All You Ever Wanted to Know About Guide Dogs

eing a Guide Dog is the ultimate canine career. Guide dogs are assistance dogs that are selectively bred and trained to lead and become the trusted life companions of the blind and visually impaired.

Every year, eight hundred puppies are born at Guide Dogs for The Blind in California, a nonprofit organization that breeds and trains guide dogs since 1942. Only 38 percent of these puppies make it all the way to become guide dogs. The organization receives more than a thousand applications per year for a guide dog, and qualified candidates may have to wait up to twelve months before they get paired with a dog.

Guide dogs are trained to navigate obstacles, anticipate danger, and sometimes take initiative and independent decisions to protect their blind handler. They respond to touch and verbal commands, but can also make decisions based on visual and auditory cues, such as stopping at a curb, crossing the street, avoiding a hole, choosing sliding doors to go through or finding assistance from people.

History of Guide Dogs

The first service dog training school was established in the mid-1920s in Berlin, Germany. The school trained German shepherds to assist and to enhance the mobility of war veterans who had been blinded by mustard gas in World War I.

In 1927, the Saturday Evening Post newspaper published an article titled "The Seeing Eye," written by Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog breeder living in Switzerland. It described a German dog training school for blind veterans. Following the article, Eustis began receiving letters from people who were blind, asking how to obtain a Guide Dog. 

Her article was read to Morris Frank, a 19-year-old blind man from Nashville, Tennessee who believed a Guide Dog would help him regain his independence. Frank contacted the author for help. At the time, Eustis bred police dogs and had no experience in training Guide Dogs, but she decided to accept the challenge. With the help of her trainer, Jack Humphrey, she began to research and modify their training program and worked with two dogs over several months. Frank traveled to Switzerland to train with the dogs, both female German shepherds. He chose one of the dogs and called her “Buddy”. Frank and Buddy went through six weeks of training to learn to work as a team to navigate busy streets, stairways, crowded shops, and dangerous obstacles.

Frank Morris and his dog Buddy in 1928 - The Seeing Eye - Dog Learner
Frank Morris and his dog Buddy in 1929 - (Photo Credits: The Seeing Eye)

Frank and Buddy returned to New York City on June 11, 1928, and Frank told news reporters how he could now travel independently with his Guide Dog, demonstrating Buddy's abilities to the media by crossing West Street, a particularly dangerous Hudson waterfront street, and later on Broadway during the evening rush.

On January 29, 1929, Eustis and Frank established The Seeing Eye Guide Dog school in Frank’s hometown of Nashville. The school was later moved to New Jersey where it is still established today as the oldest, and one of the largest, of Guide Dog schools in the U.S.

There are currently more than 1,800 Seeing Eye dog users in the U.S. and Canada while 16,000 and more partnerships between individuals and dogs have been made since 1929.

Frank became a tireless advocate of public accessibility for the blind and their Guide Dogs. In 1928, he was routinely told that Buddy could not ride in the passenger compartment with him. Seven years later, all railroads in the United States had adopted policies allowing Guide Dogs to remain with their owners while onboard. By 1956, every U.S. state had passed laws guaranteeing access to public spaces for blind people and their dogs.

Today, despite regulations or rules that deny access to animals in restaurants and other public places, in many countries, service animals are protected by law and therefore may accompany their handlers in most places that are open to the public.

In Britain, the first Guide Dogs were trained in 1931, and three years later German shepherd breeders Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond formed The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. Today, Guide Dogs for the Blind has a world-renowned breeding center and four training schools in the UK with currently 4,800 working Guide Dog partnerships.

How much does a Guide Dog cost?

Most Guide Dog training schools operate as non-profit organizations.

Guide Dog applicants go through a screening process based on their residual vision, hearing ability, physical mobility, and appropriate living conditions. The fees that a blind person are charged depends on the school, and varies between a symbolic $1 and $200.

On average, the cost of breeding, selecting and training a Guide Dog is estimated to be around $50,000. The ongoing cost of a Guide Dog is similar to that of any pet dog and amount on average to $1,200 a year over an estimated working period of 8 years.

The Seeing Eye in New Jersey and the Guide Dogs for the Blind in California each have endowments of more than $200 million, but they are exceptions among the dozen Guide Dog schools in North America. Most rely on individual donors to finance day-to-day operations. One way to raise money is to allow people to sponsor a dog from puppyhood. At the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, sponsoring costs $6,000 per puppy.

Guide Dog breeding

Large Guide Dog training schools have their own breeding programs. The Seeing Eye and the Guide Dogs for the Blind programs breed an average of 500 puppies a year, while in the UK, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has the world’s largest Guide Dog breeding program with more than 1,400 puppies born each year.

An average litter is 7 puppies, and at any one time, there can be up to 200 pups at a breeding center before they get fostered and start puppy training.

A dedicated breeding program produces Guide Dog stock lines, which means that the parents, grandparent, and great grandparents of the puppy are proven Guide Dogs with a settled and sound temperament and the ability to consistently display desirable attributes. With the right breeding, puppies generally inherit the same genetic temperament and ability to work as the parents.

Not all breeds are suitable to become Guide Dogs, and not all dogs specifically bred for that purpose make it to the final selection and training.

The first Guide Dogs in the 1930s were all German shepherds, mainly because the first working dogs came from Germany and were already bred and trained to become police dogs. While German shepherds are smart and highly trainable, the breed is not as docile as Labrador retrievers, and their temperament requires a handler with good leadership skills.

Today the most common breeds used for Guide Dog training programs are Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers, and Labrador/Golden crosses. These breeds are chosen for their adaptability, intelligence, docile temperament, willingness to work, good health, and social acceptability.

Selection and Guide Dog training

The training of a Guide Dog from puppy to an adult dog who is ready to be paired with a blind or visually impaired handler takes between 18 months and 2 years, and involves more than 500 hours of training.

Training a Guide Dog starts at puppyhood. Puppies go through a first temperament assessment at around 7 weeks before entering the puppy training program with a foster family. The assessment involves interacting individually with each puppy, testing and scoring the pup's natural abilities and temperament. The test covers introversion and extraversion, motivation, responsiveness, adaptability, docility, response to human touch, attention and confidence. 

Guide Dog pup in training with a small harness - Dog Learner
Guide Dog pup in training with a small harness

At 8 weeks, the puppies are placed in a qualifying foster home to be raised for one year, and are carefully monitored. Studies have shown that home-raised puppies make better adjustments as Guide Dogs than kennel-raised ones. Puppies regularly attend playful socialization and obedience training sessions at the Guide Dog center when they are between 4 and 5 months old, and are gradually exposed to different environments and to a broad range of stimulations. 

Guide Dog training program

At 14 months, the apprentice Guide Dogs are assessed for suitability for the final training program, based on observed and reported behavior and temperament traits. At the Guide Dogs for the Blind in the UK, only 40% of the puppies make it to the final program. The dogs that are deemed unsuitable are often adopted by the families who raised them, or by the person who sponsored the dog.

The final Guide Dog training program lasts approximately 6 months. It consists of mobility training with obstacles, working in traffic, taking public transport, navigating shopping centers, and more complex tasks like optical avoidance (avoiding visual distractions). The training becomes increasingly difficult, up to the point where the dog is expected to take initiatives to deal with various real-life situations at home or on the street. Guide Dogs are also trained to press traffic light buttons or identify taxis if prompted by the handler.

Although there are many different ways to train a Guide Dog to perform specific tasks, the same basic principles of consistency, repetition, and positive reinforcement are applied in all aspects of training. Guide Dogs are initially shown what to do by their trainer for each task or command. Over time, the amount of responsibility placed on the dog increases. Dogs are rewarded when they do a task correctly. If performed incorrectly, the dog is required to perform the task again.

Guide Dog obstacle training - Dog Learner
Guide Dog obstacle training

One of the most common training techniques used for Guide Dogs is called “marker training” and makes use of a clicker to “mark” expected behaviors with a clicking sound.  

Dog and handler work as a team. The handler memorizes the route to take and the number of turns to make. The dog is expected to work in a straight line, avoiding obstacles, until the handler indicates a change in direction with the basic commands "forward," "right," and "left.". To validate the consistency of their skills at the end of the training program, the dogs must pass several tests in real street conditions while leading a blindfolded person.

Intelligent disobedience

One of the most remarkable features of Guide Dogs is called "intelligent disobedience". It consists in teaching the dog the ability to make smart decisions independently and decide when they should disobey a command if a situation is not safe —such as a dangerous obstacle or crossing the road when a car is seen coming at high speed from a distance.

Matching dog and owner

Once the training is complete, Guide Dogs are matched with potential blind owners based on height, living conditions, family context and energy levels. The new owners stay at the dog center for 4 to 5 weeks to receive handler training with their new companion.

The average working life of a Guide Dog is 8 years, but many dogs have worked to the ages of 10 or 11. Retired Guide Dogs may be kept as pets, given to a friend or relative, or returned to Guide Dog Center and re-homed through the adoption program.

If you're interested to find out more about guide dogs, watch the movie "Pick of the Litter" produced by Guide Dogs for The Blind that follows a litter of puppies from the moment they're born and begin their quest to become guide dogs for the blind.

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