Mario Bonds, a senior at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who is blind, recalls that on his first days on campus, getting around was an entirely new experience.
“In the city you’re just going from curb to curb,” says Bond. “On the college campus, there’s so many zigzags, so many decisions to make … I’d stop and ask sighted people and they’d be as lost as I was.”
But he had a good guide—a guide dog, actually.
“The first day, he’d been to the dormitory twice, and that was it. He already knew where it was,” Bonds says.
Finding the dorm is only the first hurdle when you’re going to college in a world made for sighted people. But guide dogs can help in many more ways than just getting around, says Melinda Angstrom of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
They help teenagers grow into young adults by teaching responsibility, boosting confidence and even easing socialization, she says.
Students who go to school with guide dogs (no statistics are available) have to rise to a new level of responsibility. Just the basics of dog care mean that the stereotypical free-wheeling college life isn’t possible.
“The guide dog is on the schedule,” says Bonds. “I can’t go to a movie at 5 if the dog needs to eat at 6.”
And with a working dog, there’s more to it than that. Guide dogs are highly trained, but training is not over when handlers take their dogs home. Their owners have to keep refreshing the basics.
So a student is responsible not just for his own studies, but for his dog’s continuing education. Likewise, because the dog works hard, it’s important that he get to relax as well. Bonds makes sure that every day, Sidney gets his “horsing-around time”—playing fetch, tug of war or just running around.
Working successfully with a guide dog can be confidence-boosting. Angstrom recalls one student from the Midwest who was planning to go to community college in her hometown. But after travelling to New York and getting her dog, she decided to go to college in Florida. “Now she knew she could do it,” she says.
There can be social advantages to having a dog. As in many other situations, a dog can be an ice-breaker between people.
“A cane can be isolating. But (people) will usually go up to you if you have a dog,” Angstrom says.
But there can be complications as well. Some people aren’t comfortable with dogs, but friends have to understand that Bonds and his lab Sidney are a package deal. And Bonds often needs to explain—even to college officials—that his dog is legally allowed to accompany him where other animals can’t go.
The attraction a dog holds for strangers can have its downsides, even when people are well-intentioned. Some people may want to pet the dog, for example, which distracts it from its work.
“You have to spend a lot of time telling people that you’re OK,” he said, as he simultaneously spoke to a reporter on his cellphone, gave commands to his dog, and manoeuvred out of a building through a crowd of people—without help.
Bonds says that people also don’t need to worry if his dog is OK. Dogs don’t make it through the guide-dog program unless they love their work, and it’s obvious to Bonds that his Sidney is one of those dogs. You can tell, he says, from “how alert the dog is, how in tune the dog is with you. It looks like he enjoys it. The signs are, his tail’s going all the time.”
And don’t forget that like other high-profile professions, being a guide dog has its special perks. “A guide dog is lucky—it gets to go wherever its owner goes,” Angstrom points out.
Bonds agrees that Sidney is a lucky dog. He doesn’t just get to go to college.
“He gets to be around dad all day,” he says. “How many dogs get to go to the mall, get to go to restaurants and go to the movies?”
– The Canadian Press