Since being matched with my guide dog, Frances, in September I have received countless emails asking me questions relating to my overall experience. While I’ve posted an extensive video diary on YouTube chronicling my Home Training with Guiding Eyes for the Blind; I thought it would be helpful to provide a blog answering some of the most commonly emailed questions, most of which relate to the application process. It’s important to note that every guide dog school (no matter where you apply) has its own set of rules and regulations with regards to potential candidates. My advice; do your homework. Research each school’s website and feel free to call the school directly for clarification on any concerns you may have. In addition, if you are a blind or visually impaired parent, consider the age and development of your children as you contemplate a future with a guide dog. Most schools will have an abundance of experience working with families of young children. Don’t be afraid to take every advantage of their expertise.
Guide Dog Applications – The FAQ’s
1.Do you have to be totally blind to apply for a guide dog?
No, but your remaining vision needs to be evaluated to see if you are an appropriate candidate. People with some vision need to be able to resist guiding the dog and must let the dog be responsible for your safety. Each person is evaluated on an individual basis when considering admission and your current visual acuity is considered.
- How old do you have to be to have a guide dog?
I’ve researched schools all over the country and the youngest age appears to be 16 years old. Guide dog organizations look for a certain level or maturity when it comes to being matched with a dog. If you’re Sweet Sixteen, legally blind, have the ability to travel independently with a white cane, and are ready and willing to accept the responsibilities of caring for a guide dog, you can apply.
- How long is the average wait for a class date?
The time for placement within a class varies by school, however the average wait from the time you submit your application until you get into a class is anywhere from three to six months. Home training options may take longer with the wait being anywhere from six months to a year in some cases.
- Do you have to live in the same state as the guide dog school you are applying to?
Not necessarily. Some schools require you to be a resident in a certain mile radius in order to receive one of their dogs. Other schools, are completely open to students coming from anywhere in the United States and Canada.
- I’ve never owned a dog before. Am I still a good candidate?
You most certainly are! Trainings with these schools prepare you for everything you need to know, from simple health care to grooming, feeding, exercising, and working your dog.
- Is it okay if you have other pets at home?
Absolutely! Many dogs are raised in households with cats, dogs and other pets. It is also not uncommon for prior graduates to have other pets, including but not limited to, retired guide dogs, other dogs, cats, ferrets, and birds. Guide dogs are adaptable to households of all kinds. If you are concerned that your current pet(s) may not get along with a guide dog, a representative from the school may be able to advise you during an in-home interview.
- I have kids. How does that effect my potential for getting a dog?
Well, I have two toddlers and I have a guide dog! Schools will absolutely place dogs with blind parents. The key is finding the right dog to meet the blind individual’s needs and the needs of the family as a whole. Frances, was raised by people who integrated her with young children. She loves kids and she is amazingly patient (even when my two-year-old attempts to sit on her like a pony)! The school you choose will work with you to determine the right match and temperament needed for your guide dog, especially if you have children.
- I’m pregnant and blind. Can I apply for a dog?
You can absolutely apply, but pregnancy will slow down the application process. Guide dog schools need to see how fast you normally walk, and let’s face it, pregnant people are not exactly marathon runners. At least I wasn’t. We waddle and you tend to move a lot slower when you’re growing a human being. Additionally, I found the bigger my belly got, the more my center of gravity was thrown off during both my pregnancies. It was not a good time for anyone to watch me walk anyplace. And if I’m being totally honest here, the only place I did want to walk on a daily basis was from my couch to the refrigerator so I could stuff my face. My advice, get your paperwork in and communicate with school. They will help configure a time frame that will work for you.
- I have a newborn. Should I get my “first” guide dog?
I wouldn’t. There’s this thing called sleep. It becomes rather evasive when a newborn enters your household. Believe or not guide dog training is quite exhausting, both mentally and physically. If it’s your first child, I would recommend giving yourself time to adjust to parenthood. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Find your mommy or daddy groove and then think about getting a guide dog.
- What breeds are most commonly used as guide dogs?
The vast majority of guide dogs are Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds. However, some schools also train Standard Poodles and Golden Retrievers.
- Can I request a specific breed, size, color or sex for my guide dog?
It doesn’t hurt to ask! Most schools will consider client requests. I have always loved German Shepherds and truly had my heart set on that breed for my guide dog. However, once I became a mom and had two toddlers to consider, it became more important to me to have a dog that could tolerate my kids, not touch their toys and deal with the chaos in my house. I trusted Guiding Eyes to choose the right dog for me based on the collective needs of my family – not just me alone.
- Is It difficult to learn how to use a guide dog?
As someone who just finished Home Training with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, I can tell you, there were some challenging moments. Overall, the experience was both informative and exciting. Careful consideration is taken to match each blind individual with their dog and the right match is key in creating a mutually beneficial, supportive learning environment. These schools have a large number of dogs to select from and the trainers know the in’s and out’s of all their personalities. Schools consider your gait, your strength, and the environment you want to work your dog in. Staff will work with you every step of the way. No worries!
- Do you need Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training in order to apply?
Again, that depends on your school. Some schools only recommend O&M training while others require formal completion. That means your Orientation & Mobility (O&M) instructor will have to sign off on your official application, essentially vouching for your skills.
- My partner or spouse isn’t too keen on the idea of having a dog in the house.
Your partner or spouse needs to be one board before you bring any living creature into your home, that includes a guide dog. Yes, you may be the person who is utilizing the dog, but you also share a residence with your partner. If they have communicated they are not open to having a guide dog included in your life together, then you should privately continue the conversation, perhaps seeking mediation or couple’s counseling to explore the matter further.
- My extended family doesn’t think I need a guide dog.
Family-shamily. Look, you’re the person living with a visual impairment. If you think having a dog will make your life happier and more independent; go for it. As long as the people you live with, like your partner and children (#See #14) are on board, then who gives a flying fig what extended family has to say. Find your own voice and do what’s best for you! At the completion of my home training, Guiding Eyes provided me with a sample letter that I could send to family announcing the dog and explaining the benefits of having it. I chose not to send it. My feeling was the people who meant the most to me were a part of this transitional journey. Everyone else could either get behind me or go pound salt. Just sayin’.
- Is there a graduation ceremony?
This causes a bit of a debate amongst schools. Some organizations have policies strictly prohibiting graduation ceremonies. The reason, these schools believe it draws unnecessary attention to the blind individual and the dog during a pivotal point of transition. However, other schools make graduation a big part of the guide dog journey, as with Guiding Eyes. Don’t be surprised if there are official ceremonies, complete with graduation pictures and a diploma.
- Will I ever meet the person or people who raised my dog from puppy (the puppy raiser)?
That also depends on the school’s philosophy. Some guide dog organizations do not facilitate direct communication between graduates and their dog’s puppy raisers. These schools may prefer to act as an intermediary between both parties. This means you may be able to send a letter or photo to your puppy raiser as long as you do not provide your contact information and allow the school to send it directly to the family.
Other guide dog organizations believe the relationship between puppy raiser and graduate is something that must be nurtured and connecting these two families is beneficial for all involved. Schools who embrace this philosophy actively provide puppy raiser contact information to newly graduated teams. It is then up to the graduate to decide how much, if any, communication they will maintain with their puppy raiser. Similar to an open adoption with children, graduates are under no obligation to maintain any significant relationship with their raiser. It is a personal choice.
My feelings on the subject; I will be forever indebted to the family who raised my dog, Frances. She is an amazing partner and member of my family. The obvious work that went into training her so that she fit some seamlessly into my life deserves many thanks. I have been in touch with my raisers and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Their love and sacrifice will never be forgotten.
- Do guide dog schools offer follow up services?
Most school continue to offer follow up services to their graduates, either by phone or in person. A lot of time, effort and money goes into training and placing these dogs. Schools want these relationships to work and you will often find they go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure both dog and handler are working well together. I am confident that if I had any problems I could reach out immediately to Guiding Eyes to rectify the issue.
- How much does a guide dog cost?
Guiding Eyes for the Blind, who provided my dog, charged absolutely nothing. Training, travel, equipment, room and board and follow-up services are all provided free of charge. Donations from individuals, corporations, foundations and service groups cover the entire cost to graduate a guide dog team. Other schools ask for a nominal fee for their dogs, usually beginning between $100 – $200 dollars. Payment installments are usually permitted for the new owner.
- What are some of the reasons a school might deny an application?
I explained in a previous blog, how one school denied my admission based on the circumstances of how I lost my vision. Their admission’s committee was not convinced my cancer would stay in remission for the foreseeable future. Other reasons a school may deny entry are lack of adequate orientation and mobility skills (O&M), and too much vision (i.e. visual dependency). Ultimately, the school has final say on who they do and do not match with one of their dogs.
Frances & I are doing great together. She has become an important part of my family and a key element in increasing my independence. If you’re interested in exploring applying for a guide dog, reach out to any of the amazing schools. With the right training, blind or visually impaired parents can absolutely integrate these wonderful animals into their families!