Before I started working at Southeastern Guide Dogs, I was under the assumption that if I was blind, and told my guide dog that I wanted to go to the library, he would just take me there and I would follow along. Well, that’s not the case. Apparently, I would have to have enough “orientation and mobility” skills to get myself there without the help of the dog.
Orientation and mobility is the way someone understands their place in their environment and how to move about within that environment either using other mobility aids such as a cane or a sighted guide.
Why are these skills important? Why not just tell the dog where you want to go and expect him to get you there? Well, even if your dog knew the route to a variety of familiar locations, he may want to go to the dog biscuit bakery instead of the library. And if you didn’t have orientation and mobility skills to rely on, you could end up somewhere you didn’t expect.
It is up to the handler to give the dog instructions on where to go and it is the dog’s responsibility to get the team there safely. The dogs are responsible for making sure there are no obstacles within a space approximately 4’ horizontally and 6’ vertically. Yep, you read that correctly, they are responsible for the space above them as well. You can imagine this would come in very handy to avoid awnings, low hanging branches and the like and is something that a cane can’t alert for, as you don’t go waving your cane in the air. If any obstacle intrudes on this defined space, the dog will either guide their handler around the obstacle or stop at the obstacle and await instructions from the handler to proceed.
There is also another way guide dogs keep their handlers safe – intelligent disobedience. That means a guide dog will disobey a command if it would put the team in danger. Here’s an example: Crossing the street is really a joint responsibility between the handler and the dog. The handler listens to the traffic flow and determines when it’s safe to cross. The dog, however, can see if there are obstacles – such as a hybrid, silent vehicle. If the handler were to give the “forward” command in that situation, the dog would refuse to obey because that would place the team in danger. Pretty amazing, right?!
So the next time you see a guide dog team in action, you can really marvel at the job these dogs do to help keep their handlers safe and sound.