A guide dog is not a robot
Many sighted people find it fascinating to see a guide dog at work. This specially trained dog, as it were, takes over the eyes of someone who does not see or does not see well. That way, the boss goes everywhere: The guide dog avoids obstacles, fulfills searches and is intelligently disobedient in the face of imminent danger. Sometimes people see that the dog is doing or not doing something that is a (big) mistake in their eyes. It often happens that people address the guide dog user about this. In the first place, a guide dog is of course always a dog: it is therefore not a robot.
- The training in a nutshell
- Examples of points for attention in the guidance work
- Sloppier guidance work
- Tips for sighted persons
The training in a nutshell
Puppy foster home
A guide dog for the blind has undergone a long training when he is finally allowed to work. First, he spends about a year in a puppy foster home where they socialize the puppy and teach the basics of obedience. During this important socialization period, the dog goes everywhere with the host family: shopping center, sports competition, public transport, market, petting zoo, etc. It goes without saying that an aspiring guide dog has good basic obedience before entering training. This is done with the help of the school through courses, but live lessons or training days are sometimes also on the program.
When the puppy is on average twelve to sixteen months old, he goes to the training center where further training takes place: bypassing obstacles, refining the searches, thinking in at least one meter wide and two meters high so that the visually impaired handler will not run into anything later, be intelligently disobedient when danger is imminent, take the initiative by choosing a different route if the current route presents danger and the dog must also automatically indicate or perform a number of things such as stopping at a pedestrian crossing, indicating a curb, blocking for a dangerous obstacle, etc.
Match and training
After about six months to eighteen months of training, a guide dog is ready to go to work. In the final training phase, the guide dog school carefully examines which owner would be suitable for the dog. All prospective guide dog users have already been thoroughly subjected to a number of interviews and orientation, mobility and walking pace tests beforehand, so that the school makes a careful “match”. The school often examines whether the character, walking pace, work availability, but also the points of attention of the dog and owner are compatible. After the owner and dog have become acquainted with each other and this has gone well, the team will start training. At each school, this takes place in the home, school and / or work environment of the boss, but prior to this period a number of schools also organize an internal instruction period of one or more weeks in or around the training center.
Every dog has concerns
Training a guide dog for the blind is tough; not every dog makes it to the finish line. For medical and / or behavioral reasons, a dog – sometimes even almost at the finish line – drops out. Ultimately, a guide dog costs society (government) a lot of money. The cost of 1 trained and delivered guide dog for the blind fluctuates around 25,000 EUR. Many people therefore expect such a dog to always do everything right and make no mistakes. However, a guide dog is primarily a dog and a number of points of attention are therefore always present to a greater or lesser extent in the guide work. No guide dog is 100% perfect at work, always and everywhere.. During the match, the instructors also look at the positive and negative characteristics of the (guide) dog. Will or can a future handler deal with this and / or invest time in it? That differs per person.
Examples of points for attention in the guide work
A guide dog may be distracted at work just like people. Sometimes the cause is another person: He lures the guide dog with food, quotes the dog in a very cheerful voice, and / or he starts petting the dog without being asked. Some dogs are also spontaneously fond of other “nice” people, especially “famous” people: walking buddies, family members, colleagues, classmates, ?? Often they try to attract this person, which is not allowed. Some bosses will put the dog back under roll call and greet the “nice” person first before the dog is allowed to start the greeting round. Other bosses turn a blind eye to the somewhat “unwanted” behavior because it improves when the greeting is done.
In addition, it often happens that a person with a house dog lets his dog sniff or play with the guide dog, which will also distract him. It is of course not the intention for a house dog to go to a guide dog.
The breeds most commonly used as guide dogs are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. Retrievers are social and mainly known for their high will to please and good obedience. However, they are notorious for their “will to eat”. Even a guide dog sometimes does not resist the temptation and sometimes fumbles with some chips on the station stairs, or he dives on the sidewalk for a nice piece of sandwich. Sometimes the owner quickly distracts the dog in advance when he feels this on the handle. And sometimes he notices that there is food on the ground and can quickly distract the dog, but often he is still too late. Some dogs immediately let go of the tasty snack when the owner says something about it, others continue to snack because the owner does not realize whether the “reward” is too great. The guide dog school examines this together with the owner and proposes solutions if this leads to problems. A dog may develop stomach and intestinal problems, or is too focused on eating during work, so that he no longer performs the guiding work properly. This is often very difficult to train because it is self-rewarding behavior and the dog often realizes quickly that the owner does not see this (in time). Some dogs therefore wear a gentle leader or in the extreme case a muzzle during work. This seems pathetic, but it benefits both guide dog and owner.
Sloppier guidance work
Fatigue also occurs in a guide dog. After a hard day, he sometimes does not indicate the curb properly anymore, he walks past the requested pedestrian crossing, or he lets the boss run into a car with his shoulder. However, this does not always have to be the cause of sloppier guiding. Sometimes a boss is less attentive, tired or stressed himself, which causes the dog to drop some stitches in the work. These “smaller” mistakes sometimes occur with all guide dog users. If the owner realizes that the dog is making a mistake, he usually has the dog do it again so that the dog does not make it “sport” to keep “forgetting” things from now on. Both dog and owner must therefore always remain alert and correct or redo mistakes as quickly as possible so that they avoid careless guiding. If the errors recur, the owner will contact the guide dog school who will then come to see this live together with the user. The guide dog school visits the user’s home one or more times a year to assess the team. Mistakes creep into the work over time without the boss noticing. A regular and critically constructive check with well-founded tips will strengthen the combination.
Some dogs get startled (briefly) during work. A guide dog is of course so well socialized that in principle he or she no longer collapses for a long time out of fear when a truck passes by, during a thunderstorm or when the owner passes a large statue. Sometimes, however, a dog is still a little bit scared, but he recovers quickly. For example, it is possible that a guide dog – just like a human – briefly shakes or ducks slightly when a roller shutter is lowered, a moped passes nearby or when a bicycle or other obstacle suddenly falls over. The dog will then recover well and will not cause problems for the owner.
Some guide dogs also scare other dogs. Dogs that are (very) dominant, bark a lot or look “strange” to their eyes, bring the dog off balance for a while. The guide dog owner has learned in the training how to deal with such situations. Usually, he will quietly place the dog under appeal, cross the street for a moment or gently encourage the dog to continue walking, whether or not by working with treats or other rewards.
Unfortunately, it is possible for a guide dog to suffer from trauma. An attack by other guide dogs during work, but also as a house dog, unfortunately sometimes happens. There are also known cases of guide dogs being pelted with fireworks. And very occasionally a guide dog user has to deal with a (major) traffic accident. Sporadically, there are other circumstances that make a dog suddenly unable, willing or daring to work for the owner. These may lead to major physical and emotional problems for the guide dog and their blind or partially sighted owner. Occasionally a dog will return to work afterwards without any problems, but unfortunately there are also guide dogs who are no longer able to work safely for the owner after such trauma. They retire early and never have to put on the harness again.
Tips for sighted people
- Do you have a dog? If he or she has no problem with other dogs, keep walking without paying attention to the guide dog. It also helps to stand aside or cross the street. You should also do this when you know that your dog reacts (violently) to other dogs. In any case, remember that you should never disturb the guide dog at work.
- Do not feed or distract a guide dog by petting or luring him or her with the voice.
- Ask if you need help if you notice that the guide dog and / or owner are equally insecure or distracted, but do not urge help and certainly do not just take the dog’s brace over.