just wishful thinking. When the LA Times http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/unleashed/2009/01/when-we-first-r.html recently interviewed PETA's Vice President for Cruelty Investigations, Daphna Nachminovitch, this, in part, is what she had to say about guide dogs: “…we oppose most seeing-eye-dogvprograms because the dogs are bred as if there are no equally intelligent dogs literally dying for homes in shelters, they are kept in harnesses almost 24/7, people are prohibited from petting or playing with them and they cannot romp and run and interact with other dogs; and their lives are repeatedly disrupted (they are trained for months in one home and bond, then sent to a second, and after years of bonding with the person they have "served," they are whisked away again because they are old and no longer "useful")…”
What guide dog training programs is this person talking about? What a chorus of misinformation, baseless assumptions, and unsubstantiated so-called “facts!” As the proud and grateful graduate of Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation in Bloomfield, Connecticut, the appreciative partner of two wonderful guide dogs, one retired and the other enjoying life as a nearly nine-year-old working dog, as a member and board member of Guide Dog Users, Incorporated (GDUI), as a person who is acquainted with hundreds of service animal users, school representatives and trainers, and a person who is on a first-name basis with many friends who are blind who have chosen to partner with guide dogs, let me disagree, unequivocally,, and vociferously!
First of all, “seeing eye” is a brand. “The Seeing Eye” is the name of one, venerable and renowned program that breeds and trains dogs to partner with and guide people who are blind and visually impaired. The Seeing Eye’s is the oldest such program in the United States. It is not the only such program. There are more than a dozen other guide dog schools, there are subtle differences between programs that allow students to choose, for various reasons, one school’s program over another’s, and together, they graduate thousands of guide dog teams each year.
Although many guide dog schools breed their own dogs, to guarantee that the majority of their dogs will have the characteristics, including health, temperament, and intelligence, that will allow them to provide reliable service to their blind and visually impaired partners over a reasonably long, and happy, lifetime, there are, in fact, some schools who adopt dogs from shelters and individuals and invest the time and energy to train them for lifetimes of service, but most guide dog training programs choose to breed their own dogs or rely upon trusted breeders who understand the characteristics they seek in potential guide dogs. Although it might be romantic to think about rescuing animals from shelters to give them chances for second lives as working dogs, if every guide dog training program were to choose that course of action, the number of available dogs would likely be substantially reduced, and the number of successful teams would also be substantially limited. After all, the “typical” (if there is such a thing) shelter resident comes from a living situation that had, for one reason or another, to be discontinued and may not have been bred with considerations for health or temperament or intelligence in mind, and may have been exposed to minimal training at best. How many of these dogs could we realistically expect to succeed as working dogs with the rigorous demands for intellect, flexibility, and good health that describe a successful service dog. It is good that families who are seeking pets can go to shelters to find that perfect match for their children and lifestyles. My own family has, over the years, adopted a number of much treasured and well loved kitties from animal shelters. It is also good that the guide dog schools have breeding programs, that they have poured time, energy, and dollars into breeding dogs that can be expected to meet the needs of their disabled partners for intellect, wellness, temperament, and enthusiasm for work. Although there are some people who select their own dogs and train their dogs themselves, I am not, and will never be, one of those people, and I am grateful that Fidelco invested so much time and energy in their breeding program. Tess’s lineage is from East Germany, where the breed was protected and strengthened for many years by virtue of the isolation that resulted from the Cold War political climate. Fidelco developed their expertise in breeding over more than four decades, and I am grateful to have a guide dog who benefits – as do I – from that experience and that expertise. Graduates from other guide dog programs who have worked tirelessly to ensure good breeding, healthy dogs, and competent working partners are just as grateful as I for those investments by their own schools.
Now for the claim that our guide dogs are “kept in harness almost24-7,” whose guide dog is Ms. Nachminovitch referring to? My dog is in harness when she is working, i.e., when we are traveling together through the built or natural environment. When she’s not working, i.e., we’re not going out or I am not in a professional working situation, Tess’s harness is draped over the railing in my entrance hall or some other convenient place. Neither I nor Tess can work 24-7, and neither can the human and canine partners who make up other guide dog team partnerships. The claim that guide dogs are confined to harness virtually 24-7 is so ludicrous it would be laughable, if it weren’t being employed to inflame animal lovers and to denigrate a program that benefits tens of thousands of people who are blind.
The harness is not uncomfortable, and when I pick it up and Tess understands (immediately) that we’re about to go somewhere where she will be working, her enthusiasm and excitement are boundless! German Shepherds are quite vocal, and Tess is especially so. Her exuberant outburst upon realizing that she’s about to be asked to, “Come to harness,” and the way she wiggles with excitement and wags her whole body with anticipation are so all-consuming of her energy and ability to concentrate that sometimes I have to ask her to sit for just a minute so she can “contain herself,” and I can get the harness over her head! Tess loves her dog bed, she adores her back yard, she is happy to be riding in a car and thrilled to hop onto an escalator or jump underneath a seat on the subway, but being in harness is her favorite state of being!
When we are working, Tess is wearing her harness. When we are not, she is not wearing the harness. She’s happy out of harness, and even happier in harness. Tess is not some “exception that proves the rule;” our dogs love to work, and every guide dog I have known loves to jump into that harness and go “Forward!”
Pets cannot accompany their owners to all that many places. By necessity, they are often left, unaccompanied, at home, even in homes where they are cared for by families who love them. Our guide dogs, on the other hand, because we depend on them for our personal safety, accompany us everywhere. They are not left alone for hours on end, while we go off to the office, to the movies, to the library or the grocery store. That’s why our bonds with our dogs are so strong, and being able to come along is a major benefit of the working lifestyle for our guide dogs.
Now for the claim that their lives are filled with sadness because of the “frequent” separations they must endure, since, after all, they have to leave their mothers, then their puppy families, then their trainers, then their partners, to be “whisked away” at the end of their working lives because they’re “too old.” Oh, for heaven’s sake, give me a break! It’s true that the puppies destined for a working life as guides leave the kennels where they spend their earliest weeks with their mothers, for a life with a singularly unselfish family who teaches them their social skills and their doggie manners, and then leave those families for guide dog schools where they learn to be guides. After that, the guides-in-training are matched with the blind or visually impaired people who will become their partners. Therefore, in the first three or so years of their lives, they have to adjust to at least a few changes and some separation anxiety. It’s also true that each of these living circumstances is characterized by people who love them, have their and their future best interests in mind, and provide unquestionably wonderful environments in which they grow, learn and thrive. The blind or visually impaired people with whom the two-to-three-year-old dogs are eventually matched provide equally nurturing environments. And, often when a dog’s working life is at an end, the dogs stay with their blind and visually impaired partners into old age and the eventual final separation that comes to all of us. Of course, it is not possible for every blind person to keep a retired dog for a number of possible reasons, including housing considerations, financial considerations, or even personal or canine preference, but retired dogs are not simply “abandoned.” My own first guide dog had to retire from working as my guide early because of some behavioral considerations. She went back to live with her puppy family. They and I had always stayed in touch – as is the case for many guide dog users and their puppy raisers – and they have welcomed Glory back into their home, where she goes with her “puppy dad” each morning to buy Dunkin Doughnuts takes naps with their grandchildren, and has her own recliner in their family room.
I have stayed in touch with my current guide’s puppy raiser, and she sends huge bags of peanut butter biscuits (Tess’s favorites) for every conceivable holiday or occasion. Last spring, she came to visit us over a very happy week end. She was thrilled to see Tess, after six years, and Tess gave her a huge “doggie hug” about 30 seconds after she arrived at our driveway!
Tess, like all guide dogs, has been nurtured by people who have loved and cared for her, and what more could any dog wish for?
When people who partner with guide dogs cannot keep their retired dogs or find a suitable home for their retirements, the schools can also place their retired service animals with families and individuals who are not in short supply. Every school maintains lists of approved individuals and families who want to adopt always well-behaved and sociable retired guide dogs.
Ms. Nachminovitch Told a story about a PETA member who is blind and chose to move from one state to another so that she would not have to return her guide dog to the school. Obviously this story, although touching, is not the whole story. It is not the usual case that a guide dog user is required to “turn in” her guide dog while their working relationship continues to prosper.
Another PETA claim is that no one can touch our dogs, or play with them. Whose guide dogs are they talking about? While it’s true that many guide dog users discourage the people they encounter during routine travel from petting or talking to their dogs, it is not true that guide dogs do not have the opportunity to be petted or played with. I do not like it when members of the general public “sneak” a pet; I much prefer for someone to ask if they can pet my dog, and usually, when people ask, I say, “Yes.” However, if we’re in a situation that is likely to be unusually distracting, or if we’re waiting to cross a street or doing something else that requires our undivided attention, then I will say, “Not right now. My dog is working.”
Tess is not particularly distractible, and we have been working together for long enough so that she has a huge sense of responsibility for my safety, and even if someone reaches out to pet her, she is likely to put my safety and her responsibility for it above all other considerations. Other dogs are more distractible than Tess, and other teams may be at different stages of working together. Just because I often say yes to people who ask if they can pet my dog, no one should assume that another guide dog user feels the same way I do about petting, or otherwise engaging the attention of a working dog.
On the other hand, I pet my dog, even in harness, all of the time. I touch her, I pat her, I ruffle the hair around her neck, and I praise, praise, praise her for a job well done virtually every minute. So do other guide dog users. And, when we’re not working, when that harness is off, I encourage other people to pet, play, and positively interact with my dog. And, so do other guide dog users.
Tess has a fenced back yard, where she hides her favorite toys, chases squirrels, runs and plays with me and other members of my family, and with friends, and where she occasionally entertains pets and other working dogs who belong to friends and come to visit. We recently had a holiday party at my home. There were food and drinks for everyone who came, including “Pupperoni” and “Frostee Paws,” for all the visiting guide dogs.
Many guide dog users interact with other dog owners and guide dog users, at local events and national conventions, at their homes, and in dog parks, and it is not true that guide dogs do not have opportunities for socialization, interaction with other people or pets, or fun.
Ms. Nachminovitch wrapped up her condemnation of using dogs to guide people who are blind by making this totally confusing statement: “We feel that the human community should do more to support blind people and give dogs a break.”
How exactly should the human community be supporting those of us who are blind? Does PETA really believe that eliminating the guide dogs that allow us to travel independently and with dignity and safety would support us? And what about our dogs, who love their work, thrive in the loving environments we provide for them, and leap with joyous enthusiasm into harness every time we offer them the opportunity? I know that Tess would not consider my bringing her working life to a premature end any kind of a “break!”
I am happy that PETA wants to investigate actual circumstances of animal cruelty, to expose the people, or the institutions, who are responsible for the suffering of animals, bring attention to the puppy mills, the feed lots, and the people who bet on dog fights, and gamble at greyhound races. Go, get ‘em, Ms. Nachminovitch. But, when you are “investigating” guide dogs and their lifestyles, and the programs that breed and train them, and the blind people who benefit from their guidance and companionship, remember that investigation means something other than stringing together a list of imagined “facts” that have no basis in reality! Give guide dogs and the blind people who partner with them a break, and vent your anger against the actual programs and individuals whose treatment of animals represents treatment that is, in reality, unethical.
Jan 13 2009, 12:22 AM