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Guide Dogs Offer Yet Another Reason to Love Pups!

I love dogs. Small dogs, large dogs, dogs with one eye (I had one), dogs with two. I didn’t think I could care for pups any more than I do…until I read up on guide dogs. These “critters” are awe-inspiring.

Simply put, the dogs offer more than just helping the visually impaired navigate their world. They provide a sense of freedom which surely effects all aspects of a person’s being. They enable a life of independence and mobility, while boosting confidence and security. On top of that, they are wonderful companions (as all dogs are!), which has shown to reduce anxiety, depression and loneliness.

These dogs love hanging out with their family, soaking up praise and playing, just like any other dog. However, when their harness goes on, they are all business. This is the main reason you should never approach or try to pet a service animal which is “on duty”. They are highly trained to focus on the safety of the team and are quite serious about their work.

Training a guide dog …

Training starts at about 8 weeks with a volunteer foster-family, which cares for the puppy during the first year. The dogs are encouraged to abide by some particular guidelines of behavior and exposed to a wide variety of people and situations. These families are true heroes and a critical part of the overall process. They need to follow many guidelines, like staying home most of the time, daily walks and attending puppy classes. The dogs they care for are genuinely loved, with all training done using only positive reinforcement. They train the puppy by offering treats and showering them praise in the form of physical and verbal affection.

The next phase is a bit more formal and takes about six months. This is completed at a training center by professionals who continue to only use positive reinforcement. In general, the dogs are trained to safely move in a straight line, avoiding obstacles in their path or their partner’s path. They are taught to automatically stop at stairs, curbs, and doors, and to stay alert at all times. Besides that, their job is to take cues from their handler and follow their commands.

All this training does cost a lot! To breed, raise and fully train a guide dog can cost around $50,000. This is one reason organizations which do this training have settled on breeds they find to be most successful, which are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds. The dogs selected need to have perfect manners, an eagerness to please and a willingness to work. They also need to be great at avoiding distractions. Even when specifically bred to be a guide dog, only about 70% of the dogs make it through the 18-month program. I’m happy to report that the 30% or so who do not “make the cut” are normally trained as another type of service dog, and go on help people in other, important ways.

I found it just fascinating to learn about these dogs, even though I (mistakenly) thought I knew all about them. One misconception I learned is that these dogs are not taught to read traffic signals. Their partner needs to do this, since the dog is only trained to take its cue from them. The dog’s main job is to walk centrally along the pavement (without sniffing!), stop any time they reach a raised area or step, gauge the height and width of any area they go through (making sure their partner will have no issues) and they are taught to never turn a corner unless specifically instructed to do so.

By far though, the coolest thing they’re trained to do is called “intelligent disobedience”. This means that even though they are highly trained to obey, they need to be smart enough to know when “not obeying” would be the safer choice. For instance, when their handler directs them to continue forward into a street, they need to know to disobey this command when traffic is approaching. In some cases, the dog may even attempt to move their handler out of the way, if something they deem to be dangerous is approaching!

The final step in creating a working guide dog is to pair the right dog with the right person. The expert trainers will consider the personality, age, communication style, level of mobility, lifestyle, and physical needs of the person. The dog’s personality, energy level and communication style are considered as well. Once a team is formed, they typically spend two weeks together, testing out the relationship. If all goes well, something like a graduation ceremony marks the final step in developing the guide dog and the first step for this pair’s life together.

After learning all that these wonderful animals contribute to their handler, it’s hard not to become enamored. If you’d like to explore this topic just a bit more, I highly recommend the documentary “Pick of the Litter,” currently available on Hulu (and possibly other streaming services). Bring some tissue though, and be prepared to love dogs even more!

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