Sophie Goes to the Zoo!
To fight the winter doldrums, my husband and I decided to go to the zoo. The weather was a sunny 77 degrees in Atlanta and we were hoping the animals would be out soaking up the sunshine. We had not been to the zoo since our children were young! I was excited to go as it would be a good opportunity to expose Sophie, my guide dog, to a new environment. I think it is important to continually provide her with new experiences and chances to hone her skills as a guide. Not knowing how she would do, I had a bit of concern too about the outing. I decided to use her Gentle Leader to help her contain her excitement and stay focused, which turned out to be a good idea.
We joined the sea of people who had the same idea at the Atlanta Zoo. When in public with Sophie, I often hear people say to their children “We can’t pet the dog, it is in training” or people ask me, “Are you training her?” The answer is “yes” and “no”. Yes, a guide dog handler is always training their dog as a way of keeping them focused and performing well. Just like us, they are always learning new things and tweaking the dance they do with their partner. And no; she is a graduated guide dog and I am using her as a visually impaired person. I like to believe people think she is still “in-training” because I appear to move with ease and grace and seem to be a good “trainer”! Ha! After-all, I don’t “look blind”. But maybe they ask that because sometimes Sophie pulls an occasional “naughty dog” trick which seems unbecoming of a professional guide dog! (She did sniff out a plate of discarded French fries under a bench, but I caught her just in time!). The truth is probably both. But don’t be too quick to judge please! There are a few basic things about blind people and their guide dogs to understand:
1. Guide dogs are dogs, not machines. They have good days and bad days just like all of us.
2. They have already proven themselves to be up for the job by surviving a rigorous program of professional preparation. Have respect for their training.
3. Sometimes, a guide dog’s behavior is about being in a totally new situation or environment and they need instruction from their handler, who also may be in a new environment, having their own difficulties.
4. It is not always easy to “handle” a guide dog. It takes a lot of time, practice and patience to become a smooth working team. You may not realize the team is new and still getting used to each other.
5. Guide dogs are amazing creatures and learn to follow a series of commands. The handler is responsible for giving the commands clearly and the dog is responsible for carrying them out safely.
6. Many people who use guide dogs have some vision. There are “degrees” of blindness; we fall on a spectrum somewhere between 20/200 or “legal blindness” and “no light perception” at all. Many of us are going blind gradually. We may not “look blind” but we are not “faking it”. Why would we??
7. Though we love our dogs and enjoy many benefits of having them, they are first and foremost a tool of mobility to us.
8. The working team deserves respect; treat us with dignity. Ask for permission to interact with the dog. Talk to the person, not the dog.
9. It is best that you fight the urge to pet and interact with our guide dogs when they are in harness. Don’t pet and then excuse yourself by saying “Oh I just couldn’t help myself, she is so beautiful!”
10. Guide dogs do not do tricks. Sophie is a professional guide dog, not a circus animal. Her greatest “trick” is always evident – guiding me safely in a world full of obstacles and dangers.
Our day at the zoo was delightful! In spite of the crowd, Sophie was on her game. She weaved me through people gracefully and “followed” when I asked her to. She pulled at an eager pace and seemed intrigued by the animals. The tiger was especially interested in her and paced frantically at the fence. It made me nervous so we moved on. All the monkeys gathered on their platform to come see the “pretty dog”, squealing with delight. I enjoyed the sun on my face, the variety of smells and exotic sounds, and the occasional glimpses of the animals I was able to squeeze out of my vision. My husband patiently narrated scenes like the playful antics of the baby gorillas. Despite the many distractions, Sophie handled the challenge and excitement of our adventure like a pro. A good time was had by all! So get out of the house and do something new. It is good for the soul!