Guide Dogs

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Dogs, in general, are amazing creatures. But service dogs, like guide dogs, are true stand outs. In addition to traditional canine companionship, they play an integral role in the lives of the visually impaired.

When were dogs first used as guides?

Guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired have an impressive history that began in Germany during World War I, where the first guide dogs helped veterans blinded in combat. The guide dogs’ notoriety increased in 1927 when American dog breeder and Swedish resident, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, wrote an article on guide dogs for The Saturday Evening Post. Her article inspired a visually impaired American named Morris Frank.

Frank visited Switzerland and trained with Buddy, one of Eustis’s dogs. Frank and Buddy traveled together back to the US where they toured the country demonstrating the abilities of guide dogs. Their public appearances highlighted the need for service dogs to have access to hotels, restaurants, shops, public transportation and other places that were previously off-limits to canines. They also founded the first American guide dog training school, called The Seeing Eye, which is why guide dogs are often called “Seeing Eye dogs.”

Which breeds are suitable for service?

Early on, German Shepherds were the most utilized breed for service positions, but today many breeds fill these spots. Trainers recognize that Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Standard Poodles, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Boxers, Airedales, Collies, Dobermans, and other appropriately-sized breeds work quite well as guide dogs. Size is important because the height of the dog at the shoulder, plus the length of the harness, must fit comfortably with the height of the handler.

The most popular service dog breed today is the Labrador Retriever due to its size range, short hair coat, and mild temperament; however, a lofty pedigree is not a job requirement for canine assistance animals. Cross breeds, like Golden Retriever/Labrador mixes, work really well. Standard Poodles mixed with Labradors or Golden Retrievers do not shed much, making them good choices for people with allergies.

“A lofty pedigree is not a job requirement for canine assistance animals.”

Although there is no perfect guide dog, research and selective breeding have helped refine characteristics such as temperament, energy level, size, and walking stride to improve the overall quality and compatibility of service dogs. This work helps create a good dog-handler match.

How are guide dogs trained?

Some guide dog training facilities breed and raise pups onsite. When the pups are weaned from their mothers, they live with foster families who socialize them and provide loving care.

At about 16-18 months of age, the dogs return to the facility and begin a 4-6 month period of formal training that marks the beginning of an amazing career. The first 4-5 months is spent with an experienced, sighted trainer for in-depth training. Under supervision of the instructor, the dog’s last month of training is spent with a blind person who will become his handler and new best friend.

Training institutes educate both the dog and the owner. The dog learns to “guide” the person. The person learns to handle, communicate with, and care for the dog. During this process a strong bond develops that enhances the relationship profoundly.

The dog learns to navigate various obstacles, but he is never the “leader.” The human part of the dynamic duo is taught how to direct the dog and utilize commands learned in mobility training exercises. In other words, the dog is the driver of the car watching for obstacles and the handler is the navigator determining how to get from Point A to Point B. The human knows where he wants to go and the dog gets him there safely.

What skills do guide dogs learn?

Guide dogs are proficient in leading a human safely to a designated location. This entails watching for hazards from above and below. Low hanging tree limbs or power lines, curbs, stairs, and potholes can spell disaster for a blind person.

In addition to heeding commands, guide dogs learn how to reason. If the handler issues a command to cross a street as traffic approaches, the dog learns to disobey. This ability is called intelligent disobedience and is critical to the safely of both human and dog.

Dogs also learn to ignore distractions that interfere with their duties. These remarkable dogs have the will power not to abandon their owners in pursuit of a stray ball bouncing across their path.

“Dogs also learn to ignore distractions that interfere with their duties.”

Etiquette is another class at service dog school. Good manners are required to visit places where proper behavior is important, such as restaurants or shops.

Guide dogs are truly smart, but there are some things they simply cannot do. They cannot read traffic signals, so the handler must determine when to proceed at a crosswalk. Some intersections have auditory signals, which help. And even though dogs have good homing instincts, they cannot map out a route to an unfamiliar location. The abilities of the dog and handler work in tandem to successfully navigate the world.

What are the other benefits of service dogs?

Dog lovers fully realize the benefits of having a canine family member. Medical studies confirm that dogs impact the health of their human companions. Canines have a positive psychological effect making their owners feel more confident and secure. Blind people with guide dogs are better equipped to set out into the world with their trusted friend.

A canine companion also relieves depression, stress, and anxiety which improve cardiovascular health. Plus, a blind person with a guide dog is likely to walk more and the additional exercise is a health benefit. People on the street are more apt to communicate with a person walking a dog, so the visually impaired owner enjoys the resulting social interaction. Remember, however, that a guide dog is working when they are with their handler, so check first before touching or interacting with the dog.

In short, the guide dog is not just a working animal…he is a loyal pal. Good temperament and training combine to produce guide dogs that love their jobs and are happy at work! Thanks to Buddy and Frank for paving the way for other visually impaired people and their seeing eye dogs who walk down countless paths together.

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