Guide dogs: Labrador’s got talent

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By Grant J Everett

Guide dogs can be sourced from many breeds, but one thing these highly-skilled pups all have in common is that they’re equally dedicated to the task of guiding people who are vision impaired around real-world obstacles. However, all canines have red–green colour blindness and are incapable of understanding street signs (um, because dogs can’t read), which is why both dog and owner will have to go through mobility training together so they can learn how to work as a team.

Benefits of owning a guide dog

A guide dog does a lot more than guide their owner around town. Studies have shown that owning a tactile pet (like a dog or cat) offers a range of psychological, social and physiological benefits, and the companionship of a furry friend will help to reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness. This support also brings down stress levels, which in turn improves cardiovascular health. In fact, pet ownership has been identified as a major factor in how quickly somebody will recover from illness and surgery.

People who own a guide dog will usually form an especially strong bond with their pooch. Many owners see their dog as a member of the family, somebody they can go to for comfort and support in difficult times. These dogs aren’t just workers, but loyal friends.

Contrary to popular belief, guide dogs don’t decide when their owners cross the road: the owner will generally be aware of whether traffic is moving or not.

Where can guide dogs go?

All guide dogs (including ones in training) are legally welcome in almost every public place. This includes restaurants, offices, clinics, hospitals, shops, beaches, cinemas and hotels, to name but a few. They can also travel on buses, planes, ferries, ships, trains, taxis and shuttles. The Human Rights Act (1993) and the Dog Control Act (1996) says that it’s a criminal offence to refuse a registered guide dog entry to any public place anywhere a human would be welcome. There are a few notable exceptions, though, including animal enclosures at zoos, and some hospital departments (such as the burns unit, oncology units, and intensive care wards). Generally, you’re asking for trouble if you refuse to let somebody bring their guide dog with them.

In addition to these access rules, landlords are legally bound to allow tenants to have guide dogs (and other assistance animals) in their home, even if a residence has an official No Pets Allowed policy.

Guide dogs are able to judge heights in order to avoid dangers like overhanging branches.

History

The first guide dog training schools were established in Germany to help veterans who were blinded in World War I. Trainers quickly recognised what breeds were most suited to this sort of work, and to this day Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds are still the most common breeds of guide dog. Other intelligent pedigrees – such as Standard Poodles, Border Collies, Staffordshire Terriers, Dobermans, Rottweilers, and Boxers – can also be guide dogs, but aren’t as common. The most popular breed, of course, is the Labrador.

How long does it take to train a guide dog?

Puppies are assessed over twelve to eighteen months in a Puppy Raising Program to check their suitability. Mobility instructors will then expose the pups to the many different sources of stimuli they’ll encounter as a working dog, such as various animals, trains, buses, steps and other common situations. If a puppy turns out to have potential, they’ll receive five more months of intensive training with the instructor, followed by four to six weeks of training with their soon-to-be-owner so they can learn to travel together safely.

Puppy school dropout?

Guide dogs are made up of the most accomplished Einstein-level geniuses of the canine world, and that means not every puppy will be able to graduate. But don’t worry! Candidates who are unsuitable as guide dogs will become companion dogs for children who are vision impaired. If they aren’t cut out to be companion dogs, they’ll go to loving families as a normal house pet.

Hands off!

It’s important that you don’t distract a guide dog when it’s working (which is whenever they’re wearing a harness). If you’d like to pat a guide dog who isn’t working, you must ask the owner first.

The “right” dog is figured out by comparing the height of the dog’s shoulders to the height of the owner. This is why there are no Chihuahua guide dogs…

What’s the average working life of a guide dog?

Guide dogs usually begin work before their second birthday, and reach a well-earned retirement about eight to ten years later. When a guide dog retires it usually stays with the same owner and enjoys a normal home life, presumable with lots of belly scratches and kitchen scraps.

Pricey pups

Training a guide dog is a huge process, and costs approximately $30,000 per dog. To the people who are able to live a normal life thanks to these four-legged champions, though, it’s worth every dollar.

(Thanks heaps to Melanie Takkos for her assistance with this article)

Sources:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guide_dog

blindfoundation.org.nz/learn/guide-dogs/interesting-facts-about-guide-dogs

www.guidedogswa.com.au/guide-dog-program/guide-dog-faqs/

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