You've probably seen a guide dog out and about, but you may have misconceptions about the incredible work these dogs do. Here are a few things you may not know.
1. Guide dogs are very carefully paired with their handlers. Everything from a person’s lifestyle, hobbies, activity level, family, living arrangements, and other pets go into the pairing process when a person applies for a guide dog through a nonprofit organization.
“Do you have kids? Do you have other animals in your house? All of that goes into account of whether the dog will work for the person, and if the dog will be happy, as well,” says Lorri Bernson, media and community liaison at Guide Dogs of America. “The dogs are personally chosen for specific people.”
2. However, the pairing process doesn’t end there. A good dog-handler team has a strong bond that is formed through many hours of training together. For many organizations, this bond is strengthened through hours spent training at the organization’s facilities. Dogs and handlers work with professionals before going off on their own.
“Many people believe that anyone can pick up the harness, and the dog will just guide them,” says Michelle Barlak, senior associate of public relations at The Seeing Eye. “In truth, the dog must bond with his owner, and they must form a relationship. The dogs work for their owner’s praise and affection.”
3. German Shepherd Dogs, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Lab-Golden crosses are some of the most common kinds of dogs used as guide dogs. Standard Poodles are also used sometimes for people who have allergies. Guide dog trainers consider a breed's characteristics when pairing dogs with people, and they pair more active breeds with active people.
"For a successful team to work out, it is really a lot about the bond between the dog and the human handler," Guide Dogs of America's Bernson explains.
4. Training and socializing for guide dogs begins when they are very young pups and continues throughout their lives, with many people involved in the process. Some guide dog organizations have their own breeding programs at their facilities. Once puppies reach a certain age (usually around 8 weeks), they go to puppy raisers who are responsible for socializing and teaching basic obedience. When the dogs are 12-to-18-months old, they return to the organization to begin formal guide dog training with professional instructors. This training can last months, as the dogs progress through the training levels before ever being paired up with a blind handler.
5. A guide dog is not a GPS, and he cannot read traffic signals. Instead, a guide dog takes directional cues from the handler and is taught to intelligently disobey if there is an unsafe situation in the handler’s path.
“Seeing Eye dogs are not like using a GPS,” The Seeing Eye’s Barlak says. “The dog’s job is to look out for hazards and obstacles that the blind person cannot detect, such as a blocked path or an overhead obstruction.
“Many people also believe that Seeing Eye dogs can read traffic lights. It’s actually the person’s responsibility to listen to the flow of traffic and give the dog a command to cross when it sounds safe. This is where the decision-making ability of the dog factors in. The dog must decide if it is safe to cross, and the owner must trust the dog.”
6. While in their harnesses, guide dogs are working, and you should not pet them. Although they are friendly and adorable, resist your urge to pet guide dogs when you see them working in their harness.
“[Many people don’t know] not to pet guide dogs while they are in a harness, but they are working and it could distract them from their job,” Guide Dogs of America’s Bernson says.
7. Guide dogs can bring a great sense of independence to their handlers. Having a trustworthy and loyal canine by your side can bring independence and mobility that canes can't.
"It’s just such a feeling of freedom and independence,” says Jen Armbruster, gold medal Paralympian, who has used multiple guide dogs since going totally blind at age 17. “Using the cane was a reality check for me of how much freedom that dog gave me.”