Guide Dogs

What is a guide dog?

A guide dog is a specially trained dog specifically for guiding a person with vision loss.  These dogs are responsible for leading their handler around obstacles, crossing streets, stopping at curbs or changes in elevation such as stairs.

A guide dog is usually used in place of a white cane, but at times, a handler may use the cane to gather tactile information from the environment in order to best instruct the dog on how to proceed.  These dogs follow the commands of their handler, such as forward, halt, left and right.  It is the handler’s responsibility to know where he or she is going and to read traffic patterns to know when it is safe to cross a street.  However, these animals are taught “intelligent disobedience” which means that a dog may refuse to obey the request if a dangerous situation is present such as an oncoming car or high drop off.

Why choose a guide dog?

Traveling independently with a white cane or a guide dog is a personal choice.  Both of these travel methods give a person with vision loss a different travel experience.  A person using a white cane will gather information about their environment by touching tactile landmarks such as light poles or building edges to provide a point-to-point map to get to their destination.  A guide dog will avoid obstacles and lead the handler from curb to curb without relying on this tactile information.  Even though a person using a guide dog for travel doesn’t use a white cane, it is still an absolute necessity the person acquires good orientation and mobility skills.  Understanding traffic patterns, where you are in your environment and using other senses are important tools for the handler to effectively direct their dog.  Most guide dogs schools require a prospective handler to have had recent orientation and mobility training before they are accepted into a class.

Deciding whether to use a guide dog for mobility should be carefully considered. A person must be committed to taking full responsibility for the dog’s well-being, physically and emotionally.  Consideration must also be given to the costs of care including food and vet bills.  Hadley School for the Blind has an excellent course on the issues one must fully understand and accept before undergoing training.

Where do you get a guide dog?

The International Guide Dog Federation has accredited 12 guide dogs schools in the United States.  These schools, in most cases, cover the cost of the dog, class instruction, travel to and from the school and room and board.  Class instruction normally is provided at the guide dog school and generally lasts anywhere between 14 to 28 days depending on the school and whether the person is a new handler or returning for a successor dog.

Who can get a guide dog?

To be considered for guide dog school, a person must demonstrate that he or she can walk at least a mile with good orientation and mobility  skills and must have a physical to determine fitness. Generally, the age range for a guide dog handler is 18 years of age and upwards.  There is no age upward limit as long as physical ability can be demonstrated.

While in training at the guide dog school, the handlers are taught how to manage their dog including how to travel, care and provide “play time” for their dogs.  Under the supervision of an instructor who has been training the dog before the handler comes to class, individuals will learn how to cross streets, find doorways and other desired objects, travel in indoor environments like shopping malls and ride public transportation.  Lectures and demonstrations on grooming the dog, administering preventative medications, learning about acceptable toys and games are all a part of class instruction.

Myths about guide dogs and their use:

1.  A person has to be totally blind to use a guide dog.

A person does not have to be totally blind; although if a person has too much vision, they may not be accepted into a program as too much vision may interfere with the handler’s ability to let the dog lead.

2.  A guide dog is always in harness and is used even in the home environment.

Guide dogs are not in harness at home and are treated very much like pet dogs when they are not working.

3.  The dog knows when the stop light changes.

The dog does not know when the light turns from red to green.  This is the handler’s responsibility to know when it is safe to cross a street.

4.  Guide dogs must have a certification in order to be allowed into public places.

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require guide dogs to be certified, however some guide dog schools will issue a certificate or a registration for their clients.  Recently, some online websites are issuing certificates for a fee to register a dog as a service animal.  These online certifications sites are not requiring their customers to prove any sort of formal training.  Since the ADA does not require a certification, these paid certificates are not necessary and are enabling others to bring pet dogs into areas where only trained guide dogs are permitted to go.

5. A guide dog must fly in the baggage compartment on an airplane.

A guide dog will accompany their handler into the airplane’s passenger cabin and lay at the handler’s feet during the flight.

6. Guide dogs are also called “seeing eye dogs.”

The term “seeing eye dog” has been generalized over the years to mean all dogs that lead the blind, however, a “Seeing Eye Dog” is a dog that has been trained by the Seeing Eye, a guide dog school located in Morristown, NJ.  Another term for a guide dog is “dog guide.”

 

Things to keep in mind when you meet a guide dog team:

  1.  When a guide dog is in harness, the dog is working. People should not distract the dog in anyway as it may interfere with the dog’s ability to guide safely.
  2.  Never provide food or a treat to a guide dog as it may interfere with the dog’s relieving schedule or upset their digestive system.
  3.  Never call out to a dog while it is working.  This can cause the dog to become distracted and lose concentration causing the handler and dog to be put at risk.
  4.  Ask the handler first if you can pet their guide.  Some handlers will let you pet their dog, but may ask the dog to sit before you do so. Other handlers may not be open to this as their dog may become solicitous and they do not want to encourage this type of behavior.  Please respect the handler’s decision on how they handle their guide.

Resources:

Hadley School for the Blind: Considering a Guide Dog Course

International Guide Dog Federation: Membership organization of guide dog schools who insure high quality standards are maintained through accreditation.

Guide Dog Users, Inc.: Provides a listing of schools, their philosophies and general information.

National Association of Guide Dog Users: Provides information on guide dog training programs, access information and advocacy resources