A New World with My Guide Dog Atlas

I don’t really remember my life without a white cane in my hand.  I do however remember various episodes and experiences that brought me to a life-changing experience of deciding to become a guide dog user.

Process of Becoming a Guide Dog User

The process to becoming a guide dog user is long with many steps.  First, it takes some research to find the best training facility because there are a dozen credible non-profit organizations throughout the U.S.  Next, I had to select a school and fill out an application and medical documentation.  For the final step, they sent a field representative to my location to conduct an interview and make a video of my Orientation and Mobility skills.   The video is used to evaluate the applicant in action with the use of the white cane.  I did get accepted to the school that I was hoping to attend.  

The whole process took 6 to 8 months and was very intense because the school wants to make thoroughly sure that the applicant will be a good candidate for a dog.   I had to leave home for three weeks to be paired with a dog, form a bond, and begin to learn how to work with a dog.  Imagine almost every morning around 6 a.m. feeling a cold nose poking your face saying, “It’s time to get up!”  In my case, this cold nose was my guide dog Atlas, who is a 3-year-old black Labrador Retriever.  

boy with glasses in blue shirt wearing a backpack standing next to black guide dogDedication and Communication

I would define working with a dog in one word: dedication.  This is true for both the dog and the handler.  I truly believe it is a life-changing experience to work with a furry living creature, rather than a white cane.  A well-trained dog can tell a blind handler so much more about the environment than a long stick.  It is important for the handler to be able to develop an effective communication system with the dog to have success.  It is not always easy, but it is the most rewarding experience.    

Most people understand and value the absolute love between dog and man.  The first step in getting a guide dog is to establish the natural love between the dog and the person.  For a guide dog team, forming that loyalty and trust is critical in maintaining a positive experience together.  As I mentioned, I was away for three weeks of training and was then approved to come home with Atlas.  The training that we had did not stop at the school, but rather it continues every day and everywhere.  It does not mean that the school hovers over us.  It means simply that we are encountering new experiences and are learning together. 

Common Misconceptions about Guide Dogs

There are four big misconceptions about guide dogs:boy wearing hat and red shirt walking black guide dog

  1. The dog is always in harness.  There is no reason to have a guide dog work 24/7, as that would be overwhelmingly demanding.  Once Atlas and I are home, the first thing I do is unclip his harness and that tells him he is on his well-deserved break.  A break is a necessary part of a working dog’s routine, as this allows it to act like a typical dog playing, interacting with others, and burning off stress.
  2. A guide dog and handler do not need special training together.  The role of training is needed to create and maintain a good structure for both the dog and the handler.  If the handler does not try to make an effort to promote good behavior, it can lead to bad habits that are not acceptable in public areas.  
  3. It’s okay to pat and play with a guide dog.   The policy of interacting with any service dog is always to ask before you do anything.  The reason behind this is that if you bother a working dog, you are posing a distraction to the dog’s training, which can be harmful.  It is best to ask the handler, as the response will depend on the situation.  
  4. The guide dog knows where to go without being told.   Many people think that a guide dog is like a GPS, where you just  tell it an address and it will lead the person there. The handler must know the route and tell the dog each part of it as they travel.  The guide dog’s job is to help the handler to avoid obstacles and to travel safely on a route that is known to the handler. While the dog and the handler work together, the handler is the one in control.

Overall, the love of a dog is incredible and their ability to provide a service to society earns them the title of being not just “Man’s best friend”, but also a skilled member of our world.  

guide dog collage

Total Life Learning by Wendy Bridgeo,‎ Beth Caruso,‎ & Mary Zatta

Cover of Total Life Learning

The Total Life Learning curriculum was developed for students ages 3 to 22 who are blind, visually impaired including those students who have additional disabilities or are deafblind. The focus is on the development of life and career goals that enable student to maximize independence, self-determination, employability, and participation in the community.