When you think of a guide dog, you probably think of a Labrador Retriever. You don't have to dig deep to find plenty of pictures of smiling Labs in guide dog harnesses, contentedly and steadfastly leading their blind owners safely through the world. But what makes these sweet animals so well-suited for such a demanding position? Like any job candidate, the Lab's suitability as a guide dog is partially due to temperament and partially to intelligence and talent. The Labrador Retriever is not only a loving and loyal companion but also a quick learner and a proactive thinker. These qualities, combined with the dog's strong and ready physicality, predispose the breed to success as guide animals.
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The Root of the Behavior
The Labrador Retriever has always been a working dog. Bred to fetch things for their owners, the Labrador Retriever has since gone into many other lines of work. The breed first found its way into the guide dog business in the early 20th century, not long after the first guide dog schools arose with German Shepherds as their first canine students. Labrador Retrievers soon followed suit, and now the breed makes up a significant percentage of the world's guide dogs. Known for being able to accomplish almost anything that a trainer or owner asks, given enough time and guidance, the Labrador Retriever possesses a strong work ethic as well as an extremely high level of intelligence. Both are important qualities for the guide dog, who must not only learn multiple commands but also must know when to disobey those commands. For example, a guide dog needs to know what “go forward” means, but it may be even more important for the dog to understand that they should not obey when doing so would lead the owner directly into oncoming traffic.
Excited by life yet aware of their surroundings, the Labrador Retriever also has a personality that predisposes him or her to service as a guide dog. The Lab loves accompanying their owners around town, no matter where they are going, but they are also responsive to any sensory input that they encounter. Not only do they notice all obstacles and potential dangers, but they make a point of being particularly cautious until the risk has passed. Loyal to a fault, they have been known to physically protect their owners from danger. In some cases, they may even use the weight of their own bodies to keep their humans from walking onto busy streets. Strong in body as well as in mind, the Labrador Retriever also has the physicality to serve its owner from day to day. A Lab has a thick coat and a strong musculature, thanks to the breed's roots in the challenging climate of Newfoundland, and thus can keep up with an owner no matter where that person lives.
Encouraging the Behavior
Of course, not even Labrador Retrievers are born knowing how to guide their owners through the minefield of daily life. They have to be trained from puppyhood so that their natural tendencies toward service and protection can be cultivated and channeled. The process requires human attention and skill at each step of the way, starting with the early nurturing of the puppy in a loving home. A volunteer puppy raiser is a guide dog's first trainer. Raisers socialize the dogs, take them to obedience classes, and help them to get used to staying calm in public places. Then, when the puppy is ready, he or she transfers over to a trainer, who teaches the dog the basic commands that he or she will need to know as a guide dog.
The dog trainer also teaches the dog how to navigate things like doors, curbs, stairs, and even subway seats. When the puppy's training is complete, the guide dog school matches him or her with a new owner who is likely to be a good fit. This depends on a variety of factors, including the owner's living environmetn and typical level of activity. The dog and new owner then train together, so that each can learn to listen to and trust the other.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Although most Labrador Retrievers are predisposed by their breed to be good guide dogs, some have characteristics in their family line that make them less matched with the job. Some Labs are predisposed to hip or elbow dysplasia and would have a hard time carrying out the duties of the guide dog. For this reason, experts recommend that if you are in the market for a guide dog, you should check to make sure that the dog's parents are certified free of such conditions. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals issues such certificates, as well as ratings that tell a potential owner about the dog's joint health.
Similarly, not all Labs have good guide dog temperaments. Some are distractible, others have a more difficult time learning, and some simply aren't quite agreeable enough. A puppy's mother tends to be a solid predictor of the youngster's future personality, so you might want to ask if your potential guide dog's breeders have sought out evaluation for their mother dogs through the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS).
Still, while there are always exceptions, Labrador Retrievers can generally do well as guide dogs given the right training. This can be good news if you are in need of a loyal and capable guide dog. If you don't need such services, however, you can still get in on the act. Trainers and puppy raisers get to help prepare a Labrador Retriever for a life of service, while getting to spend time with an adorable Lab puppy. Can you say “dream job?”