Be it with traffic lights, stairs or doors, a guide dog helps its blind or severely visually impaired owner get safely through day-to-day life. This allows many blind people to live a more independent life. Intensive training is behind this. Read here what guide dogs can do and what training is like.
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A support since the Middle Ages
We can see from an old testimonial that dogs have always helped blind people: a regulation from Strasbourg from the 15th century stipulates that beggars were not allowed to own dogs unless they were blind and therefore dependent on the dog. The first attempts to train dogs as helpers for the blind took place in Europe in 18th century Paris. Professional guide dog training was established around 1900. A great deal has happened since then and guide dogs are part of day-to-day life in many cityscapes. Like other assistance dogs , they are allowed to accompany their owners in most western countries to numerous places where dogs are otherwise banned, such as grocery stores or medical practices.zz
What dogs can be guide dogs?
Prospective guide dogs may not show any signs of aggression and have to be very strong of character. After all, at a later date they should be able to keep track of things in spite of hectic day-to-day city life. The first character tests take place as early as the puppy phase . Health tests too are important so that they can accompany their owner for a long time. Hence, it is an advantage if they come from a scrupulous breed in which the parent animals have passed numerous health tests. This increases the probability of ending up with a healthy dog.
The Labrador Retriever is one of the most well-known guide dogs and has plenty of positive attributes. In addition, some Labrador Retriever breeders have specialized in breeding guide dogs. If dog training centers collaborate with breeders with whom they have had positive experiences, they are happy to stick with them. In principle though, other breeds are suitable for the training too. However, they should be 50 to 65cm in shoulder height in order to walk comfortably as the leader. German Shepherds , Labrador Retrievers , Standard Poodles or hybrids are therefore also suitable for the relevant character test.
Training to be a guide dog
If a puppy passes early character tests, it will usually go to a host family where it will undergo extensive socialization and initial training. Train journeys, encounters with other dogs and the cries of children - the dog learns how to cope with all this calmly during this period. The training ends here if it shows a hunting instinct or anxiety. After all, human lives can later be at risk in the dog gets distracted too easily. After a year, the dog goes to a professional dog trainer for around six months of intensive training. Amongst other things, it completes the companion dog examination here. Following this, training with the future owner begins.It is important for this that the dog and owner are a good match for one another - future dog owners often go through a special selection process. The canine-human duo then get to know each other and practice together for a few weeks. At the age of around 18 months, the trained dog can move in with its new family, although shared learning doesn't stop there. A guide dog needs lifelong training, so its family has to do a lot of practice and repetition with it.
What a guide dog can do
The abilities of four-legged helpers depend on their individual training. What is essential for dogs is the ability to lead their owner safely. There is much more to this than just walking ahead. The guide dog records obstacles its owner faces and points them out or bypasses them. For instance, it stays standing when faced with stairs or doors and seeks its way past street signs and benches. It indicates steps or large puddles to its owner and steers them past obstacles like scooters on pavements. It also recognizes obstacles that aren't at ground level. These include, for instance, barriers, which dogs can cross by themselves with no problem.It stays standing in front of obstacles too when its owner gives it the command to keep going. Guide dogs learn this intelligent form of disobedience to protect their owner from dangers. Nevertheless, responsibility is always with the human. They decide the way and instruct the dog accordingly.
The human and dog form a team. The human maintains contact with their dog using a stable harness. Dogs react to spoken commands like “look for traffic lights”, “go home” or “to the shops”. The relevant objectives and commands should be practiced with the trainer beforehand. A guide dog usually masters over 70 commands. However, it is important to practice them regularly, because the dog has probably forgotten the way to the doctor's after two years.
Here are some examples of commands that most guide dogs can carry out along with “sit”, “down” and such with a suitable code word:
- Walking slower and quicker
- Walking on the right or left side of the score
- Indicate seating options
- Indicate doors
- Look for traffic lights - although they cannot recognize when they turn green
- Indicate letterboxes or bus stops
Costs and requirements for a guide dog
A professionally trained guide dog costs easily as much as a small new car and is available for 20,000 euros upwards. The good news is that in many European countries, including Germany and Austria, health insurance contributes to the costs for the dog. Sometimes they even pay for the dog outright, because like a wheelchair, a trained dog is also classed as an auxiliary agent. In Germany, for instance, health insurance pays for a guide dog if the eyesight of the policy holder is less than 5%.
However, a guide dog isn't suitable for all blind dog lovers. Training together demands a lot of time and from the owner consistency and willingness to learn how to lead the dog. The guide dog owner should allow their canine companion social contact with other dogs. If the dog doesn't wear a harness, it can get into mischief and try to pilfer food from the table. Not all visually impaired people can cope with this. In particular first-time dog owners who live alone could be faced with some unexpected challenges. In addition, owning a dog demands a certain level of fitness and mobility as a basic requirement.
Separating work and fun
Guide dogs are simply admirable - and extremely well trained! If you see a guide dog, don't stroke it without asking its owner for permission first, because they are in service when wearing their harness. They shouldn't be distracted by humans or animals and should focus fully on their duties. This is hard work for them, so it's very important to give guide dogs plenty of balance to compensate. Helpers enjoy letting off steam with other dogs or easy-going games as much as any other canine. Guide dogs should only wear their harness for a limited time each day in order to be able to relax occasionally.
Are you looking for a guide dog?
If you're looking for a guide dog due to a visual impairment, contact guide dog schools. Associations for the blind and health insurers can also assist with questions regarding applications or life with a guide dog.
Even some people without impaired vision are interested in perfectly trained dogs. You have to be very lucky to find such a dog though. Some young dogs don't pass guide dog training and therefore end up looking for a new home. However, this is no shortcoming for the average dog owner, because these dogs are generally extremely well trained and merely cannot reliably take on the highly complex duties of a guide dog. In rare cases, guide dogs that have retired due to old age are looking for a new home. From the age of eight years, some dogs are stressed or exhausted by the demands of an average working day, though most of them find a retirement residence with their owner or close by. If this isn't possible, guide dog associations help to rehome them.Since these dogs are very popular though,