Wednesday, September 5, 2012


September is National Guide Dog Month, at least in some states, which is why I decided to write about these Very Important Dogs.  Also we just had Labor Day, and guide dogs are working dogs, so that is another good reason to talk about them.

Anyway, most people know that guide dogs are trained to help blind people get safely to the places they want to go without having to depend on somebody else.  You might have heard guide dogs called "seeing eye dogs," and this is because the oldest existing guide dog school in the world is called The Seeing Eye, Inc.  It is located in Morristown, NJ.  The term Seeing Eye® dog is actually a registered trademark, and "guide dog" is the generic term.

Way back in history, people had already started figuring out that dogs could lead blind people around.  The first time this was mentioned in writing was in the mid-16th century.  Later on, during World War I, Germany built the first schools to train guide dogs for soldiers who got blinded in battle.  In the U.S., the Seeing Eye® School was established in 1929 in Nashville, and then it moved to Morristown in 1931.  Great Britain started training guide dogs in 1934 at The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.  Now lots of countries have places where guide dogs are trained.

The breeds that are mostly used as guide dogs are Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and German Shepherds.  That's because these breeds are generally intelligent, friendly, easy to train, and they have the stamina they need to do the job.  Guide dog schools usually breed their own dogs so that they will get the qualities they want in a service dog.

When the puppies are about 12 weeks old, they go to live with "puppy raisers," who are people who volunteer to train and socialize the puppy for a year or 18 months.  The puppy raisers take the pups to all kinds of new places, where they can meet lots of people and hear lots of strange sounds and see lots of different things.  Usually, the puppy wears a vest so that everybody knows it is in training to do important work.  And with its vest on, the puppy can go into all sorts of places that most dogs don't get to go into, such as churches and restaurants and buses.  Also, the puppy learns basic obedience commands.

After the puppy is old enough, the people who raised it have to give it back to the guide dog school, which can be very sad if they are attached to the puppy.  But they know it is for a good cause, and usually they get another pup to raise after that.

Back at the school, trainers evaluate each dog for a bunch of important things such as intelligence, willingness to learn, being able to concentrate, paying attention to touch and sound, good memory, and excellent health.  But even if the dog has all these qualities, he might still get weeded out if he is aggressive, nervous, or reactive with cats or other dogs.

So only the dogs who are the very most suited for the job get to be guide dogs.  For example, at one school, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, just the top 50% of dogs stay and get trained to be guide dogs.  If they don't seem like they would make good guide dogs, they might end up as a different type of service dog or doing some other job such as tracking.  Every year this school places about 400 puppies with puppy raisers so that they can end up with 200 or so to train as guide dogs.

The dogs that don't make it into the training program are placed in pet homes.  First the puppy-raiser family gets the chance to adopt them, but if they don't choose to do that, other people can adopt the dogs.

It takes about 4 or 5 months to train a guide dog, and the reason it takes that long is because they have a lot of stuff to learn.  Here are some of the things these dogs are trained to do:

1)  Keep walking in a straight path without getting distracted by interesting smells, people, and animals.
2)  Walk at a steady pace, on the left side of the handler and just a little bit ahead.
3)  Stop at all curbs and don't go on until told to.
4)  Avoid anything that would be an obstacle for the handler, such as narrow places and low stuff overhead.
5)  Follow commands to go forward, right, or left.
6)  Stop at the bottom or top of stairs and wait until told to go on.
7)  At an elevator, take the handler to where the buttons are.
8)  Lie quietly while the handler is sitting down.
9)  Help the handler get on public transportation, like for example buses and planes and subways.
10)  Know when to disobey a command, if it would put the handler in danger to obey it.

When guide dogs and their handlers get to know each other well, the dog learns what the person's usual schedule is.  So maybe all the person has to say would be "to the office," and the dog could take the person all the way there.  Also, guide dogs are trained specifically for a male or female handler, so if the handler needs to go to the restroom, the dog can find the correct one by smell.  Because dogs have really good noses, as I have mentioned more than once.

Guide dogs wear special harnesses while they are working, and you should not bother a dog while it is on the job.  If you really, really want to pet the dog, make sure you ask the handler first.  When the dog is "off duty," the harness is taken off, and then the dog can run around and just act like a regular dog.

Blind people can usually get a guide dog for free, but this means that the schools where the dogs are trained have to cover the costs through donations from nice, generous people.  When a blind person is approved to get a dog, the person goes to the school where the dog is and stays for about a month to learn how to work with the dog.  The people at the school try to make a good match of personalities between the blind person and the dog.

Guide dogs usually retire at age 8 or 10, before their health starts to fail.  The handler will get a new dog at that time.  If he wants to, the handler can keep the retired dog as a pet, but if that is not possible, the school will find someone else to adopt it.  Sometimes there is even a waiting list of people who want to adopt retired guide dogs because they are so mellow and well-trained.

I don't think basenjis have ever been used as guide dogs.  Personally, I would not want to be one.  It seems like way too much work, and also if I was out with my person, and I saw a squirrel, I would be gone in a flash!

1 comment: