Once every three months, The Red Blazer Restaurant and Pub in Concord hosts up to 20 dogs at lunchtime. But the dogs aren’t there for food — they are, quietly, hard at work.
The Dog Guide Users of New Hampshire has promoted the use and awareness of dog guides and service dogs in the state and meets quarterly at the restaurant to discuss its mission. As part of its goal to create awareness about the use of these dogs, the group hosts educational events to teach the public about what exactly these dogs are capable of.
On Saturday, Sept. 28, representatives from the organization will visit the Concord Public Library at 1 p.m., to share their experiences. Group member Larry Ashford said one of the most important elements of these events is going beyond explaining what a dog guide can do and teaching people how to properly interact with one in public.
“People see these dogs and think it’s a pet,” Ashford said. “They don’t realize what they can do and how much they’re working. As soon as you put on their harness, they know they’re working.”
Ashford is legally blind and is currently using his second dog guide, a golden retriever and Labrador retriever mix named Quentin. When he and Quentin head outside and are walking along a sidewalk, Ashford is almost entirely dependent on the dog to keep him safe. So while it may be well intentioned, Ashford said, approaching and patting a dog guide while it’s working could have severe consequences, since the dog is responsible for keeping him safe from cars and other obstacles.
“It’s like if someone is driving a car and the passenger reaches over and grabs the steering wheel,” he said. “If someone is patting him, then he stops what he’s doing.”
When it was founded, the organization was specifically for visually impaired users of dog guides. But Carol Holmes, the group’s president, said over the years it has expanded to include puppy raisers and people with other disabilities a service dog can help with.
Holmes has used a dog guide for 44 years and is currently on her sixth dog. She said while most everyone has a basic understanding of service dogs and how they can assist their handlers, events like the one coming up in Concord help the public gain an even wider perspective on what they are capable of.
“I want the event at the library to be fun, especially for kids,” she said. “I want them to learn respect for people who have a disability and about all the wonderful things that dogs can do to help us.”
Sometimes, Holmes said, what the dog doesn’t do is just as important as what it does.
The concept of intelligent disobedience, she said, is essential in keeping a visually impaired person safe. When outside with the dog, the dog will walk ahead at the command of “forward” from its handler. But if the dog detects an unsafe obstacle in the way, it will consciously disregard the forward command, keeping the team safe.
Before these dogs can safely guide and protect a person, they need to be properly trained at the highest level. Scott and Mary Mace have volunteered as puppy raisers with Canine Companions for Independence for 20 years.
Scott Mace said he will receive a dog when it is 8 weeks old and from there will teach it all of the necessary skills like obeying voice commands, handling large crowds and loud noises and how to adjust to walking on different surfaces.
Margaret Hughes, a puppy raiser with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, said guide dog schools are constantly in need of puppy raisers and anyone can get involved, even without prior dog ownership experience.
“Guiding Eyes and other schools are always in need,” she said. “You don’t need previous experience, and people are available to help you right from the start.”
Mace said when he attends events like the one coming up in Concord, the most frequent question he receives is if it’s hard to give up a puppy after training it for a year and a half. While it is an emotional experience, he said, knowing that the dog has a full life ahead of it to improve the life of someone in need makes the process much easier.
“It’s hard and you’ll cry and you’ll laugh and have mixed emotions, but it’s worth it,” he said. “You’ll get so much out of it.”