Edgeville Buzz

Be The First To Know

Edgewater’s Blind Residents And Their Guide Dogs Face Daily Challenges


Sharon Howerton and her guide dogs Mary Jane and Cameo

There are all kinds of laborers, many of whom we are all used to seeing every day. But there’s one type of worker with four legs whose unique skills are rarer to see than most: Guide dogs. And they work right here in Edgewater.

Sharon Howerton and Jeff Flodin are Andersonville residents who know this well. Both are blind and rely on their dogs, Cameo and Randy, respectively, to help them shop, take the bus, and go to and from obligations. Both know and respect the value their guide dogs bring to their lives. That’s why it’s important to them, and to others who are not blind, to know what to do when a guide dog is near them.

On Sunday, April 24, around 7:45 p.m., Howerton’s guide dog Cameo was attacked by a passing dog at the corner of Berwyn and Clark while her older son was helping her friend, who is also blind, board a nearby bus. Cameo, 6, is a 61-pound black Labrador Retriever who sustained a very small puncture wound and a scratch on her left ear, though the skin did not break. She was treated with antibiotics after Howerton took her to the veterinarian.

The owner of the aggressive dog apologized profusely, and Howerton and Flodin acknowledged that many people do not know what not to do when they see working guide dogs. But as both explained in emails to the Edgeville Buzz, being a guide dog is serious business. Distracting a guide dog can lead to substantial problems, both for the dog and its handler.

“This is a big dog neighborhood and people love their pets,” Howerton said. “But a working dog, though she is a dog, has much more value and responsibility. Both of us have to be aware of our surroundings, but she can see what is around her. She has to be constantly aware of situations that I should avoid and that she allows me to avoid. She will walk me around obstacles to the point that I would not even know they were there. She will get us safely across streets or through crowds of people. If she sees danger like a hole in the sidewalk, barricade or other obstacle, she will get me around them or stop before I find that hole in the sidewalk, for example — and yes, she has done this. In short, a guide is no ordinary dog when she is working. She is responsible for both me and herself.”

Howerton said that, given the chance when her harness is off, Cameo loves to play, but the job is a stressful one.

“So I would like people to be aware of this,” she added. “Give that harness and that amazing four-legged creature more respect than you might give a lot of people. Be aware of her presence. Don’t just tell your dog that she is working; keep it away from her. How does (Cameo) know, though she probably has an instinct for this, that this ‘friendly’ dog won’t hurt her or me?”

“Don’t touch her,” Howerton continued. “Don’t talk to her, especially when we are walking down a street. Don’t distract her; she has a job to do about which she is very serious. It is no wonder, then, after being out somewhere, that oftentimes she sleeps a lot. It is a stressful job. This is a busy area full of noise, people, vehicles, stores, restaurants with their many smells, animals everywhere with their smells, distractions everywhere — in short, lots of stress. So when she gets home, sometimes she just runs back and forth for a couple of minutes if the trip has been especially stressful or just goes to sleep.”

Guide dogs receive extensive training before they are matched with a new handler. Then, once matched with an appropriate handler, they are then trained to meet that person’s particular habits and needs. Flodin’s guide dog Randy was trained at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey, for five months before Flodin spent a month training with him. He’s had the 7-year-old black Labrador Retriever since March 2010, and Randy guides him to and from work, as well.

“A guide dog and handler form a team which depends on each party for safe travel,” Flodin said. “When one member of that team is attacked, harassed or even distracted from its work, both team members are jeopardized. Working dogs are doing what they have been trained to do, what they view as their job. Dogs by nature are social animals and seek contact with people. A person who tries to engage with my dog, say, when we’re crossing a busy intersection, may be unaware that he is jeopardizing the dog and the handler. If rejecting all overtures by strangers seems harsh to them and (depriving) to the guide dog, I hasten to add that guide dogs are not being exploited or mistreated by doing their job. The harness means they are at work and they are proud to do this work. They have plenty of time off harness for rest, relaxation and play. They are well cared for, in part because they need to be in top shape to do their job well.”

Flodin added that he instructs his co-workers to ignore Randy at the office, though he has allowed them to touch and play with the Lab at certain times. Everybody likes this, he said, “but I won’t do this on the street.”

Additionally, he said Randy has also been attacked by other dogs that were both loose and on a leash. Fortunately, his guide dog hasn’t been seriously injured. But it is a frightening experience, Flodin added.

“I feel (the attack) must have been terrifying for Sharon and her dog,” he said. “Imagine the sounds of a dog attack in which your animal is being threatened and you don’t have the ability to see what’s going on to assess the situation and take action based on what you see. On top of your concern for your dog, you don’t know if the aggressive dog poses a threat of bodily injury to you, as well.”

Howerton has done presentations about guide dogs to school children for almost 13 years. She said she explains to the children that her guide dog Cameo should not be touched unless they ask Howerton first.

“I welcome people’s questions and appreciate it when a parent will tell a child that the dog is working and that is why she is in a store, restaurant, bus, etc.,” she said.

Howerton said it can cost about $50,000 to train a guide dog, though the handler pays nothing for that training. However, deciding what to do when a guide dog sustains injuries or becomes too old to focus on its work can be difficult. Had Cameo been so seriously injured that she would have been unable to work, Howerton could have had to wait three to six months “or whatever the school determined based on whether they felt they had a good match for me” to obtain another guide dog.

“Would I keep her as I did Mary Jane (her previous working guide dog)?” Howerton said she’d have to ask herself. “Would I see if Kristin, her puppy raiser, would want to take her back? Would I return her to (Guiding Eyes for the Blind of Yorktown Heights, New York) for placement? All those are options any time a dog retires. In short, it isn’t just a cut and dry thing like with a pet.

“These dogs have a huge responsibility and, if trained and worked properly, are an incredible enhancement to a handler’s life as she is to mine,” Howerton added. “I mean, I didn’t have to pick up after a white cane or feed it or worry about an animal hurting it, but I have and can do more things more freely and confidently with her than I could have imagined with a white cane.”

The best approach to a working guide dog is none at all, Flodin said. Allowing the dog and handler to pass without attempting to engage either, especially the dog, is always the safest. However, it is often helpful to the handler if a person, especially if that person has a dog, identifies themselves and lets the handler know what’s happening.

One way to do this would be to say, “Hi, I’m standing in the parkway and I have a dog. He’s friendly. I’ll let you and your guide dog pass.” This information can be extremely helpful to the handler, Flodin said.

“I am always eager to educate people about guide dogs. I hear most often a stranger begin with, ‘I know I’m not supposed to pet your dog, but I just can’t help myself …’ I understand where this person is coming from — I love my dog, too, and I think he’s cute and smart and all that.  But I will dissuade you from petting, feeding or otherwise distracting my dog while he is in harness because we are at work, at work of traveling safely. You wouldn’t distract your taxi driver, would you? If you want anything, ask. Don’t assume you can touch, pet, feed or distract another person’s guide dog.”

We invite you to comment as Edgeville Buzz's GUEST. We review all submissions before they go live on our site. We encourage civil dialogue. Posts must adhere to our comment policy and we reserve the right to delete posts/ban users for instances of inappropriate language, bullying speech, character defamation, spam, etc.