They are man’s best friend to most, but to the blind and visually impaired, dogs can be much more. To people like Scott Hegle, dogs serve as trusted companions that guide them through the chaos of ordinary life, from flying to faraway cities or taking a walk around the neighborhood, guide dogs help blind and visually impaired individuals lead a safer and easier lifestyle.
Hegle works for HIMS Inc., a company based out of Austin, TX, that markets assistive technology for the blind and those with low vision. Often traveling to different parts of the country to explain and demonstrate the use of the products, Hegle found that having a guide dog made travel safer and faster. He said he wishes he had gotten Ben, his guide dog, earlier.
“I can’t imagine not having one,” Hegle said.
The process of obtaining a guide dog varies from school to school throughout the country. Hegle said that schools require the applicant to fill out a form that states their need for a dog. Once the applicant receives approval, the matching process begins. Hegle said many schools provide trainers that actually come into the home to do personal assessments for each case.
“Most schools come to the home and do a “Juno Walk”, where the instructor walks with the applicant, measuring his/her stride, ability to travel and knowledge of using a dog,” Hegle said.
After the dog and owner have been matched, an extensive training process begins. While the types of training differ for each pair, Hegle said that it took almost a year before he and Ben became a solid duo. Hegle had always used a cane before getting a dog, making even the simplest of tasks difficult to command the dog.
“At first, both of us were learning,” Hegle said. “Even simple tasks like the dog taking me back to a building I just left were almost impossible, as the dog would head for a completely different building.”
However, after about six months, Hegle could begin to see progress. He did not have to worry about every step he took or worry about how to get back to where he came from.
“We truly became a team,” Hegle said, “and it felt that way when we walked together.”
For Hegle, having a dog has been an incredibly helpful experience; however, he encourages applicants, before getting too far into the process, to examine their own abilities to take care of a dog. Dogs are a lot of work and require a steady amount of care.
“You need to have fairly strong mobility skills in the first place,” Hegle said. “If you don’t, most schools will not provide a dog for you.”
No two schools do training the same way. There are two major guide dog training schools in Indiana, Midwest Assistance Dogs and Phoenix Assistance Dogs. Both are great points of reference for anyone interested in getting a guide dog.
The relationship between Hegle and Ben goes beyond just duty. He said Ben is the best dog he has ever had.
“At school, we work on bonding, and even when we are home, he follows me around the house and never lets me out of his sight,” Hegle said. “He is a true companion first, guide second.”