A Guide Dog’s Life

Charli Saltzman

You hear blind people like me talking about their wonderful dog guides. Maybe you’ve
even spent time with a dog guide. But have you ever wondered what all goes into training these wonderful animals? I want to start by telling you I’m no expert. At the end of this blog, I will provide you with a URL that will take you directly to a list of dog guide schools around the United States. Also, note that this is a general overview of a dog guide’s life, and it may vary from school to school. I’m going to focus on what I know from two dog guide schools, a school in Kansas, and the Seeing Eye in New Jersey. So, let’s begin.

The Seeing Eye breeds and trains their own dogs. They don’t accept or train dogs from animal shelters. An instructor informed me at one time that the reason Seeing Eye breeds their own dogs is to keep track of the genetics of the dog. If they would get a dog from another source such as a shelter, one may never know what health condition the dog is in. The Seeing Eye’s dogs are always carefully screened to make sure the dog is healthy enough to be a dog guide.

They also make sure the parents of those puppies are healthy.

At the age of 8 weeks old, the puppy will leave its brothers and sisters and live with a family for a short time. This family will teach the puppy basic commands. They house train the dogs along with teaching them house rules such as not jumping on the furniture or on house guests who stop by for a visit. They teach the dogs to sit and to stay. These puppies also have a special privilege. They are allowed in public places such as public transportation, stores, and restaurants. The puppy raisers will take their dogs to these places in order to expose them to new areas and get them used to being well-behaved in public. The puppy raisers will keep the dogs in shape by walking them. The dog will do everything with the family. These families are doing such a wonderful service for blind individuals, and they are sacrificing their own personal time to train these dogs only to give them back to the school after a year.

Many of you probably have pets of your own. I’m sure you can imagine how hard it would be if you had to give the dog back. Maybe some of you raise puppies to be service dogs, and if that is you, please accept my thanks and gratitude to you for what you are doing. You are changing so many lives. While these puppy raisers play a huge role in the success of the dog, it is the instructor’s job to train the dogs in guide work now that the dog is back at the school. Keep in mind that these dogs are probably still recovering from moving from a loving home to a kennel with numerous other dogs. However, it is important to remember that dogs adjust to change easier than humans do. While the dogs probably miss their families, they will be ready to grow a new bond with an instructor who will teach them the skills they will use for many years.

Sadly, there are some dogs that do not always make it.

Some dogs that return to the school do not always make it into guide work. However, they can make it into other services such as rescue dogs or dogs that go into classrooms with children. Other dogs are returned to the puppy raisers if they would take them back. If not, the dog will either stay at the kennel to be a breeding dog, or the Seeing Eye will find a new home for them.

There are many reasons why a dog might be rejected from guide work. Some dogs are screened and have a health problem that would be harmful to the dog or a blind individual if the dog would be a dog guide. Some dogs were too aggressive to be a dog guide, and others were simply unable to complete the tasks required of a dog guide.

Without saying any names, I will give you an example. I am going to call the dog Juno, as Juno is the general name Seeing Eye instructors use while teaching blind individuals how to use a dog before they actually receive one. So, Joba’s brother, Juno, did not make it as a dog guide. This is because Juno was afraid of cars on the street. A dog guide should never be afraid of cars as this would be problematic for a blind individual when crossing streets. I don’t know for sure, but I believe Juno is living a happy life with a family that loves him. I never met Juno, but if he is anything like Joba, I’m sure he is receiving the utmost care and love and is very happy about it.

Let’s talk now about the dogs that do make it through training. Some schools, like the school in Kansas, train their dogs for 9 months. However, the Seeing Eye only trains their dogs for about 3-6 months. The dogs are usually a year and a half when they are given to a blind individual. Again, once these dogs are transferred from their instructors to a blind individual, they must bond with someone completely new.

Many labs and other retrievers are okay with this and adjust well, but when they see the instructor that trained them, they get very excited and want to go over and say hello to them. Instructors have to be able to force themselves not to walk over to the dog and say hi. It is the owner’s job to help the dog adjust to their new life, and, yes, if they have to, correct the dog for getting excited to see someone else. I know that, for myself, this is difficult because I can understand how attached the dog was to that instructor. German Shepherds have a more difficult time adjusting to a new owner because they are more of a one-owner dog. I’ve seen German Shepherds that will cry and howl when they see their instructor across the room.

Both of my dogs adjusted pretty well, though sometimes Joba would whimper because he heard his instructor’s voice on the other side of the door. The owner and the dog stay at the school to bond with each other and learn to work together. For first-time dog guide users, the owner and dog must stay at the school for three and a half weeks. For people who are receiving a successor dog, they are only required to stay for two and a half weeks. Home training is available if necessary. For example, some individuals may be unable to leave their homes for that long because they have family responsibilities. They also may have health issues that would not allow them to leave home, so an instructor will bring a dog to their home and train with them.

Once those weeks of training are over, the dog owner and his or her guide head home. The thing that is so wonderful about the Seeing Eye is that, once a dog owner and the dog go home, the school does not own the dog anymore. The dog is owned by the blind individual. Many schools do not have this, and instructors are allowed to come take the dog away if they feel that owner and dog are not working well together. Seeing Eye will send instructors out to people’s homes if the owner and the dog are having issues, but they will never take the dog away unless the owner tells the instructor that the dog is not working for them. When this happens, the dog will go back to the school and placed with another owner in a future class.

For many graduates, things go well for the owner and the dog, and they spend a long time working together as a team, growing in their bond and love for each other. Then, the day comes when the dog has had a wonderful life as a guide and is now allowed to live the rest of his life in retirement.

Many dogs retire between the ages of 8-12 years, though some retire sooner if they develop health problems. Also, some dogs can work longer than that. However, it is pretty rare for a dog to work over the age of 12. I can honestly say I don’t have much experience with retirement of my dog because, when my first dog died, he was only 7 and I had not retired him yet, though I was considering it. Joba is still young and healthy, and he still has quite a few years left to work. For some dog guide owners, retirement can be a difficult time. Owners describe it as “hanging up another harness”. Once the dog is retired, the owner can keep the dog, find a home for the dog, or send the dog back to the school for them to find a home for him or her.

It is often hard to know when to retire the beloved dog guide because an owner often doesn’t want to admit that the dog is showing signs of needing to quit working. Some of these signs include walking slower, not being enthused about having the harness put on, and not as willing to jump up from under a seat when the owner is ready to walk again. Another clue would be if the vet says that the dog’s ears or eyes are not working correctly. This is definitely when a person is going to want to retire the dog. If they notice that the dog is constantly running them into things or afraid to venture out into the street, these are some pretty clear signs that the dog is saying: “Hey, I really need to stop working”. Being able to read these signs is much easier said than done. I have no idea how I’m going to be able to take that step to retiring Joba when the time comes, but I pray God will give me the strength to do what’s best for me and my dog.

A dog guide’s life can be quite an adventure, full of fun and laughter, playtime and work, and everything else in between. Every dog guide owner’s job is to make sure their working companion is happy, healthy, and strong. We must also make sure our dogs know that they are loved and appreciated all their lives. This, my friends, is a guide dog’s life.

Below is a URL that will lead you to a page of listed dog guide schools. You can find more information about these schools by clicking on this link.

Guide Dog Schools Resource List