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.”
Breeders aren’t selecting for these traits as much as they are selecting against others. They want a German Shepherd who is tractable, a bird dog who is not prey-driven, a herding dog who won’t nip people to negotiate busy pedestrian traffic. Unlike traditional breeders who select for niche traits such as pointing, herding or wire-haired coats, schools select for temperament characteristics that are broadly adaptable.
For decades, guide dog schools have conducted and recorded detailed observations on many thousands of dogs. This volume of information and the length of time it’s been collected have allowed schools to reliably classify and quantify temperament traits. Their ultimate goal is to find measurements that will predict guide dog success and estimate heritability of temperament traits that are important to working guide dogs.
Generally speaking, many dog temperament tests have proven to be ineffective and controversial. In addition, few tests account for the dramatic behavioral differences seen from one breed to another; what’s acceptable in a German Shepherd might be abnormal behavior in a Golden Retriever.
According to an article by Taylor and Mills in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Clinical Applications and Research (2006), what’s needed are systematic scientific tests that focus on the five key measurements of the quality of a temperament: purpose, standardization, reliability, validity and practicality. It would take a large number of dogs in a consistent setting to devise such a test, and this is where guide dog schools are getting involved.
For example, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is working with trainer Suzanne Clothier on a novel temperament evaluation project that tracks the behavior of hundreds of dogs from puppyhood through maturity, investigating how best to identify, and then select for, a set of traits that reflects flexibility of behavior. As Jane Russenberger, senior director of the canine development center at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, observes, “Because we believe in it and, like other schools, need better temperament measures, Guiding Eyes is providing that opportunity by allocating large amounts of resources to conduct the temperament tests.”
Part of the drive to refine this process comes from the financial and emotional commitment made to each dog by both the school and the eventual handler. Although it varies from school to school based on geographic region, on average, it costs about $50,000 to graduate a person/dog team. This figure includes all costs divided by the number of teams the school graduates each year. (The 11 schools in the U.S. graduate about 1,500 to 2,000 teams annually.) The cost just to prepare a single dog for class is about $23,000.
Direct costs—breeding, feeding, vet care and puppy-raising expenses—consume about 25 percent of the budget. Another 20 percent goes into training dogs for class. About 35 percent goes into student selection, dormitory and class expenses, and follow-up services. Once the training is complete and the team returns home, it can be six months to a year before they are functioning optimally together. To assist in this process, schools continue to work with their graduates in their home locations. Some of the larger, better-funded schools provide follow-up services for the working life of the team, which can be eight years. (Everything is provided free of charge to qualified blind and visually impaired students.)
From Puppy to Partner
After being specifically bred for guide work, the young dogs spend more than a year in the home of puppy-raising families, where they learn good house behavior, form relieving patterns, and are socialized and introduced to the different environments in which they may someday be working. (Read more about puppy-raising here.)
Careful control of what happens to a young dog during this critical phase of development is a crucial part of producing sound guide dogs. This is the time during which youngsters learn the canine equivalent of “please and thank you.” It’s also the best time to evaluate their health and identify risk factors that could lead to problems later in life. As Barrett notes, “From the earliest stages of their lives, GDB puppies and their moms are cared for by a team of experts, including full-time veterinarians and technicians supported by consulting specialists and volunteers. As the pups grow, our veterinarians continue to monitor their health and well-being.”
All dogs are born with default positions that they revert to when stressed. The reaction can be anything from anxious whining to more serious issues such as biting. The higher the stress, the more pressure on the trigger. Puppy socialization programs provide an opportunity to identify environmental stressors and modify the reaction, or failing that, release the dog from the program to a companion home.
Whereas a seizure-alert dog is like an analyst who predicts a problem to reduce its impact, a guide dog is more like an air traffic controller who bears responsibility for the team’s safety as it moves from one place to another. The dog monitors the “air space” and gives feedback to the handler, who is the pilot. Errors can be life-threatening and near-misses can lead to early burnout. The cornerstone of the training work is to, through repetition and praise, teach the dog to learn to judge a barrier or dangerous situation—for instance, the speed and distance of moving vehicles—and if need be, to respectfully disobey the human partner’s command, an act known as “selective disobedience.” The handler not only directs the dog but also supports his decisions, even when he disobeys.
As a handler explains, “Because we can’t see, we don’t know the particulars of what we’re commanding our dogs to do. The dog has to stand up to us, to get it through to us that something is there that we don’t know about, then find a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. A dog that isn’t comfortable holding his ground isn’t suited to the job.”
Guide dogs have to be able to generalize to new, complicated and sometimes abstract situations. It’s easy to train a dog to take someone to a chair. Training a dog to take a person to a place where no one else is sitting, whether it’s a college classroom or restaurant, is a more abstract concept.
Training cycles vary slightly, but generally, puppy raisers return 15-month-old dogs to the school, where they begin 18 to 20 weeks of formal training in the technical aspects of guide work. Using affection and positive reinforcement, the instructor trains the dog to respond to about 35 different commands such as forward, right, left, and find the door.
Weeks one through nine include obedience training, directional turns, negotiating obstacles, light city work, and street crossings. During week 10, dogs are introduced to traffic training. This is the point at which instructors determine whether or not the dog has the confidence and initiative to make the independent decisions needed to override many of the commands he’s learned in the previous nine weeks of training.
To traffic-train a dog, instructors capitalize on what comes naturally: Dogs will move away from an oncoming vehicle. By instinct, the dog will attempt to escape by running around, backing away from or bolting in front of the car. The trick is to control the dog’s movement with reinforcement, encouraging him to back up into the rigid harness handle even though he’s been instructed to go “forward.”
The dog doesn’t know he is signaling (indicating that it’s unsafe to go forward) but he “gets it” soon enough. The light bulb moment—when the dog realizes he is responsible for the person at the other end of the handle—is a deal-breaker for some dogs. They understand the dynamic of the partnership, but they don’t want to do it. It’s a moment puppy raisers anxiously await with mixed feelings. They want their dog to make it through training, but if he fails, they have an opportunity to keep him as a pet. Dogs who don’t want the responsibility go home to be companions. Dogs who meet the challenge move on to learning how to negotiate buildings, busy city traffic, larger street crossings, longer routes, escalators and elevator work.
After the dog is trained, the instructors teach students how to work with the dog during a four-week in-residence class. Person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class and deepens and broadens over time. Handlers are given surprising reminders of the trust they must have in their dogs, and those reminders usually show up the first time they override their dog’s decision to disregard a command. Tripping over a garden hose is minor compared to the consequences of stepping off a curb in front of an SUV making an illegal turn, but the lesson is the same.
Guide dog handler Sheila Styron, past president of Guide Dog Users, Inc., the largest organization of dog handlers in the world, explained what it’s like from the other end of the harness handle. “If a handler sits at a desk all day, his or her guide dog needs to be able to lie quietly for hours, and then be able to confidently guide the blind handler on to a noisy, crowded subway. It’s important to consider the wide array of other factors and interactions within the relationship between dog and handler that can contribute to the team’s success, difficulties or failure. The dance is extremely complex, and the magic extraordinary when all the elements fall into place.”