Before I began to work with guide dogs back in 1988, I, like most people, never really put much thought into what is
involved in preparing a dog for a career as a guide dog. I had seen them
working on occasion, but never knew how a dog learned the skills they need to
take on the job of safely guiding a person with sight loss as they walk from
place to place. How does a dog know when to cross a road? How do they learn to
walk around obstacles and locate places? What else do they need to know before
they can become a guide dog? Now, having worked with guide dogs for many years,
I have the answers.
After spending their first year with a
volunteer CNIB Guide Dogs Puppy Raiser, the young dog is ready to begin their
formal guide dog training which usually takes 4-6 months, depending on how
quickly the dog learns. Like children, they all learn at different rates, so
this is taken into account as they progress through their training.
Each day, the dog will head off to work with their Guide Dog Trainer or Guide Dog Mobility Instructor. They will have two
training sessions in a variety of environments, before being returned to their
volunteer boarder's home for the night. Only positive training methods are
used, with patient, consistent handling to ensure the dog develops into a
happy, confident guide for their future owner. Tasks are repeated often until
the dog understands what is expected in each situation.
We start with the basics: walking down the
centre of the sidewalk, on the left side and slightly ahead of the handler, a position
that is ideal for guiding. Once they have that, they can be introduced to the
harness and handle, the physical link between the dog and the handler. Over the
4-6 months that they are in training, they will learn how to walk around
obstacles on the sidewalk, leaving enough room for the handler to get past
without bumping into them. They learn to stop at curbs so that the person they
are guiding knows that they are at a road and that they must take the time to
assess the traffic so they can cross over safely. The responsibility for
deciding when to cross lies with the Guide Dog User, not the dog.
Using their initiative, memory and sight,
the dogs learn how to find locations for their handler. They will stop for
steps, doors and wait patiently for clear gaps along crowded sidewalks. Although
guide dogs are taught to be obedient and respectful of their owners, they
sometimes must override what they are being asked to do if the handler hasn't
detected a potential hazard such as a car crossing their path. That takes a lot
of concentration and confidence. Unlike
most other types of working dogs, they must learn to ignore some very strong
instincts such as sniffing and other potential distractions like birds and cats.
Once they have reached their destination,
it's break time for the dog. They've done their job and now they can play, rest
and just be a normal dog. They certainly deserve that!
Nearing the end of their training, they are
matched with a blind or partially sighted person and their career as a
qualified guide dog begins.
Manager, Canine Development and Training