What is a guide dog?
A guide dog is a dog that has been specifically trained to help the blind or visually impaired to navigate their way around, consequently giving them the freedom to live their lives to the full. These dogs are generally referred to as assistance dogs or service dogs, as well as guide dogs and guide dogs for the blind.
Can any breed of dog be a service dog?
No, the dogs need to be a certain size, have a good temperament and a high level of intelligence to pass through the rigorous training needed to make them reliable guide dogs.
Three main breeds pass this criterion and are the ones most generally used, although other breeds are sometimes used if the dog shows a particular aptitude.
The three main breeds of dog are:
- Golden Retriever
- German Shepherd
These breeds have all the qualities necessary to be trained as assistance dogs and are bred specifically for the job.
Do you have to train the dog yourself?
The dogs are specially bred and the puppies that are chosen then have to go through, and pass, a very intensive training course. Not all dogs make it, with the average pass rate being around 75%.
The puppies go to trained, volunteer puppy raisers when they are around eight weeks old. These volunteers have already been trained and they follow strict rules for both training and caring for the puppy. Their job, other than general puppy training and obedience skills, is to familiarise the puppy with a wide range of environments and teach it to not mind being alone. They have to regularly attend puppy classes and have meetings to discuss the dog’s development and progress. The puppies are constantly checked for suitability and have a thorough health check just before moving on to make sure they are healthy and enough and strong enough for their future work. They stay with their volunteer raiser for between 12 and 16 months, before going on to their training course.
How are guide dogs trained?
The training for guide dogs is done in several stages. The first part of the course lasts for five to six months, during which time they are taught basic guiding skills such as avoiding obstacles and dealing with curbs and steps. Once they have passed through this stage they move on to stage two which lasts for around three months. They work with mobility instructors who teach them how to use their current skills in everyday situations.
The dogs that pass are then assessed for character and temperament in order to successfully match them with a compatible owner. This process can be quite lengthy as there are so many factors to take into consideration. Once a match has been made, both the dog and the owner spend five weeks working together with an instructor.
Their working life lasts around eight years and they then retire and stay with their owner or, if this is not possible, they move onto a volunteer retirement home.
What can assistance dogs do once they are trained?
Once they have fully completed the last part of the training with their visually impaired owners these dogs have an impressive set of skills. They always walk slightly ahead of their owner, do not sniff the ground as all dogs normally do, and can avoid any obstacles that in are in the way. They will avoid narrow, unsafe places, stop when there is a curb, step or raised area and will find crossings and other safe areas in order to cross the road. Although they are considerably lower and narrower than their owner they are able to calculate the height and width of any object in order to prevent the person banging their head or sides. The dogs are also perfectly adept at using all kinds of public transport.
They are attentive at all times and can obey simple commands, such as finding a free chair in a café, and following the directions given by their owner. The owner always decides where they are going and the dog will not simply turn a corner without being told to do so. The dog and owner are a complete ‘team’ and work together constantly.
Although service dogs are 100% obedient, they are also fully aware of their owner’s needs, the surroundings they are in and what is happening around them. They are taught to override any instruction that may put their owner in danger such as a speeding car, or a car that has jumped a red light. At these times the dog will refuse any instruction from the owner until the danger has passed.
Can I stroke or talk to a guide dog?
No, you should never approach a guide dog, however appealing it looks or however tempted you are to stroke it. When they have their harness on they are working and fully concentrating on the needs of their owner and any distraction could put that owner in danger.
If you come across a situation where a visually impaired team looks in need of help then approach them and speak to the owner calmly and clearly. If they are lost then give them instructions but do not talk to or touch the dog. If other type of help is needed, such as medical assistance, then deal with the situation but always leave the owner to deal with the dog.