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.
Hello, I am reaching out to see how to get my puppy trained as a seeing eye dog for my brother who has been legally blind for at least 16 years and is finally starting to lose full sight. I have a puppy who my brother loves already and I would love to be able to get her trained to assist him. Can you please explain the process and what I would need to do to make this happen?
Hello Tyane, Typically the first year of a guide dog's life is spent teaching the dog high levels of obedience, and socializing the dog as much as humanly possible. Not all dogs are genetically fit to be guide dogs also. It takes a certain level of intelligence, human focus, train-ability, and a temperament that can handle strange things like unexpected kids or dogs running up, loud noises, strange movements, and other things that would distract or scare many dogs. A guide dog program usually starts with a breeding program where pups are born from parents who have shown the necessary traits to be guide dogs, and are more likely to pass those traits on to puppies, then the puppies are raised with puppy handlers for a year who take them to puppy classes, socialize them all the time, get them used to being handled, and teach routine obedience during the first year. Around a year, if the puppy shows promise as a future guide dog, the dog is then formally trained for at least 4 months with a trainer at the guide dog school, where they learn all the specific tasks necessary to do their job - such as stopping at curbs, listening, leading, ect...Many dogs don't make it past this point because even with wonderful socialization and training, they don't have the inherit temperament to be dependable enough to lead a blind person - perhaps they are afraid of loud noises, too hyper, aggressive toward other dogs, fearful of people, prey driven, ect...A number of things can disqualify a dog, even though they would otherwise make a fantastic pet. At the end of their formal training if they pass, they are set up with someone blind who has been waiting for a dog and the dog and person both stay at the school for a few days or weeks to learn to work together as a team, before the new dog is sent home with the person. To train your own dog, you would follow a similar process, although you would be both puppy raiser, formal trainer of the dog, and the one teaching your brother and the dog how to work as a team at the end. First, pup should be honestly evaluated to see if they may have what it takes to become a guide dog. Are they intelligent, people focused, shy, fearful, aggressive, ect...? Certain traits will not be obvious until later so their is no guarantee, but if a puppy is already showing characteristics not fit for the role like a lot of fearfulness, they may never be suited for the job. If pup seems to have the right temperament, do research online or check out books meant for guide dog puppy raisers and work on what you learn there with pup. Once pup has been raised in a way that facilitates becoming a guide dog, begin the formal task training through online resources that demonstrate how guide dog trainers teach tasks - youtube and guide dogs for the blind website are a couple of resources to learn that. Finally, read up on the process of the dog and blind recipient becoming a team, or talk to someone who has experienced or taught it first hand. Another option is for your brother to apply to receive a dog from a non-profit organization that raises and trains guide dogs, and allow your current dog to be a pet. Some organizations charge very little for their dogs if you qualify, but do expect to wait a while for a dog. https://www.seeingeye.org/about-us/faq.html Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
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