It’s International Assistance Dog Week and awareness is being raised for all the hard work that goes into raising assistance dogs, and the work the dogs do. Whether they’re used to help deaf and blind people or are used in other forms of therapy, the effect an assistance dog can have on a person’s life can be truly transformative.
Of all the pooches prepared for helping us humans out guide dogs make up a large percentage, but did you know how long it takes to turn a playful pup into a loyal, reliable professional guide? It takes about 20 months for them to enjoy their puppyhood and complete canine college. This doesn’t come cheap either, with Guide Dogs UK claiming that this can costs roughly £55, 000 per dog from birth to retirement. Most guide dog charities rely on the support and generosity of the public so this is not an easy figure to raise, particularly with roughly 5,000 dogs currently working in the UK!
Read on to learn about each stage of the puppy’s progression!
Once a puppy is born, he or she will live with their mum and the rest of the litter for the first few weeks of their life. This gives the dog time to spend its puppyhood playing, learning and spending time with its family.
Filling their formative weeks full of fun, affection and rest is important for all dogs and leads to well-adjusted, loyal guide dogs. During this time, the organisation responsible for the dog will also check up on it regularly and make sure that they’re healthy and happy.
6 weeks- 4 months
After 6 weeks, the dog will move to a new home. They’ll now live with a volunteer walker, who helps to train the dog for free by looking after it for a while as a pet. There’s no formal guide dog training at this point, just the basics that you’d teach your dog at home like ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ as well as getting them used to walking on a lead.
They’ll also be introduced to other humans and dogs to teach them how to conduct themselves properly. Good manners and behaviour will be heavily incentivised as this is a vital for a guide dog so they’ll be rewarded handsomely with treats, affection and verbal praise. While being a bit naughty makes for a lovable pup, behaviour such as jumping on people and barking will be coached as it’s dangerous for them to behave like this when a blind person depends on them. As they get older, the occasional error will be overlooked because, after all, nobody’s perfect!
Here the focus becomes getting the dog used to the world around them. They’ll start to learn how to deal with some of the challenges that will face them as guides. Typical things they need to get used to are being taken on transport, around shopping centres and getting used to learning specific routes.
Some dogs may even be lucky enough to be taken on holiday, just to get them used to the process. The basic commands they’ve been taught will be used in these more public environments to introduce them to how they’ll have to behave when they’re fully trained.
It’s time for school! The now teenage dog will move out of their volunteer walker’s home and begin in a formal training program. It’ll be at least the third place the dog will have lived, but this is a necessary part of growing up. Getting used to change is important as a guide dog needs to have the right temperament to be able to deal with it without becoming stressed.
During training, the dogs get used to wearing the harness that they’ll wear each day for work and start to practice specific skills. One of these is stopping at every kerb they reach to signal to their owner that there’ll be a step down, as well that it’s time to listen out for traffic.
While training, guide dogs are taught to walk in straight lines and not to weave around while moving, so that their owner can keep their bearings as they make their way around. They also learn to judge height and width so that they can guide their owners appropriately and don’t lead them on difficult or treacherous routes.
At this point of their training, the dogs will meet a mobility instructor to help them apply their training into practical, everyday situations. One common misconception about guide dogs is that they can understand traffic signals, when it’s actually up to both dog and owner to negotiate crossing. The dog’s role is to indicate they’ve reached the road, but it’s then up to the human to listen out for traffic or traffic lights. If they give the command ‘Forward’ then the dog will walk alongside them across the road.
However, if there’s a car coming and the owner gives the command, the dog will continue to stay. That’s because guide dogs are taught intelligent disobedience to protect their owner from potentially harmful mistakes. While all these different aspects of their training are combined, the search for the perfect partner begins.
Now we have a fully-fledged guide dog it’s time for them to help to change someone’s life. They’ll be matched to a suitable human, considering the person’s lifestyle, height, stride and other factors to ensure that they’re right for each other.
The two new friends will take a course and get used to working together before it’s time to put the dog’s education into practice. Once the dog has moved in with their new companion, they’ll be checked up on regularly to ensure that both are happy and thriving in their new living arrangement.
After 6-7 years it’s time to reward the dog for a job well done with a relaxing retirement, where they’ll move to new owner to enjoy the rest of their days with a bit less responsibility!
If you’d like to sponsor a dog or support guide dogs in the UK, visit www.guidedogs.org.uk.