Blind World Magazine

Crash course in how to behave around guide dogs.

January 29, 2006.
Halifax Herald (subscription) - Halifax,Nova Scotia,Canada.

HE TAKES MY COAT and directs me down the hall to the living room.

"Just one thing," Bill Brown instructs. "Donít stare at the dog."

"Excuse me?"

"Donít stare at him," he repeats, "because his reaction will be to stare back."

And so begins my crash course in how to behave around guide dogs.

Billís wife, Meredith Ripley-Brown, is blind and has just returned to Halifax from the U.S. with a Seeing Eye dog.

They want me to help publicize just how crucial it is that the rest of us understand these are working dogs and how easily we can cause problems for owner and animal alike.

Meredith is sitting on the couch. At her feet, sprawled contentedly on a tasteful Indian rug, is Piper, a two-year-old yellow golden cross Lab.

The animal looks up at me as I shake hands with Meredith. Mindful of Billís admonition, I studiously avoid making eye contact, which is really, r-e-a-l-l-y hard. Even a cat lover like me has to admit, this is one magnificent dog.

Taking a seat across from Meredith, I risk a glance at Piper, who catches my eye and begins to thump her tail. Oops!

"Do you ever stare at her?" I ask Bill.

He doesnít. Nor does he use Piperís name; he calls her "girl." Heíll develop a normal relationship with her eventually, he says, just not yet, while his wife and her dog are developing their team.

Meredith wasnít always blind. She tells me she was sighted until her teens, when congenital glaucoma plunged her into total darkness. Since then, sheís depended on Seeing Eye dogs to maintain as normal a lifestyle as possible.

Piper is her fifth dog. She was trained at a cost of $30,000 by a New Jersey organization called The Seeing Eye, the oldest school of its kind in the world.

Meredith spent a month there, starting the bonding process with Piper and assuming responsibility for her care and training.

She brought the dog home several weeks ago and already feels comfortable to venture out as a team, be it for a walk around the neighbourhood, to the local drugstore or out for a meal.

But hereís the thing: These early days are crucial in the bonding process and the rest of us are in danger of interrupting things. Dogs like Piper arenít pets, Bill points out.

"Theyíre guide dogs," he stresses. "We have to get people to understand the rationale not to pet these dogs. They have to be one-person dogs."

Bill says other dog owners can be a particular problem for Meredith.

"They think weíre talking Spot or Fluffy who socialize with every other dog on the block and that they should come over and socialize (with Piper)."

There are two other big distractions for Meredith when sheís out: encounters with loose dogs or dogs on extended leashes. Since the municipal leash law was relaxed, she no longer ventures into Point Pleasant Park.

"Iíve had difficulty with people," she says. "They donít really understand. Their dog just wants to be friendly."

Then thereís the other difficulty with snow-plugged sidewalks.

"The dog canít discern, ĎIs there a cut-down at the curb I should be going to?í " she says. "The plows . . . seem to dump snow at the ramps. Everything is geared to expediency and vehicles."

Meredith and Piper walk as much as 30 kilometres per week, risking life and limb if neighbours havenít cleared their sidewalks. Most of them do, but not all. More than once, Bill has had to ask laggards, politely but firmly, to keep their sidewalks shovelled.

"Letís go out for a walk," I suggest. "Show me first-hand just how difficult life can be."

And so here we are, bundled against the cold, Meredith and Piper leading the way. The dog is wearing a special handle-harness that allows each of them to get a better sense of the otherís intentions.

Woman and dog move at a surprisingly rapid pace; Bill and I have to hustle to keep up with them.

Sure enough, some of the sidewalks havenít been cleared and we have to slow down. At the corners, Piper has problems finding the ramps under all the snow.

"Piper, forward!" urges Meredith.

The little team struggles over the icy mounds.

"Attagirl! Attagirl!"

Clutching my camera, I trot ahead, eager to get some eye-catching photos of Piper at work, and wondering how just exactly Iím going to do it without making actual eye contact in the process!

Peter Duffy appears Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays (

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