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For many years, humans have been using dogs as tools to help mitigate disabilities and handicaps. Dogs can provide a number of invaluable services including medical alert, PTSD assistance, and mobility support. But the most prominent of these types of jobs is that of the ever important guide dog, raised and trained for the purpose of being a working partner to a blind or otherwise vision-impaired individual. These dogs are best known for being in a harness and striding ahead of their handler, keeping them out of danger and steering them clear of obstacles.
Guide dogs are often pulled from a few specific breeds for their temperament, trainability, and intelligence. These breeds include the Labrador and Golden retriever, as well as the German shepherd. While other breeds have been selected for guide dog work, it is rare, and organizations will typically have reputable breeders to choose their dogs from. Not every dog is suited to guide work, so the selection process can be stringent, and for good reason. The safety of the person needing the dog is always the most important thing!
Training a guide dog starts from puppyhood, once the eight-week mark has passed, and requires lifelong training. It’s not realistic to train an already adult dog with behavior issues to be a guide dog, as this can put both dog and handler at risk. Puppies must be calm and intelligent, must not be fearful or aggressive, and should display an eagerness to please. This temperament should be reinforced through their adult life in order to be an appropriate guide dog.
A guide dog will go through several iterations of training, including basic puppy obedience, public access training, and then proper obstacle avoidance and guidance with their chosen handler. This training can take months and even up to two years to really perfect, so be prepared for the long haul if you’re thinking about training a guide dog. It takes patience, knowledge, experience, and professionalism to develop a solid foundation for behavior.
To get started, you’ll want to ensure that you know where your puppy is coming from. Most organizations have reputable breeders that temperament test their dogs in a number of different ways. These puppies will also be health tested to ensure that they are well bred and healthy. Consider getting in contact with knowledgeable breeders who have worked with guide dog prospects before.
Guide dogs often train best with positive reinforcement. This means using things like clicker training with treats or toys as rewards to reinforce great obedience and fantastic behavior. You’ll want to find things that will encourage your dog to perform as needed. In addition, consider purchasing a vest or special harness to designate your puppy or dog as a guide dog in training. This will be crucial later on when the vest or harness is needed for the handler’s safety.
The Puppy Raising Method
Your prospective guide dog puppy should be introduced to people of all sizes, ages, gender, and races. Guide dogs are expected to be polite in public and should not have any reactivity whatsoever. He should be familiar with strangers.
Your puppy should learn the basic obedience commands to begin a foundation in his guide dog training. This includes commands like ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘stay’, ‘come’, and other basic obedience necessities.
In order to avoid relieving himself at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places, potty training is incredibly important for your guide dog, especially due to the fact that guide dogs work in public places. Using the bathroom in the wrong place can result in a handler being asked to leave a public establishment.
Leash and harness walking
Your guide dog should know how to walk on a leash or harness without stopping to sniff or being distracted. Start with the fundamentals of loose leash walking to create a foundation for his formal training later on.
In order to acclimate to a variety of public spaces where a handler may require assistance from a guide dog, your puppy should experience common public areas like stores, restaurants, school campuses, or other public areas. Be aware that not every state has laws that protect guide dogs in training in public spaces. Look up the laws in your area to be certain that you are allowed to take a dog in training into these spaces.
The Formal Training Method
Your guide dog should be trained to ignore all distractions that may try to get her attention including other people, animals, children, and strange sights or smells. You should reward focused behavior and be able to teach your dog that her work is more important than anything else.
Guide dogs walk ahead of the handler and your dog should know the proper positioning for guide work. She should not be walking at a heel, but instead be able to stay slightly ahead and on the left side of her handler.
Walking in a straight line
Your guide dog prospect should know how to walk in a straight line without diverting to one side or the other for any reason. Turning should only be dictated by the handler who will use hand signals or voice commands to determine where to go.
Your dog should know when it is time to settle down for a while, particularly if the handler is stopping to eat somewhere or any other task during the day which requires the dog to be nearby but to not actively be guiding. Work up to longer periods of time gradually.
Stopping at curbs
A guide dog should never walk into traffic or into the street. She should know how to stop at a curb in order to wait for a command from her handler. This requires recognizing where a curb is and how to stop and wait.
The Working Method
Adapt to the handler
Your dog should acclimate to his handler. This can be done in a variety of ways but will generally evolve through the working relationship.
Your guide dog should know how to make a decision to stop when there is danger present for the handler. For instance, she should not walk into the street when there is traffic present, nor should she walk forward if there is an obstruction in the path of the handler. This is called “intelligent disobedience” and is necessary for every guide dog to know.
Determining common routes
Your guide dog should get familiarized with his handler’s day to day routes throughout the public space. Routine will help both dog and handler adjust to navigating possible obstacles on these routes.
Navigating public transport
If the handler requires public transport such as a bus, subway, or taxi, your dog must know how to board these particular vehicles.
Repetition, practice, and working alongside his handler will ensure that your dog will become a fantastic guide dog. These things must be done regularly to reinforce training and habit.
Seek training support throughout your dog’s working life in order to troubleshoot any issues that may come up. Your dog’s working life may be somewhere in the range of eight to ten years and he should be evaluated often to ensure the safety of both the dog and his handler.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 01/30/2018, edited: 01/08/2021