Frequently I am asked what the guide dog's harness handle or leash are used for.
The dog harness has evolved over the years and may vary from training school to training school. Though the leather is thick and strong, the harness is light weight. I do remember one though, that I was given that had been used on a guide dog some 35 years ago. To fasten this heavy harness around the dog took fastening three heavy buckles.
I am thankful I can secure the harness on my guide with just a simple click, especially when exiting the car in pouring down rain. Picking up the harness handle tells my guide dog that we are going out and he is alert as he waits for further instruction. If I stop to chat for a few minutes, I should tell my guide dog to "sit" and then I will let go of the handle.
Holding the harness handle while visiting is sort of like a driver in a stick shift car slipping the clutch. When walking, I hold the harness handle in my left hand and allow my guide to apply a little pressure so the dog is actually pulling me. Not bad when walking up a steep hill.
If the guide dog seems to be not following commands, a quick jerk on the harness handle will usually get him back on track. The harness handle is what allows a guide dog to safely walk the team around obstacles or away from danger. The handle can be removed with just a simple press of a little button, although the whole harness can be removed with one easy maneuver and then carried over my shoulder.
As a gentle reminder, do not bother a guide dog in any way if he is wearing the harness.
Another important item is the leash, which I also hold in my left hand at all times, whether I am being guided by a sighted person with my dog walking along on the "heel" command or if he is in the sit position as well as in the work mode. The leash is what many call the most important hardware for using a guide dog. It is made of long-lasting leather and will usually outlast the guide dog. The leash is important for giving the dog instructions such as turns ahead. I may at times take the leash in my right hand to give my guide specific instruction.
A gentle leader may be used. This looks a lot like what is used to prevent dogs from biting and some guide dogs respond better with a gentle leader. The leash, fastened to their collar is also fastened to the gentle leader and it does not take much of a pull to have the dog's attention.
Another item that may be used is a prong collar. This one is like its name; there are prongs that press gently around the dog's neck just behind the dogs ears and a simple correction will get the dog's attention.
The dog's collar is what most people call a choke collar and most of the time this remains loose around the dog's neck.
Sometimes our guides may be required to wear dog shoes. My guide has larger shoes for his front feet than his back feet. The shoes are especially helpful when walking the dog on hot pavement that may burn the dog's foot pads or when working the dog where salt may be used to clear icy roads.
Now a little story that happened only a few weeks ago. Walking down our road, I became aware of a large field sprinkler watering a nearby field. From past experience I knew the spray would be shooting onto the pavement so I made a mental note to beware on our return walk home.
Returning home, we had crossed the farm's driveway and I was listening to the sprinkler; I also noted that my guide dog must be watching for he had slowed and I could tell that he was watching the spray. I was sure I heard the water pass over the pavement so I said, "OK, let's go."
My guide dog took off in a run and I felt his eagerness as we hurried up the road. I am sure he remembered a time last year when he wasn't as fast and he didn't want to get wet this morning. It was really funny -- but he kept both of us dry.
Ernie Jones, a registered nurse, retired early due to vision loss. He and his family moved to the area in 1986. He can be reached at email@example.com or 529-9252.