Friendly, fluffy and cute. Guide dogs can elicit an almost irresistible temptation to be played with. However, they are a lot more than a pretty face. Guide dogs enable a life of independence, mobility and companionship for blind and partially sighted people. So here are 10 things you might not know about guide dogs:
1. They are not such a recent invention.
Literature, artwork, engravings and woodcuts have led historians to believe that service animals date back at least to the mid-16th century. However, the first systematic attempt to train dogs to aid blind people came around 1780 at ‘Les Quinze-Vingts’ hospital for the blind in Paris. Despite that, it was only really in the early-mid 1900’s that guide dog training institutions became more prevalent, enabling far greater accessibility.
2. They undergo comprehensive training.
It takes approximately 18 months to train a guide dog from birth. First, the puppy lives for about a year in a verified household, which has volunteered to raise the puppy under specific guidelines. This environment helps nurture the puppy and teaches it house training and obedience. Next, the dog must go through its formal guide dog training, which is conducted by professionals and lasts about 4-6 months. At about 18 months, the guide dog meets its intended partner and they train together for a few weeks, before becoming long-term companions.
3. They are subject to a meticulous matching program.
Matching a blind or visually impaired person with the right dog for them is a fine art that involves a great deal of thought. Each client undergoes a personal interview and screening process before being paired with a dog that suits their mobility, personality, lifestyle, and physical needs.
4. They come in different breeds.
Guide dog breeds are chosen for temperament and trainability. Today, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and German Shepherds are most likely to be chosen by service animals facilities. These breeds have a good range of size, are generally healthy and have a gentle but willing temperament. Crosses such as Golden Retriever/Labrador and Labradoodles are frequently used as well, with the most popular breed used today being the Labrador Retriever.
5. No matter how cute they look, they should not be petted while working.
Guide dogs are at work and should not be distracted. Guide dogs are trained to ignore all distractions around them and to focus solely on their owners’ needs. Therefore, you should not pet, feed, whistle at, or talk to a guide dog without asking the owner first. Often, reliance on a guide dog is the only thing standing between the owner and serious injury or death. So do the right thing and politely ignore them so they can do their job.
6. While they serve their owner loyally, it is certainly not a one-way street.
Guide dogs are high-maintenance, just like most other pets. Despite their comprehensive training, guide dogs still require feeding, grooming, relief, exercise and most importantly love. In exchange, owners have a friend by their side who is willing to use his vision to help prevent falls, avoid traffic and locate doors.
7. They are welcome in public areas.
In almost all western, developed countries, guide dogs are exempt from regulations against the presence of animals in public places. Disability discrimination and equal opportunity legislation generally authorizes a blind person accompanied by a guide dog to go anywhere the general public is allowed. This enables the guide dog to accompany his owner to restaurants, medical centers, stores of all kinds, and even airplanes.
8. They cannot read traffic lights.
It’s a common misconception that guide dogs indicate when it is safe to cross the street. This is not true. At a traffic signal, the guide dog does not have the capacity to identify when the light changes from green to yellow to red. It is the person who determines when it is safe to cross the street and which way to go; the dog then guides the person across the street to reach the other side. Although the dog does not know when it is safe to cross the street, if it sees a car approaching too close, it has been trained to stop or attempt to move the person out of the way.
9. They have substantial health impacts on blind and partially-sighted people.
Guide dogs can provide blind people with confidence, friendship, and security. Companionship offered by a service dog has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The reduced stress has in turn improved cardiovascular health. Guide dogs also make it easier to get around, resulting in increased exercise. Guide dogs have significantly enhanced both the mental and physical health of non-sighted people, but most importantly the intersection between the two.
10. Guide dogs retire.
The regular career span of a guide dog is 7-10 years. After that time the dog is generally adopted by a new family to live out its golden years and is replaced by a younger dog. This transition period is extremely hard for both the owner and the dog, who have become so dependent on each other and built such a close connection.
As you can see, guide dogs are a delicate balance between a working animal and a loyal friend. Hopefully this has taught you a thing or two about these amazing dogs and helped you appreciate that little bit more just how important they are.