Guide Dogs: How They Do It
‘She’s so clever!’. As a Guide Dog Handler, I hear this on average twice a week. However, few people actually understand how a dog can guide a blind person or what their limitations are.
In most cases, a guide dog will spend at least the first year of its life in a home environment. Here in the UK, we use volunteer puppy walkers (sometimes called puppy parents) who will take the dog in and introduce it to various social situations, while also teaching basic obedience. The dog will then be assessed and, if successful, go onto basic training. After several more assessments and advanced training, the dog will be matched with a handler. They take into account temperament, walking speed, size and the demands of the handler’s lifestyle. The two will then train together for a period (which can be a few weeks or longer) before hopefully qualifying as a working partnership.
A guide dog handler relies on tactile feedback from the handle of their dog's harness. Small changes in tension and direction can tell them a lot about the world around them (and also when their dog has seen next door’s Persian).
The Straight-Line Principal
Most guide dogs are taught to guide their owner in a straight line, moving them around obstacles that occur on that line. They rely on curbs and roads to tell them where to pause and wait for instructions from their handler who will tell them where to turn or cross. Some dogs are trained to sit at every curb they find. This makes navigating open spaces or roads without pavements/sidewalks incredibly difficult.
Contrary to popular belief, the dog doesn’t choose when to cross. That is entirely the handler’s responsibility and they achieve this through listening carefully to ensure the way is clear. While some dogs receive training that ought to prevent them from walking out in front of a car if told to do so by a handler who doesn’t realise it’s there, this training is far from fool-proof. My trainer once said that guide dogs have the minds of intelligent 3 year olds and this is a good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t trust a toddler to do it, don’t expect it of a guide dog.
All guide dog handlers will have certain patterns of streets memorised that will take them to their desired location (they might use GPS technology to help in unfamiliar surroundings). Though the dogs will learn routes that they travel often to some extent, it is always the handler’s responsibility to ‘drive’, as it were. Guide dogs do not have a biological GPS and cannot read signs or understand directions (all expectations I’ve encountered at some point, I swear). You can’t just relax and tell pooch to take you home: you may end up lost or even at the park. On routes they know, handlers must be infinitely familiar with every turn and crossing and always on the alert for hazards or diversions. When somewhere they don’t know, the need for concentration is even more acute. Working with a guide dog can be incredibly tiring.
While guide dogs are very well trained, they’re still dogs. They’ll still have their naughty or sulky days and they may act up. Just because a guide dog you see is misbehaving doesn’t mean the dog is unhappy or the handler isn’t in sufficient control: the dog just might be feeling especially doggy that day. They’re also perfectly capable of getting distracted by other dogs, cats, food on the ground or members of the public trying to attract their attention. You may be familiar with the idea that you’re not meant to feed, pet or talk to a working guide dog while they’re in harness (in fact, a lot of harnesses and leashes carry notices advising this): that’s why. Their attention will be on you and not what they’re meant to be doing which is at best annoying and at worst dangerous for the handler. This doesn’t mean you can’t say hello but you must ask first and not get offended if a handler says no.
While there are dual purpose dogs and specially trained assistance dogs who will help disabled people around the home, most guide dogs do not know how to open doors, pick up dropped items or empty the washing machine. Once the harness comes off, average guide dogs behave exactly like your pet dog would. They run around, play with their toys and nap like other dogs do. They also get plenty of chances to enjoy some freedom as most handlers let their dogs off for a run in a local park or in the countryside at least once a week. However, they do have special feeding and toileting routines that must be followed to maintain their training.
*This is based on my experiences of the system used by the largest provider of guide dogs in the UK. Most of it will hold true for a guide dog from any country or school, though there might be slight differences in training and process. One thing is true the world over though: they’re still just dogs.
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