What Guide Dogs Do
What is a Guide Dog?
Guide dogs belong to a legally-recognized group known as "Service Dogs". Guide dogs live up to their title. These dogs receive prolonged intensive training specifically designed to teach them to lead, or guide, people who are blind, deaf-blind, or partially sighted. The training period is usually a year.
People who are blind have three ways of travelling safely. The first is with another person. The blind person holds the sighted person's arm as they walk side by side. The sighted person takes them both around any dangers or obstacles on their route. This is known as sighted guide.
The second method of mobility is using a white cane. Many partially sighted and blind people choose this technique, as it serves to not only warn the user of obstacles in his or her path, but the white cane also serves to identify the individual as having a visual disability. People with white canes often walk with sighted guides.
The third method is to travel with a specially trained dog. This article briefly provides some details of the ways in which guide dogs and handlers work together to get around safely.
It is interesting to note that the term "Seeing Eye Dog" is a common name for a guide dog. However, the true term is indeed "guide dog". The first North American guide dog training centre opened in 1929 in Morristown, New Jersey. Its name is The Seeing Eye. For many years, it was the only training centre! When people saw the guide dogs working with their handlers, questions were asked. "What kind of a dog is that?" The answer, of course, was, "That's a Seeing Eye Dog."
The name persisted. It is, quite literally, a brand name. It's akin to calling all facial tissues Kleenex, even if they are Scotties, Royale, or a generic brand.
Today, there are many guide dog training centres, or schools, across North America, including four in Canada:
For a list of all North American training centres, please visit our Guide Dog Schools page.
Until recently, a popular misconception in Canada was that CNIB was among the Canadian guide dog training centres. In 2017 CNIB entered the guide dog training arena, and information about its program is available on its website. CNIB also has an assistance fund available for veterinary costs associated with guide dogs, and it certainly provides financial and other forms of support to guide dog focused organizations, including GDUC. In addition, CNIB provides people who are blind or partially sighted with many other valuable services, including Orientation and Mobility training, which are crucial skills for guide dog users.
Specific dogs are bred for the purpose of producing litters of high-quality, healthy, and capable puppies that will eventually become guide dogs. Each training centre offers different breeds of dogs. The majority are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, or a cross-breed of the two. Other dogs used as guides include German Shepherds, Bouviers, and standard Poodles, among others.
The lives of potential guide dog puppies are fraught with changes. After being weaned, the puppies are given to volunteers whose job it is to teach basic commands and socialization. These volunteers, known as puppy raisers, keep the young dogs for 6 to 10 months after which they are returned to the training centre.
The dogs are now about a year old and undergo stringent assessment to be sure they have what it takes to become guides. Those who do not make the grade are trained for alternate work or released to their puppy raisers or others who wish to have them as pets.
Those dogs who pass the assessment undergo several months of intense training in order to become full-fledged guide dogs. They are then matched with their blind handlers based on many factors including physical characteristics, personality, as well as the handlers' life styles and living environments.
Not all people who are blind can be successful handlers. Training is rigorous and the team must perform to exacting standards in order to graduate from a training centre. When you observe a guide dog and blind person moving expertly near you, know that you are seeing the results of a team whose members have both completed a difficult program.
How Guide Dogs and Handlers Work
The guide dog wears its "uniform", known as a harness, around its torso. Attached to this harness is a handle. Thus, the common term for a person walking with a guide dog is a handler. Interchangeable with that is the term "user". Both terms have identical meanings. The dog is usually situated on the person's left. When handlers can't use their left hands, or have unique balance issues, a dog can be trained to work on the right. As the person walks with the dog, he or she holds the handle. The handler follows the dog by maintaining close proximity to the dog and following its movements via the handle.
Because handlers cannot see, guide dogs are trained to make decisions in the guiding process of their work. For example, let's say a child leaves a bicycle in the middle of a sidewalk. The handler does not know it's there. The guide dog sees the bicycle, and has the capability to quickly assess the situation. Which side has more room to walk, the street side of the sidewalk, or the building side? The dog chooses the best and safest route around the bicycle. The type of obstacle doesn't matter. Each guide dog is trained to view an obstacle as just that, something to work around, and will make a decision.
Should the obstacle cover too much of the sidewalk, the team must perform work together in what is known as an "off-curb obstacle", a manoeuvre taught to both dog and handler at the training centre.
The guide dog and the handler are called a team. This is important to know. The dog listens for its handler's commands. The handler has the expectation that the dog will continue to move in a straight line but go around any obstacles, or stop if the pathway is blocked. The term "teamwork" is used because there is a constant exchange of communication and work back and forth between dog and handler. This is best illustrated at street crossings.
Guide dogs do not watch for traffic signals, such as slowing down for the yellow lights, stopping for the reds, and proceeding on the greens. Guide dogs are trained to stop at all curbs, whether they are at busy downtown light-controlled intersections or at quiet suburban street corners with no lights. Guide dogs cannot look down the road and decide if there is enough time to cross before an approaching vehicle arrives. Once the dog has stopped, the work, or responsibility, falls onto the handler. She or he must use other sensory input to verify the traffic flow, if any. If the handler hears no traffic passing left to right in front of the team, or hears the traffic moving on either side, the handler will give the guide dog a command to continue forward. At that point, the dog once again watches for obstacles, and thus, teamwork is accomplished.
A guide dog understands numerous verbal commands, many of which are accompanied by hand gestures. These are associated with direct responses. You might hear the handler issuing these commands as the team walks. This doesn't mean that the dog is in training rather, it is a vital and ongoing communication process between handler and dog.
Once stopped at the end of a block, the dog expects to hear one of several commands. Corners and curbs also present the handler with landmarks. Streets are counted and often curbs are used to line up to be sure the street is crossed at the best point. The handler must have good orientation skills, as she or he needs to know exactly where the team is at any given moment. With the dog stopping at each curb, the handler can keep a firm idea as to where the next turn might be, or how far it is to their ultimate destination. Therefore, when the handler knows the team has arrived at a certain intersection or landmark, he or she can give the dog the appropriate command to get to their goal.
Guide dogs are trained to recognize specific objects, such as curbs, doors, and stairs, to name a few. The handler must know the dog is in sight of a particular goal, and issue the command at the appropriate moment. Some objects become recognizable to the dog even in unfamiliar areas. A Guide dog can find a bus stop, for example, if each stop is constructed in a similar manner.
The handler does not tell the guide dog where to go a command will never be given such as, "Take me to the pharmacy, Boy!" Working with a guide dog is not like programming a GPS, although some handlers do use accessible versions of these devices to plan routes and stay on track.
As with street corners and curbs, guide dogs are trained to stop at stairs, both heading up and going down. The dog is taught to always take the handler close to the handrail, and stops at the first step. At this point, the handler again takes responsibility, and will find the stairs with a shoe or boot, and reach for the handrail. Once comfortably situated on the stairs, the handler will again give the dog the command to proceed. If there is a landing on the staircase, the process repeats. Training and experience give handlers confidence in their guide dogs.
Interacting With Guide Dogs
The following points are exceptionally noteworthy. As you've read above, handlers depend upon their guide dogs in every situation, and frequently, these situations are very dangerous. Quite literally, guide dog handlers trust their lives to the work of their dogs.
When a guide dog is in harness, it is extremely important that no one other than the handler interacts with the dog. Interacting includes but is not limited to petting, offering food, smiling at, speaking to, and making eye contact. As a working guide dog is focused on its task, it requires unhindered concentration. Should someone interact with the dog, it can lose this focus and concentration. This could easily spell disaster for the handler. Imagine disrupting such concentration just as the dog approaches the top of a stairway and fails to stop. The handler has no idea he or she is about to literally step off into space. The concept extends to street corners, busy sidewalks, and many, many other hazardous situations. A handler isn't being possessive, mean, or unfriendly when refusing to allow someone to interact with the dog. It is a matter of safety and security for the handler.
Offering food or treats not only serves as a distraction and source of confusion to the guide, but it may result in the dog becoming ill from unfamiliar food or an alergic reaction. A guide dog's food options are controled by its handler and portions are carefully measured so as to keep the dog at its ideal body weight.
Never approach a guide dog team when it is walking. Should you want to ask if the handler requires assistance, please wait for the team to come to a complete stop. This way, you won't disturb the team's work or concentration.
If you are assisting someone with a guide dog, such as to go to a service counter, the handler might respond by asking if the team can follow you. Sometimes, the handler will ask if he or she may take your arm.
Please don't be offended if the handler refuses your help. Personal preferences, comfort levels, and other dynamics play a role in a handler's life the same way they do in yours.
Even at rest, a guide dog should not be interfered with. Guide dogs are social creatures, and like any other dogs, love attention.
What Guide Dogs Can't Do
Even though guide dogs are extremely intelligent, they are, after all, still dogs. No matter how expertly trained, they will occasionally still do doggy things. They will sometimes sniff, lick, scratch, or otherwise step out of their concentration for a moment and just be dogs.
Guide dogs love to please their handlers. They work for praise from having done a good job. They are often given positive reinforcement with the words, "good boy" or "good girl". Occasionally, a guide dog will make a mistake that must be corrected immediately. A guide dog needs to know when its work is improperly done, so that it knows how to please us, and keep us safe, with a job well done.
To some onlookers, the offence may seem minor, and the correction may appear to be overly harsh or abusive. However, these corrections are not abusive as a handler is taught exactly how and when to administer corrections. Keep in mind that a handler entrusts his or her life to the guide dog. This trust relies upon the dog performing to the utmost of its training. When a guide dog steps outside of these norms, the handler must refocus the dog's attention. Training centres teach different correction techniques and depending upon the severity of the error, correction is through the handler's voice, pulling or tugging on the leash, a sudden backward jerk of the handle, or all three of these. It is absolutely imperative that a guide dog does not fall into habits of incorrect behaviour.
These corrective measures are painless. They re-establish the dog's attention and concentration on the tasks at hand, and return the team to their mutual focus.
Because of their incredible work and skill, people often tend to attribute greater traits to guide dogs than are possible. Guide dogs cannot tell their handlers the number of the bus approaching their stop. Guide dogs can't go into grocery stores and find a good looking steak, Balsamic vinegar, or that really nice ice cream that's on sale. They can't read the pictograms that differentiate the women's rooms from the men's, nor can guide dogs understand a set of directions. These myths have come into existence because the rapport between handler and dog is so smooth and well-choreographed that it looks like the dog is doing all the work.
We hope that this answers some of your questions as to how guide dogs work. There's no magic, and there are no "super dogs". It's all a wonderful combination of hard work and superb training for both dog and handler by professionals at all guide dog training centres around the World.
If you have further questions, please Contact Us and we will do our best to provide you with answers.
Ratings and Comments
This post has an average rating of excellent based on 2 ratings.
amy rates this post as excellent and says:
I found the information above straight forward and quite informative. I am in the process of writing a children's book about a guide dog who takes through his journey, 3 book series.
I have a question.
What are some reasons guide dogs walk on the left?
I know they walk on the left based on workable limbs, but are there other reasons?
Robert rates this post as excellent and says:
How many people use guide dogs in Canada?
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