Is a Guide Dog Right for You?

If you've lost your vision due to a condition like diabetic retinopathy, one of these highly trained service animals can give you a new level of independence.

by Renée Bacher Health Writer

Beth Finke, 60, never really liked dogs. In fact, she was somewhat afraid of them until she got her first a Seeing Eye dog 34 years ago, when diabetic retinopathy had left her blind.

"I had no idea what was involved in taking care of a dog," says Finke, author of Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors. "We never had any animals while I was growing up, and it seemed like a lot of extra work, so the idea of a guide dog never appealed to me."

But Finke had two problems navigating a Chicago sidewalk in one month, and both deposited her in the middle of a busy road. The first time, a driveway got her turned around, and the second time, an insulin reaction left her confused. Each incident could have ended tragically.

"My fear of dogs suddenly diminished, especially when compared to my fear of ending up on someone's car hood," she says. "If a guide dog could make me safer, more at ease on the streets, and more mobile in general, I thought I should explore that option."

Who Should Consider a Guide Dog

A Seeing Eye dog (this name is used only for dogs trained at Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ) or a guide dog isn't a good choice for every person who is blind. "First and foremost, the person must be willing and able to care for the dog and meet all of its needs," says Seeing Eye spokesperson Michelle Barlak. "It's the bond between the owner and dog that fuels the partnership, so it’s very important that the owner is fully on board."

In fact, Finke's lukewarm feelings for the animals were an obstacle when she applied for her first guide dog from a school in California. "Guide-dog schools interview you before you can train with one," she says. "During my interviews, I was candid about my ambivalence about dogs, and this concerned the school in California enough that they were reluctant to have me come."

But when another unsure candidate backed out of training at The Seeing Eye, where Finke had also applied, the school called her and asked if she could come the following week. "That was perfect for me, because with only one week to prepare to leave for New Jersey, I didn't have enough time to get anxious. I couldn't overthink it and change my mind," says Finke.

Ambivalence wasn't an obstacle for Pete Berg, 52, of Naperville, IL, who began losing his vision to diabetic retinopathy in 1993 when he was 25 years old. Instead, the demands of fatherhood took priority. "Training was four weeks, and I had young children at the time," he says.

Now that his kids are grown, Berg decided this year to get a dog to become more efficient in his travel. "I'm a good traveler with my cane but thought having a dog would make me even better," says Berg.

Berg researched organizations online and spoke with many guide-dog users, asking about their training experiences, the level of support the orgs provided afterward, and just what life was like with a guide dog in general.

Ultimately, he chose Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA, and graduated with an 18-month-old black Lab, Lloyd, last August. While the training was mentally and physically exhausting, Berg says, he loves having a guide dog and would do it all over again. "I was a confident cane user, but Lloyd has increased my confidence," says Berg. "I am out traveling and walking more than I ever have since losing my vision."

That active daily routine is essential when you have guide dog. "Much like a person will forget a language they have learned without regular practice, a dog will forget its training if not in a situation where that training is regularly applied," Barlak says.

Also important: The handler should already have independent travel skills, as those are necessary for providing the dog with direction to the intended destination. "Many people are under the impression that the dog is like a GPS. However, it is up to the person to know where they are going and provide directions to the dog. The dog's job is to make sure they arrive safely," Barlak says.

How Much Does Training a Guide Dog Cost?

While some organizations say the cost to train each dog can be as high as $50,000, Seeing Eye, which is supported by donations, charges a symbolic tuition of $150 for their constituents' first Seeing Eye dog, $50 for subsequent dogs, and $1 if they are a veteran of the military.

This is considered the person’s investment into the working partnership with their dog, and while it covers a fraction of the actual total cost, it covers all of the dog's equipment, travel costs for their staff to visit the person's home and perform an evaluation, the cost for the applicant to travel to The Seeing Eye and stay for 18 to 25 days, all the initial training they receive in the care and use of their dog, and follow-up services for the lifetime of the partnership.

Typically, the youngest applicants accepted are 16 years old (and many come the summer before leaving for college), but the organization doesn't have strict cut-offs and there have been exceptions. There is no upper age limit for applicants, but instead the organization evaluates individuals on need, physical stamina, and their ability to learn.

Like Seeing Eye, Guide Dogs for the Blind, where Pete Berg got his, is also supported entirely by donations and provides high-quality student training and extensive follow-up support for graduates.

The Surprising Benefits of Having a Guide Dog

For Finke, one of the biggest benefits to having a dog is holding a harness rather than the handle of a cane, which she says gives her a feeling of dignity. When she travels with Whitney, her fourth Seeing Eye dog, she says she knows people are looking at the dog, rather than staring at her, which makes her feel better about herself. And while sometimes her dogs have made mistakes, she says, "I feel less embarrassed about mistakes and suffer far less paranoia that people are looking at me all the time." She adds, "And because you always have a dog at your side to talk to, you don't feel so alone."

Berg says thanks to Lloyd, he does a lot more walking and finds his travel to be quicker and more efficient. "A cane helps you find obstructions and a guide dog works you around them," he says. And Lloyd works him around a lot of obstructions as they travel into and out of Chicago's Union Station twice a day, which is teeming with people walking in every direction. "It takes a dog with a certain temperament to handle that type of situation," says Berg. "Lloyd handles it all in stride."

While neither Lloyd nor Whitney are diabetic alert dogs, which are dogs trained to notice the smell a diabetic gives off when blood glucose is too high or low, Berg says having a guide dog has been a benefit to his health and is keeping his diabetes under control: Due to his increased walking, he has lost weight and his A1C, the blood test used to determine the level of blood-sugar control, was the best it has been in years.

Berg also loves Lloyd’s companionship and natural goofiness when the dog is off the clock. Says Berg, "It is wonderful having a dog that works as hard as he does and then in the evening likes to play like a pup."

Where to Find a Guide Dog

Guide Dogs of America Sylmar, California
818-362-5834
Mail@guidedogsofamerica.org

The Seeing Eye Morristown, New Jersey
973-539-4425
Info@SeeingEye.org

Guide Dogs for the Blind San Rafael, California campus
415-499-4000
Boring, Oregon campus
503-668-2100

Renée Bacher
Meet Our Writer
Renée Bacher

Renée Bacher has written about her brief stint as a helicopter mom for The New York Times; penned dozens of stories about cognition and the brain for AARP, and covered everything you wanted to know about health for WebMD. Renée also writes profiles of physicians with interesting hobbies for MedPage Today, and covers new research for medical trade publications that include The Rheumatologist and ENTtoday. A wife and mother of three, Renée lives in Louisiana where she has fostered more than 100 shelter dogs and occasionally blogs about it at dogbydog.com.