The last Wednesday in April is International Guide Dogs Day, celebrating the incredible difference guide dogs make to people with sight loss all around the world. Here in the UK, Guide Dogs has been partnering people with these life-changing animals for 90 years, and there are currently around 4,000 working guide dogs across the country.
An accessible, local and caring veterinary practice is a critical element of every guide dog partnership. Blind and visually impaired people rely on their guide dogs for their independence and freedom every single day – if ever their dog is unwell or injured, they can’t work together. Not only this, but a guide dog is as much a part of the family as a beloved pet; they are a constant companion and the bond runs deep. A guide dog in need of veterinary care can cause great distress on so many levels.
This International Guide Dogs Day, we’d like to ask veterinary practices to consider what more they can do to make people with sight loss feel at ease when visiting, and ensure they are giving them support and advice tailored for their needs. Taking this extra care and attention can help ensure a guide dog has a long and healthy working life, as well as a comfortable and well-deserved retirement.
This International Guide Dogs Day, we’d like to ask veterinary practices to consider what more they can do to make people with sight loss feel at ease when visiting
Everyone at a veterinary practice has the responsibility to ensure clients with disabilities are catered for with compassion and dignity. In the case of someone with sight loss, there are simple steps to be taken that can ensure a visit is smooth and a client feels involved and informed when it comes to their dog’s health.
Before the appointment
First of all, make a note in the appointment diary that the client has a visual impairment, and ensure the vet and any staff who will be at the appointment are aware ahead of time. Reception staff should watch out for the client’s arrival to ensure they find their way, and introduce themselves, all while ignoring the guide dog. If the client has come alone, ask how they would like to be assisted – some may instruct their guide dog to follow the staff member and find them a chair, some may ask to be guided by holding on to a staff member’s left elbow. It’s perfectly fine to ask someone about their sight loss and what they can see, as this will influence how much support they need.
In the waiting room, find space for the client and their guide dog away from any other animals (Figure 1). This is less distracting for the guide dog, who is still “at work” at this point. If guiding the client to a chair, tell them whether it has arms, and then place your guiding arm’s hand on the back of the chair. This will allow the client to feel down, find it for themselves and sit down. Let them know if there are any other people or animals in the room with them and how long they may be waiting, and then tell them if you are leaving them.
Reception staff should watch out for the client’s arrival to ensure they find their way, and introduce themselves, all while ignoring the guide dog
When the vet is ready, do not call out across the room to the client – approach them and see if they need assistance to the consultation room. At the appointment itself, the option of having a chair in the consulting room is useful. Once a client is settled and aware of everyone who is in the room and where the consultation table is, the appointment can proceed. Always direct any questions to the guide dog owner themselves, even if they have a sighted family member or friend with them, as they are the primary carer.
Always direct any questions to the guide dog owner themselves, even if they have a sighted family member or friend with them, as they are the primary carer
When attending to a guide dog, it is valuable to be descriptive of what you are doing and seeing, talking through that you are checking the dog’s ears, for example. This helps the client build a picture of what is going on. Describe any equipment you may be using and discuss and describe any paperwork and medications thoroughly.
Touch is important to people with sight loss, so try where possible to make any demonstrations or explanations as tactile as possible. For example, allow a client to feel their guide dog’s leg as you flex and extend a joint so they can feel the stiffness they can’t see. Add a piece of tape or a rubber band to a dosing syringe to show the volume of a medication. Allow the client to feel the shape and size of different tablets if they have been given two or more medications and put them in packages of clearly different sizes or textures. If in doubt, ask your client what works for them: many people with sight loss have devised inventive ways of accessing the world and can share their insights with you.
If in doubt, ask your client what works for them: many people with sight loss have devised inventive ways of accessing the world and can share their insights with you
It’s also critical to remember that guide dog owners, particularly if they live alone or with another blind or visually impaired person, may struggle to spot health concerns with their dogs that have visual symptoms. Common issues, such as skin conditions or slight limping, can be missed. The same can be said about monitoring a dog’s weight – it can be more challenging for a guide dog owner to notice a gain or loss. A guide dog’s weight should be recorded at every visit; the nature of some of the breeds we use, combined with positive-reinforcement training, can mean an overweight guide dog is a reasonably common occurrence that should not be ignored.
A guide dog can be impacted differently by various treatments or surgeries than the average pet dog. Any ailment affecting the area where the guiding harness is fitted may mean it will have to have a break from work. A guide dog cannot and should not work if wearing a protective cone collar and needs a full 24-hour break from guiding if put under anaesthetic or given a sedative. Drugs that affect a guide dog’s mental state, such as tramadol or gabapentin, should not be given if the dog is expected to work. Treatment that affects a guide dog’s working ability should be discussed sensitively with the client, and as far in advance as possible, as this could affect how the client gets home and their routine for the coming days.
Treatment that affects a guide dog’s working ability should be discussed sensitively with the client, and as far in advance as possible, as this could affect how the client gets home and their routine for the coming days
After the appointment
Going forward, make a note of the client’s communications preferences for their future appointments. Telephone calls, text messages and emails are likely to be much more accessible than printed vaccination reminder cards or letters in the post.
Guide Dogs covers the costs of all of its working guide dogs, including veterinary bills, as a person’s financial situation should never be a barrier to having a guide dog. This means guide dog owners must contact their Dog Care and Welfare Specialist at Guide Dogs if their dog requires more than a routine consultation or treatment. This way we can keep our own health records, discuss possible referrals and recommend the use of certain laboratories to ensure the best value for the charity. This also helps inform our breeding programme – we own all our own breeding dogs, so the appearance of any hereditary conditions is useful to be aware of.
Finally, an appeal
Veterinary services in the UK are feeling stretched at the moment, with many practices oversubscribed and some closing to new clients. Nevertheless, Guide Dogs hopes that any new guide dog owners looking to register are accepted regardless. People with sight loss face numerous barriers to travelling and are often limited to public transport: they are unable, as many pet owners are, to simply drive themselves to another vet. Having a reliable local practice, a walk or short bus journey from home, can make the world of difference to a guide dog partnership.
|For more information on the work of Guide Dogs, please visit their website.|