Guide dogs do an important job in helping blind or low-vision people gain independence, confidence and greater mobility. In addition to guiding people safely through traffic and crowds, dogs may also be trained to find certain nearby objects such as a doors, elevators or mailboxes.
The term “seeing-eye dog” is somewhat of a misnomer. The dog doesn’t actually “see” for a person or function as his or her eyes. They can’t tell when a traffic light has changed or decide where their handler should go. The visually impaired person still needs to direct the dog. What a dog can do, though, is guide their partner around obstacles — both on the ground and overhead — and notify them of the location of curbs, stairs and other potential hazards.
Helping People with Vision Loss
It’s been estimated that about 10,000 guide dogs currently work with a partner in the United States. Before any dog is placed with a partner, up to 18 months of socialization and training are typically required. Although the dogs are typically trained by nonprofit organizations, it can cost nearly $64,000 to create each working dog partnership, according to the Seeing Eye, one such organization in Morristown, New Jersey.
Visually impaired people generally must apply for a guide dog and demonstrate that they are able to get around independently with a cane. Through the generous support of volunteers and donors, dogs and the training are generally provided free of charge.
Breeding Puppies Driven to Work
Many guide dog organizations breed their own pups so they have more control over the dogs’ health and temperament. The primary breeds used for guide dogs include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, lab/golden crosses, German shepherds, and for allergy sufferers, standard poodles, who may produce less dander than other dog breeds.
What these breeds have in common is that they often like to have a job to do, thrive on praise and are just the right size and weight to work next to a person without getting lost underfoot in crowds.
Socialized by Volunteers
Puppies are usually sent to live with volunteers for about a year, during which time they are socialized to many different people, sights and sounds, and are exposed to taking rides on elevators and public transportation. The volunteer teaches basic obedience as well as certain behaviors such as going to the bathroom on command.
Even after training, not all pups are selected for formal guide dog training. The Seeing Eye estimates that 60 percent of these puppies who enter the breeding program are selected, and 75 percent of those that enter the program successfully complete the training. Those who don’t complete the program are adopted or often placed with other service organizations such as law enforcement or search and rescue teams.
Formal Guide Dog Training
Once they are about a year old, those dogs who are selected for training are sent for intensive work with professional guide dog instructors for a few months. Among other things, they’re taught to focus on the task at hand and ignore distractions such as squirrels, cats, sirens, bike messengers and even the aroma of delectable food when accompanying someone into a restaurant.
Dogs are taught to guide a partner safely from one point to the next, weaving around obstacles and stopping at curbs, steps and awnings or other overhead objects that may pose a problem for their partner. While the handlers are responsible for listening to traffic and deciding when it’s safe to proceed, dogs even learn to disobey them if there is an oncoming car or they sense it’s not safe, a skill called “intelligent disobedience.”
Matching Dogs with Partners
After formal training, guide dogs are carefully matched with their visually impaired partners and the duo undergoes additional real-life training for several weeks. The people learn how to give their dogs cues and work together in a positive way.
Guide dogs typically work until they are 8 to 10 years old, at which time they may retire to pet status with their current partner, return to the home where they were raised or get adopted by another loving home.
Guide Dog Etiquette
When guide dogs are wearing their halters, they need to focus on work. During those times, do not try to pet them, give them treats or bring your dog over to say “hi.” It is, however, respectful to let that person know that you are nearby with your dog on a leash.
If the dog is not wearing a halter, you may ask the handler if it is OK to pet the dog and say hello, but always ask before assuming it’s fine. When they’re not working, these dogs appreciate attention and loving just like every other dog.
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