Image of a Golden Retriever guide dog laying on the ground looking at the camera

September 22, 2021

As animals, dogs offer people many benefits like companionship, comfort and security. For individuals who are blind and visually impaired, however, their canine companions are often their eyes into an otherwise difficult-to-navigate sighted world. As the general public has become more aware of the importance of the work guide dogs do for their owners, they often have questions to help their understanding of a guide dog’s purpose, how to interact with a dog and its handler and more.

September is National Guide Dog Month, which looks to raise awareness and show appreciation to the remarkable work these service animals provide for those whom they care for every day. We asked our resident guide dog expert Deanna Lewis to answer some common questions from sighted individuals in order to increase education and understanding about their importance. Read along to discover what she had to say.

Q: What is the proper protocol for someone wanting to interact with a guide dog in public?

Lewis: It is fine to admire the guide dog from afar; interacting with it, however, could potentially put the handler and their companion into a dangerous situation. A distracted dog may not be able to focus on its job.

If you want to know more about the guide dog, ask their handler before interacting with it. People who use guide dogs often love talking about them and spreading awareness about what they do.

Q: Why does seeing the vest that says, “Don’t pet me – I am working” only make me want to pet them more?

Lewis: Vests like this draw more attention to the dog for the safety of the dog and the owner. Knowing that you aren’t “allowed” to do something often makes you want to do it that much more.

Q: Is there a breed/size requirement for guide dogs?

Lewis: Guide dogs do not need to be a certain breed or size; however, most of them are large breeds.

The most common breed for guide dogs is the Labrador Retriever because they are great workers and they aim to not only please their owners but are very adaptable. Other breeds commonly used as guide dogs include Golden Retrievers, Golden/Labrador mixes, and German Shepherds. Some guide dog schools also offer breeds such as the Standard Poodle, Boxer, Doberman Pinscher, and the Vizsla.

Q: What is the cost of a guide dog?

Lewis: This answer varies widely amongst American guide dog training schools. The cost of breeding, raising, health care, training of the dog and their handler plus ongoing support ranges from $40,000-60,000. However, most guide dog schools in the U.S. provide their services free of charge to qualified individuals. Guide dog schools receive no government funding; they typically provide their services thanks to the help of their volunteers and generous donors.

Q: What are the different “guide” techniques they can be trained to do?

Lewis: A guide dog is trained to lead a blind person safely around obstacles. They alert their handler to changes in elevation, such as steps and curbs. Many guide dogs will walk cautiously to avoid uneven or cracked sidewalks and other things that could pose as a tripping hazard. A guide dog will show their handler overhead obstacles, like low-hanging tree branches.

One thing that guide dogs are trained in that other service dogs are not is “Intelligent Disobedience.” If a handler gives the dog a command that is not safe, the dog will not obey the command so that the team can remain safe. Guide dogs can also be taught to find empty chairs, garbage cans, benches, traffic light poles, and other objects that their handler may need to locate.

Q: What degree of vision loss does one need to have in order to be eligible for one?

Lewis: To properly use and benefit from a guide dog, the person must be legally blind. This means that their corrected visual acuity must be 20/200 or less in their better eye or have a field of vision less than 20 degrees (a severe loss of peripheral/side vision). A legally blind person who sees 20/200 needs to be 20 feet away from an object to see it while a person with perfect vision can see the same object at 200 feet away.

Q: What is your dog’s favorite “nonworking” activity?

Lewis: Sleeping! My guide dog, Mambo, is a professional sleeper; if sleeping was an Olympic sport, he would win the gold!

Q: How long does a guide dog work? Do they retire after a certain time/year of service? If so, what happens to them after they retire?

Lewis: What a great question! Clovernook Center actually did a whole blog on this subject. See our previous blog post regarding guide dog retirement here.

Q: How long does the training take? Do you have to start with puppies, or can older dogs be trained?

Lewis: Almost all guide dog training schools in the U.S. have their own breeding program. They breed for certain traits and characteristics that will produce exceptional guide dogs.

Puppies are typically born on the school’s campus and at 8-10 weeks of age they go to a family that will raise them. The puppy raiser will teach the dog basic obedience, good manners, and expose them to many things they will encounter as a working dog. At around 14-18 months old, the dogs return to the school to start their formal guide work training. After a few months, the dog is matched with a potential handler and the magic begins. The student and the dog train together for 2-4 weeks until they become an official team.

There are several handlers that enjoy training their own guide dogs. Some start them from puppyhood, while others rescue an older dog to be trained.

Q: Are guide dogs always working, or do they get days off? If yes, what does a day off look like?

Lewis: Of course, guide dogs get off days, as well as several breaks throughout the day to rest and relax.

For example, the guide dog user and their dog may ride to work on the bus every weekday. If the person has a desk job, the dog most likely has his own bed or crate nearby. While their handler works, the dog has a chance to nap. Some handlers lead very active lives and travel a lot each day, while others may go out a few times per week. Guide dogs adapt easily to fit into the lifestyles of their handlers. They enjoy working and the benefits of positive reinforcement, love, and affection from their partner.

A typical off day for my dog is usually spent chilling around the house. We may go out for a quick trip, but mostly we both just stay home and rest. Mambo has several beds and favorite sleeping spots around the house, as well as lots of toys to play with and chew on.

Sometimes his best friend (a pet Golden Retriever named Hitchcock) visits for a puppy play date. Mambo has the best of both worlds; he gets to go practically everywhere with me, but he also gets to be a regular dog when he’s not working. He really loves his job, wagging his tail non-stop as we walk along our path.

Thank you for tuning in during National Guide Dog Month! Did you miss any of our previous guide dog installments? Click below to read more guide dog installments? Click below to read more:

What happens when a guide dog retires?

Are you considering a Guide Dog? Here are things you should know.

Guide Dog Etiquette: What You Should and Shouldn’t Do – Did you know you should never let your dog interact with a guide dog?

The Labor of Being a Guide Dog – Learn about how a guide dog helps its owner navigate a typical day.

Difference Between a Guide Dog and Utilizing a White Cane – Learn about the pros and cons of both modes.

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