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The Extraordinary Guide Dog…How Do They Do It?

From 18th Century Paris to the many partnerships between guide dogs and blind handlers today; what is the history of the guide dog and how do they provide the crucial support and companionship that helps so many?

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History of Guide Dogs

Guide dog collection boxDepicted on the walls of the Roman Herculeaum when it stood, and now buried in its ruins but not lost in time, guide dogs have been leading the blind since the first century AD. A depiction of a blind man being led by a guide dog attached to a leash was found on a mural among the ruins. Skip forward many centuries to the 1700’s when a blind Parisian trained a spitz to serve as his guide dog companion. In the 1800’s, guide dogs for the blind were mentioned in books in both Vienna and Switzerland. It was during the first World War that the idea of guide dogs began to be explored fully. This occurred with the opening of a proper guide dog school in Germany in 1916, followed by openings of multiple guide dog centers throughout Germany, which eventually trained over 2,500 guide dogs for the blind.

At this point, ladies and gentlemen, meet Dorothy Lieb Harrison Wood Eustis. No summation of the history of guide dogs would be complete without her. If you can’t remember her name, that’s okay, you’ll remember her legacy. If guide dogs have a patron saint, it is Dorothy Eustis.

Her story within guide dog history is quite straightforward yet quite extraordinary. Exposed to the idea of practical genetics from her first husband, Walter Wood, Dorothy took the selective breeding concepts he had applied to cattle and began applying it to guide dogs for the blind. She was inspired to selectively breed guide dogs by her intelligent and loyal German shepherd, Hans. A series of marriages and subsequent moves to Pennsylvania, Switzerland, and Germany, gave her the contacts needed to begin supplying European police units and the Swiss Army with a superior breed of German shepherd guide dogs for the blind from her Fortunate Fields kennel.

In 1927, Dorothy wrote an article about guide dogs called “The Seeing Eye” for the publication The Saturday Evening Post. By good fortune, a blind man named Morris Frank was made aware of the article about seeing-eye dogs and consequently traveled to Germany to work with Eustis who provided him with his own guide dog, Buddy. When Mr. Frank returned to his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee he was greeted with much anticipation and as a result, other blind persons were anxious to acquire a guide dog for themselves.

Returning to the United States from Germany, it was in 1929 that Ms. Eustis established and became President of the Seeing Eye, Inc. This was a training school for guide dogs which began in Nashville and eventually settled in New Jersey in 1932. Ms. Eustis required no outside funding for the Seeing Eye, funding most of it with her own fortune. She wanted to supply guide dogs to those who were skilled, mature, and independent enough to receive all the benefits a guide dog could offer, and sale of guide dogs was restricted to anyone who did not meet these requirements. Ms. Eustis died in 1946 in New York, New York. Her Seeing Eye foundation had successfully provided the blind with more than 1,300 guide dogs over the course of its history.

Breeds of Dogs as Guide Dogs

guide dog puppyAccording to the Guide Dogs of America, the breeds that are commonly used as guide dogs for the blind are:

  1. Labrador Retrievers, 70%
  2. • Golden Retrievers, 15%
  3. • German Shepherds, 15%

Most Americans prefer Labrador Retrievers because they have seen that it is the most appropriate breed for guide dogs. Not only in America, but a big percentage of the world uses Labs for guide dogs programs.

A Labrador Retriever is usually friendly and trusting so there is a bigger chance that they will be better guide dogs for the blind than many other breeds. They truly enjoy human companionship as is evidenced by their propensity to lay at your feet or nibble your fingers with a trusting expression. They are very jolly and they have a positive attitude towards life and eager to please. Labs are quick to learn and generally get along well with other animals, too. They are athletic and enjoy activities such as exercise and going through the training itself. It has been found that the best qualities guide dogs need to have, show up consistently in Labrador Retrievers.

Labs are also very alert to their surroundings and that is of primary importance in those puppies chosen to be guide dogs. Labs are energetic, and while having boundless energy and strength endurance is a positive trait for a guide dog, it comes at a cost. They must have a regular physical activity because when they are bored they will have a tendency to get into mischief as an outlet for their boredom. They need the outlet that physical activity provides.

Working guide dogs are needed round the clock by their owners. And Labs thrive with constant companionship, and in fact, they really don’t like to be left alone for hours. Using them as guide dogs for the blind creates a great fit. Labs can also easily adapt to a new environment when properly socialized. The affection and love of learning and constant companionship that the Labrador Retrievers have are all great traits for guide dogs, and this is no doubt the reason why a majority of people prefer them as guide dogs.

What Does a Guide Dog Do?

Guide dog at work

Have you ever wondered what guide dogs really do for the blind? While guide dogs for the blind can’t tell their blind owners whether their shirt clashes with their pants and they don’t generally perform well when it comes to general household tasks like cooking dinner or folding laundry, they are able to assist in other meaningful and valuable ways. Guide dogs for the blind are specially trained to assist and lead visually impaired people around. They act as mobility tools for the blind as well as being a loving companion. Guide dogs for the blind not only improve mobility but also provide independence and confidence for their human partners.

Guide dogs for the blind are trained to guide their owners in a straight line to avoid obstacles on the ground, to either side or above; however, they would also do otherwise if instructed. They are trained to stop at curbs, stairs and to locate doorways in common and familiar places.

Whenever a blind person crosses a street, their guide dog maintains a straight line but that doesn’t mean that the dog can decide when it is safe to cross. That call is best left to the humans rather than the guide dogs for the blind. The judgment on safety in crossing a road with a guide dog is precisely the same as when using a long white cane. This means that guide dogs for the blind are not miracle workers that can absolutely guide the blind, but a guide dog surely offers a unique, safe and effective way for the visually impaired person to get around independently.

Millions of people with vision impairment can attest to how helpful the assistance of guide dogs is in a lot of ways. Guide dogs for the blind give their owners freedom and independence. For people who don’t want to be imprisoned by their low vision, guide dogs for the blind become their source of independent navigation. It vastly improves the blind person’s self-esteem and their sense of liberty to do things on their own; guide dogs for the blind greatly improve a person’s quality of life and self-worth.

Some blind people are left at home by family members who need to go to work. Guide dogs provide a loving companion to their owners. Dogs are known as man’s best friend and the bond between humans and dogs is evident. A true partnership is established with the guide dogs becoming a great companion and friend as well as a mobility tool.

Guide dog owners can also consider their guide dogs for the blind as a social asset. When people see blind individuals with guide dogs, they inevitably approach them to chat or offer assistance. This is a great way of widening social relations of blind people who often find themselves alone or disconnected from the world. Guide dogs are definitely attractive to people; especially trained, guide dogs for the blind show special skills and people are easily amazed by what they can do. Guide dogs for the blind help eliminate the feeling of isolation and ostracism common to people in the blind and low-vision community.

Guide dogs for the blind definitely give more to their owner than just mere assistance crossing a street. Guide dogs improve many facets of life and help the blind live a worthy life. As friends and companions, they are more than just visual aids; they are a friend and family member providing support and love in the name of service…Even if they can’t tell you which tie goes with your shirt. 🙂

How Do They Train Guide Dogs?

Guide dog stick

Have you ever wondered how they train guide dogs for the blind? Before guide dogs ever reach their certified status of becoming mobility tools for their visually impaired handlers, they undergo an intensive amount of assessment, classification, re-classification if necessary, and a very long, tedious period of training if they make it through the strict qualifications process imposed by the guide dogs for the blind programs.

The initial stage of guide dog training starts from birth. Puppies bred for use as potential guide dogs for the blind are first entrusted to families known as Puppy Raisers. Puppy Raisers make a commitment to work through the first stage of training pups, focusing especially on their socialization skills starting when the puppies reach the age of seven weeks. For 12 months, the potential guide dogs for the blind are trained in basic skills like walking correctly on a leash. The young guide dogs are also given social training where they are exposed to shopping centers and other public places.

Puppy Raisers play a crucial role in the development of a potential guide dog. They selflessly and voluntarily commit to providing an atmosphere conducive to molding future guide dogs for the blind. Furthermore, they knowingly face the turmoil of parting with their pups when the time comes to return them to the guide dogs training center.

The young dogs are returned to the guide dogs training center at the age of 12 months to be assessed physically and to determine if their temperament is suitable for guide dog work. The veterinarian conducts an intensive health exam of the potential guide dogs for the blind and afterward, the dogs are tested as to their reactions to different situations in common environments. The guide dogs will also be checked to see if they are prone to distractions that would greatly affect their guide dog tasks.

Dogs that pass the strict assessment and qualify to train as guide dogs for the blind would then be classified to undergo the guide dogs for the blind training regimen for five months. A reclassification could take place for dogs that are not fit to be guide dogs but could be good therapy dogs or pets.

The carefully screened dogs that make it as potential guide dogs for the blind would start the 5-month guide dog training program. There are six to eight dogs under one guide dog instructor for the duration of the training period. Guide dogs for the blind instructors need to understand in detail each of the dogs’ temperamental, physical health and working capacity.

Various training sessions are geared towards training guide dogs in the basics of walking a straight line, maintaining concentration and focus amidst distractions, identifying curbs by halting, and the different meanings of the various vital commands. Guide dogs for the blind are also trained in various environments like rural and urban areas, residential and semi-business locations.

The second half of the guide dog training period introduces the dog to the harness without a handle. This is also the time that guide dog instructors teach the basic commands and improve and correct the behavior of the guide dogs for the blind.

The guide dogs training final phase is dedicated to confirming the guide dogs traffic safety abilities. The guide dog trainer will work with the guide dogs in real-life situations in locations and along routes to assess the guiding ability of the guide dog. The guide dogs will actually experience the real guide work they will eventually be expected to do when they start their partnership with their blind owner.

Once they’ve passed through the entire process, and it has been determined that they are good to go, they are assigned to a blind handler and the partnership begins with a new world awaiting both the guide dog and the owner.

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What and how the extraordinary guide dog do what they do

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