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Guide dogs are an essential part of many people’s lives, and the tasks they can perform are nothing short of amazing. But these dogs aren’t just born that way. Training a guide dog is a long and tedious process, and it requires a lot more work than training a family dog.
Most guide dogs are Labradors, golden retrievers, German shepherds, or a mix of these breeds. Sometimes boxers are used as well. Dogs are specially bred for gentleness, good health and even temperament to make sure they’ll be able to perform for their humans and make their lives easier. Guide dog organizations usually breed their own dogs to ensure these traits so the dogs they raise will be the ultimate companions.
Basic obedience and socialization training begins around 8 weeks of age, often conducted by a volunteer puppy raiser. The dogs — either male or female — are showered with affection to nurture their ability to bond. The volunteers will usually take the guide dogs everywhere they go to get them accustomed to being around people they don’t know and other unique situations. Some college campuses have programs where students can take guide dogs in training to classes and around campus to get them experience in the real world.
At a year-and-a-half, after the dogs have been cleared as people friendly, the dogs begin their training to be guide dogs with a sighted instructor. The tasks guide dogs are taught fall into three primary skills:
- Changes in elevation, such as an upcoming curb, stairway, edge of platforms, etc.
- Locating objects, such as exits, elevators, seats, or specific destination
- Obstacle avoidance, such as navigating around obstacles and hazards
The Keys to Training a Guide Dog
The human partner makes most of the decisions for the team. When crossing a street, for instance, the person listens for the right time to go. Dogs cannot tell when a light turns green, so he or she relies on the person for the command.
They are also taught how to disobey a dangerous order. Called “intelligent disobedience,” the dog will refuse a “forward” command when it is unsafe. The dog is carefully conditioned to disobey during certain situations, because they do not necessarily understand the inherent danger they are avoiding. The person must reinforce the behavior with praise; otherwise, the dog may forget.
When training a guide dog, the individual is taught the commands that the dog knows, as well as health care and grooming. They’ll also learn the access laws governing guide dogs. The training process takes several weeks, and when it’s finished, the guide dog and individual are a team. The two are able to navigate the world together and the bond they’ve created is typically very strong.
Though the dogs are trained to handle diverse situations, such as busy city streets, airports, subways, and other populated areas, the dogs require periodic retraining when situations change.
Besides being legally disabled, eligible individuals must be in good physical and mental health, a minimum of high school age, able to provide adequate care for the dog, and also show a need for a guide dog. Most programs offer the dogs free of charge or for a nominal fee. Some organizations will pay for all expenses, including travel and room and board, if it’s necessary to help the individual afford the guide dog.
Training a guide dog is a long process, but in the end, people with disabilities are able to work with an incredibly well-trained pup to help them live their lives in an easier way. It is an exciting and rewarding process, especially when a newly graduated dog is finally matched with his partner.
Let Them Work
When you see a guide dog,, your first instinct should be to stay away. Unlike seeing someone walking their dog and asking to pet him, seeing a guide dog is like seeing someone doing their job. It’s important that you leave the dog alone so he’s able to help his partner to the best of his ability. If you’re distracting him, he might miss a cue from his owner and put them in a tough spot.
The next time you see a guide dog — look but don’t touch. Respecting the training that the guide dog went through to be so well behaved will help you avoid a difficult situation.
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