How do Guide Dogs work?
Most people have heard about and seen guide dogs when out and about. These service animals are carefully trained to lead their owners around other people and obstacles. Individuals with vision loss throughout the world use guide dogs (also called dog guides) to travel safely and independently to and from home, work, school and countless other places. Here are some of the frequently asked questions about guide dogs and how they work.
Q: How and where are guide dogs trained?
A: Guide dogs can either be trained at special schools, or by owners themselves. Regardless of the training method, the dogs must learn how to guide their owner safely around all types of obstacles. Owners also have to learn how to give the dog the different commands for when traveling out and about.
Q: What kind of breeds are used?
A: Guide dog breeds include Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Poodles and Labradoodles. These last two are primarily used for people who are allergic to dogs. All of these breeds are used because they have the necessary intelligence, temperament and health qualities to be a successful dog guide. Dogs are matched with their future owners based on his or her personality, walking speed and other characteristics.
Q: How do dog guides know where to go when traveling?
A: This is a team effort between the dog and its owner. The owner knows where and how he wants to get to a certain place, and he or she is responsible for telling the dog through verbal and hand signals. Directions include forward, left and right. When at a street crossing, the owner is responsible for judging when it is safe to cross based on the sound of the cars, and should then command the dog to begin crossing. Intelligent disobedience is when a dog refuses to cross the street because it is unsafe to do so, even when the owner has commanded it to go forward.
Q: Do people have to be totally blind to have a dog guide?
A: People who are legally blind but still have some usable vision may also qualify for a dog guide. Although these individuals might still have some sight, they can still benefit from the assistance from a dog.
Q: Why do some people use dogs and others use canes?
A: Only about 5 percent of people who are blind or severely visually impaired use dog guides. Like with anything else, this all depends on many factors, including a person’s lifestyle, travel skills and preferences. Some people prefer to travel with a white cane, while others are more comfortable using a dog. You can read this Sandy’s View post about different thoughts and experiences from various cane and dog guide users.
Q: Is it ok to pet or feed a dog guide while it is working?
A: If you see a dog guide wearing a harness, that means it is working and should not be pet, fed or distracted. Doing so can put its owner in great danger, because it is not focusing on guiding. Never come up to a dog guide and pet it without asking its owner! Always check if it is ok, and please do not feel offended if he or she says no. This Sandy’s View post explains more about why dog guides should never be distracted.
Q: Where can I find out more about guide dogs?
A: The International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) provides a wealth of information about dog guides, as well as other resources on dog guide schools and other websites from all over the world.
Sandy Murillo works at The Chicago Lighthouse, an organization serving the blind and visually impaired. She is the author of Sandy’s View, a bi-weekly Lighthouse blog about blindness and low vision. The blog covers topics of interest to those living with blindness and vision impairments. Being a blind journalist and blogger herself, Sandy shares her unique perspective about ways to live and cope with vision loss.