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Guide dogs, colloquially known as seeing eye dogs, are assistance canines trained to lead people who are visually impaired. The movement for guide dogs began in Germany after World War I, to assist soldiers who had been blinded in battle. Since then, guide dogs have become essential in helping those who can't see gain mobility and independence. Here is some general information about guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired.
Guide dogs start at a very early age and continue working throughout most of their lives. Puppies selected to become guide dogs begin the process at 8 weeks of age. They go to volunteers called puppy raisers, who teach them basic obedience and proper socialization.
When the dogs are 12 to 18 months old, they return to the service organization and begin formal training. This is done by professional instructors and can last for several months as the dogs progress through different training levels.
Once they successfully complete their training and assessments, they can begin working with handlers (those who are blind or visually impaired). Pairing guide dogs with handlers is a detailed and intentional process. It's done very carefully, with several factors taken into account - from lifestyle (activity level, living arrangements, hobbies, etc.) to family situation (such as living with parents, kids, cats, other dogs or exotic pets).
Newly matched dogs and handlers then go through hours of training together with professional instructors, often at the service organization's facility. This helps the two form a relationship, bond and learn to trust one another - essential for the two of them to succeed together.
After 7 to 10 years of service, a guide dog will retire and the handler will be matched with another, younger dog. A retiree will live the rest of their life with their handler's family, one of the people who trained them or someone who adopts them. This is one of the toughest phases for both the handlers and their guide dogs.
Guide dog breeds are chosen based on temperament and trainability, giving the edge to Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles and Labradoodles. Today, the most popular breed for guide dogs is the Labrador Retriever. This is because they are gentle, tolerant and willing animals that are relatively healthy and easy to maintain. (For example, they are lower maintenance when it comes to grooming because of their short coat). For those who suffer from allergies, Poodles and Labradoodles are a good choice.
By law, guide dogs can go to almost any public place. This includes restaurants, shops, markets, stores, offices, hotels, clinics, most hospital departments and more. They can also use public transportation, such as buses, trains, taxis, planes and ferries. The Human Rights Act (1993) and the Dog Control Act (1996) outline these rights. Guide dogs, however, cannot go to zoos and other animal enclosures, as well as certain hospital departments (like oncology, intensive care and burn units).
Guide dogs give their handlers a great sense of independence and freedom. They increase a blind or visually impaired person's mobility, leading them around everyday obstacles. That being said, guide dogs do not function like a GPS. Rather they take directional cues from their handler and are trained not to proceed in unsafe situations. They also do not have the ability to read traffic signs, as dogs in general have similar eyesight to red-green color blindness. It's actually the handler's responsibility to listen to traffic and give their guide dog a command to cross when it sounds safe.
When you see a guide dogs in a service harness, it means he or she is working and you should not pet, whistle to or wave at them. These can distract the dog from its very important job. But the handler is the one who decides if and when it's okay for people to pet their guide dog. Most handlers don't want their dog pet while wearing the harness, but a few may be open to it. You should always ask before petting any dog and this is no exception.