I love going out to eat at restaurants. Whether it is to enjoy quality time with my husband and children, or to celebrate with friends, it is often the highlight of the evening. But for me, eating at a restaurant is not always as straightforward as it is for other people because I am blind and use a guide dog.

If you haven’t seen a guide dog in action, you are missing out!

This is a typical scenario: I’m at a restaurant and get up to leave. My guide dog, Alan, has been snoozing under the table, but is now up and alert, ready to guide me. He appears from under the table, ignoring the other patrons and their food, and comes toward me so I can take his harness and leash in my hand. Then you hear the surprise and admiration from the people around me – he was so well-behaved people had no idea he was there!

Unfortunately, an equally common occurrence is that when I enter a restaurant, I am told dogs are not allowed – even when I explain that I am blind and that he is a guide dog.

The problem with this is not only that it is illegal, but it creates additional barriers for people with sight loss who already face so many obstacles. The idea of getting a guide dog is to break down some of those barriers. It is incredibly frustrating that it creates a new one. I tend to only eat at restaurants that I know will accept Alan because I am afraid to deal with possible conflict. It creates unnecessary anxiety and limits my experiences.

Fortunately, many restaurants know guide dogs are legally permitted in restaurants, and they also know how to make someone with sight loss feel comfortable and enjoy their dining experience.

How to welcome a customer with sight loss and their guide dog

Here are some tips so that you can be one of those restaurants:

  • If a guest enters your restaurant with their dog and you aren’t sure if it is a guide dog, it is better to ask rather than to start by saying “No dogs allowed.” You will know it is a guide dog if it is wearing a harness and guiding someone with sight loss. It is also helpful to ask how you can assist. Some people may have their guide dog follow you to the table, or they may prefer to take your arm and ask the dog to follow along.
  • When you reach the table, it is helpful if you place the person’s hand on the back of their chair so that they can orient themselves.
  • If your menu is available online, it would be helpful to let the customer know – many phones have voice over technology that will read the menu to them. If not, you can ask the customer the best way to help them with the menu. They may tell you what they feel like or they may want you to read the menu to them.
  • Whenever you are placing something on the table, let the person know and ideally describe where it is (e.g. “I’m putting your water on your right”). If you understand how the clock analogy works for describing locations that it is beneficial (e.g. “Your glass is at your 3 o’clock”).
  • If you are chatting with them, always let them know when you are leaving, so they are not left talking to themselves.
  • When someone with sight loss asks for directions (e.g. to the washroom), it is most helpful to ask if you can guide them there. If they prefer verbal instructions, be specific and avoid gestures or describing it as “over there” (it sounds obvious, but it happens!).
  • As for accommodating their dog; you don’t need to do anything special.  The guide dog is trained to either go under the table or tuck in beside or behind their handler. You don’t need to offer water, but it can be a nice gesture especially if it is a hot day! When a guide dog is working no one should ever talk to them or distract them in any way.  If someone in the restaurant is petting the guide dog and the handler is not aware you could let the handler know or let the customer know that the dog is working and shouldn’t be distracted.
  • Every person who lives with sight loss has their own preferences for the ideal dining experience. Talking to your customers and asking them how you can help will make sure they feel valued and included and make dining that much more enjoyable.

Victoria Nolan is the Head, Stakeholder Relations and Community Engagement for CNIB Guide Dogs. Her guide dog, Alan, has guided her through a career as a teacher and around the world as a rower on Team Canada. Most recently they were on the podium in Rio where Victoria and her team won a bronze medal.