Additional Disabilities: When Blindness Isn’t the Only Barrier in Dog Guide Training

Black lab lying on floor looking at the camera

by Alexis Read

Editor’s note: Alexis Read shares the importance of selecting a dog guide school that will tailor training and tools to your specific abilities.

 I was born with a visual impairment and other disabilities that affected me physically and neurologically.  My visual impairment hinders both my central and peripheral vision, which causes complications with independent travel.  I am unable to see landmarks unless they are quite large, nor can I read street signs. 

Physically, I have mild cerebral palsy.  This affects my balance more than anything.  I struggle on uneven ground as well as steps with no handrails.  Repetition of new tasks, hands-on approaches to learning, and step-by-step instruction are also helpful.

Additionally, I have a spatial processing disorder.  This means that when I make turns on a route, I struggle to keep track of reference points.  For example, if my house was on my right and I made a right turn at the end of the sidewalk, I would have a hard time knowing where my house is in relation to my current position.  I didn’t have professional verification of this spatial processing issue until 2007 when the field representative conducting my second home interview for a guide dog noted it.  He reassured me that this issue and a dog were not “mutually exclusive.” 

Obstacles

In September of that year, I attended classes at the dog guide school where I had been accepted.  There were several issues tied to my multiple disabilities that were apparent from the beginning of training. 

Shortly after being matched with the dog, I was given the gentle leader.  The instructor showed me once how to put this on the dog’s face.  After the quick instruction, he left the room expecting me to independently put the gentle leader on the dog and meet him in the dining hall.  Because I need multiple repetitions to learn a task, I had a great deal of trouble putting the gentle leader on the dog.  About 20 minutes later, the instructor found me in a puddle of tears on my bed.  He gruffly put the gentle leader on the dog and expected me to pull myself together. 

Later in the week, I was struggling to put the harness on the dog.  The harness was not a simple harness.  Rather, it required buckles and other skills that I never mastered when working with an occupational therapist when I was a young child.  The instructor was always rushed when we returned from trips and continued to remove the dog’s harness for me.  He kept saying he would teach me how to do this, but he never did.  Eventually, a supervisor became involved by providing a wooden dog for me to use for practice.  Having not had step-by-step instructions, I struggled a great deal with the harness even on the wooden dog.  I only learned how to properly put on and take off the harness after having an unofficial occupational therapy consultation months later while attending graduate school. 

Self-Advocacy

Due to our dysfunctional communication, I chose to request a change in instructor, but it was extremely difficult for me to advocate for myself.  I explained to the administration all of the issues that I had experienced in great detail.  After the administrator agreed to change instructors, I realized the importance of speaking up for myself right away, no matter how intimidating it can be.  It is important for all of us to advocate for ourselves as soon as we realize there is a need.  It may be difficult, but people in administration want what’s best for us.  If we speak up politely and have a factual approach, it is likely that our request will be taken seriously.  Changing instructors was a reasonable request from me since there were several instructors available. 

Choosing a Dog Guide School

In 2013 when I realized that I wanted to research the guide dog lifestyle once more, I sought a school that had experience with individuals who have multiple disabilities.  This was my top criterion for selecting a school. 

The school I eventually selected has a specialized training program for individuals with multiple disabilities.  I had spoken to graduates from the school and was pleased with the services they offered as well as their treatment of each student as an individual.  The field representative felt that I would not need the specialized training program but could be successful in the general class program.  Having received two dogs from this school, I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment.  Although the general class program is not specifically designed for individuals with additional disabilities, the instructional staff are very knowledgeable about working with individuals who have different abilities, visual or otherwise.

A High-Quality Experience

From the first moment I arrived at that school, I was treated right.  I was given individual attention, and my needs were taken into consideration.  For example, all students were issued a slip collar.  I struggled a great deal to put this correctly on the dog.  My instructor realized what was happening, so she offered another collar to replace the slip collar.  This collar is much simpler to use, but I still managed to struggle with it.  The class supervisor intervened and helped me by using hand-under-hand instruction.  She also developed a way for me to remember the correct direction to put the collar on the dog. 

A week before my class began, I received a call from my assigned instructor.  We discussed more specifics regarding the environments I travel on a regular basis.  I expressed concern to her about ascending and descending steps with no railings.  She told me that she would work with my new dog and me on this skill during training.

During the last week of training, my instructor kept her word by working with us on steps without railings.  I learned to use the dog as a brace during this maneuver by lightly setting my hand on the dog’s shoulder.  Having this support enabled me to feel much more confident with this skill.  During the time I worked with this dog, I encountered many sets of steps with no railings.  This bracing technique enabled me to feel confident and more independent in these environments. 

Words of Wisdom

If you have multiple disabilities, selecting the right dog guide school is an important part of the decision-making process.  The school must have experience working with individuals who have varying exceptionalities in addition to blindness because each disability is unique.  Individuals who present with the same disability also may present in a unique manner. 

I’m very happy with the choice of school and both training experiences at this school.  Dog guide training is emotional, whether you have multiple disabilities or not.  If you have varying exceptionalities, please don’t make it harder on yourself by attending a training school with limited experience in these situations. 


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