This page itemizes the most frequently asked questions that members of the public, curious onlookers, friends, neighbors, colleagues and others have asked of guide dog users. We have included typical responses. to these inquiries in hopes of raising awareness and an understanding of the unique bond and working relationship between a guide dog and its handler. We trust you will not just find the answer to your question but will also learn several aspects of guide dogs that you were unaware of. If you’re still curious to learn more about guide dogs, we would recommend you contact any one of the guide dog associations, organizations or schools for additional information. Alternately, we invite you to submit your inquiry here and we will respond with an answer.
Question: How long does it take to train a guide dog?
Answer: Training a guide dog usually takes approximately 15 to 20 months on average. The first phase of training begins when he is 8 to 10 weeks old at which time he is assigned to a volunteer family or individual, known as a “puppy-raiser”. For the next 12 to 15 months, this volunteer will introduce the puppy to basic socialization and behavioral skills; all this under close supervision by the school’s training staff and with frequent assessments along the way.
The second phase begins when the dog is recalled by the school to begin his formal guide work training. During this 4 to 6 month phase is when he will learn to guide in a straight line, avoid obstacles by going around them (where possible) and learn to deal with changes in elevation such as stairs or curbs. They are taught to locate entrance and exit doors, find elevators and escalators and learn how to respond in very complex traffic situations. They will learn how to negotiate different forms of public transit, be subjected to planes, trains and automobiles and learn a vast array of other critical skills.
Depending on what period they spend mastering the two phases of training, most guide dogs are ready to be teamed up with their new handler at approximately 16 to 22 months of age.
Question: What happens to a dog that does not succeed or graduate through the various stages of training?
Answer: Can you say, “unemployed”?…at least as a guide dog. However, many of these “career change” dogs go on to other very successful careers with different industries. Search & Rescue, drug enforcement, a companion or therapy dog or perhaps a service dog to assist a child affected by autism are just some of the careers they may enter into. If they do not display the necessary characteristics to work in another capacity, they are often considered for breeding stock or offered back to the volunteer puppy-raiser as a domestic pet. If the puppy-raiser is unable to accept the dog back into their home, most schools have lengthy adoption registries wherein interested families can apply to receive a career-change dog. These dogs have extensive training and will make a superb family pet. In absolutely every case, the dog is placed into a caring and loving home.
Question: How long does the handler have to train with their guide dog?
Answer: For those who are acquiring their first guide dog, the training period varies amongst schools, however the general period is between 14 to 28 days of initial instruction and usually 14 days for those who are acquiring a subsequent dog.
Question: How long does a dog work as a guide dog?
Answer: Assuming he remains fit and healthy, these dogs generally work for approximately 8 years or until they are 10 years old. This is equivalent to being 70 years old in human years. At this point, it is only fair to allow the dog to enjoy retirement.
Question: What does “retirement” mean for a guide dog?
Answer: The dog becomes a domestic pet when he retires. Like any human, he is entitled to a restful and relaxing life-style after years of dedicated service.
Question: What becomes of a guide dog when it retires?
Answer: Most schools will permit the guide dog’s handler to keep the dog if they so wish. However, this is not always an easy decision for the handler to make. For example, if the handler is planning to acquire a subsequent guide dog, it may present significant challenges to have both the former guide and the new guide within the same residence, especially if the handler lives alone. Guide dogs are accustomed to being in very close proximity of their handler at all times. It would be very difficult for the former guide to suddenly be left at home as the new guide and handler go off to work each day.
In such cases, the handler may find a new home for the retiring guide dog, either with a relative, friend, neighbor or colleague. Where this may not be an option, the dog may be returned to the school where arrangements are made to return the dog to its puppy-raiser or adopted out to one of the many families who are delighted to acquire a retired guide dog. Whatever the outcome, these dogs retire to loving, comfortable homes.
Question: I reviewed the list of Canadian guide dog schools but did not see CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) listed here. Does CNIB not provide guide dogs for their clients?
Answer: This is a common misunderstanding amongst the Canadian public. CNIB has never been in the business of supplying or training guide dogs. These dogs are bred, trained and provided by other charitable organizations which focus solely on this purpose.
Question: I know I must not pet a guide dog when it is working. But when they are laying beside their handler while in a restaurant or other such place, I imagine it is acceptable to pat them then as they are not working…right?
Answer: This is one of the most mis-understood facts about guide dogs. When the guide dog is laying quietly beside its handler in a restaurant, in church, during a meeting or the like, it is important to understand that the guide dog is doing what it has been trained to do in these circumstances. The guide dog has been specifically trained to lay quietly beside its handler. It is most definitely working and must not be interfered with. Always ask the handler first before you interact with a guide dog! More detailed information on this subject can be found within proper etiquette when you meet a guide dog team.
Question: I am often tempted to offer my neighbor’s dog a tasty treat like leftover scraps of meat or even just a small drink of water…after all, I have a dog too. Is it acceptable to offer a guide dog a similar treat?
Answer: While your heart may well be in the right place, offering a guide dog extra food or water can be very damaging to the dog’s dietary regiment, seriously alter his feeding/relieving schedule and negatively impact a critical aspect of his training. There are three primary reasons why guide dog users will reject offers of food or drink for their guides:
- Guide dogs have been conditioned not to expect food or drink from others, especially when they are inside a restaurant. This disciplined behavior is what enables the guide dog team to enter public venues such as restaurants, etc. Once a guide dog experiences the offering of extra food or drink from a complete stranger, it could lead to solicit behavior from the guide dog when out in public.
- The second reason is directly connected to the fact these dogs are on a highly regimented feeding schedule. Guide dog handlers have been educated on what best to feed their dog for optimum health and performance. Keeping the guide dog on a consistent schedule also results in a very regular relieving schedule. Extra food or drink could seriously disrupt this routine, thereby likely affecting the handlers work or other schedule.
- Guide dog users will likely explain that they are the sole providers and provide the care for their dog. They offer water to the dog at regular intervals. It is very important for them and for the health of their guide dog that they be firm with regard to extra food. Do not take the decline personally. No food should be offered to a guide dog by someone other than their handler.
Question: I believe a guide dog team is permitted to go into restaurants, churches, shopping malls and other such public places. I believe they can also go on buses, taxis and other forms of public transportation. But do I have to allow a guide dog into my private home?
Answer: Because your private home is not a public venue, the answer is, technically, no you do not. However, guide dog handlers are very respectful of other’s property and will maintain full control of their guide dog, especially if you mention your concern. In many cases though, you will likely find the guide dog visiting your home will be better behaved than your neighbour’s kids when they last came for a visit.
Question: How much does it cost to train a guide dog?
Answer: Figures vary between schools. But fair to say the minimum starts at $US35,000.00 plus per dog.
Question: Given these dogs are so expensive to train, how does an applicant to a guide dog school find the funding to pay for these unique and valuable partners?
Answer: While one or two schools do charge a nominal acquisition fee, the majority of schools provide the guide dog, the necessary equipment (harness, grooming tools, etc.), transportation to and from their campuses and the extended training at no charge to the student. Funding to these charitable organizations is provided through the generosity of third-party fundraisers, foundations, community service clubs, corporate donations and donations collected from the general public. Without such funding, these schools would simply not exist and would be unable to operate. Many persons with vision loss would simply have to go without.
Question: Does the handler get to pick the guide dog they want when they arrive at their training class?
Answer: Matching a guide dog so that it best meets the characteristics of a handler is a task that requires a great deal of skill. Factors such as the handler’s walking gate, the pace that they walk, their life style and other factors must be taken into account. Just like humans, dogs have distinct personalities that must be matched with their prospective handler. For this reason, the trainers who have spent a great deal of time with a “string” of dogs over the several months before students arrive for class are usually the ideal person to match the best-suited dog with the applicant or handler.
Question: What breeds of dogs make the best guide dogs?
Answer: Many breeds have been tried and tested. This includes Doberman Pincers, German Shepards, Boxers, Long-coat Collies, Dalmations to name but a few. Currently, North American guide dog schools favour the intelligence, temperament and stable health record of Labradour Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepards and Labradour/Golden Retriever crosses. Some schools will also include some Standard Poodles in their training programs.
Question: Does the handler get to name their guide dog?
Answer: Generally not as their newly acquired guide dog has been taught to recognize his name even before they were assigned to the puppy-raiser. To change its name at almost two years of age would stunt the training process.
Question: Do guide dogs help their handlers in additional ways other than just guiding them from one place to another? Do they turn on light switches, open doors and pick up dropped items?
Answer: NO, these type of tasks are reserved for service or assistance dogs who are trained to assist a person with a physical disability; usually somebody who uses a wheelchair or scooter.
Question: I recently saw a guide dog user pulling on the guide dog’s leash in such a manner that it appeared to be tightening the chain or collar around the dog’s neck. This struck me as rather harsh treatment. Should I say something next time I see this happen?
Answer: What you probably witnessed is what is known as a “leash correction.” Guide dog users have received extensive training on the many verbal commands and techniques to get optimum performance from their dog. It is important to understand that guide dog and handler work together as a team. The dog is trained to respond to verbal commands or hand gestures most of the time. Occasionally, if the guide dog is distracted ( by another animal, a loud noise or some other distraction), an effective method of re-gaining the dog’s focus and attention is to give it a gentle “leash correction.” This technique does not harm or injure the dog in any way given dogs have a great deal of muscle in their neck. (This concentration of muscle in a dog’s neck is often why domestic pets pull and strain on their leash while they are out for a walk.) A gentle leash correction is likely what you saw and there is no need for concern.
Question: I now understand the purpose of a leash correction. But what do I do if I judge the behaviour to be more abusive?
Answer: Although this is likely an extremely rare occurrence, it is best to err on the side of caution. If the behaviour between handler and guide dog appears abusive to you, we would recommend you contact the school which trained the dog. This can be determined by closely looking at the harness which often displays the name of the issuing school, inspecting the dog’s collar (if possible) or contacting the nearest guide dog school in your area.
Question: Are guide dog users expected to pick up after their dog or are they excused because of their blindness?
Answer: While this might seem to be a logical excuse, not picking up after their guide dog is totally unacceptable! Guide dog handlers take great pride in not just contributing to socially responsible behaviour but are also very proud of the health and cleanliness of their guide. If you notice a guide dog handler is truly having difficulty picking up after their dog, your offer to provide assistance is often appreciated. Such difficulty may be the result of the dog moving around its handler in a wide circle as it defecates. This is a difficult situation for a person without vision to deal with and your sighted assistance will be appreciated.
Question: Is it all work and no play for a guide dog? When they are not in harness, are they to play like other dogs?
Answer: Absolutely! In fact, recreational play time is an excellent method for the handler to increase the already unique bond that exists between guide dog and themselves. Guide dog handlers have endless stories of how excited their dog becomes during “playtime” following a day of dedicated work.
Question: How do I become a puppy-raiser?
Answer: This question is best answered by the guide dog school that is nearest your location as each school has differing criteria. Whatever that criteria may be, being a puppy-raiser is one of the most rewarding and generous uses of your time. Guide dog handlers are most grateful for this group of volunteers as are the schools themselves. Puppy-raising requires tremendous commitment and dedication as it is this initial phase of training that dictates the future success of the dog as a guide dog. The rewards are indescribable! Just remember…you have to give the dog back to the school in about a year. But in most cases, you will eventually meet a very grateful handler whose life you have enhanced in a very positive way!