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What to Know About Guide Dogs for Vision Loss

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 01, 2022

Guide dogs are specially trained dogs used by people with vision loss. These canines help blind people travel safely from one place to another. They're excellent at helping a blind person avoid obstacles, stop at elevation changes, and look out for oncoming traffic. Guide dogs also remember common routes, providing their owner greater confidence and independence when out and about.

A Brief History of Guide Dogs

Guide dogs have been around since World War II. They were trained as guides for blind veterans in the war. With the help of Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an author for the guide dog article in 1927, a blind man named Morris Frank spread the news about guide dogs throughout the U.S. Dorothy Eustis trained Buddy, a dog who was later taken to the U.S. by Morris Frank, as the first guide dog in the country. 

How to Get a Guide Dog

To get a guide dog, a blind person has to be paired with the right dog for their lifestyle. There are also other factors they need to consider. The goal is to have a successful guide dog partnership characterized by a strong bond and a healthy support system.

According to Guide Dogs of America, there are a number of requirements that you must meet to qualify for a guide dog training program:

  • Being legally blind
  • Being at least 18 years of age or older
  • Undergoing and completing orientation and mobility training
  • Being physically able to walk 1 or 2 miles a day
  • Being financially able to properly care for a guide dog
  • Having three or more routes to walk regularly

What Determines the Choice of a Guide Dog?

Beyond meeting the qualifications, pairing you with the perfect guide dog is a process that takes time and effort. Some of the factors that determine what dog becomes your guide dog include:

Dog breed. Different dog breeds have been trained as guide dogs. Some common breeds include Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Poodles, Labrador Retrievers, and Labradoodles.

AllergiesIf you're allergic to dogs' fur or saliva, standard poodles are recommended. Allergic reactions happen because of salivary lipocalin proteins in a dog's skin and saliva. These proteins get activated in the environment when a dog sheds their hair or when their skin flakes. The Royal National Institute of Blind People recommends frequent hair brushing to prevent loose dog hair from building up in the environment.

The environment. The owner’s environment and activity also determine the type of dog they get. Active guide dogs are paired with people with active lives, while slower breeds are paired with people who prefer a slower approach to life. 

Other factors include the dog’s and the person’s walking speed, the physical strength of both the dog and the future owner, the amount of work the future owner does, and the type of transport preferred by the future owner.

Guide Dog Training

Future guide dogs to be trained are picked based on their obedience, intelligence, mobility, and physique. Guide dogs are also trained depending on factors known to the owner and the environment they’re going to. 

Training and socializing for guide dogs is done early when they’re still very young pups. The process involves many people and continues throughout the dog’s life. Once the puppy is about 8 weeks old, puppy raisers teach them basic obedience. They return to the parent organization for formal guide dog training. Professional instructors are responsible for this part of the process, which can last months. Once training is complete, the dog is paired up with a blind handler.

If you want a guide dog for vision loss, you must undergo training to know how to handle them. To qualify for training and pairing with a guide dog, you must also use American Sign Language (ASL). Guide dogs for vision loss recognize and respond to hand signals and ASL. They're trained to do so with or without vocal support, so such a dog may not alert you to sounds like a doorbell, ringing phone, or alarm.

You will be trained by guide dog mobility instructors, which is typically a one-month-long process with four phases that increase in difficulty. Activities may include dog-trainer relationship building, revisiting older lessons like sitting and standing, evaluating the dog’s skills, and learning the dog’s personality. Initial stages of the training are done at the organization, then activities are moved to quiet streets and later to louder, busier streets. 

In the end, you and your guide dog should be able to avoid obstacles, stop at traffic, curb walk, and make turns correctly.  

How Do Guide Dogs Know Directions?

Guide dogs help people with vision loss avoid dangers and obstacles ahead. The guide dog's owner understands their area of residence as the guide dog takes directions from them. When crossing the road, the owner listens for traffic sounds and understands when it's safe to cross. The owner gives the command to cross, and the guide dog chooses when it's safe to do so.

Before traveling, the owner decides where and when they want to go. Voice and hand signals from the owner make the dog understand the direction and action to take, away from obstacles. 

Guide dogs are highly trained at their job. They work for their owners only and are reliable companions. If you see one on the street, resist the urge to pet them, as it can cause a distraction. If you have one in your home, they're as important as every other member of the family but with added responsibility. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Kennel Club: “7 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Guide Dogs.”

Guide Dogs of America: “Is A Guide Dog Right For You?”

International Guide Dog Federation: “History of Guide Dogs.”

Leader Dogs for the Blind: “Guide Dog Training FAQs, “How Guide Dogs are Trained.” 

Royal National Institute of Blind People: “Allergies and fear.”

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