How a Guide Dog is Trained
June 6, 2013
Most of us have marveled at the calm dedication of a guide dog, and wondered how this quiet, obedient miracle on four legs came to be. So, here is a brief overview of what goes into their training. It's how guide dog schools across the nation and around the world turn goofy, rambunctious puppies into solid, dependable dogs you could trust with your life in any environment on Earth.
1. The Puppy Raiser
Shortly after birth, the puppy goes to live with a family who has volunteered to look after him until he's old enough to be trained to guide. Informal instruction, however, has already started. Though surrounded by love and care, he is not allowed to lie on the couch, bark, or play with run-of-the-mill toys.
2. Growing Up
No one knows yet who this little puppy who will one day be charged with guiding, so it's important to expose the young dog to as many different situations as possible. The family goes on canoe trips, backpacks through the wilderness, traverses busy streets, and visits a petting zoo - all with their young friend in toe. These excursions are a lot of fun for everyone concerned, and invaluable experiences for the young puppy. Issues such as aggressiveness, steeling food, and relieving in the house are also carefully addressed.
3. Back to School
Shortly after the puppy's first birthday, the formal training begins. Though difficult for the family, he must now return to the dog guide school where he was born to learn the art of guiding a blind person safely. After insuring that the puppy is ready, basic obedience training begins. He is taught to Sit, Lie Down, Stand up, Come, Heel, and Halt.
4. Formal Training
Slowly but steadily, now, a foundation of basic essentials is laid. Don't be distracted by other dogs. Move around obstacles such as telephone poles, parked cars, and open doors. Always pause at stairs and street crossings. Watch out for overhanging branches that your handler would crack her head on. Some dogs learn quicker than others, but very few fail.
5. The Final Touch
Many months of instruction have now gone into this young dog, and he is building a level of trust with his teachers. While continuing to cement all that he has learned, instructors move into more complex commands, often reinforced by basic hand signals. Turn Left or Right. Turn around. Find the Post. Quickly and confidently, now, the dog is learning what's expected of him, always looking forward to a little treat when he remembers to do something extra special. He's got things figured out, and that makes him and his teachers very happy.
6. Training the Handler
Now it's time for a blind person to visit the guide dog school. Her training will last at least two or three weeks, longer for a first-time handler. During this time, the blind individual is taught to work in harmony with her new guide, giving firm correction and ample praise. They are a team, and their connection with each other is essential to both of their well being. The dog knows well how to guide safely. Now, the person he's guiding needs to learn, too.
Both the dog and his new handler graduate at the school. The dog is likely not quite two years old, but is already one of the most well-trained dogs in the country. The school follows up with several visits in the person's home and neighborhood, insuring both she and her dog are doing things right. Within a year, both have developed a bond of trust that is unmatched in most other person-animal relationships. They are inseparable, and will travel together for the next six to nine years.
It is very important to remember that the dog is not taking the blind person anywhere. It is the handler who is in complete control at all times, telling the dog where to turn, when to cross the street and what to watch out for. Though experienced handlers can indicate a command with a quick hand gesture or even body movements, never under-estimate how much the blind person is doing to reach her destination. They are a team, and they are both essential to insure each other's safe travel.