Guide Dogs: Making a difference

Dogs are taking on new and different service roles every day to support and help people. You’ve probably heard about dogs who alert their owners when they're about to experience a seizure, or dogs who can help people relax when they’re experiencing anxiety. There are many national and international organizations that raise, train, and provide service dogs for all kinds of needs. One of the oldest and most established organizations is Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB).

GDB began in a rented home in Los Gatos, California, in 1942. A German shepherd named Blondie, who was rescued from a Pasadena dog pound, was one of the first dogs trained there. Blondie and Sgt. Leonard Foulk were the first dog and serviceman to graduate from the school.

Over the years, GDB has worked with many breeds, but Labrador retrievers have been the most successful guides. They also breed and raise golden retrievers and Labrador/golden crosses. GDB strives for dogs who not only have excellent health, intelligence, and temperament but also thrive on praise and exhibit a willingness to work.

It takes a team to breed, raise, and train successful guide dogs. Puppies and their mothers are cared for by a group of experts, including veterinarians and technicians, consulting specialists, and volunteers. A volunteer puppy raiser will receive a puppy at about 8 weeks of age and will raise and train him in the home until the puppy is between 13 and 15 months of age. While in the program, puppy raisers receive ongoing support and guidance and are responsible for teaching basic obedience and good manners to their puppies.

Puppies return to the guide dog campus when they’re about 13 to 15 months old to begin training for their career. They are taught by skilled instructors for the next 2 to 3 months, learning how to guide a person safely around obstacles and through situations pedestrians might experience. They also learn manners, how to disregard distractions, and how to use “intelligent disobedience” (to disobey unsafe commands). Trainers use positive reinforcement methods with praise and food rewards, and verbal and physical affection are used to help build the dog’s confidence and motivation.

Next, the fully trained guide dog is matched with a person. The pair spends 2 weeks working together in a wide variety of real-life situations until, finally, graduation day arrives. Now is the beginning of their new life together.

Guide dogs are with their owners 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.  They go everywhere and do everything together. When the harness is on, they are all business and work hard. When the harness if off, it’s time to play!

Guide dogs generally work until they are about 8 to 10 years old, retiring with their owners in the homes where they were raised, or they may be placed in a loving adoptive home.

When you see a guide dog in public
Guide dogs provide an incredible service to their owners. It is important to respect the team when you see them. Follow these guidelines when approaching or meeting working service dogs and their owners:

  • Never touch a dog without first asking for permission—you may distract the dog and prevent him from doing his job: caring for his owner.
  • Don’t feed the dog—this is another distraction, and the dog may be on a special diet.
  • Always speak to the person, not the dog.
  • Don’t make unnecessary sounds or whistle, as it may be a dangerous distraction.
  • Ask first before offering help—assistance may be appreciated, but the human-animal team can usually get the task done by themselves.

Guide dogs dramatically change the lives of their owners. To recognize and honor these hard working dogs, International Guide Dog Day is celebrated during the last week of April each year.

By: By Corinne Ryan, CVPM; Terri Johnson, CVT / American Animal Hospital Association


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