The fear of having their dog attacked by another is many an owner’s worst nightmare. Joanne Bednall reports…
Imagine being unable to diffuse a potential confrontation, or even protect your dog, because you cannot see what’s happening.
This is the sad scenario facing many partially sighted or blind people, who rely on their guide dogs, not only to get them safely from A to B, but to provide what many of us take for granted — our confidence, freedom, and independence.
Attacks on guide dogs have increased significantly in recent years, prompting the Guide Dogs charity to launch its awareness campaign Take the Lead. When it first started collating statistics, the organisation recorded an average of eight attacks a month. In 2017, the figure had reached 13 attacks per month.
Helen Sismore, engagement officer for East Anglia Guide Dogs, along with Ipswich Borough Council, spearheaded the campaign’s regional launch in the Suffolk town this summer, after a particularly high number of assistance dog attacks — nine since the beginning of the year alone.
“This is an intolerable situation for people who are blind or partially sighted, and want to live their lives independently, and move about and be an active part of their community,” explains Helen, who hopes that the campaign will encourage the public to ensure their dogs are on short leads and under proper control in public places, and do not go up to assistance dogs.
A lack of understanding of dog behaviour
Ninety per cent of attacks on guide dogs take place in public places, by dogs who are not on the lead. Helen believes that, in some cases, it may be down to a lack of understanding of dog behaviour.
“Often, owners stop training their dogs after the initial puppy training course. But this should be ongoing throughout a dog’s life.
“Dogs are like children, and will constantly push the boundaries, yet many owners don’t continually reinforce basic commands, allowing the dog to get away with unsociable behaviour. Never assume your dog won’t show aggression.”
Helen also points to the changing role of dogs in our lives. Years ago, she says, it would have been unusual to see dogs being walked in town and city centres.
“Now, there are many more dogs out in public places like the High Street — they are now regarded as an extension of the family and are treated as such, even coming shopping with us on a Saturday afternoon.
“But, for people who are blind or partially sighted, it isn’t a choice whether they take their dogs out — they are a necessity for their mobility.”
Attacks on assistance dogs have huge financial ramifications for the charity. Each guide dog takes around 20 months to train, at a cost of £56,800. A separate review of dog attack data, published in the Veterinary Record, calculated vets’ bills between June 2010 and February 2015 stood at more than £35,500. Twenty of the dogs attacked had to be permanently withdrawn.
Dogs are left with emotional scars
But the impact of an attack goes way deeper than a drain on valuable resources — the physical and/or emotional scars are long-lasting. Some assistance dogs never fully recover from the trauma, even after intensive rehabilitation by trainers.
Trainers will assess both dog and owner, and return with them to the attack location, using positive reinforcement to help disassociate the bad memory. Retraining can take from a week to six months, and if the dog can’t be rehabilitated and the partnership’s safety comes under question, retirement is the only option.
The loss of a dog can be catastrophic. Helen says: “They are often left feeling fearful and anxious, which can prevent them from leaving their home.” She adds that it can take, on average, another 18 months to be teamed with a new dog.
“We already know that 180,000 people living with sight loss rarely leave their homes because of a lack of confidence. Dogs aren’t ‘shelf-ready’ — they have to be carefully matched and this takes time.”
Tough punishment for those who attack
It is an offence for a dog to cause harm to a working guide dog — lunging at, or growling aggressively, is also classed as an attack. The dog’s owner, AND (if they weren’t present) the person who was responsible for the dog at the time, both face a prison sentence of up to three years, destruction of the dog, a heavy fine, and control orders for dog and owner.
“We ask the public to be considerate of all people within their community and ensure their dogs are properly socialised with other dogs, and are under control at all times, whether they are on, or off-lead,” emphasises Helen, who praised Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk Police for supporting the campaign.
What should I do if I encounter an assistance dog?
- Put your dog on a lead if you see an assistance dog either working or being exercised offlead.
- Have your dog on a short lead in all public places. Remember, retractable leads can cause a delay in getting your dog under control. “Owners need to be one step ahead of their dogs’ actions at any time, and be more aware of the canine psyche,” advises Helen.
- Give the guide dog and handler right of way.
- Ideally, walk in the opposite direction, or place yourself between the two dogs.
- Be a witness if you see an assistance dog or their handler being attacked. “Try to help if you can,” advises Helen. “Sit the person down in a quiet, safe place, such as inside a shop, and assess if they or their dog require medical/veterinary attention. Call the police or an ambulance and take the dog to the vet if necessary.”
- Allow your dog to sniff or say hello to an assistance dog — they are trained to be passive, and are very vulnerable in a harness as they can’t escape or defend themselves. Another dog in close proximity will also disturb their concentration.
“Guide dogs need to have 100 per cent focus because they have to constantly make decisions, such as whether to turn left or right, how to avoid an obstruction, or where to find a crossing,” adds Helen. “It can take a working dog up to 10 minutes to refocus after being distracted.”