by Toni and Ed Eames
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published in “Dog World” magazine. Sadly, my husband Ed, his guide dog Echo, and my guide dog Escort are no longer with me. I have just celebrated 51 years of working with guides. My current girl is Adora. She will be 8 in October.)
I sat in the cancer center lounge awaiting my first post-surgery chemotherapy treatment. In a nervous state of anticipation, I bent down frequently to caress my golden retriever guide dog Escort lying at my feet. “May I pet your dog?” asked the patient sitting on my right. Without hesitation, I invited her to gain comfort from my silky canine stress reliever. Realizing that as a guide dog partner, I had the right and privilege to have Escort with me at all times, I felt compelled to share my dog with others who could benefit from his presence.
When I trained with my first guide dog, a golden retriever named Charm, in 1967, the prevailing advice from guide dog trainers was never to allow anyone to pet a dog in harness. That view still dominates the guide dog movement to this day. For the first few months after graduation, I strictly adhered to the no petting in harness policy. However, after entering graduate school I needed to take a revisionist stand.
The theory behind the no-petting policy is that dogs will get too excited and distracted, ignoring or neglecting their work, endangering the blind partner. The harness, according to this thinking, should always be regarded as a symbol of work mode to the dog. During team training, my classmates and I were advised to remove the harness before allowing our dogs to interact with the public, giving them the off-duty signal.
Wanting Charm to be able to associate with friends, family and classmates without the hassle of removing her harness, I developed my own approach to this issue. Recognizing the fundamental problem was keeping Charm focused on her work as guide, I trained her to remain in a “sit” or “down stay” while accepting hands-on attention from others. Rather than removing the harness, I gave her the off-duty signal by dropping the handle. She was not allowed to solicit attention by pulling toward a stranger’s reaching hand, or toward a person she knew or liked. Of course, at home, where she was out of harness and functioned as any other pet dog, Charm was free to greet, play and cuddle with anyone visiting our home. Another part of the training regimen was teaching Charm not to respond to strangers calling to her by whistling, clucking or offering her food. My perceptive partner quickly learned she would receive plenty of affectionate pats only when given the off-duty signal and calmly assuming a “sit” or “down” position. When I held the harness handle in my hand and Charm was performing her role as guide, she regarded outstretched hands as obstacles to be avoided.
After completing graduate school, I was employed at a psychiatric hospital where Charm was the focus of attention from many fellow workers and patients. Her early training paid off, and she was able to enjoy an active social life without compromising her guide dog duties. Although I didn’t know it, I was an early pioneer of the therapy dog movement. Although Charm was not in harness in my office and patients could play with her there, many did not understand the prohibition of touching her while she guided me in the building and on the hospital grounds. Because of the conditioning I had done with her, Charm was not distracted by these friendly overtures.
Recognizing the value for me and my guide dogs of controlled interaction with members of the public, I subsequently trained Charm’s successors, Flicka, Ivy and Escort, to the same standard.
Unlike Toni, who could not keep her hands off any animal entering her personal space, I did not consider myself an animal lover. Therefore, when I trained with my first guide dog, a black Labrador named Perrier, in 1981, the strong admonition never to permit anyone to pet my dog in harness was not questioned by me.
All that changed one day when I was in a Center City bakery in Philadelphia buying doughnuts and muffins. Perrier was sitting quietly at my side near the counter when an elderly woman approached and asked if she could pet him. Before I could get out my usual, “No, he’s in harness and can’t be petted,” she said in an emotion-laden quivering voice near to tears, “I used to have a dog, but had to give him up when my husband died and I moved into an apartment building where they won’t allow pets.” Responding to her obvious need for a furry fix, I said, “Of course you can pet him. His name is Perrier.” Taking his cue from the exchange, Perrier calmly leaned into her hand as she petted him on the head for the next two or three minutes. Stepping up to the counter, the salesperson commented that the woman left the store all smiles. From that time on, Perrier’s guide dog role was expanded to include short-term therapy for people in need of a doggie fix!
My continued relaxation of the “no-pet” rule had unanticipated consequences. While soliciting support for a blindness-related bill in Sacramento, I breakfasted at the state capitol dining room. The day before I had walked the halls of the assembly with a friend who never allowed anyone to touch her guide dog. The committee vote was going to be very close, and we needed the support of one committee member, who was never in his office. As I put my breakfast tray on the table, I contemplated various strategies to get to this elusive politician. As soon as I sat down, a friendly voice asked if he could pet my guide dog Kirby lying under the table. Welcoming the intrusion, I invited the stranger to join me for breakfast. Shifting the conversation from our mutual love of dogs, I asked him what he was doing in the capitol. To my delight, he was the elusive politician, and, over a cup of coffee, I was able to discuss my issue with him. He was the swing vote and our bill passed, thanks to Kirby! Had the assemblyman approached my blind colleague, he would probably have felt rebuffed and the opportunity to lobby him about the bill would have been lost!
Toni and Ed Eames
Since our marriage and move to California, our careers have gone to the dogs! We lecture at veterinary schools and at veterinary conferences, and our dogs are like magnets to those folks. As we wander around the exhibit hall and hotel lobby, Escort and Echo attract lots of attention, enabling us to meet and chat with scores of people in the animal health care community.
Strolling through the mall or waiting for trains, planes and buses, we have the opportunity to speak with many people who otherwise may have avoided talking to a blind person. Children can be educated about the need to always ask before approaching a dog, how to be gentle and why our dogs are with us in public.
Even the most committed dog lover should ask before approaching a guide, hearing or service dog. Just as you would not hug a stranger, the same etiquette should be extended to working canine assistants. Many disabled people feel their dogs are an extension of their bodies and resent unsolicited attention showered on their teammates as an invasion of their personal space. Some dogs sport signs saying, “Please don’t pet me, I’m working.”
Of course, if you run into us and want to say hello to Echo and Escort, please come over and give us the opportunity to settle the dogs for a visit!