Each year, guide dog schools—independent nonprofit organizations that provide guide dogs for blind and visually impaired individuals—breed close to 3,000 dogs. When so many intelligent, loving shelter dogs are in need of homes, why don’t guide dog schools rescue dogs like some of the other service-dog programs? The answer lies in the nature of the work guide dogs are required to do. Dog jobs, like people jobs, are task-specific and require specific temperaments, some of which can be selected for through breeding.
The term “service animal” was first used in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to describe an animal individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability. While at that time, guide dogs for the blind were the most familiar type of service animal, over the years, the variety of tasks service dogs carry out has increased to include dogs who perform some of the functions that an individual with a disability cannot perform for him- or herself, such as alerting people with hearing impairments, pulling wheelchairs, or carrying and picking up things for people with mobility issues.
Watching blind travelers confidently make their way through busy city traffic, you might think that the guide dog is doing the same thing—performing a task that the blind person cannot perform for him- or herself. In other words, it may appear that the dog is leading the blind person, but that’s not the case. Both of their lives depend on what the other one does, and neither is in total control at any given time. Neither dog nor person can cross the street alone without risk, but together, they do it efficiently and safely.
Prior to the mid-1960s, when schools began dedicating resources to in-house breeding programs, guide dog schools routinely employed rescued shelter dogs. Schools worked closely with shelter staff, who would periodically line up dogs they considered to have potential for evaluation by guide dog trainers. Dogs were tested for confidence, initiative and trainability. On average, one out of 30 shelter dogs drafted into the guide dog program finished the training.
Terry Barrett, director of training operations at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael, Calif., says, “In our earliest days, the 1940s, most of our dogs came from animal shelters. It soon became evident that we were looking for something very specific: Dogs who not only had excellent health, intelligence and temperament, but also exhibited a willingness to work and thrived on praise.” GDB’s breeding program was started in an effort to ensure a consistent supply of dogs with those specific traits.
By the late 1970s, new socialization methods (raising puppies in home environments) were proving so successful that shelter dogs, most of whom came from disadvantaged or unknown backgrounds, became less likely candidates for the work. As guide dog work intensified and breeding programs were beefed up, opportunities for shelter dogs all but disappeared.
Although German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are the most familiar types of guide dog, any confident, friendly, intelligent and willing dog—large enough for the harness but small enough to lie comfortably under a bus seat—is eligible. Boxers, Smooth-Coated Collies, Poodles, Dobermans, Border Collies and Australian Shepherds are increasingly finding employment as guides, as are their more genetically sound hybrid offspring.
Labrador Retrievers, who constitute about 60 percent of these working dogs, have proven to be the most successful guide worldwide, mainly because there is enough variation within the breed to meet blind students’ myriad needs. “The vast majority of our dogs are bred from our own specially selected stock, but a percentage are donated from other schools, through international programs and other means,” Barrett notes.
Regardless of lineage, guide dogs have distinct counter-intuitive characteristics in common. Because they are, to great extent, bred for a specific temperament, they are more like one another than they are like others of their particular breed. If they were children, their report cards would read: “Follows instruction, participates in class, very creative, assumes responsibility when necessary, shows leadership and works well in a group.”