Perspective of a Guide Dog User

Blindness is certainly no walk in the park. Ask any totally blind person and I'm sure they'd agree. However, as with all things in life, even this has its bright spots. In my particular situation, one of the brightest is a 70-pound female golden retriever named Nomi.

I received Nomi, my fourth guide dog, in August of 1995 after spending two weeks in Portland, OR. At the age of one-and-a-half years, she had undergone 6 months of rigorous training at Guide Dogs For the Blind. I was taken with her immediately, delighted with her crazy personality and excellent work.

People rarely understand how guide dogs actually function. Indeed, most tend to elevate these creatures to God-like proportions. Many people honestly believe Nomi helps me color-coordinate my clothes, while others would swear she is fully capable of reading the English language. Trust me, if guide dogs could read, I would have spent much less time in men's restrooms throughout the past 23 years.

Another deeply held and equally erroneous idea is that Nomi knows I can't see. The truth remains that Nomi understands blindness about as well as an ordinary family pet understands nuclear fusion. In other words, she doesn't. The bottom line is this; Nomi is just a dog, extremely well trained and well behaved, but a dog all the same.

Guide dogs work off a given set of verbal commands. Whereas a family pet might respond to such generic directives as roll over, fetch, play dead or the like, these working dogs respond to forward, halt, right, left and straight. If I give Nomi the forward command, she will walk in a straight line virtually forever; that is, unless she encounters an obstacle such as a flight of stairs or a curb. At that point she will simply stop, then wait for me to assess the situation and give her a new command.

Right and left mean exactly that to a working dog. These commands are usually given in conjunction with specific hand signals and body positioning. Whereas halt can be requested anytime, straight is only used while crossing a street. In effect, it tells Nomi to go directly to the opposite curb and is only used when I feel she is straying one way or another in the crosswalk. Because dogs are color blind and therefore cannot read traffic lights, it is incumbent upon me to listen intently to passing cars, then determine when it is safe for the two of us to step into a street.

Though literal commands are obviously critical to guide work, far more important is a dog's basic loving and loyal disposition. More than anything in the world, Nomi genuinely wants to please me. She tries hard to anticipate where I want to go, in hopes that I will tell her she's a good dog. That's the extraordinary thing about dogs in general and guide dogs specifically - all they really want from us is praise and affection. Certainly monkeys, mice, even chickens can be trained to demonstrate a variety of behaviors, but only if a tangible reward, such as food, is utilized. To the best of my knowledge, dogs are the only animal on earth that can be trained using love as the exclusive reinforcement.

Success for us is predicated on teamwork. She must listen to the tone of my voice, then respond to commands, while I must follow her lead and remain attuned to the nonverbal cues she often provides. Because of this intense teamwork, people should never talk to or otherwise distract a guide dog while it's working. In addition, pet owners need to keep their animals away from a working dog. It breaks my heart when unleashed dogs distract Nomi, because my only recourse is to correct her, which is terribly unfair. Though less is best while a dog is working, I never mind people petting Nomi while she's off-duty, believing she deserves all the additional strokes she can get.

With Nomi at my side, I can go anywhere, do anything. Because of her, the world is a little less daunting, a little less frightening and a great deal brighter.