Should someone draw near with a guide dog, speak up and presume good intent — especially during the pandemic, according to some experts.
The dogs have never been taught the 6-foot social-distancing rule required during these difficult times. Nor have they been trained to wait in line outside stores, let alone stand on marks, or only walk in one direction in the aisles.
Instead, they have been taught to bring their partner right to the door — and go in.
And they are expected to bring their handler to the nearest empty seat on a train or bus, though that might be right next to someone.
Right now, “It’s a little stressful for our clients to go out,” said Cameron McLendon, 28, of Kings Park, a mobility instructor at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. “One of the biggest problems is that the dogs don’t understand social distancing.”
Diplomacy, patience helps
Like so much else, battling the coronavirus has exposed divisions between people.
Misunderstandings that might have been brushed off now can flare into conflicts as they grapple with a multitude of fears and anxieties, from succumbing to the virus to waiting outside grocery stores only to find empty shelves when you get inside.
As is often the case in any situation, a little bit of diplomacy and patience can make all the difference. “I think it’s a great thing for people to do all the time — to let people know you are approaching” a guide dog and their handler, said Lauren Berglund, 23, of Kings Park.
Berglund, a coordinator for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind and America’s VetDogs in Smithtown, has had a guide dog since she was 18.
“If someone is getting too close, simply remarking ‘Hey, I’m off to your left,’” is a help, she said.
And it’s likely far easier for the person who can see to avoid the team than vice versa.
Some of the nonprofit’s graduates said they have been yelled at for passing too near other people, Berglund said.
Guide dogs are taught to skirt other people by adding their own width to that of their handlers, explained Heidi Vandewinckel, a total almost certainly less than 6 feet.
“Please just ask me and let me know — and perhaps anticipate” a problem, said Vandewinckel, 62, of East Northport, and a foundation board member who has relied on a guide dog since she was 14.
“It can be kind of daunting for a guide dog to maneuver . . . it’s kind of a give-and-take,” said Cristina Mirabile, 31, of Centereach, one of the foundation’s mobility instructors.
Unexpected problems have arisen, the experts said.
One client, for instance, found a physician’s clinic had nowhere for him and his dog to wait except the line outside. Yet not all dogs understand what to do when the line moves.
And some patients in line or in the office might be allergic or fearful of dogs.
Some tips and advice
So take the risk of a possibly awkward interchange and help a dog and its handler navigate social distancing rules, the experts said, especially in crowds, or lines, or on mass transit.
Realize people whose guide dogs give them the gifts of freedom and independence must go to stores if online services are overloaded or unwieldy, they said.
Aiding these teams — even during the stressful times of the outbreak — really just requires a little thoughtfulness.
Anyone walking their own dog should let the team know, because the guide dog is not allowed to meet-and-greet.
Never make eye contact with a guide dog while it’s working, offer a treat, ooh and ah, or try to pet it — those are all behaviors that could cause their partner a mishap, like a fall, Mirabile said.
And, the trainers said, ask if the team would like help, particularly if there are hazards, like figuring out if a traffic light has changed.
Let them know if there is a line outside a store — and perhaps help them find where it ends, when it moves — and where to wait to check out.
“It’s never wrong to ask a question,” McLendon said.
Remember, however, that these teams have earned their independence. Don’t be offended if they decline an offer of help.
But if they would like you to guide them around obstacles, offer your arm — though not the way one does in a wedding procession. Instead, the handler has been taught to hold your upper arm to follow you safely, the trainers said.
And never grab the guide dog’s harness, Vandewinckel said.
“Just be kind and patient with people, especially now — it’s a difficult time for everybody,” Berglund said.