Guide dogs are dogs that are specially trained to help blind people to get around. The dog’s main concern is the safety of his owner. The dog helps the owner to navigate their path. The owner is responsible for memorizing the routes.
Labradors are the dogs most poplar for guide dog training, as they are highly intelligent and good working dogs. Golden Retrievers and German Shepard Dogs (Alsatians) are also popular. These dogs also like constant companionship, which make them ideal companions for blind people.
The association buys puppies that are bred by reliable dog breeders and come form good bloodlines. The Association will breed often its own. They try to select bloodline where genetic problem like Hipdysplasia isn’t present All puppies from the same litter will be given names starting with the same letter of the alphabet.
At about 6-8 weeks of age the puppies will go to volunteer homes. The foster families will take care of them, bond with them and give them basic training until they are old enough for the programme. Families with other pets and an adult that stays at home (or only works a few hours) are given preference. The family should also be willing to give up the dog when it is old enough for training.
At around 12 -14 months (Labradors) or 18 – 20 months (Alsatians) the dogs will return to live at the guide dog association. They are first placed in a sort of quarantine block where they are check for parasites and diseases. They are then transferred to a guide dog mobility instructor who will be responsible for their training.
They will now begin their guide dog training. The dogs will learn how to walk with a harness and to ignore attention from other people when they are working. They learn to walk in a straight line, follow directions and stop when there is an obstacle or a safety hazard. Learning how to cross streets and negotiate traffic is one of the most important aspects of their training. The dogs are first trained at the training center and then the instructor will start giving training sessions in parks and public places.
When the dog is ready for the next stage it will be matched to a new owner. To qualify for a dog the blind person pays a small application fee, all though donations (and funding) will cover the cost training. The owner must be able to afford dog food and veterinary care.
The blind person will then come and live at the training center for 3 weeks, receiving training with the dog. The instructor then goes home with the owner and the dog for a few days to help the dog-owner team adapt to its new environment. The trainer will take them through the routes they will use most often and will repeat each route repeatedly as exercise.
When the dog passes the age of 10 it will be checked by a vet to see for how long it will still be able to work. When the dog retires it can stay on with the owner as a pet. It can return to the training center, who will try to rehome the dog. The owner can then apply for a new guide dog and will have to receive 3 weeks of training again.
South African Guide Dog Association
Sources: Saga website, the movie “Quill”… and I once spend a day with some guidedogs.