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What is the role of a guide dog?

Labrador guide dog

What does a guide dog do?

© Africa Studio - Shutterstock

Little is known about the world of a blind or partially sighted person. For many, guide dogs are just a “tool” that make their lives easier. But the truth is, they are much more than that: they are their eyes.

By Emilie Heyl

Published on the 07/09/2021, 17:00

You should know that 90% of blind people or visually impaired people with visual work or study thanks to a guide dog. A guide dog is their second chance in life. Those who have a guide dog by their side or already had one feel so happy because they are essential and bring so much. Dogs are truly the best.

Guide dogs are more than just dogs. They are devoted and faithful to their owners all their lives, they are true hero dogs. Dogs are rewarded with the love of their owner on a daily basis, without whom most could not live the same life. Talented and generous dogs, we had to talk about guide dogs on Wamiz.

The role of a guide dog: What do guide dogs do?

A guide dog is a dog educated to facilitate the daily life of a blind or visually impaired person, especially in all his movements. Contrary to popular belief, the guide dog is not just for blind people. A partially sighted person can also have a guide dog by their side.

What does a guide dog bring? 

Through his education and guiding work, the dog will provide: 

  • Autonomy when travelling: the owner no longer has to be accompanied by a third person if he knows his route well. 
  • Safety: the dog will naturally bypass various obstacles, going so far as to disobey his owner in the event of real danger (Example: if the dog wants to bypass a pit and the owner insists on going straight ahead, the dog lies down to prevent any accident) 
  • Fluidity: the journeys become smoother and less tiring with the help of the dog because all obstacles are avoided. 
  • Contact: People come into contact more easily with the visually impaired or blind person when they have a guide dog. 
  • Company: A reassuring presence by their  side allows a blind or impaired person to break loneliness on a daily basis.

What does a guide dog do?

At the end of his education, the guide dog knows 50 commands which allow him:

  • Obey orders of directions 
  • Identify an obstacle, point it out and go around it 
  • Find and walk across a pedestrian crossing 
  • Stop in front of a sidewalk 
  • Secure a climb or walk down the stairs 
  • Find certain infrastructures such as a letter box, a bus stop, etc.

The most common dog breeds used as guide dogs

You should know that guide dogs are not chosen randomly. Indeed, not every dog can perform this function. Breeding dogs are chosen based on the specifics of their breed's personality, their level of adaptability and obedience, but also the types of diseases to which they are prone. Historically, the Golden Retriever crossed with the Labrador has produced the most successful guide dog of all, combining many of the great traits of both breeds. But since, other dog breeds have proven to be excellent guide dogs due to their gentleness, intelligence and loyal nature. Here are the most common dog breeds used as guide dogs:

 Guide dog working
©Africa Studio - Shutterstock

What are the characteristics of a guide dog?

A guide dog will have to help his owner, by attending to his needs, warning him of any dangers and adapting to his rhythm. But even if the dog meets these criteria, the care for a guide dog should be simple, since the dog's handler is disabled. Therefore, the animal mustn't need significant care, it shouldn’t have too many health problems, and in particular diseases which require a lot of care.

He must not have a hunting instinct. In other words, a guide dog should be easy-going, hardy, affectionate, confident, and should adapt to anyone and any situation. 

Despite all these mental and physical qualities, one very important characteristic remains: the dog’s size. This is why, not all dogs are capable of becoming guide dogs. Indeed, a blind man cannot be helped by a small dog such as a Yorkie. The dog must be at least medium sized in order to be able to catch things for his owner.  The dog must also be at the right height to guide the blind man, because he will be wearing a special harness, and the disabled person must not bend down to hold his dog.

A little recap of the important characteristics that a blind guide dog must have: 

  • The dog must be easy maintenance
  • The dog should be gentle, attentive, confident, and affectionate
  • The dog should have the right size
  • The dog should adapt easily to any situation and any person
  • The dog should be in good health, be a hardy breed

How to train a guide dog

A dog becomes a guide dog by following this route: 

From 2 months to 12 months: The puppy is placed in a foster family to learn the basics: toilet training, obedience and socialisation. Most of the time, puppies are placed in volunteer foster families near the guide dog school. The foster family of a future guide dog puppy provides voluntary pre-education for the dog, in order to give it all the basics of a well-behaved dog, before entering school education. Guide dog schools provide a guide giving information and educational advice. Regular visits are organised, either at the education center or at home. This mission lasts about a year, with the permanent help of a specialised educator.

From 12 months to 18 months: The dog begins his 6-month training in an education center. He will learn: Obedience, obstacle avoidance, walking on sidewalks or country roads, pedestrian crossings, passing doors, walking up and down stairs, using public transport etc. 

Education must be done with a minimum of constraints, so that the dog's character is respected. The future guide dog ends his day with some well deserved rest and relaxation. 

After 18 months: The guide dog obtains its certificate of aptitude for guidance and is therefore given to a visually impaired or blind person! To obtain his certificate of aptitude to guide a dog, he must know how to respond to about fifty commands that are taught to him during his 6 months of training at school.

8 rules on how to behave with a guide dog

We must always remember that guide dogs are not like others dogs, they are animals trained to help a blind person to live a life as normal as possible. It’s important to respect their work, be patient, considerate and tolerant. Here are 8 rules on how to behave around a guide dog and its blind or visually impaired person.

1. No food and no distractions: Never feed a guide dog or call him while he’s accompanying a disabled person. If you want to pet him, it is always better to ask the owner's permission first, to avoid the animal being distracted.

2. Don’t let your dog interact with a guide dog: When out and about, the guide dog is working, and, even though your pooch is super friendly and loves to play, it’s best to avoid letting your dog interact with a guide dog. This is not the time to play and dogs must always be supervised.

3. Be civil: Unfortunately, many news cases testified how much guide dogs are still discriminated in public places. If you see a guide dog with its blind owner, make sure to give them some space, let them sit on the bus for example. Common sense dictates that the animal is allowed to enter anywhere alongside its owner and have a comfortable place to stay.

Furthermore, if you are riding a bike or a bicycle, civic education requires you to never occupy pedestrian crossings, sidewalks and ramps with vehicles or motor vehicles.

4. Don't panic: Guide dogs are trained and docile, so don't be afraid of them.

5. Be extremely vigilant when driving a car: Even if there aren’t any traffic lights or signalisation, if you cross a guide dog with its owner, slow down and let them pass. Better to slow down and not scare them.

6. Don't touch the guide dog’s harness: If a blind person with his guide dog asks for information, don’t grab the animal’s leash, collar or harness.

7. Be tolerant: Obviously it is impossible for the owner of a guide dog to pick up its dog’s poop, when done in the streets. Don’t hesitate to help him or just don’t say anything.

8. Speak to the handler and not the dog: Be sure to speak to the handler at an appropriate time and not when the handler is trying to get somewhere or is giving instructions.

How much does a guide dog cost?

On average, one single guide dog costs approximately £34,600 to breed and train. However, most of the time, Guide dog schools support a dog from its birth to retirement and this costs approximately £54,800.

How many years do guide dogs work?

A guide dog’s average working life is between six to seven years. Sometimes they can work longer, it all depends on their health and the amount of work they need to do. Most dogs retire at the age of 10 or 11 years old.

What do guide dogs do when they retire?

A guide dog’s education starts at the age of 2 months old. After completing their training and years of service, in which they gave themselves completely and have helped more than enough with their mission, it’s time to retire. When this time comes they are assured a retirement home for the rest of their life, either with their owner or another dedicated family. There is a time when retirement occurs earlier than planned because they might suffer from an illness, an injury or other problems such as fear or phobia.

Do retired guide dogs make good pets?

Yes, retired guide dogs make excellent pets! Guide dogs, despite their retirement, still have a lot of love to offer and they have the advantage of being very well educated. Even though most of the retired guide dogs are seniors, they still need your love to enjoy all the time they have left. Giving them the opportunity to rest and offering them a home would be the icing on the cake of a lifetime of work.

So, are you going to help an amazing guide dog live its final adventure with you?