Why my guide dog is not public property – even if you put some money in a tin

Ok, I don’t actually have a guide dog. But I didn’t have a blog when I did have a guide dog, and this message is important!

I got the idea for the post when I read a humorous article about how some people can’t understand even the most obvious signs that other people don’t want to engage.

You’re reading a book? That must mean you want to talk about that book. You’re listening to music? Let’s start up a conversation about what you’re listening to. You’re working on your laptop? Maybe you’re just waiting to tell me all about your job! That kind of thing!

Trying to start a conversation is not a bad thing in itself, but if the person gives monosyllabic answers, turns away, or tells you that they’re busy – that’s the time to stop trying to engage them in conversation!

I used to spend a lot of time on the train because I didn’t live close to my office. I had some good train conversations too, and many train adventures as well. Some random conversations on trains even led to lasting friendships.

But sometimes, in the early morning or late evening after a long day, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to random strangers. I wanted to read my book, listen to music, listen to a podcast, or just be still and let the day wash over me. Unfortunately, there were some people who didn’t pay attention to the headphones or the “I’m done with people for today” scowl!

If you have a dog with you, it can be even worse!

A guide dog can be a great conversation starter, but having one with me often got me more attention than I really wanted.

The woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer

It came to a head one day when I was having dinner with one of my colleagues after work. She was also a friend. I don’t even remember now what we were talking about, but it was something fairly intense. One of us was having a hard time and we were trying to fix it. Partner trouble, family, annoying colleagues – I really don’t know now. But we weren’t just having a casual chat or open to other people joining our table.

Along came a woman who thought that this would be the best time to come over and wake my guide dog up.

I told her it wasn’t a good time because we were in the middle of a conversation, and instead of doing the right thing, which would have been to stop bothering us, she stayed around and let me know how she’d been raising money for people like me and I should be a bit more grateful.

I was not grateful.

I was not sorry.

She just succeeded in making me more annoyed and I did finally manage to get her to stop bothering us.

The problem

The point of charity work or donating to organisations that help others is not to then give you freedom to do whatever you feel like doing, particularly when that means completely disregarding the needs of those you claim to want to help.

There is a different system here in the UK because unlike other countries, where funding for guide dogs is part of the healthcare system, our main guide dog school is a charitable organisation. This means it runs fundraising events and accepts donations from the public.

But that doesn’t make the dogs public property. They are working with an individual to improve their quality of life, give them independence, be a fantastic friend, and enable them to navigate the world with a bit less hassle.

Sometimes, with the owner’s permission, it is ok to say hi, but it’s never ok to assume. If someone asks you to leave or stop engaging with the dog, that’s what you need to do.

I can be a bit forthright, and generally people left us alone when I asked them to. But as well as the practical problem of exciting a dog who was otherwise having a snooze, the issue was about this woman’s sense of entitlement and the assumption that her desire to stroke my dog was more important than the private conversation that I was trying to have.

I’m not sure that the woman in the story really got that point after our encounter. I think she was just indignant that I dared to challenge her.

You can’t win them all! To be honest, her leaving felt like a win that day, even if she just thought I had a bad attitude.

It’s possible that I was a bit short with her. I know I can be quite direct! I try to calmly educate and stay objective, but it’s hard when people don’t bother to think how their actions might be causing a problem, or when they won’t listen. She could see I was leaning across the table, deep in conversation. I wouldn’t go up and bother someone who looked like that.

The other thing is that all these things add up. Someone might have had to deal with the same things multiple times that day. It could be interrupting an important phone call because someone thought that would be a great time to come and make a load of noise saying hi to the dog under the desk. It could be educating parents on a train that a guide dog is not free entertainment so that the parents could have a bit of piece. It could be dealing with the person who thinks that calling a guide dog from the other side of a busy road is a smart thing to do. I’ve experienced them all!

It’s a tough one. If the cute doggy is in the centre of your fundraising strategy, people will identify with the cute doggy! But working with a guide dog means working as part of a team, and the guide dog owner, or the person at the other end of the lead, is also part of the package!

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