Guide Dogs

What is a Guide Dog?

A guide dog is a dog that guides a blind or visually impaired person around. Guide dogs are also known as seeing eye dogs, dogs for the blind and also referred to as blind dogs. The term "blind dog" is used overseas, but is technically incorrect as the dog should not be blind if it is guiding people around. We do however know what they mean when this term is used.

What does a Guide Dog do?

How can I identify a legitimate Guide Dog team?

A guide dog team consists of the handler (who is being guided) and the guide dog. A true guide dog team in NZ will have the following:

A Guide dog's life

Life at the kennels

When the puppies are born, they stay at the kennels until they are 8 weeks of age. At 8 weeks of age, they leave the kennels and go to puppy walkers.

Puppy-walking

At approximately 8 weeks of age, the puppy leaves the kennels and goes to live with a puppy walking family where they are taught basic commands (sit, come, down etc). The role of the puppy walker is to socialise the puppy, and expose the puppy to the many environments that they may encounter as a guide dog (shopping malls, public transport, busy city conditions and country environments). They get to wear a little red coat, and are able to go into public places, just like a fully trained guide dog.

Intensive training

Between 12 and 16 months of age, the dog goes back to the Guide Dog Centre for intensive training. This is usually for about 6 months, but depends on the individual dog. Initially they will go through an assessment period to see if they are up to the standards to become a guide dog. The assessment process involves visiting several environments and observing how the dog copes/reacts to the different conditions. No pressure is put on the dog at this stage; they are simply walked on a long lead.

Matching with a prospective guide dog handler

Things such as walking speed, traits, temperament, social needs and health issues are taken into account when considering who is matched with which dog. Guide dog trainers compare handlers needs and discuss possible matchings.

Meeting the new guide dog handler

Usually once the new guide dog arrives, it will need to bond with the handler. This means it will not be worked until the training starts. It's a time for both the handler and the dog to get to know each other as a team. Plenty of pats, games and encouragement here help to make the new team bond and build a relationship.  The guide dog instructors usually like you to stay home during the bonding process, (or at least the first couple of days). Also, you will need to limit the amount of people wanting to meet your new guide dog; all the attention that the guide dog receives during this time should be from the new handler. Also, this helps to prevent the dog from getting over excited! At this time, you will also be given a good run down of what is going to happen over the training period.  During this time, you can ask plenty of questions too.

Training schedule for the new guide dog team

This is where training starts with your new guide dog. You will need to be rather fit, as it is a full on training schedule. You will be training at least 2 to 3 times a day.  This could be in the morning, afternoon, or sometimes at night. It may be in any kind of weather as well.  Usually, the sessions are for about 1 hour or so, depending on what has to be covered.

Harness training for the new handler

You will be taken to another part of town, where you will get out of the guide dog vehicle to do some basic commands.  This will not be with your guide dog, but with its harness often referred to as "short handle work".  The guide dog instructor will hold onto the front of the harness at about your dog's height, and the handler will hold onto the handle.  This is to get you to follow wherever the dog may go, and also get you used to the commands that you will use with it.  This will include left turns, right turns, and going forwards and back the way you came, and how you should be positioned for these turns as well.

Some essential techniques for the new handler: left turn, right turn and straight ahead

Examples of turns practised with the harness, for once you have perfected the harness training and are allowed to use your dog are:

Guide dog team training in real life situations

Graduating

Once your guide dog trainer is happy that you and your new dog are working well together, you will graduate as a guide dog team.

Follow up training

Follow up training is essential to ensure that all the hard work put into training you and your guide dog is being maintained, and that no other issues have arisen since. This follow up is done at one month, three months, six months, twelve months and then yearly after that. The guide dog trainers are only ever a phone call away, and you are able to phone them at any time should issues arise outside of these times. The trainers may also call in from time to time if they need to see another handler in your local area. Usually they will phone you first.

Retirement

Guide dogs generally work for about 8 to 10 years. As with humans, this is of course dependent upon health and other factors. Retirement of a guide dog is always a sad time, both for the handler and the family that have looked after the dog. It is a great privilege however, to be able to adopt your retired guide dog and provide them with the loving retirement they so deserve. In some cases however, limited housing resources or illness may prevent a handler from keeping their retired dog. In these cases, the dog may get adopted out to people who can look after it. These may be the original puppy walkers, family or other people who want to take good care of a pet. Each situation varies, and is as individual as the people and dogs themselves. Retired guide dogs still require exercise, socialising, a good diet, vet checks, and of course loads of pats. Sometimes, an older dog may be jealous of the new one coming into the home, and so you need to be careful not to exclude your old dog from activities. As with children, it is a matter of loving discipline combined with fairness, and making sure you spend equal time with both of them.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Am I allowed to pat a Guide Dog?
A: It depends on the Guide Dog handler. You need to ask the handler first - they may or may not let you.

Q: Can anyone have a Guide Dog?
A: The person must pass certain criteria to have a Guide Dog.  They must have sufficient sight loss to have one, must like animals and must also be prepared to be responsible for a dog.

Q: Where are Guide Dogs allowed to go?
A: Almost anywhere while in harness. For example restaurants, trains, buses and supermarkets. The only exceptions would be a zoo (where animals are running free) or an intensive care ward or burns unit.

Q: How much does a Guide Dog cost?
A: Thanks to fund-raising, donations, sponsorship and bequests, this is a cost met by Guide Dog Services through these avenues. The cost is estimated at around $22,500 NZD however it is free to the Guide Dog user.

Q: Where do Guide Dogs get their names?
A: Traditionally, a litter is named after a particular letter of the alphabet.

Q: How long does a Guide Dog work for?
A: Generally, it is until around ten years of age, but this will vary according to the dog's health and workload.

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