For blind or visually impaired people, guide dogs are a lifeline
What is a guide dog?
A guide dog is a type of service dog that is specially trained to work with people who are blind or visually impaired. Their main job is to make sure people are safe. They help with things like crossing the street, walking in unfamiliar places and navigating busy environments.
Guide dogs in the United States
More than 3 million people in the United States are blind or visually impaired, the Centers for Disease Control reports. About 2%, or 60,000, of them have guide dogs.
The first guide dog training school, The Seeing Eye®, opened in 1929 and is still in operation today, along with several other guide dog training schools. Currently, there are 14 total schools in the U.S. that are accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation.
Some additional schools are accredited by a different organization — Assistance Dogs International. It is important for people to get their guide dogs from places that have IGDC or ADI accreditation, says Suzy Wilburn, ambassador of outreach and recruitment for Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc. in Palmetto, Florida, who also has a personal guide dog named Carson. This way, you know the dog received proper care and complete training, she says. SEE RELATED: Resource guide for legal blindness
How are guide dogs trained?
Guide dogs start their training when they are very young. At Southeastern, for example, new puppies start learning how to be guide dogs when they are two or three days old, Wilburn says.
“We have staff and volunteers … that will handle the dogs and rub their bellies or the pads on their paws,” she says. “That is telling the puppy from the beginning of life that human contact is what they love.”
Next, guide dog trainees start what Southeastern calls ‘puppy kindergarten’ (other schools may call it by another name). This happens within the first few weeks of life. In this phase of training, they learn about sounds, textures and other features of the world around them. Once a puppy is 10 weeks old, it leaves the school (and its mother) to go live with a puppy raiser. A puppy raiser is a person who raises and trains guide dogs. During this time, the puppy will learn all about what it means to be a working dog.
The puppy stays with the puppy raiser for about 16 months. Then, it returns to school for advanced training and, eventually, placement with someone who is blind or visually impaired. This person is the dog’s “handler.” After placement, the new guide dog and the handler receive more training (as a pair) to make sure they work well together and are compatible.
Other schools follow similar training patterns, but the specific protocol may vary somewhat from school to school (Guide Dogs for the Blind divides their training segments into nine phases — what Southeastern calls ‘puppy kindergarten’ they call ‘phase one’).
No matter where a guide dog learns the ropes, one of the most important things they will do during training is getting used to wearing a harness. Harnesses have straps that go across the dog’s chest, belly and back, as well as a handle. The dog’s handler uses the harness to “steer” the dog. Guide dogs know that when they are wearing their harness, they are on duty.
Does every guide dog trainee become a guide dog?
Even after all the training, some dogs do not become guide dogs (only up to 30% to 50% of them will “make it”). This is because during their training and assessments, they let people know that the job is not for them. “Nobody wants to be put in a job where they are not happy every day,” says Wilburn.
In these cases, the dog might become some other type of service dog, like an allergy detection dog, a mobility assistance dog or a seizure alert dog. Some become emotional support dogs or therapy dogs. Others become breeding dogs (many guide dog schools, like Southeastern, have their own breeding colonies). If none of the jobs are a good fit, the dog can be adopted as a pet. Waiting lists are typically long, though, and priority normally goes to the dog’s puppy raiser, Wilburn says. Plus, it is expensive. At Southeastern, for example, the adoption fee is $5,000. At Guide Dogs for the Blind, it is $2,000 and at The Seeing Eye® it is $1,000.
What do guide dogs do?
Getting a guide dog is a life-changing experience for a blind or visually impaired person because they can help them do more things and go to more places. Some of the tasks and activities they help with include:
Crossing the street.
Avoiding obstacles and objects that are in their way.
Finding doorways and stairs.
Getting through crowded places safely.
Finding the way to work, school, the bus stop and other important places.
Guide dogs do not work 24 hours a day. They are only on duty when they are wearing their guide dog harness or vest. When they are not on duty, they can play, sleep and just be a dog. Wilburn’s guide dog works for about three hours per day, she says.
Never approach working guide dogs
This is a good rule of thumb to follow at all times, but it is especially important when guide dogs are on duty.
“If you distract a dog, it can become very dangerous to the dog and its handler,” Wilburn warns, explaining that if a dog turns its attention away from its job, the handler may run into or trip over something.
Actions that can distract guide dogs include:
Speaking to them.
Making loud noises.
Offering food or toys.
Best guide dog breeds
Many breeds make great guide dogs. “It is all about trainability and work ethic,” Wilburn says.
For these reasons, many schools use German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers. Others train hypoallergenic dogs, like standard poodles, so that people with allergies can have guide dogs. It all depends on the organization you work with and your personal needs.
Who can get a guide dog?
Guide dog schools and organizations set their own requirements for who can get a guide dog. Some, for example, only allow people over the age of 18 to have guide dogs. Others, like Southeastern, will let some younger teens have guide dogs (they must be mature and committed to taking good care of the dog).
Guide dog handlers also must:
Have the physical ability to steer and manage the dog.
Make sure all household members agree to have a guide dog in the home.
Be legally blind. The definition of legally blind is 20/200 in the better eye without corrective lenses (you don’t have to be completely blind).
The cost of a guide dog
Guiding Eyes for the Blind reports that it can cost as much as $50,000 per year over a two- to three-year period to breed, raise and train an individual guide dog. Normally, though, that cost is not passed on to the handlers.
“If (a guide dog organization) wants you to raise money to get that dog, really think about it because there are organizations that do not charge. We are here to help people,” Wilburn says.
Some organizations, including Southeastern, also cover additional costs, like food, supplies and routine veterinary care. Costs will vary and change, of course, but in 2005 the CDC reported that on average, it costs $2,379 per year to own a guide dog. This is higher than the annual cost of a pet dog which, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is $1,391 per year.
Guide dogs and their handlers
Guide dogs have special bonds with the humans they serve. Pets have special bonds with humans, too, but having a guide dog is not the same thing as having a pet. Unlike a pet, the guide dog has special responsibilities and skills that their handler relies on.
“The bond that a person has with their guide dog is like nothing else … it is something super special that you can’t imagine unless you have one,” says Wilburn.
“Carson is my life,” she adds.
How to get a guide dog
If you believe you could benefit from having a guide dog and you meet the eligibility requirements, contact a guide dog training school for more information. They can tell you about their process for applying, any costs associated with getting a guide dog from them and about how long it takes to get one.
READ MORE: How to get a guide dog
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Page published on Tuesday, August 30, 2022