September 14, 2022
Guide dogs are born to work. They love their jobs and they are capable of doing so many amazing things. Not only do they help their blind and visually impaired partners, but they also touch and change the lives of pretty much everyone they meet.
Their journey begins well before they are born. Many guide dog schools have their own breeding programs; selecting the best of the best for their breeding colony. Guide dog puppies must be healthy, outgoing, adventurous, hard to distract and have the confidence to try new (and sometimes strange or scary) things.
At Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), the puppies start their training when they are just a few days old. The puppies are born at GDB’s campus, located in San Rafael, California. In the first few weeks of their life, the puppies have the opportunity to explore and encounter many new and exciting things. They learn how to walk on a leash, climb stairs, travel through tunnels, walk on different surfaces, and become familiar with common objects they will encounter on a daily basis (i.e. vacuums, brooms, and mops).
When the puppies are about six to eight weeks old, they will leave the campus and move into their temporary home with a puppy raiser. Puppy raisers are selfless individuals who care for and nurture a guide dog puppy for the next year of their life. Puppy raisers lead such individual and unique lives, there is no set rule on what type of environment the dog will grow up in. Some puppy raisers may work full-time in an office setting, work in healthcare, be a teacher and some may even be retired and/or not work at all. They can be high school or college students, have kids, not have kids, have pets, have no other pets or any number of scenarios. The lifestyles can vary, but they all have at least one thing in common, they will expose their puppies to many different experiences and obstacles that will help them succeed as future guide dogs.
The puppy raisers work with the puppy on basic obedience, house training, maintaining excellent house manners and how to properly behave in public. When a puppy is wearing its puppy coat (a fabric vest) it signifies that the puppy is working and must remain calm and focused on their training. Puppy raisers help build the puppy’s confidence by exposing them to new situations/experiences on a daily basis.
When the puppies are between 14-17 months old, they will return to the guide dog school to begin their formal training. To many puppy raisers, this is akin to sending your child off to college. It’s a bittersweet moment for everyone to say goodbye to the puppies, but knowing they will go off to do amazing things is a comfort to their puppy raisers.
At Guide Dog College, the pups will learn to obey guide work commands, walk in harness, back up, stop to alert their trainer of obstacles or changes in elevation and so much more. The dogs will also learn how to safely navigate around cars and through traffic. They also learn to disobey a command if it puts them or their handler in danger. This training takes an average of 8-12 weeks. Once the dog is fully trained, they will be matched with someone who is blind or visually impaired.
Some dogs may decide (at any point in their training) that the life of a guide dog is not for them. These dogs may be placed with another service dog organization to assist individuals with other disabilities or illnesses. If a dog is not well-suited for working, they will often return to live (as a pet) with the family that raised them. Many guide dog schools have a long list of people looking to adopt a dog that is no longer interested in or qualified to be a guide dog.
Training is rigorous, but after the dog passes their final exams, they will meet their blind handler. The newly matched pair will train together for two to four weeks and will learn to communicate and develop a good working relationship with each other. They will travel at least two pre-planned routes per day, safely cross busy intersections and locate destinations. The dog is the guide; the handler gives the dog commands and determines which path is best to travel and what direction to go. The training is very individualized, primarily focusing on the student’s lifestyle and daily tasks. Some of the environments may include:
- Residential streets
- Streets without sidewalks
- Busy and crowded cities
- College campuses
- Riding buses and transit trains
- Inside office buildings and stores
Some schools offer a graduation/celebration day at the end of training. On this day, the handler may be able to meet to guide dog’s puppy raiser. After the completion of training, the new team will travel home to resume their normal lifestyle. It may take several months for the team to work out all the kinks and form a strong bond and working relationship.
The current working career of a guide dog is between six and eight years. Thus, a guide dog will typically retire between eight and ten years old. Of course, this is only the average; many dogs can and do work much longer. Some dogs may develop health issues and may need to stop working and a dog may also need to retire early (most commonly due to stress/anxiety).
My first guide, Pascal had to retire at the age of seven due to extreme stress in certain environments. His fears made it impossible for him to safely guide me. He worked almost six years, and he has immensely enjoyed his retirement for the past seven years. He just turned 15 in early September.
Once a dog retires, their handler may decide to keep them as a pet. They may also choose to give the dog to a friend or family member. If that’s not possible, the dog can return to live with their puppy raisers or be adopted out by the school.
We hope that you enjoyed this special guide dog blog and encourage you to follow along all month as we celebrate National Guide Dog Month.Back to News