by Ken Sands
Forest Hills is a beautiful, walkable neighborhood. During the pandemic, it’s been ideal for socially distant walking. More people also adopted pets as walking companions, so you’re more likely to encounter dogs on our streets and sidewalks.
As it became evident that Covid-19 is not often spread outdoors, and as most of our friends and neighbors have been vaccinated, the “socially distant” part of neighborhood walking has receded. Folks are chatting mask-free on the sidewalks again, while their dogs sniff each other with reckless abandon.
For most of us, this return to normality is a welcome relief.
But for our blind and sight-impaired neighbors, more people and more dogs on the sidewalks makes Forest Hills more challenging and even dangerous to navigate.
One Forest Hills resident, who wishes to remain unnamed, walks with her guide dog daily, sometimes with sighted companions who can point out the sidewalk hazards and can warn of approaching dogs. She also avoids the baseball field at Forest Hills Park, which in the mornings and evenings is often used as an unofficial and illegal off-leash dog park.
Despite the precautions, her German shepherd guide dog has been attacked and menaced by dogs in recent months. For a blind person, this is both terrifying and dangerous. During one attack, she was pulled violently to the ground and injured.
A harnessed guide dog – even a large German shepherd – also is quite vulnerable, and can suffer physical and psychological damage from an attack. It costs an estimated $50,000 to fully train these specialized working dogs, and they are protected under the law.
“I talked to the police after the last attack and they instructed me to call 911 immediately after any future incidents and they will take appropriate enforcement action,” she said.
What can you do to help?
First and foremost, make sure your dogs are on a leash and remain a safe distance away from any working dog. Never assume that your dog is friendly to service animals. (The harness seems to trigger some dogs.) Whenever possible, cross the street. If your dog barks, confirm verbally that the dog is on a leash and that you will keep it a safe distance away. Always announce yourself if you’re passing closely, if there is no safe way to avoid face-to-face dog contact so you and service-dog handler can determine the best, safest way to go. Do not speak to the service dog, or attempt to engage with it while it’s working. If the harness is on, it’s working.
If you witness a service dog and its handler being attacked or menaced, please assist in an appropriate way. It’s never wise to try to break up a dog fight, but you can help the blind person regain their bearings and control over their animal.
“If my dog is injured, I lose my eyes – it’s that simple. I, of course, also lose a loving companion as is the case for all loving dog owners, but it’s different with a guide dog,” she said.
Secondly, all homeowners should clear their sidewalks of vegetation, especially at face level.
Guide dogs are good at avoiding most obstacles, but can’t always judge what’s going to smack their handler in the face. Unfortunately, some sidewalks in Forest Hills are obstructed to the point of being dangerous.
So trim those bushes that encroach on the sidewalks, and trim those tree limbs that hover ominously. You probably take it for granted that you casually avoid such obstacles and may have never considered what it’s like for the visually impaired.