The Early Life of a Guide Dog

The+Early+Life+of+a+Guide+Dog

Jenna Carrothers, staff writer

Guide dogs can make a serious difference in a visually impaired person’s life. A guide dog will allow them to expand their horizons; explore places with more efficiency and with a higher level of ensured safety. These dogs also act as a companion, the bond that is formed between a guide dog and their handler is like no other. When a person is ready for their first guide dog or a new guide dog after their previous one has retired, they are put onto a waiting list until there is a dog ready for them. The anticipation of waiting for a guide dog can be overwhelmingly exciting, but the outcome is extremely worth it.

Birth to 8 weeks old:

At an organization called Guide Dogs for the Blind there are 800 puppies born every year at their facility, only 300 of them will go on to become guide dogs. In a single litter of puppies, one puppy could be chosen, all could be chosen, sometimes even none. They are very selective because being a guide dog is a very important job.

Only hours after their birth, these puppies begin their journey to becoming a guide dog. A team of experts and veterinarians provide care for the puppies to ensure that they are happy and healthy, in the early stages of their life. From the time of birth, all the way until the puppies are eight weeks old, they are socialized, desensitized to things, and also begin their basic training within the facility they were born. 

The puppies start small in their desensitization training; being exposed to different noises, textured grounds, objects, people, etc. Social interaction is also very important at this stage, the puppies must be comfortable around humans and comfortable with being touched by humans.

The training is very intensive and will last up to 20 months. The things that they look for in young puppies is that they’re comfortable in new environments, outgoing, and don’t show uneasiness. 

Once the puppies are eight weeks old and ready to leave their mothers, they are given to volunteers referred to as “puppy raisers”. The puppy raisers will provide care to a puppy for around 14-16 months, before they’re ready for their full guide dog training. While being cared for by the raisers, the puppies will continue to be desensitized, socialized, and trained.

8 weeks to 14-16 months old:

Being a puppy raiser requires lots of sacrifice, but for the raisers it is completely worth it when they get to see their puppy make a difference in someone’s life. From the moment they are handed the puppy, they are agreeing to dedicate the next 14-16 months to them; to love and nurture them, but also make sure that they get all the necessary training and skills to become a successful guide dog.

Some puppy raisers have a lot of experience raising puppies, having successfully raised sometimes over 10 puppies, while others are beginners and are receiving their first puppy. Some raisers even decide to co-raise the puppies, sharing the responsibility of raising the puppy with another puppy raiser. Puppy raisers are very important because they are a guide dog’s first opportunity to form bonds with humans, the raisers will also teach them obedience and basic training.

The puppies are evaluated by experts every three months to determine if they are doing great and should continue with their training to become a guide dog, need to be transferred to a different puppy raiser, or should have a career change. The things they are hoping for during an evaluation are: not easily distracted, not anxious, confidence, fast recovery after making a mistake, and meeting milestones and expectations for their current age. The experts are looking for traits that prove the puppy is resilient and would make a good guide dog. 

At five months old the level at which the puppies are trained will vary from dog to dog and raiser to raiser; depending on the temperament of the puppy and the level of experience the raiser possesses. Some puppies might be solid in their basic training and tackling new situations like going to the airport and getting on plains to mimic what they will be doing in the future. While others may still need work with their basic training. 

 If a puppy is not being provided with accurate care or the environment is inadequate in their current raiser’s home, the puppy will be transferred to a different raiser. Sometimes if a raiser is inexperienced, the puppy will be transferred to a more experienced raiser once they react to a certain age, because they require more intense training in that crucial point in their life. Any transfer can be very difficult for the puppy raiser, it can be disappointing and emotional for them.

A puppy can have a “career change” at any point. A career change is when they decide that a puppy will not make a good guide dog, so they give them another purpose. There are many different careers that the puppy could be switched, they can become a different type of service dog or if that’s not a good fit they can become someone’s pet.

All dogs have different reactions to stress. Some dogs whine, some hide, and some might even use biting as a way to express their stress. Desensitization and socialization is crucial, exposing the puppies to as many different situations and environments as possible will help decrease their stress and anxiety towards the situations that will be thrown at them as adults. If the raisers notice a puppy reacting negatively to stress they will correct them and redirect them, so that they can channel that stress into a more acceptable way to react.Tactile grounding is a technique used by the raiser to help calm the dog and recharge them so that they are less overwhelmed during a new and/or stressful situation. It helps with the success of the future guide dog.

14-16 months to becoming a certified guide dog:

Once the puppies are ready to leave their raisers and begin their full guide god training, they will travel back to the main facility. Saying goodbye can be emotional for the puppy raisers since they had formed a bond with the puppy over the last year, but they are happy to see their puppy succeed. 

When the puppies have arrived at the facility, they get a full check up including; x-rays to see what their body structure is like, take measurements, perform an eye exam, etc. After they have completed the exam they will determine if the puppy will be a good fit for their breeding program, the things they are looking for is a good temperament, amazing health, and perfect measurements. They want to choose dogs with desirable traits so that they can pass those traits down to their future offspring. If they are not selected then they will go onto the guide dog training. 

The dogs that make it all the way to the full guide dog training will have a lot of work ahead of them. They will be assigned a dog trainer and begin learning the commands necessary to become a guide dog. The training is very repetitive, the puppies will be walked down the street by their trainer and taught to stop at curbs, not to vere off from their route, and they are taught their commands; forward, right, left, halt, hop up, curb, etc..

The dogs will undergo 5 tests while they are receiving their training. The trainer will be blindfolded to mimic what the dog would be experiencing if it were really being handled by a blind person. There is a person observing the tests who will determine whether the dog is making good progress, displaying the correct behavior, following commands, and not leading the trainer into danger. The dogs that pass the test will move onto the next step and continue with their training. The dogs that do not pass the test will have to continue to be trained and practice so that they can take the test again. Dogs are only given two chances to pass the test, if they fail a second time then they will have a career change. 

  • Test 1: Preliminary Guide Work. They will be tested on their understanding of the fundamentals of guide work. The person observing the test wants to make sure the dogs know the guide dog commands.
  • Test 2: Preliminary Obedience. This test is to see if the dogs know basic obedience, something that they will need to know because they will be using it every minute when they become a service animal.
  • Test 3: Buildings. In this test they will see how well the dogs can navigate through buildings. 
  • Test 4: Traffic. This test is to see if the dog will act the right way on the road and around cars. The dogs must be prepared for different traffic and car encounters that might occur when they are walking through traffic. The dogs must disobey commands when they are told to walk towards danger, preferably they will also pull their handler away from the danger also.
  • Test 5: Sidewalkless. In this test they will see if the dog knows how to behave on a road without sidewalks. They want the dogs to stay close to the left curb edge and avoid dangerous traffic situations. 

If a dog has successfully passed all of their tests they will be ready to be paired with their blind handler. Once a person is informed that they will be receiving their guide dog, they will travel to the facility to meet their new companions. Once they arrive, they will be paired with an instructor who will help them with their transition into becoming a blind handler of a guide dog. 

Once the dog and its new owner have become acquainted, the dogs are ready for their graduation from the guide dog program. This is a celebration for the dogs, puppy raisers, trainers, new owners, and everyone involved in the making of the dog. There are photos taken of the dog with their new owner and the people who worked with the dog, then the dogs will go up on stage with their new owners in front of a crowd of people and officially graduate from the program. After this celebration the blind handlers are able to bring their guide dog home, and adjust to their new life with their new friend and helper. 

 

Citations

  •  Nachman, D. (Director). Hardy, D. (Director). 2018. Pick of the Litter (Film). Independent Film. 
  • Brackman, J. (2017, November 03). The making of a guide dog. Retrieved February 09, 2021, from https://thebark.com/content/making-guide-dog