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Voice of the Leader Dog Community: Karen

A smiling woman with short blond hair holds a yellow lab in Leader Dog harness next to her. Behind them is greeneryLearning to train with my guide dog was intense, fun and satisfying. Having her in my life… a blessing.

However, being out in public with an AUTHENTIC service dog can be emotionally hurtful and draining at times.

So, when I was asked to participate in Voices of the Leader Dog Community, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I wrote my posts to be educational and to express the importance of understanding the needs of a low vision or non-visual human.

I feel the topics of understanding, compassion and etiquette are quite important. I hope you will be enlightened.

A woman wearing a floppy straw hat and a floral dress standing in front of flowering bushes, sunflowers and a wooden fence. Her left hand is holding onto the harness handle of a yellow Labrador/golden retriever cross dog. The dog’s pink tongue is slightly out, and its tail is held high.Some ideas may shock you. That is a good thing because it often creates understanding and ultimately leads to welcome change. I feel that the general public, workforces and all educational levels should be privy to the following information. However, the news does not cover this topic, nor are many articles written on the subject of etiquette for the visually impaired.

As a retired preschool owner/teacher of 20 years, I consistently taught empathy, compassion and how to care for others. I taught how to be courageous and kind. The children learned wonderful etiquette and manner skills from age 2.5 to 6.

I also taught a sensitivity training class at Whole Foods with my husband, Danny. We allowed children to experience walking with child-size walkers and wheelchairs and did a blindfold applesauce eating activity. This kind of makes me chuckle to think back to the blindfold activity, as I had no idea that my vision would be dwindling years later from radiation, chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant treatments for stage 4 cancer.

I received my Leader Dog, Shanti, in May of 2021. My life has been enlightened and lifted and enhanced ever since.

Our instructor, Kevin, brought Shanti to me as a home delivery. I was blessed to train for nine days in my hometown. He forewarned me about the public and how people could possibly be cruel. Cruel, how could anybody be cruel to this magnificent newly formed team of Shanti and me?

Well… it’s time to write about it! Because experiences are helpful and often allow us to help others.

Following are personal experiences with the intent to transform them into “teachable moments.”

Let’s dive right into a few etiquette tips when approaching a guide dog/service dog team:

I know my dog is cute, but please do not distract a working dog. Petting or asking to pet my working guide dog can distract her from her job of keeping me safe! This also happens if you make kissing sounds at her or extend your hand to her. If she looks at you with your distraction, she could miss alerting me to a hole, a curb, or potential traffic danger. This could result in a fall, injury or worse.

People with guide dogs know their dogs are cute and that ignoring them is difficult, but it is essential that people follow this rule. Remember, our dogs are working, they are not just our pets.

Please, Respectfully Announce Yourself

A visually impaired person may not have peripheral vision, nor the ability to identify who is approaching them. A common courtesy is to announce yourself to a friend who is visually impaired. This announcing technique lets a low vision/non-visual person know that you are indeed a friend and that you know them. This is comforting. For it is what we cannot see that is MOST scary to us.

lApproach with a Sound

If walking or jogging past me, please tell me, “Passing you on the right,” etc. It can be confusing to hear the noise of rustling leaves or jogging feet without knowing where the sound is coming from.

Please Don’t Yell

You don’t have to yell when speaking to me. I am low vision, NOT low hearing.

Be Courteous and Kind

If you see me struggling to open the door for myself and my guide dog, please bless me with kindness and ask “May I help?” One act of kindness goes an awfully long way.

I Sometimes Squint

Please don’t misinterpret that I’m not interested in you or what you have to say. Often, a low vision person will squint to get your face in focus. Please don’t misinterpret that to mean we are not liking what you have said or are saying.

A smiling woman wearing a black hat and green dress is standing on a sidewalk with the road on her right and red brick buildings on her left. She is holding the handle of a yellow Labrador/golden retriever cross in her left hand and a balloon in her right hand. Between the woman and the road is a street sign with “Reserved Parking” and a blue square with a white graphic of a person in a wheelchair.I Might Not Wave Back

Please don’t assume that I see you waving at me. I only have 5° of vision and if you are not in my visual field, then I am not seeing you. A friend recently told my husband “I waved at Karen and she didn’t wave back. Is she mad at me?” That was deeply hurtful as I would not have intentionally ignored her wave. Please understand that.

Offer Context of How You Know Me

You can lovingly help by saying, “It’s Freda, I often assist you to find your food at Food Lion.”

Be Patient

If we don’t get out of your way quick enough, please wait patiently. Take a deep breath and understand that there are two of us traveling together with the goal of being safe. We must not be hurried or rushed. I have a disability, which may mean I have a harder time getting things done. Our lives have many struggles. Please be patient and understanding. It is not easy!

Hopscotch – NOT!

A white cane is not for jumping over. If you see someone out with a white, red tip cane, please don’t JUMP OVER the cane. I know that nothing can be so important to endanger a person who needs a cane to feel and “see” their surroundings and dangerous terrain. Please be courteous and just wait a second.

The back of a woman wearing a straw hat and tan shirt sitting in the front passenger seat of a car. Sitting on the floor facing the woman is a yellow dog. The woman has her hands behind the dog’s ears as if rubbing them.Whoa, Nelly

Please reduce your speed when passing us on the street. Many low vision/non-visual people remember how much fun it was to drive a car. Putting that shiny metal key in the ignition and hearing the motor purr, driving yourself to wherever you wish to go. Driving was such a luxury! When you slow down while passing a guide dog team, it helps us to know that you see us. It feels safer while traveling solo. Also, no yelling out the window please, that is startling beyond belief! Remember… it is what we don’t see that is most alarming!

Loading and Unloading

Working dog procedures take more time to re-load my guide dog and myself into a car as I like to wipe my guide dog’s paws down to remove any dirt, grime or pebbles in or on her paws. Then the harness is removed and finally the gentle leader around her nose. We then encourage a jump into the car, however sometimes it’s not as quick as you may expect for this procedure to happen.

No Beep-Beeps

Please do not disrespect my disability by rushing us. Be courteous and do not beep your horn at us or hurry us.

Be Kind

Think before you speak. Remember what your mama said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, please do not say anything at all.” Low vision/non-visual people are confronted with negativity more than we care to share. Please treat us as you would a family member without belittling or making fun of our diss-ability.

I See You Differently

Vision loss is not a “one-size-fits-all.” Everyone has different causes and variability of low vision or no vision. Please think of something better to say besides, “You don’t look blind.” The interpretations of that statement flounders around in our minds. “Do they think we’re faking? Do they not believe we need help? Why would somebody go to all this trouble if it was not deemed necessary?”

A man and a woman, both smiling toward the camera, are seated at a large round table in a hall. There are people in the background seated at their table and other tables. The man is wearing a baseball cap and cream-colored fleece jacket. The woman is wearing a floppy hat, black shirt and pants, orange jacket and a lei around her neck. At their feet is a yellow dog lying on the floor.We All Belong

If you see us inside a store, please RESPECT the fact that we are LEGALLY permitted to be there together as a guide dog team. Be kind and please keep your sarcastic, deeply hurtful opinions and comments to yourself. It was hard work to organize everything to get to the store, to get a ride out, and to function in public. Please don’t take the wind out of our sails. Our guide dogs help us to be independent. Please support us in this goal!

No Pointing Please

If you are helping me to locate an item, please don’t point and say, “It’s over a there.” Remember, I can’t see! Loss of depth of field makes it difficult to locate items by ourselves or even see which direction you are pointing. Shopping can be made much easier by store clerks walking alongside of us and assisting to locate items we need. The sales will be higher, and the frustrations will be lower.

We Need Each Other

Even though our cane and Leader Dog training assists us to independence, please DO stop to talk with us and say hello. It is important to feel acknowledged.

Remember that low vision/non-visual people still yearn to have fun and be a part of parties, events and activities with family and friends. We also enjoy occasional phone calls that can make a lonely person feel connected.

Harness Time

If you are walking your dog near me, please just quietly pass by. My dog is in harness and working, so cannot stop to sniff and play.

A woman is sitting on a loveseat on a patio. She is wearing a green t-shirt, jean capri’s and had white glasses hanging from a cord around her neck. A yellow dog is lying on the loveseat next to the woman with its head on her lap. The dog appears to be asleep.Leash-up

Keeping your dog leashed around a guide dog is an absolute necessity! A dog attack most likely would physically and emotionally damage both me and my dog and could end my dogs’ guiding career due to trauma from another dog.

Playtime

When the harness comes off, it is playtime! No need to wonder if guide dogs get to play. We work hard to balance work and play, and it is very important that our guide dogs get work time, downtime and playtime each day.

I am being authentic, raw and real to share what needs to be said: “Just be KIND to anyone with a dis-ability.” Be kind and respectful to everyone, just as you would like to be treated.

Thank you for reading this and understanding more about the difficulties of being low vision or non-visual and for “opening the eyes of your heart.”

Find out more about our Voices of the LDB Community initiative.

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