The Guide Dog

Dogs are used the world over for many tasks; sheep herding, drug detection, crowd control, mountain-rescue, to name just a few; each species adapted to suit its own, unique in-bred skills. It is Mankind’s bond to his dog that makes their relationship so special. One of the most amazing examples of man and dog working together must surely be that of a Guide Dog leading a blind, or visually impaired person along our streets.

Although Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds can also be used for this task, the Labrador epitomises the traditional guide dog for the blind. So, how does this relationship begin? It is not so much the case of training a guide dog, but training the relationship between man and dog.

The first stage in a puppy’s development into becoming a guide dog is to make sure that it is not easily frightened or of a nervous disposition – they must be good-natured and naturally calm. This is done with the aid of volunteers who look after the puppies up until they are about a year old. In this time they will introduce the young dogs to the world around them, and teach them basic skills in obedience.

At the end of this period of introduction, the volunteer will pass the puppy on to the care of one of several Guide Dog Training schools. A professional trainer will then teach the dog the necessary skills that are required for the job of leading the blind and visually impaired; skills that include walking in a straight line, stopping at the curb and maneuvering around obstructions. This training period will lasts between six to eight months.

Assuming the dog has met the required skills, (not all of them do) the next task is to then pair up the dog with its new owner. There follows a period of intense training to forge a bond between man and animal – either within the training facility or at the owner’s home. The relationship will have to be strong between them as, outside the home, the blind person will be totally dependent upon his dog’s skill to navigate the various obstacles along the pedestrian highway. Unlike pets, guide dogs are service animals – in charge of the welfare of their keeper – as such they are not to be approached, fed or handled without the express permission of their owner. Even though the dog may appear friendly, its training is such that it may be discouraged to react to other people, in favour of its owner.