A Berkeley woman who relies on a guide dog for her independence has become afraid to go on walks around her own neighbourhood, after multiple incidents of her support animal being attacked by other people’s pets.
Maria Chapman has been blind since birth and started using a guide dog 15 years ago.
“They’re a life changer,” she said. “They give me independence, so I don’t have to hold onto somebody to go walking; security, because you know the dog’s there with you; and confidence.
“The first time I walked with a dog I said to the instructor, ‘I don’t feel like a blind lady’ as opposed to walking with the cane.”
But a few months ago she found herself in a helpless position when another dog, who was on a lead, started acting aggressively.
“We were coming out of church, just two doors down really, we weren’t very far, and a dog came flying up to us really fast,” she said.
She heard the dog snarling and growling but was unable to determine exactly what was occurring.
“You stand there and you think ‘What’s happening to my dog? How hurt is she going to be? What’s going on? What can I do?’ and there’s nothing you can do because if you stick your hand in there you’re going to get bit.
“All you can do is let go of the harness so they’ve got room to defend themselves.”
Her husband, who requires a mobility scooter, tried to come to her aid and separate the two dogs and eventually the owner of the other dog pulled it away.
“It just seemed like an eternity,” Maria said. “And he was like ‘Oh, my dog is usually friendly, it doesn’t usually attack.’”
But the attack wasn’t a one-off incident and she recently found herself in a similar scary situation outside her own home.
“This time we were standing just out the front near the mailbox waiting for a taxi,” she said. “The dog was laying at my feet, all pretty calm and peaceful, just waiting and two dogs came up on leads.”
She said one of the dog owners just kept repeating ‘It’ll be right’ rather than taking any action as the animals approached.
“There was no ‘Let’s walk across the road’ or ‘Let’s walk around them’ or ‘Can you move back, we’re coming up here with a dog’, just ‘It’ll be right, it’ll be right’ and the next minute the two dogs get stuck into her.”
Although Maria and her dog escaped both incidents relatively unharmed, she was left shaken by the encounters.
“Because it’s happened twice in such a short space of time, it’s really knocked my confidence,” she said. “I’m actually scared to go out on my own with the dog because I know if something happens, I can’t even tell who they are unless I have someone with me.”
And she’s yet to see how it will affect her dog in the long run.
Guide Dogs NSW/ACT Mobility Instructor Ryan Jones said these kinds of incidents could have a serious effect on both the handler and dog and even impact the ability for the dogs to continue to work effectively.
“Aside from the physical damage which might render them unable to physically work for a period of time or for good, we often see the long-lasting psychological damage which means the dogs can’t perform their job safely anymore.
“They might be avoiding certain areas, they might start seeing dogs and moving way out of the way and dragging a handler off course which may put the handler in danger.”
But he said it was not only attacks that had a negative impact, with all interactions while the dog was working posing a risk.
“When the dog’s distracted it’s going to make life really difficult for the handler who can become disorientated and stressed and in the worst case it can put them into danger because that dogs going to go off path and maybe put them somewhere they don’t want to be.”
Ryan said that while most pet owners tried to do the right thing, it was important that all pet owners knew to keep their dogs on a lead, kept a good distance away from guide dogs and kept moving on so they could do their job.
“This is that person’s independence,” he said. “For us it might just be a moment with a dog in the street but for that person it can really affect their ability and their safety to get where they want to go, when they want to go there independently.”
And it’s not just dogs that are a problem, with people urged not to engage with guide dogs while they’re working, as cute as they may be.
To find out more about guide dog etiquette, visit the Guide Dogs website.