Last year, I interviewed Laura Lautaret, who works at the Disability Resource Center (DRC) at the University of Minnesota. Laura is blind and uses a guide dog. She works with students who are blind or visually impaired daily to support them in using assistive technologies. We had a really nice conversation about guide dogs, which I’m excited to share with you as the first in my new series of interview blog posts.
Why choose a guide dog?
Roqayah: Were you born blind?
Laura: Yes. I was born 3 months premature. Doctors said I would be blind within 6 months, and I was.
R: When did you start using the guide dog?
L: They wanted me to do white cane training. I got O&M [orientation and mobility] training and used a white cane until I was 14. I met my first guide dog when I was 7. One of my parents became a teacher just to help me and one became very interested in assistive technology. At the assistive technology conference that we went to downtown, we saw a woman with a guide dog, and she showed me how to use it. I like dogs, and I like that my dog is a bigger dog.
R: What kind of dog do you use?
L: Part lab, part golden retriever. Seamus is very perceptive and very confident in what he does. When I was going through high school, I always knew I really wanted to get a guide dog. My O&M instructor said I should do a year of college with a white cane first and then apply for a guide dog.
R: Why did she say that?
L: Because the campus was very big, and I could only give the dog a few commands. Things like “hop up” can mean many different things depending on the context. “Steady” is a command which means slow down. But the dog doesn’t know where I need him to go. I have to know where I’m going. That’s why I need such good orientation skills. The dog is an obstacle avoider; the cane is an obstacle finder. Dogs can avoid obstacles and they can guide you around them by pulling. That’s why I did a year of college first so I could get used to the campus. I got my first guide dog at age 20, after my first year of college. So that’s why I have used guide dogs and will keep using them as long as I can. I love the relationship between dogs and humans because we basically made them.
What is it like to use a guide dog on a regular basis?
R: When you use your dog to go to work, does it affect your schedule?
L: Yes, I have to include time to relieve him, so when we come into work, I relieve him. He goes out again at about 10:30 and 2, and then again when I get home and before bed. My work schedule allows me to feed him at home, but when I was a student and had night classes, I would bring a little collapsible bowl and some food, and I would put a little water in it. I have also done that at meetings sometimes. When you have a dog, you have to think about those things. When you travel, where is a good relieving area? So yes, it definitely does affect my work day.
How do other people interact with a guide dog and user?
R: How do students perceive Seamus?
L: Most of them love him. When I lived in the dorms, many would start crying because they missed their pets. Some students are afraid of him, so I have a soft kennel that I put him in if they are afraid; he has toys in there. I will also put him in the kennel if there are just a lot of people in here.
R: What about your coworkers?
L: They just come into my office and ask to pet him. They love him. The thing you have to remember when you get a new dog is that you have to be very different with the new dog — not let people touch him, pet him, or interact with him a lot — for about 6 months. He has to know that you’re the person to listen to; you have to form that bond. When I came back to work after getting Seamus, I had to tell co-workers not to pet him. I have coworkers that will come in here for an hour just to hang out with him and pet him.
But I was in this job club before, when I was trying to get a job, and this one person in the club would make lots of noises at the dog, like little kiss noises to distract him.
[Laura demonstrates the kiss noises, and it immediately gets Seamus’s attention. He was laying down sleeping but suddenly wakes up and stands up to look at her.]
One of my friends had a German shepherd, and she was waiting to cross the street. Someone across the street was bouncing a tennis ball, and the dog jumped into the street to try to get the tennis ball. In that situation, I would rather use a white cane that is not trying to kill me! That really destroys relationships, because if you can’t trust your dog then you’re done.
R: What about new people or when you’re out in public?
L: People make a lot of assumptions. Like if I’m sitting down waiting in a doctor’s office or something, and Seamus is still in harness, people might assume that he’s not working and come pet him. Sometimes they frame it as, “Is he working?” and if I say yes then they somehow think they are okay. Some people also ask what the dog’s name is, but I always tell them that I don’t give his name out when he’s working. Some people give out fake names or dog aliases, but I don’t do that because it’s still a distraction for the dogs. People are usually fine with that, and sometimes apologize. I always say that it’s okay, and that it’s really for my safety and Seamus’s safety.
The only time it was an issue was on a plane once. When we landed, he stood up and shook off. A woman in the other row asked what his name was and I told her I don’t give it out when I’m working. She said, in a huffy voice, “Well. I’m a dog lover….” And she was upset because she felt entitled that I give his name. When I got off the plane, there was a service dog trainer behind me who had heard the whole conversation and apologized.
Sometimes people on the street who are keeping pace with me will start talking and trying to have a conversation with us, and then they get upset that I’m not responding to them because I’m focused on Seamus guiding me. Or they are annoyed if I don’t let them play with the dog, because they think they are entitled to a conversation or play time regardless of where I’m trying to go. I’ve also had people try to feed my dog.
But some people can be very good, especially kids. Kids sometimes tell their parents “Mommy, this is the dog that you don’t touch.” I usually do let kids pet my dog because it is a good opportunity to teach them things about how to interact with dogs.
R: Have you ever encountered any weird assumptions about dogs?
L: A lot of people always assume that guide dogs will protect you from any danger, including assault. Guide dogs are not trained to protect you from assault, but it is a common assumption that they will protect their owners because they are dogs. If Seamus were to protect me from an assault, I would have to retire him immediately, because at that point, I would no longer know if he would act aggressively toward other people, especially people who are not interacting with me at all. I also do not want him to get hurt — I rely on him every day.
What are the challenges of using a guide dog?
R: Do you find that you get a lot of social interaction because of the dog?
L: Yes. I found the cane to be quite isolating. People would tend to avoid you instead of trying to talk to you. When I was with the cane, people would often try to step around me, and would often act like I was too fragile. With my dog, people always come up and talk to me. I get a lot more social interaction than I ever did with the cane.
With the dog, sometimes I can feel people just staring because they want to come pet the dog. One time when I was at dinner with my husband, a woman came up and was just standing at our table. I asked what she was doing, and she said, “Well, I just wanted to see how nice your dog was.” It was awkward because I was trying to have a private conversation with my husband. I’ve even had people come and just sit down at my booth. It can sometimes feel very violating, like I don’t have any privacy.
Sometimes I will just leave my dog at home, not because of people, but just because we both need some time away from each other. Some tasks are much easier to do without the dog, like grocery shopping.
And traveling with a guide dog is kind of like traveling with a baby. You don’t only need your stuff, but you need all of their stuff, like food, pick up bags, boots, etc. It used to be that to relieve a guide dog in an airport, you would have to go back through security to go outside, but too many guide dog users complained, so now there are inside relieving areas. They are a good idea, but they are very confusing for dogs, because they know they are not supposed to go inside.
Another thing you have to remember as a handler is that this kind of work is very taxing for a dog. It’s kind of like doing homework or being at a job for hours on end. So the dogs need to do things to unwind when they get home. Usually when we get home from working, I let Seamus play, and I play with him. I don’t need to use him in the house, so when we are home he gets to be just an ordinary dog.
Laura recently told me that Seamus died in November. I’ll be thinking of her.
What new information have you learned from this interview with Laura? What questions do you still have? Please comment below with your questions and responses! And please continue to follow my blog and to like and share my posts on social media.