The rules of respect with guide dogs on campus

BY MELISSA CARNEY '19

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Melissa. You may, however, know my guide dog, Aron. You may have seen him trotting across campus or dressed as a lion at Convocation. 

I received Aron this past summer from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. This was one of the best decisions of my life. There are a few rules I need to lay down about Aron, and I thought I would publish them for the entire campus so that I don’t have to repeat them over and over again to every single person. 

I should have been clearer about proper behavior around a guide dog from the start, but I tried to educate people separately and forgot what I told which people. I want you all to know that if you have made any of the following mistakes, it’s not your fault, because you didn’t know, but please be aware of them from now on. If you forget, I won’t be mad at you, I’ll just remind you. These rules apply to everyone, whether you are a good friend, family member, student on the MHC campus or just a random person I pass by.

The bond between a blind handler and a guide dog is essential to the success of the team. It is my job, as the handler, to maintain and monitor that bond. Aron and I have a strong connection, but I have reason to think that it could be damaged if I don’t set a few boundaries. I have to be the most important human in Aron’s life, for obvious reasons, including safety reasons. The bond translates directly into our work together. With that in mind, please try to respect these rules:

Please don’t talk to Aron while he’s in harness, or say his name. You can talk about him to me, or say his name out loud to me, but don’t speak directly to him. If you talk to him, you will distract him from his work. This could result in a minor issue, such as a wrong turn, or much more severe consequences. Aron could potentially blow by a curb into the street, and fail to notice the car sneaking up on us. 

This isn’t meant to scare you, but it is a reality. Even if he is heeling beside me on leash and I am not actually holding his harness handle, please don’t talk to him. He is still on duty, and needs to be on his best behavior.

Please don’t make eye contact with Aron while he’s in harness. This will also distract him from his work. Eye contact is not something I can give Aron, for obvious reasons, so if someone else gives that to him, he will latch onto it. This could harm the bond.

Keep your dogs on-leash and controlled. No, it’s not “cute” to let your dog play with mine. He’s working, and your dog is a huge distraction and annoyance. I love dogs, but not when they run up on Aron’s heels. I can’t stand oblivious owners. Also, if your dog is known to be aggressive towards other dogs, keep them FAR AWAY from Aron. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard about attacks on guide dogs. I don’t want Aron to be hurt, or your dog for that matter, because I will do everything in my power to protect my boy. Also, I don’t think you’d want to deal with a lawsuit, which is completely within my rights to file if you put the life of my guide dog in danger.

Please do not, under any circumstances, give Aron any commands in harness, even if it is just basic obedience. This is my job, and he ALWAYS needs to look to the handler, and only the handler. If you give him commands, he may follow your instructions, which is detrimental to our work and the bond itself. Please don’t give Aron commands off-harness, unless I say otherwise. He still needs to look to me as the authoritative figure. I am the person who enforces obedience.

When you walk into my dorm room, or other living spaces, please do not become overly excited to see Aron. Yes, I know he’s adorable, but you need to remain calm and collected. He will absorb and pick up on your energy right away, and become crazy and excitable as well. If he gets a “party” every time you walk in, he will remember and act the same way in harness when he sees you. He will be distracted and hyper.  

However, if you calmly walk in, and acknowledge him only when he has settled down, his reactions to you will become more casual and less dramatic. If he associates you with excitement and gratification, he will gravitate towards you for affection, rather than me. All in all, be careful of the amount of attention you give him.

Please limit your playtime with Aron, for now at least. Since our bond is relatively new, he needs to look to me for rewarding experiences more than anyone else. I’m his handler, but I’m also his best friend. If other people start to play with him excessively, he will naturally gravitate towards them because he deems them as more “fun.” He will lose interest in me. He will want to play with everyone, and while a little here and there is fine (especially because I’m usually swamped with homework and can’t play with him as much as I’d like to), be cautious.

Never correct him for something he did wrong, unless it is an absolute emergency. That is my job. Not only does it irritate me when other people verbally discipline him, but you’re also taking over my voice, and my authority as handler. He needs to be corrected by the same person who praises him. This is my responsibility.

Please keep your cigarettes and your weed away from Aron and me. Not only am I at high-risk for cancer, because I’ve had it before, but the smoke is dangerous and toxic for Aron as well. 

Please do not feed Aron. Over the course of six rigorous months, he is given food rewards, usually in the form of low-calorie treats, to reinforce the completion of specific commands. These food rewards continue beyond training. The handler usually carries a treat pouch with them. For example, if I tell Aron, “To the curb,” or, “To the steps,” I give him a treat after he has indicated the curb or stairs. The treats I give him serve a purpose. The handler is the only person who can reward him with food. If you ever want to give me something to give to him, that is completely fine, as long as I am the one to physically feed it to him.

 Do not pet or flirt with Aron while he is in harness. I can’t say this enough. If it isn’t clear already, Aron has a very important job. He cannot be distracted. He is a guide dog, not a pet. If you give him as much attention as a pet, he could lose focus because Labradors are social and friendly animals by nature. 

If you want to ask permission, or are confused about whether or not he is working, then please don’t hesitate to ask me, but don’t assume and just start petting him. If he tries to get your attention, or gives you those puppy-dog eyes, resist the urge to pet him, no matter how hard that might be. He doesn’t know that he can’t be pet in harness, but you are smart enough to know that now.

 Please be understanding if I accidentally brush by you. Aron and I are very fast, and while he does his best to avoid people in large crowds, he may not be able to clear every single person. He has a lot on his plate, and he’s a very dedicated worker, so forgive him. If you have any questions, or need any clarification, please feel free to reach out to me. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this.

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