Guide Dogs and Spiritual Centers: How to Include Your Congregants with Guide and Service Animals Who Are Disabled

Dear readers,

You’re probably a cleric or minister who’s had a guide dog or service animal user in your congregation. You probably don’t know much about the dog or other animal’s ability to do its job and not mess up your building space. So here’s the question: have you considered making your space welcoming for these people and their dogs? Let’s take a look at guide dogs and service animals, and I’ll tell you how my guide dog handler friends would like you to address these issues.

Guide dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California is a great example of a guide dog school. Note: Seeing Eye dogs are usually only dogs trained and registered at the Seeing Eye dog school in Morristown, NJ, so please refer to all other types of mobility assistance dogs for the blind as simply “guide dogs.” Guide dogs help their blind owners walk around and they will be able to walk up and down your church aisle. While you’re busy making your church or spiritual place of worship welcoming to the wheelchair user, there are some issues with blind people who use guide dogs being asked to leave or not let the dog in the communion line or otherwise don’t bring the dog at all.

First and foremost, guide dog training takes a lot of effort, love, and money. The dogs are raised with puppy raisers as young as eight weeks old, right after weaning from the mother dog. When they are removed from the mother, they are individually given to a family or person who wants to help instill the fundamentals of obedience and socialization. This sort of training includes the sit, down, stay, and other sorts of basics. They also learn to do some commands like forward, left, right, etc. They don’t do harness stuff till they leave the puppy raiser and go to what we blind people would call “dog college.” At the dog school, you as the dog handler would learn how to control your dog, give corrections gently and such, and how to work with the dog in harness. There are also dogs at the schools that are in training to become guides. If you want all kinds of cuteness and puppy love, watch Pick of the Litter, and watch GDB pups go into training. Some will become breeders, others will become working guides. The working guides are amazing guides indeed, so when you meet a guide dog user for the first time, ask them questions about what your dog user friend uses their service animal for. They will be glad to answer, but please don’t give a standoffish comment like, “Oh, you can’t bring the dog here.” I’ve had people complement my dog handler friends on how beautiful their dogs are. If I personally had a guide dog, I would groom the dog like crazy to perfection, put bows and ribbons on their collar, and make sure the dog is spiffy and all dressed up to impress, just like myself. This would be great for job interviews, and making a good first impression on a church or spiritual leader in a center of spiritual knowledge.

Service animals for wheelchair users follow the same sort of path, and some disabled people have diabetic alert dogs. Here’s a profile you guys might want to consider: there’s this one dog who was a breeder, and after she bred two or more litters of successful working guides, she became a diabetic alert dog for her custodian breeder, Jim. I believe her name was Charity, but I forget the name altogether but wait, Trinity. How appropriate. Trinity might be her name, but I know it had a y at the end, that’s all I remember. This dog had also bred a son, Jenkins, who also went on to become the breeder stud behind several chocolate labs. Chocolate labs are adorable dogs with brown coats as brown as, well, chocolate. German shepherds are highly responsible dogs with high intelligence, but the dogs frequently chosen by guide dog schools these days include labs and golden retrievers, beautiful dogs with great devotion to their masters and they are highly intelligent and responsible dogs. Goldens are known for being good family dogs, but I think their spirits can be a bit high, and they can sometimes be class clowns. That’s just my observation for me of some guide dog users and their guides.

When you first meet a guide dog user, don’t be alarmed. If you’re a Muslim imam or cleric in a mosque, you may recall that the nose of a dog is dirty, I get it, but think of this. The dog has its own natural way of doing a kneeling pose, the sort of pose you do when you pray. When a dog is lying down, it looks so cute with the legs all done that way. My ex said something about that in a riddle. Anyway, if you’re Muslim and come across a guide dog user, don’t be alarmed. The dog won’t lick unless your hand is right underneath their nose, but keep your distance from the team as they work, and they will follow you if commanded. That is, the handler may tell the dog to follow you to a seat. Let the team do its job. The dog will be content lying down on the floor, so the brother or sister handler will be happy to go off and pray in the center of the circle. For Christian and Jewish establishments, don’t be afraid to bless the guide or service animal. My choir director goes to a Mennonite church, and dogs are a frequent love of hers. I have a guide dog handler friend who comes in to choir, barring the pandemic, and sometimes she gets a break at the church. Even animals need to relax too, so when you are able, for all religious areas, let the team play together and designate a guide or service dog relief spot. Tell your congregants with dogs for service exactly where they can and cannot relieve their animals, and this will assure your congregation is safe. Don’t be alarmed if the dog is lying on the floor, but dogs make great conversation starters when they greet people, wag their tails, and do their work with grace and dignity, and with a sense of animal humor. Don’t forget about the guide and service dog retirement stage. Your congregant will want to retire their guide or service animal at a certain age. For example, some guide dog schools recommend retiring your dog at age eight or nine. That is, in human years. Dog years is different in calculation than those of humans for some strange reason.

What should you not do with a service dog? Well, don’t encourage anyone to pet the dog while they’re in harness working. Most service dogs will only respond to their master in harness while working, and they don’t need doggy distractions. Do not ask for ID’s or papers for your potential congregant’s dogs because they don’t usually provide those. However, you can also ask where the dog was trained and contact the guide dog school. GDB and Guiding Eyes are amazing schools, to the most highest degree I can think of. I’ve heard that Pilot dogs is okay. Some prefer Leader dogs. But think about the dog and its training. GDB does have specific requirements for dogs, evaluations being done on the pups till they reach maturity and some are even cut well in to the guiding training. some dogs don’t make the cut, but others who do are lucky. Guide dog training also requires that the dog learn to effectively intelligently disobey their owner if the command could put the owner in danger. Examples of this include if there’s a car rolling down the street, I tell the guide dog “forward” while the car is going on the street, and the dog doesn’t move. I have to wait until there’s a deep and definite lull in the traffic, then tell the dog to go again. The command is usually a forward, and if you want to speed up, there’s a command for that. You want to ask as many questions as you want to ask, but they have to be good questions. Now, how does this relate to spiritual matters? Guide dogs can do just about everything guide related for their owners. For the wheelchair companion dogs, be careful of things that fall on the floor. Such dogs can be trained to pick them up, and ask first before attempting to pick up a dropped item for a service dog user. For dogs that assist the deaf, their job is to alert the person when someone is talking to them, when the phone rings, and sometimes to paw the owner if a fast moving vehicle is running down the road. Psychological service dogs count too, and so do diabetic alert and medical service dogs. Jim’s dog has had training to alert him when his blood sugar is too low or too high. Respect when the dog is alerting you to something, especially in the case where an epileptic person with seizures is using their alert dogs. Seizure dogs are great, but please note that such dogs are trained to lick their owners in the face. It may look like they’re giving them doggy kisses, but when I saw this one dog doing that, it stimulated the brain of the seizing woman on the floor. Also, dogs like these are supposed to alert the average Joe citizen for help if their owner is on the floor. I love dogs, as one can tell, and the amazing things they do for people. If the service dogs for veterans pop up, don’t be afraid to ask. But remember, veterans with PTSD service dogs should get no less than the guiding service dog for the blind. My cousin has a dog that helps him get over stuff, and he’s an army vet. My best friend from high school has a brace and balancee and PTSD service dog and … well, dogs are good for just about everything. Some dogs can predict seizures, so if the dog is alerting you or the owner to a seizure, please note that this is a natural occurrence, and if the person falls, get help immediately. That’s my story on service dogs and spiritual centers.

Beth