How are Guide Dogs Trained?

Dignified, loyal and, above all, very fury, guide dogs are a vital tether to the outside world for many blind and visually impaired people that allow them to live more independent, if dog hair covered, lives. As you’d expect, training one of these wonder-dogs is no easy feat and requires teaching the canine in question to ignore many of its own base instincts… including, yes, the desire to poop.

Before getting to that, let’s first talk about how prospective guide dogs are chosen. Given that they are quite literally sometimes required to make life or death decisions (more on that in a moment), virtually all guide dogs are selected as such more or less from birth so that their development can be closely monitored. Towards this end, many organizations that train guide and service dogs for the blind and visually impaired inevitably maintain an in-house breeding program or only train dogs from trusted breeders. The reasoning for this, as the charity, Irish Guide Dogs, explains, is that “By breeding our own dogs, we can ensure that they have the best temperament and characteristics.”

Now, while theoretically any kind of dog can be trained to be a guide dog, there are a number of breeds of dog that are considered to be more suitable for the task for one reason or another. For example, many believe that dogs from the retriever family are naturally suited for the job of guide dog owing to their amiable personality, loyalty, and intelligence. Likewise, there are those who believe Border Collies are more suited for the task due to their exceptional situational awareness and work ethic. Alternatively, you have people who believe that Doberman Pinschers actually make the best guide dogs because they rarely shed and thus don’t need to be groomed as much- a task that a completely blind individual may find difficult and thus appreciate the low maintenance.

All that said, it’s important to note that the most important thing is simply matching the human to the dog, regardless of breed. On that note, most every organization that trains guide dogs we consulted notes that pairing guide dogs with an owner is more of an art than a science. Everything from temperament to even something as simple as size is considered to find the perfect match.

For example, on the size note, all guide dogs are trained to walk at a consistent, steady speed while ignoring outside distractions save for cars and the like; the idea being that a blind person can walk confidently at whatever pace is comfortable for them without having to constantly slow down or speed up which would be both annoying and dangerous. To this end, guide dogs that naturally walk quite fast or slow will be paired with people to whom that benefits. For example, a dog with a brisk walking speed may be paired with an especially tall person with a longer stride, while a more slow paced dog may be paired with an elderly person.

Likewise, dogs with a specific temperament will similarly be paired with a person whom that attitude compliments. For instance, an especially playful and energetic dog may be paired with a visually impaired person with children, while an elderly person may be paired with a less energetic pupper. In the end, it’s all about ensuring that the bond between dog and owner is as strong as possible.

This idea is supported by a survey of blind and visually impaired people conducted on behalf of a British guide dog charity by researchers from the University of Nottingham in 2017. In a nutshell, the survey found that blind and visually impaired people had a variety of, often conflicting, expectations from their fuzzy companions. For example while some respondents noted that they greatly enjoyed the many idiosyncrasies of their eyeball-replacing canine, others noted that they wished their guide dog was more mature and task-focused- more of a working dog and less of, well, a dog. As the researchers who published the survey would note of their findings:

“A number of important areas of behaviour were revealed that were not considered in behavioural assessments for dogs during guide dog training and consideration of these elements would potentially enhance these assessments. Key areas were; consistency of behaviour, the dog’s maturity and the dog’s behaviour in relation to children.”

Before we move on, we feel it’s important to mention that one of the respondents in the survey noted that their guide dog kept stealing socks when it wasn’t working- a behaviour they admittedly found hilarious because, in their words, “she’s a dog at the end of the day”.

Getting back to the topic at hand, once a puppy has been chosen for guide dog training the first 6-8 weeks of its life will be spent with its mother and the rest of its brothers and sisters. No formal training takes place during this period, but it is nonetheless considered essential to the development of a successful guide dog as it allows the dog to learn valuable social skills as well as receive lots of affection.

At around the two month mark, the puppy will then be put into the care of what is commonly known as a puppy raiser or walker for about a year. Depending on the organization training the dog, the responsibilities expected of the puppy raiser vary. But, for the most part, they are first and foremost asked to ensure the puppy is raised in a loving environment. On top of this, the puppy raiser is usually asked to socialize the dog as much as possible and introduce it to as many sights, sounds and smells as possible. Of note is that while many of the organizations we consulted explain that no “formal training” occurs during this time, those caring for the puppy during this time are generally expected to teach it simple obedience much like any other dog. However, the real goal of all of this is simply to ensure the puppy is well-rounded, confident and comfortable around most anything.

As an aside, this is a volunteer position that near enough anyone can do provided they pass a simple background check. Although the position isn’t usually paid, most organizations that do this will provide near enough everything for the puppy during this time including veterinary care, food and toys, while anything else you need to buy will generally be tax deductible.

So yeah, if you like the sound of helping raise an adorable puppy that will one day help a blind or visually impaired person live a more independent life, that might be something you want to look into. Be warned, however, from the research we’ve done giving the dog back is always a gut wrenching experience for both the volunteer and the dog. In regards to the dog specifically, this is considered to be vital to their training as a given dog may be placed with several blind or visually impaired people before a suitable pairing is found. As a result, it’s important for them to get used to moving between environments without becoming stressed. Handily, to ease the whole process, many organizations allow volunteers to periodically visit a dog they cared for to see how it’s doing during the next stage of it’s life.

Speaking of which, it is after this stage where the real training begins. It should be noted here that approximately one third of all puppies fail guide dog school. It’s not all bad though because said dogs usually go on to have careers as more general assistance dogs, police dogs and in some cases, are simply adopted as family pets that also know how to do things like open certain types of doors.

In any event, like traditional obedience training, as for the nuts and bolts of the actual instruction, this mostly involves careful use of clear, concise commands that are reinforced via a combination of verbal praise, treats, and play until the dog in question learns the correct behavior. Unlike traditional obedience training, however, guide dog training is much more involved and as noted earlier, often results in teaching the dog to act against its own instincts. For example, guide dogs are taught to walk in a straight line and ignore both people and other dogs when in “work mode”.

To this end, guide dogs are trained to not respond to being touched or pet when wearing their harness or respond to verbal commands to anyone but their master. Somewhat amazingly, despite many guide dogs wearing special harnesses carrying polite reminders not to pet or distract them when working, numerous interviews with the visually impaired we researched suggest that this is still a fairly pervasive and annoying problem. For example, Morgan Watkins, a director for Guide Dogs for the Blind explained in an interview with Today that he has frequently gone to reassure his dog with a friendly pat on the head only to find another person’s hand on it.

Guide dogs are actually so well trained in regards to their ability to ignore distractions that most won’t flinch at the barks of other dogs and are so stoic in nature that if attacked they will stand stock still until commanded to do otherwise. For the curious, in such a situation a visually impaired person is taught to let go of the harness and call for help.

Another thing male guide dogs specifically are taught to do that would otherwise be against their nature is to pee without lifting up one of their legs. On that note, the visually impaired owner can easily tell whether the dog is pooping or peeing by gently running a hand along its back. Depending on whether the back is curved or straight the blind person can then tell whether the dog is pooping or peeing. Impressively, guide dogs are also taught to do their business on command. This is done for two main reasons- one to ensure safety of the dog’s owner by making sure the dog doesn’t randomly stop to poop or pee while crossing the road or something and, two, so that the owner can be responsible and clean it up.

By far the most impressive thing guide dogs are taught to do though is something known as “intelligent disobedience”. Essentially, this is to ignore direct commands that would place it and its owner in danger. A common example of this can be observed when guide dogs are told to cross a road. Through countless hours of training, guide dogs are taught to ignore the order to cross a road if they hear or see a vehicle or bike approaching, using their superior doggy senses to detect what their owner cannot.

On a related note, an apparently common misconception about guide dogs is that they are taught to read and observe traffic signals, which just isn’t true at all. In reality, guide dogs are taught to recognise more simple elements of their environment like curbs, which they are taught to instinctively stop at. At this point, the dog is taught to wait patiently until given the command to begin walking again. If the owner then gives the command to begin walking and the dog sees, say, a bus, it will ignore this command and refuse to walk at which point the owner knows that it is unsafe and will wait before issuing the command again. As the aforementioned Morgan Watkins once so aptly put it: “I follow my dog. It’s part of the trust.”

After training, which takes around another year or so, is complete, a guide dog will then be matched with a suitable owner. This itself can take several months and, as noted, is more of an art than a science, with the personality of a prospective owner being just as important as their physical needs.

All in all it’s estimated that the total cost of training a guide dog can range even as high as $40,000 depending on the scope of the dog’s expected duties. Despite this, charities across the United States give them away for free to those who need them and, in the case of Guide Dogs of America, pay for literally everything needed to pair a dog with a new owner including flights to pick it up and complimentary classes to help adjust to life with it by their side. In return, all the charity asks is that: “Each new owner agrees to treat his or her dog with kindness, to feed and shelter the dog, and to provide veterinary care.”

Over in the UK, things are a little different and the leading service dog charity, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association charges owners a whopping 50 pence (about 75 cents) for a fully trained guide dog. This token payment is largely symbolic in nature and the charity charges this negligible amount in acknowledgement of their belief that money shouldn’t bar a visually impaired person from having access to their service.

How long a guide dog will work for varies on the breed and how long it is able to suitably perform its duties, with 7 or so years being the average. At this point, the guide dog will retire to live with a volunteer foster family who will invariably give them a ton of belly rubs and treats. Understandably, some owners become quite attached to their guide dogs, in which case most charities who train them can make arrangements for the person to keep their dog. Perhaps our favourite examples of this is the case of a British guide dog called Edward who, after six years of faithful service, sadly lost his own sight due to glaucoma. Unwilling to abandon his furry friend, Edwards owner, Graham Waspe, opted to keep him and the pair were joined by a new guide dog who helped guide both of them.

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