The daily life of a working guide dog is filled with dynamic combinations of people, smells, sights and sounds. Their job – to navigate this cacophony on behalf of their visually impaired handlers – is intense and important. When Covid-19 hit, these dogs couldn’t open up a laptop and continue working from home. Now, their owners are grappling with the pandemic’s long-term effects on their guides and guardians.“One of my very first thoughts when I heard that my city was shutting down was ‘OK, what am I going to do with my dog?’” says Marie Villaneda, 19, of Bloomington, Indiana. She got her guide, a five-year-old Bernese mountain dog and black lab mix named Milot, at 15. Pre-pandemic, the duo walked 10 miles a day, so “it became clear very, very quickly that Milot was bored”. For guide dogs, “guiding is like writing a doctorate dissertation. It takes a lot of the dog’s brain power and physical energy,” she says, “and there’s just nothing equivalent that I can simulate at home.”
To combat the mundanity, Villaneda began scouring YouTube and Facebook and consulting trainers at the non-profit that trained Milot, the Mira Foundation, to learn how to keep his guiding skills sharp. She is now well versed in keeping her dog mentally active. She creates small obstacle courses for Milot in her apartment and plays impulse-control games with him. It keeps him engaged, but it is also a necessity for when the pandemic is over. “I don’t want him chasing after a basketball, thinking that somebody wants to play with him when my safety is in his paws,” she says. Villaneda doesn’t foresee having Milot professionally retrained post-pandemic, but she knows she’s unique. “Everybody I’ve talked to is experiencing significant distractibility within their dogs. A lot of folks are working from home,” she says, or are preoccupied with priorities that make it difficult to spend time sharpening their guide dog’s skills.
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“He just wanted to get out and work so bad and obviously you can’t explain to a guide dog what a pandemic is,” says Molly Burke, a YouTuber, about her dog Gallop in a December video that has been viewed more than 900,000 times. For the past six years, Burke and Gallop had travelled the world, navigating airplanes, galas, stages, hotel rooms, and time zone changes. But 10 months into the pandemic, he seemed to give up. “I think the way he got himself through it was to just kind of decide he retired, to assume … he’s no longer a working dog,” she says. Her dog was depressed, anxious, and disruptive. The Labernese began stealing food, pulling on walks, and exhibiting other behavior from his pre-working life as a pet.
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At first, his descent was slow and Burke assumed he might recover when the pandemic ended. But by mid-October, she realized that might not happen. “I realized he’s continuing to slip, and the world is continuing to stay shut.” Guide dogs usually serve for six to eight years, so Burke knew Gallop’s retirement was on the horizon, but she didn’t expect to find herself stranded without a guide dog so quickly. “Now I’m just floating around, hoping to God some time in the next three years I get a dog. The emotion of it is huge,” she says.
Burke is not alone. There are more than 10,000 guide dog teams in the US; Mira says that the hundreds it works with are all experiencing a need for retraining or early retirement. The burden of dealing with this issue falls on Mira (which is the only organization in the US that provides guide dogs to people ages 11-16) and non-profits like it. Those organizations are often underfunded and volunteer-run, and the added limitations of the pandemic have made it nearly impossible for them to safely train new service animals and retrain those already in service.
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It has left Burke and other blind and visually impaired Americans in a precarious position for the foreseeable future. “It’s going to be a hot mess,” says Burke. “Years of people waiting for new dogs, years of people trying to get retrained … this is a very real problem.” A cane offers a mobility alternative, but it would require a significant lifestyle change. With a guide dog, “[there’s] more freedom to not only move, but to think,” says Villaneda. At school, “I can tell Milot that we’re going to math and he will take me to the room on the other side of campus. It’s effortless. A dog allows you to spend a lot more time building your life and less time finding doors or stairs.”
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“As a petite, blind woman, living in a big city, I feel exponentially safer having a 100lb dog beside me,” says Burke. Plus, “the dog is a lot less of a scary symbol of disability. People don’t come up and say, ‘Oh my God, how old is your cane? What’s its name?’ but all the time people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, tell me about your dog!’ It opens conversation.”
But in a pandemic, when well-intentioned strangers approach Villaneda to pet Milot, it makes it harder to maintain social distance – which of course could be lethal. “As somebody who is blind, I don’t notice until they’re up on me. It’s very scary. I’d love to go outside. I want to work my dog. But I’d also like to be alive,” says Villaneda.
“We are a vulnerable community [because] we have to touch everything. We need more help from other people,” says Burke. “All of these things put us more at risk and should make our community a top priority [when it comes to vaccination].”
Despite this, most states have not mentioned disabled Americans in their plans for a vaccine distribution, and guide dog trainers are not considered essential workers.
“It’s awful, because an estimated 1 billion people have a disability,” says Burke, adding that the number grows every day. “The disability community is the only minority group that anybody can join at any time in their life.”