The closures and social distancing measures put into place beginning in the spring of 2020 have affected working dogs, including guide dogs in particular, due to their isolation and lack of work opportunities. This has created a significant negative impact not only on the dogs but also on their trainers and owners.
Approximately 10,000 guide dogs exist in the USA. A guide dog’s job is to lead their visually impaired or blind owner through the obstacles of their days, and that includes safely guiding them through traffic, shopping expeditions, the hallways of a high school or college campus, in and out of their office buildings, in restaurants, and on public transportation, to name just a few common situations. Since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading through the United States, many of these activities have been curtailed for their human handlers, which means that these hard-working canines have far less to do on a day to day basis.
For dogs who are used to working, the sudden lack of stimulation can cause a host of unwanted behaviors. Guide dogs are chosen for their roles based on their confidence, initiative, trainability, and intelligence. They expect to work, and having the responsibility for keeping their handlers safe keeps them focused and happy. If they need to retire from their jobs too soon, they can experience behavioral issues like barking, chewing on items, and licking their paws. This is true of any dog deprived of healthy outlets for physical and mental energy.
In addition to being frustrating to the dogs and annoying for their owners, a guide dog’s sudden lack of stimulation can put their visually impaired or blind owners at risk. The dogs can lose their focus, which can make it unsafe for them to resume their regular duties if restrictions are lifted or when outings are necessary. A guide dog must show the self-control and focus necessary to avoid playing with other dogs and approaching other people while they’re working; if they are not seeing other dogs and people regularly, their proper behavior is not being practiced on a daily basis. This could lead to problems when their owners return to work or school.
Not having a guide dog with updated training can cause visually impaired handlers to resort to using a cane to help them navigate their surroundings. While this strategy can allow them to live their lives, attend school, go to work, and go grocery shopping, a cane can add to the stigma of disability. Also, while a guide dog can lead its handler directly to where they need to be, a person with a visual impairment will need to put much more thought and effort into navigating staircases, avoiding potholes, and working around other obstacles that a dog would lead them past seamlessly.
Marie Villaneda, who has owned her guide dog, Milot, for four years, details the impact that the restrictions have had on her dog. He is unable to continually hone his skills as a guide dog, and Marie cannot replicate at home the physical and mental challenges that Milot encounters on a typical day out and about. While Marie can play games and set up obstacle courses with him, it might not be enough to ensure that she will continue to be safe once they can resume their regular outings. She explains that her friends who have guide dogs have noticed more distractibility in their dogs since the pandemic started, and some plan to have their dogs professionally retrained. Other guide dogs will be retired early, which puts their handlers in the tough position of possibly not getting another service dog.
Even training guide dogs has taken a hit since the pandemic began. Puppy raisers are volunteers who take care of potential guide dogs until they’re about a year old. During this time, they socialize the dogs by taking them on outings, into restaurants, to medical appointments, and so on. Local restrictions and health concerns prompted guide dog organizations to temporarily halt breeding. In addition, puppies were left with their puppy raisers for longer periods of time, in part because obedience classes and social outings were curtailed during some months of the program. Guide Dogs for the Blind hopes to resume operations to the point where they can serve clients in the numbers that they were reaching pre-pandemic.
Another part of the problem that guide dog-training organizations have is a shortage of volunteers. Not having people ready to foster pregnant dogs, raise the puppies, or train the young dog into fully functional guide dogs means that those with visual impairments will have to wait even longer for a dog. Those interested in helping one of these programs might consider contacting Guide Dogs for the Blind or Mira USA.
Featured Image Courtesy: Pixabay.