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What are guide dogs for the blind taught to do?
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What are guide dogs for the blind taught to do?

If you have ever seen a guide dog helping a blind or partially sighted person navigate their way around the outside world, you were probably deeply impressed by the guide dog’s behaviour, skills and apparently psychic ability to know what is coming next, and communicate with their handler or owner!

While the training for guide dogs is of course highly specialised and delivered to a very high level, with many potential guide dogs not making the grade and dropping out of training before they ever get to meet a potential blind handler, there is no magic employed in the training of guide dogs, and their training simply involves harnessing the innate abilities and intelligence of the dog and making it work within the remits of a specific role.

In this article, we will look at guide dogs for the blind in more detail, in terms of what their training involves, what they are taught to do, and also, what they cannot do! Read on to learn more.

Training starts with the right dog

Not just any old dog can be a guide dog; guide dogs need to possess a range of essential core traits before they can even be considered for training. High intelligence is of course a must, but this is not enough; the dog must also be willing to learn, keen to please, and able to keep their heads and retain focus even when faced with a lot of stimulus and things going on all around them.

There are certain breeds of dog that tend to possess such traits more commonly than others, including the Golden retriever, the Labrador retriever, and certain hybrid breeds such as the Labradoodle and the Cockapoo. Today, most potential guide dogs are bred especially for the purpose, but the Guide Dogs for the Blind association will still sometimes assess and consider potentially trainable pups from outside of their own breeding programme too.

Early days

When a potential guide dog pup is weaned from their dam and has had their vaccinations, they will be paired up with a puppy walker, who is a special volunteer that cares for the puppy for the first year of their lives, and begins their basic training and assessment for their future role. First-year trainee guide dog puppies wear a special blue harness to mark them out as new recruits!

The puppy will live at home with their puppy walker in order to get used to a normal home environment and the everyday challenges that they will face when working, and as part of this, they will attend normal puppy socialisation classes and basic training, and gain exposure to all of the usual first year of life challenges, such as meeting new dogs and people, being around roads and traffic, and generally, taking in as much stimulus as possible.

By the time the pup is a year old, they should be able to obey all of the core commands such as sit and stay with total reliability, and also, be used to working on the lead and walking ahead under control.

Once the pup reaches a year old, they return to the guide dog training centre, and their training begins in earnest!

The next step

The year-old dog will go through intensive training and assessment before they are ready to work with a blind or partially sighted handler, and to reflect their progress to date, they leave their puppy blue harness behind and upgrade to a brown one!

Second-year trainees learn all of the specific skills that they need to be able to help a blind person navigate, such as staying on a straight course unless there is an obstacle in their path, waiting at kerbs and waiting for a command to turn or cross, and stopping at corners to await direction.

The dogs are also taught to judge the dimensions of doorways and other openings, to ensure that they do not lead their handler into a place where they will hit their head!

Guide dogs are also taught about toileting on command, and a fascinating insight into how this works and how blind people can effectively clear up after their dogs can be found here.

Matching the right dog with the right person

When the guide dog is ready to get to work for real, they first need to be matched to their new potential handler! There is a lot more to this than meets the eye, and it is not simply a case of ensuring that the dog and the person get on and like each other! Factors including the height of the potential owner, their normal walking stride and their general lifestyle all factor into the equation to ensure the perfect match.

New owners and dogs spend four to six weeks together as a trial before they are formally assigned together for life, and at this stage, the trainee dog “graduates,” and receives their grown-up white harness, to indicate their new skills!

What can guide dogs do-and not do?

Guide dogs are really clever, but there are limitations to what can be expected of them! Some of the core skills that guide dogs possess include:

  • Leading their owner along on a straight route whilst stopping or avoiding obstacles, including alerting the owner to steps or changes in height or incline.
  • Stopping to indicate to their owner that there is a low ceiling or head-height obstacle in front of them, which involves the dog being able to judge the height of their handler!
  • Stopping or holding back to alert their handler of potential dangers; for instance, if the audible signal that the road is clear to cross tells the handler that the road is safe, when in fact, cars are still moving.
  • Guide dogs always work in their harness, which performs three roles: It provides the handler with excellent control and the ability to feel the dog’s responses effectively, as well as alerting other people that the person with the dog is partially sighted or blind. Also, the dog knows that when they are wearing their harness they are in work mode, and hold the responsibility for their owner’s safety; when the harness comes off, they can relax!

Many people often overreach in terms of what they think a guide dog can do, and what they expect from them; for instance, guide dogs cannot read traffic lights, nor pick a route to a set location upon command! A guide dog is not a sat nav; they work under the direction of their owner, and simply assist them when navigating the world, rather than calling the shots!

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