Social distancing can be difficult for everybody to navigate. How close is too close? I know I've already had to back up from aisles at the grocery store for going the wrong way. Can you imagine what it might be like for someone with sight loss who might usually be helped by a guide dog?
What used to be an easy trip to the pharmacy or supermarket has now become a challenge brought on by the massive rise in demand in our delivery supply chains and the anxiety of public exposure to the virus for those with underlying health conditions.
Guide dogs are not trained for social distancing. As a result, we should practice patience if we encounter someone with a guide dog who is out during the pandemic. It is likely that they have no other alternative than to venture out into the world with their dog to get the essentials.
Guide dogs are very intelligent. These four legged friends have been trained extensively. As well as learning how to lead a person safely around obstacles, guide dogs are also trained in what is known as "intelligent disobedience". Should they be given an unsafe cue from their handler, they are taught to disobey it (for example: refusing to step out into the street when there is oncoming traffic).
This could lead to all kinds of problems during social distancing as they don't understand the new danger of brushing up to someone or not to jump into a line with social distancing happening. Guide dogs take their cues and direction from their human partners and most of them, like us, will not be familiar with what it looks like to shop with social distancing.
“Physical distancing is practically impossible when you cannot see, so we’re asking Canadians to please stay two metres away if you are approaching a guide dog team,” says Diane Bergeron , president of CNIB Guide Dogs and handler to Carla, a two-year-old golden retriever. “Carla has been trained to keep me safe, to get me from A to B, but she does not understand physical distancing.” I am going to make the leap and say that this could be applied to all people and not just Canadians.
“Many people don't know how to react to a guide dog,” says Bergeron. “Practising proper guide dog etiquette is important year-round, but especially during this pandemic.”
Guide dog etiquette:
- Harness on means hands off. A guide dog in harness means “I’m working". Petting can take the dog’s focus off its partner and the potential for injury increases.
- Contain your excitement. Don't encourage excitable play with a guide dog. Staying calm is part of their job.
- Say "hello" another time. If you're walking your pet dog and you approach a guide dog, keep your pet dog away to avoid a distraction for the guide dog and possible harm to the partnership. Always keep your pet dog on a leash.
- Don't feed them. Offering food to the dog can result in disruptive behaviours like begging for food and scavenging off the ground.
“It’s always best to ignore a guide dog in harness,” says Bergeron. “When guide dogs are home, their harnesses come off – that is their time for belly rubs and play.”
The CNIB CNIB Foundation also shared another message that I had not considered. People who are blind or partially sighted – especially those living alone – may need to rely on a sighted guide (a person who guides someone with sight loss) for urgent needs, including traveling safely to the grocery store, the pharmacy, their doctor’s office, the bank, and back home.
“It is nearly impossible to effectively, accurately and safely guide someone who is blind from two metres away,” says Angela Bonfanti, the CNIB Foundation’s senior vice president.