Accompanied by her German shepherd Deanne, Aerial Gilbert waited in her driveway for her husband to come out of the house and unlock the car door. As she waited, she heard an ominous growl. A split second later, a neighbor's pit bull attacked Deanne. Such a scenario is traumatic for any dog owner. But in this case, Aerial is blind and Deanne is her guide dog.
"I screamed for help," she explained. "I had to let go of Deanne and was trying to pull the other dog off. My gut instinct was I had to save my dog-even though in retrospect it was probably a dangerous thing to do."
Fortunately, Deanne was not physically injured in the attack, but Aerial so feared future attacks that she and her husband eventually sold their house in Petaluma, California and moved across town away from the irresponsible neighbors who, despite Aerial's pleas, continued to let their dog run loose.
"The emotional bond that I have with my guide dog goes far beyond that of a pet dog," she explained. "The best way I can describe the relationship is that it is like a cross between a spouse and a child. I trust my life to Deanne and she trusts hers to me. We have precious limited time that we can work together – most guides work approximately eight years before they are retired from guide work."
Frequent Attacks on Guide Dogs
Sadly, Aerial's experience is not unusual. Jenine Stanley, past president of Guide Dog Users Incorporated, said about one-third of the 10,000 guide dog users in the United States have suffered "some sort of run-in" with other dogs, mostly unleashed.
"Guide dogs are bred for gentleness and sound temperament; they are well-socialized animals that will not attack another dog," Wells B. Jones, Chief Executive Officer at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, N.Y., said in a recent press statement. "If a vicious dog attacks a guide dog, it puts not only the guide dog in jeopardy, but also the blind or visually impaired teammate. If a guide dog is focused on protecting himself from another animal, he cannot safely and effectively do his job of guiding his teammate."
Forced to Retire
While most physical injuries will eventually heal, the emotional trauma a guide dog suffers when attacked often ends his working life. Once attacked, guide dogs can become aggressive toward other dogs, fear biters or become afraid or hesitant while working. When this happens, the dogs must be "retired," said Joanne Ritter, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. of San Rafael, Calif.
It's devastating when this occurs. And costly. Ritter put the price tag for training and servicing a dog and handler team at about $50,000 – money that is raised through private donations. For the handler it means one month or more of training with a new dog – time away from a job and often from home unless there is a guide dog training facility nearby.
Gov. George Pataki of New York has signed legislation that would allow guide dog users to recover monetary damages from owners whose dogs attack guide dogs. This would help cover the costs of veterinary care and lost wages on the part of the blind person who, in many cases, would be unable to work until finishing a month-long training course with a new dog.
California has an even stricter law. Anyone who intentionally causes injury or death to any type of service dog can spend up to a year in jail and be fined up to $5,000. But many states do not have laws on the books, and while guide dog users support the California and New York statutes they say enforcement is difficult.
"Someone can always say, 'You're blind. How can you prove my dog did that?'" said Stanley. "So it's necessary to have a sighted witness when something like this occurs."
No Introductions, Please
Stray dogs and irresponsible owners who let their animals run loose are not the only ones who cause problems for guide dogs, however. Many responsible dog owners fail to understand that a working dog needs to be left alone to do his job and should not be "introduced" to the dog owner's pet.
"I run into people all the time who say, 'My dog just wants to say hello to your dog,'" said Stanley. "They don't understand that this distracts the guide dog from his job and could potentially lead to trouble.
"It's a scary situation for us because we don't know what's happening at the end of the leash if another dog is suddenly there. Our dogs are like a body part for us, and if they should get hurt, we're stuck – we have no way to get home."
Her advice to dog owners is to keep dogs on a leash at a respectful distance from a working dog. "Your dog doesn't really need to visit mine," she added.