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‘Don’t pet’: Sault woman needs you to ignore her guide dog

‘I just wish people would be more considerate,’ says Melissa Arnold, a resident living with vision loss who aims to dispel misconceptions around guide dogs
Melissa Arnold and her guide dog Cherry have been spending lots of time at Algoma University as Arnold has been working daily on a gardening research project throughout the summer

Tripping over curbs and walking into walls are all part of a normal day in Melissa Arnold’s life — a local mother of two who requires the assistance of a guide dog.

Living with macular degeneration, or vision loss, for nearly a third of her life now, Arnold has grown accustomed to these daily inconveniences and doesn’t let it prevent her from going to work and school.

But the misconceptions, particularly residents wanting to interact with her dog, have become tiresome for the second-year Algoma University student.

“I just wish people would be more considerate,” she says.

Around 14 years ago, Arnold woke up one morning and knew something was immediately wrong with her vision when she couldn’t see properly out of her right eye.

“The center of my vision was just gone,” she says. “Doctors couldn’t figure out what happened, and the ophthalmologists in Toronto said they had never really seen anything like it. They told me the inside of my eye looked like scrambled eggs.”

Diagnosed with macular degeneration at the age of 29 — an umbrella term for vision loss — Arnold’s life took another massive turn when the same issue developed in her left eye three years later.

The medical mystery left some of the country’s top physicians scratching their heads according to Arnold.

“My peripheral vision is perfect, but it’s like having a big fist of emptiness in the middle,” she described. “They’ve seen it happen to people progressively over years and years, but never this sudden – it was insane.”

Since 2015, Arnold has required around-the-clock assistance from a guide dog to help her get from point A to point B.

She used to work at Extendicare Maple View with her previous service dog Ginger, who provided lots of smiles for the nursing home residents during COVID.

Currently working with a four-year-old yellow Labrador named Cherry, Arnold says the public loves to approach her dog.

“A lot of people want to pet her,” she says. “She’s a dog, so if you try to give her attention, she’s going to go for it.”

But any attention directed towards her furry animal, other than from Arnold, can be incredibly problematic.  

“People need to ignore the dog – pretend she’s not there,” she says. “It’s hard because she is so adorable. But I don’t want to keep going for new dogs every year because her training gets ruined by people giving her attention.”

Cherry trained to be a guide dog for four years at a school in Ottawa. Arnold moved there for a month this past spring to be taught how to effectively work with Cherry before they both came back to the Sault.

Currently living with her third guide dog in eight years, Arnold says she’s been on the receiving end of several inappropriate incidents that have put her safety at risk, including a particular interaction at a Soo Greyhounds game.

“During intermission, a woman approached us and started petting her,” she says. “Now I’m lost. I knew where I was, I was counting my steps, I knew how many more steps I needed to go, and now they’ve not only pushed us back but have completely distracted the dog, who now is not going to consider where we’re going. I’m sure that wasn’t their intention, but it can be devastating.”

“You wouldn’t take a paraplegic out of their wheelchair so you could give it a shot or take someone’s crutches when they have a broken leg.”

While she’s met countless people who are eager to interact with Cherry, Arnold admits there have been many cases where people also want nothing to do with them, which has gotten to the point where sometimes even services deemed to be essential have been denied.

“Cab drivers in the Sault have driven past me or refused to give me a ride because they didn’t want the dog,” she says. “It gets to the point where it has taken me longer to find a ride than it would be to walk. It’s embarrassing and it’s rejection. My vision already rejected me, so it’s tough.”

“My right to bring my guide dog with me should trump someone being uncomfortable with it,” she adds. “Fearful? I get that. Some people are terrified of dogs, and I can respect that. But I need somebody to fight for me because I’m pretty exhausted.”

Although she would like to see a transportation service specifically designated for people with vision loss, Arnold admits it’s wishful thinking. But the social work student says more education on guide dogs could go a long way.

“People don’t usually see a dog inside of a public building, especially in the Sault — there’s so few of us,” she says. “Kids should definitely be made aware of it at school. Even at the university, where maybe students who travelled far have a different cultural view of dogs.”

Despite some challenges with public accessibility and general awareness, Arnold says she can always rely on her sense of humour to help her cope.

“A guy at the LCBO dropped a can of something on the floor the other day, and I’m like, ‘I saw nothing,’ and he’s like, ‘oh, thanks,’ and I said, ‘no really – I saw nothing.’ It was great,” she laughed.

“I’ve also been working outside in a garden for my professor, and one morning I accidentally put on a Hooters t-shirt instead of my plain black shirt. Then I spent the day trying to hide it.”

Arnold admits that Cherry will make the odd mistake as she’s not perfect, but she explains there are several clues the public should look for prior to approaching a dog that could avoid the creation of a safety hazard all together.

“The harness is a good indicator – it should have a bright handle,” she says. “Most guide dogs should also be wearing something that says, ‘Please don’t pet me – I’m working.’ Not everyone who has a guide dog is completely blind either — some of us can still see a bit.”

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Alex Flood

About the Author: Alex Flood

Alex is a recent graduate from the College of Sports Media where he discovered his passion for reporting and broadcasting
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