In November 2019 I applied for a guide dog, then a year later I was added to the waiting list! The process was more in-depth than I had anticipated. However, I cannot thank the team at Guide Dogs for their amazing support so far. Since sharing my news about a guide dog I’ve had a lot of questions about what it involves and why I qualify for one. So I thought I would share my experience. I hope this post helps you on your guide dog journey and allows others to learn more about the process.
Do you need a guide dog?
If I’m being honest, I was surprised that I met the basic criteria to apply for a guide dog. I was registered as partially sighted at the time and I’m now waiting to be registered severely sight impaired (blind). But I can still see. I might not have 20/20 vision, but colours and shapes remain.
Read more: “But you don’t look blind!”
Prior to losing my sight, I wrongly assumed that a guide dog owner had no remaining sight at all. I believe this is mainly due to stereotypes and how they are portrayed in the media. However, if your sight significantly impacts your ability to navigate the world independently, then you may qualify for a guide dog.
The process of getting on the waiting list
Prior to speaking with Guide Dogs, I had no idea what the process was.
I was unsure if I would qualify, but felt my sight was similar to other guide dog owners that I knew. The main reason for applying was to become more independent. I use a long white cane and have done for a few years now. Yet I struggle to navigate independently. This is partly due to having cerebral palsy, but is mainly down to my vision. A guide dog would enable me to navigate around obstacles and use my walking stick so I felt more stable on my feet.
1. Initial phone call
The first phone call lasted about an hour. I was told about the services that Guide Dogs have and they asked questions about my level of sight and circumstances. It was made clear that not everyone who applies for a guide dog will end up on the list. This could be due to:
- not needing to work the dog enough
- having enough remaining sight
- not knowing your surroundings
When talking about a guide dog, working is classed as the time they spend in a harness getting you from A to B. If you only left the house occasionally, the guide dog might begin to forget elements of their training. This would put you both in danger. We also spoke about how cerebral palsy could affect my ability to work with a guide dog. I found it reassuring to know they’d be able to make adjustments and find a dog that wouldn’t mind taking things at a slower pace. It was really interesting to hear about how they match people with a suitable dog.
I’ll be honest, I did find the call quite emotional. When speaking about the impact of my deteriorating vision, it was hard to face the reality of it all. The woman on the phone was so lovely and very understanding.
At the end of the call, it was decided that a guide dog might be a possibility.
2. Vision and lifestyle forms
A few weeks later I had a visit from an adult orientation and mobility specialist. She was able to answer any questions I had, as well as fill in a more in-depth form. The topics were quite similar to the phone call, but went into more detail and focused on potentially getting a guide dog.
They asked about my:
- level of sight
- current housing situation
- social life
- normal routes outside
- plans for the future
I suppose they want to know how a guide dog would fit into my life and the impact it would have. Your social life and job would show the environment that a guide dog would be in, as well as how often they would work. The conversation was really laid back and also showed me how a guide dog could have such a positive impact on my life.
Due to my cerebral palsy, a risk assessment was sent to my GP. This looked at the risk of me falling, and the consequences this could have. Luckily it was decided to be a minimal risk and wouldn’t affect my ability to work with a guide dog.
3. Practical assessment
To get accepted onto the waiting list for a guide dog you need to know at least 3 different routes. This shows an understanding of your surroundings and that a guide dog would support you significantly. The practical assessment was also done by an adult orientation and mobility specialist.
Firstly we spoke about how I currently navigate the world. It’s not essential to be a long cane user, but it can be really important. For example, if the guide dog became unwell or you were going somewhere that wasn’t suitable, you could still get out and about. It also isn’t essential for you to navigate independently. For me, this is currently the biggest barrier. I’m reliant on others for things like crossing roads and navigating a busy place. At the moment, I tend to follow closely behind someone or hold their elbow and be guided.
During the visit, we went on a walk which showed 1 of my 3 routes. Whilst on the walk they looked at:
- how quickly I walk
- how tall I am
- using a long cane
- how I navigate by myself
- if I had enough sight to avoid obstacles in my path
- if weather conditions altered my vision
- how I crossed roads
- if I could orientate myself when I got lost
When testing my level of sight, they looked at it in relation to getting out and about. For example, do I need my cane to alert me to obstacles, or am I able to navigate around things like roadworks and lamp posts. The practical assessment allowed Guide Dogs to see the areas I struggled with and if a guide dog would make it easier.
4. The right dog for you
There are so many factors to consider when pairing an owner with a guide dog! I suppose it makes sense, as you’ll be working with them everyday. However, I had no idea about the lengths they go to when matching a visually impaired person and a guide dog. They consider every aspect to ensure everything works in terms of your lifestyle and the dogs temperament.
To illustrate, I would need a dog that was:
- chilled at the fact I walk slowly
- able to handle a busy city centre
- okay with other dogs and cats
- unfazed by my wobbly gait
- quite small to match my height
Guide dogs are normally trained to work on the left, but my cerebral palsy means the left side of my body is weaker. We spoke about if I’d be able to hold a harness with my left hand, and if that would cause a problem long term. It was reassuring to know that various things can be done, like using a built up handle to hold onto, which would make it easier to grip. If I was unable to have a guide dog on my left, they’d be able to train one especially to work on the right.
A trial run
The last assessment was with a guide dog trainer. This may sound odd, but the assessment was to see if I could be guided by a dog. It might sound simple, but if you’re used to feeling the floor with a long cane it’s a whole new way of navigating the world. Unfortunately this assessment couldn’t be done with an actual dog — because how good would that have been?! Instead, the instructor holds a guide dog harness and mimics the movement of a dog guiding you around. I also had to practice commands and that I would give a guide dog and give ‘the dog’ encouragement. This resulted in us walking down the street, holding an empty harness, with me encouraging an imaginary dog…
I have to admit, this isn’t what I expected!
5. The decision
Once all the assessments have been done it’s time for Guide Dogs to make a decision. They have a team meeting and discuss anyone who might be eligible for the waiting list. This is done by looking at all the information they have gathered.
Thankfully, I received a phone call saying I had been accepted!
But what happens next? Well, I suppose the waiting game begins. They match people based on their suitability, not how long they’ve been waiting. This means you’ll get the perfect dog, but the timescale is more unknown. I’m told it can be anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. But I’m on the waiting list and that’s the most important thing.
It’s so bizarre to think that my guide dog could be training right now!
Other support from Guide Dogs
Guide Dogs offer a range of support for blind and partially sighted people, even if a guide dog isn’t for you!
- Guide Dogs UK
- Sponsor a guide dog puppy (Guide Dogs UK)
- Getting support (Guide Dogs UK)
- Volunteer for Guide Dogs (Guide Dogs UK)
~ Chloe x