Empathy, listening and understanding are key to successful guide dog partnerships, by Martin Atkin.
Guide dogs are one of the world’s great success stories. Since the very first dogs were specially trained during the First World War to guide veterans blinded by poison gas, tens of thousands of blind and visually impaired people have benefitted from being paired with a guide dog. In 2021 alone, programmes accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) had more than 13,000 active guide dog teams working around the world.
More than a hundred years of knowledge, experience and research goes into training a guide dog. A small army of vets, breeders, puppy raisers, trainers and support workers are aided by countless training manuals, studies and conferences. That means guide dog schools now know pretty much everything there is to know about creating successful partnerships, right?
Wrong, says Chris Muldoon, Operations Director at Dogs for Good in the UK. Known as “Doctor Doctor” on account of his two PhDs, he has more than 30 years’ experience working with guide dogs and their partners. According to Chris, guide dog training programmes and instructors still have a lot to learn about creating and maintaining the best possible relationship between client and dog.
“The conventional way that we process applications for guide dogs and then undertake instruction doesn’t always take account of people’s emotions and mental health,” he says. “It is more focused on the practical aspects of how a guide dog can change their lives. We say ‘Let us be your knight in shining armour - we’ll come rushing in, we’ll provide you with a dog and your world will be perfect again’ - and that’s not always the case.”
Thirty years ago, as a recently-qualified instructor in Australia, Chris experienced at first-hand how the emotional trauma of sight loss can get in the way of creating a productive working relationship between client and dog. “I was on a training walk with a young man who had gradually lost his vision,” Chris explained during a keynote presentation to the recent ADI conference in California. “Suddenly he broke down in tears, and as we talked I realised all the things that really mattered to him - not being able to drive, not seeing his children, and not being able to read - the dog couldn’t help him with any of that. It was a real light-bulb moment for me. Like all of us, clients have pre-existing emotional states and sometimes - with the best of intentions - the training puts additional pressure on them which creates more stress.”
Many of those who apply for a guide dog are already struggling with mental health issues such as depression, so instructors need to be careful not to add to their trauma if the training programme doesn’t always go to plan. “A guide dog can improve their lives dramatically - and for most people it does - but if they struggle with training, if the dog is not responding and behaving as it should, it can make the client feel like a failure and increase their stress,” he explains.
Whilst not calling for a complete overhaul of guide dog training and instruction, Chris’s research does point to the need to include ‘soft skills’ such as empathy, listening and understanding in the education and training of instructors. “We don’t have to be counsellors or psychologists, but guide dog instructors do have to be astute, and to listen more than we talk. Instructors need the skills to be able to read between the lines of clients’ needs and emotional states. It takes skill to ask the right questions. If you do it well, you can create a better match for the dog and create a better environment for the client to move forward to success.”
“I’m not saying there needs to be a radical change in the way we work,” he adds. “Many guide dog instructors are very good at listening to their clients. But we have to get better at interpreting what they tell us. Informal conversations often yield more information and highlight potential problems more than the formal instruction sessions.” Seemingly insignificant asides - such as ‘the dog isn’t getting on well with my family’ or ‘the neighbours complain about the dog barking’ - are clues which an experienced instructor will recognise and act on.
“If we educate our staff to a little bit higher level of empathy and understanding, those gut feelings will translate into actual science-based understanding,” says Chris. “If you are creating a partnership which may last ten years, you would expect the instructor to have all the information they need to do the job well - but that isn’t always the case. The instructor needs to know when to step in - and when not to. Informal conversations about how life is going are incredibly valuable - you don’t always have to be taking notes but you do need to have those moments when your ears prick up and you think ‘something’s not quite right here’.”
Nowhere are these skills needed more than when a guide dog dies. For a blind or visually impaired person, their guide dog is a mobility aid to keep them independent, a companion they can talk to about anything, and a family member that won’t judge them if they get something wrong. Guide dogs and their partners often form a bond which sustains them when other relationships aren’t going so well. Small wonder that some clients say their dog is the most important thing in their lives.
“We need to have honest conversations with the client towards the end of their dog’s life to prepare them,” says Chris. “They will experience grief like nothing else they have felt - clients have said to me it’s like losing a limb or a family member. We encourage that bond, we encourage that relationship because you need that closeness for the partnership to work - but we’re not always very good at managing the end of the journey. We have to do better than simply saying ‘here’s your next dog’.”
Part of the challenge is that training schools and instructors are so pressured - there’s always a waiting list of clients wanting a guide dog - but Chris believes time spent listening to clients would have significant benefits. “I am convinced it would give us even greater success. It would result in pre-emptive care and support which would improve our productivity and improve the quality of our service.”
Often, says Chris, it comes down to making time for difficult conversations. “We shouldn’t be selling a fairy story, we should be selling the reality. You need to be honest and tell clients that on this journey, there are days when it will be terrible and there are days when it will be fantastic. It’s our job as instructors to level out that journey so it’s not a rollercoaster.”