Chances are you’ve seen a guide dog sometime in your life, either in person or in pictures. Guide dogs are highly trained dogs that help blind or visually impaired people become more mobile. But these dogs aren’t born capable of such a task. It takes a special kind of dog, and months of intense training, to turn a dog into a guide dog.
What are some requirements to be a guide dog?
Dogs must endure intense training in order to graduate from a guide dog training school. Some of the areas these schools work on are:
• Focus. A guide dog must be extremely focused; meaning smells, sounds, other animals or people can’t distract him.
• Steady walking. Guide dogs must walk steadily. This means they can’t pull ahead or lag behind. They must be capable of walking straight and steady.
• Stopping at curbs. Guide dogs must be able to stop at curbs to ensure the safety of their handlers.
• Understand obstacles. This is a tricky skill to acquire. It isn’t enough to understand that an oncoming car is dangerous (although that skill is, of course, a requirement); it’s also important for guide dogs to understand that tight and narrow passageways (for example) create obstacles for the handler.
• Be still when needed. Guide dogs are working dogs. When they’re on the job, they must retain alertness, even when their handler does not need them. When a handler is sitting down, the guide dog must be able to lie still and await further instructions.
• Selective disobedience. Many people would assume that the ideal guide dog is 100% obedient. But this isn’t entirely true. Take, for example, crossing the street. If the guide dog has done his job correctly, he’ll stop at a curb. The handler will listen for oncoming traffic. Hearing none, he’ll proceed to cross the street (by using a command such as “forward”). The dog, however, notices an oncoming car. Rather than obey the dangerous command, the dog will stop, wait for the car to pass, and then proceed forward. This is selective disobedience.
All work and no play … at least not while on the job
As a working dog, it’s important for guide dogs to keep their focus and demeanor. This means that while on the job, guide dogs do not receive praise or treats from the handler. That’s why it’s also important that anyone who comes in contact with a guide dog on the job leaves the dog alone. This ensures the safety of the dog and his handler. Rest assured, when the dog is home, he’ll receive plenty of praise. Also, guide dog trainers will note that successful guide dogs really enjoy their work. If it’s apparent during training that a dog doesn’t enjoy the job, that dog will likely not graduate from the program.
While there are dozens of breeds of dogs commonly used as guide dogs, the three most popular breeds in the US are:
1. Golden retrievers
2. Labrador retrievers
3. German shepherds
These breeds are commonly used because of their level of intelligence, obedience, stamina and friendliness. However, it takes more than a kind of breed to become a guide dog. Many dogs fail to graduate from these programs because of some level of aggressiveness, nervousness, or bad reactions toward other animals.
The color blind leading the blind
Dogs are color blind, to an extent. This is why they can’t differentiate between green and red on a traffic light. That’s why it’s important for guide dogs and handlers to form a strong bond.
Once a guide dog is ready to be matched with a handler, the handler and dog spend considerable time getting to know one another. This includes a fair amount of “people training,” where the handler will learn the dog’s movements, as well as the commands the guide dog has been trained with.
Over time, the guide dog and handler will form such a tight bond that, in many instances, a handler can provide a command like “Go to work” and the dog will be able to navigate his way to the handler’s job site.
Americans with Disabilities Act
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, guide dogs have access to any space that the public has access to. This is because these guide dogs perform functions that the handler cannot perform himself.
The ADA makes it clear that guide dogs are not pets. This is true. There is a distinct difference between guide dogs and pets. While most guide dogs also play the role of pet when their special harness is off, they shed that role the minute their workday begins.