Life can be a little bit more challenging for the visually impaired, but day-to-day activities are a lot easier if they are accompanied by a seeing eye dog. These animals are trained to help their handlers safely navigate the world.
A lot of work goes into teaching these canines how to do their jobs. It’s not easy being a seeing eye dog instructor, and it also takes time for owners to learn how to work with a dog for the first time. If you’ve ever wondered how they do it, read on.
Trainers Spend Years Learning The Ropes
Seeing eye dog instructors do the job full time. After passing the application process, trainers must undergo a three-year apprenticeship. The program includes class instruction as well as hands-on training with dogs and students, which is what visually-impaired people who become dog owners are called.
After graduating from the program, trainers take care of multiple dogs from the early morning to the early evening. Volunteers are also needed to foster and raise future guide dogs, but they have separate tasks from the trainers.
The Dogs Provide A Lot Of Independence
One of the best things about guide dogs is they give their handlers/owners a lot of independence. Visually impaired people who are accompanied by guide dogs have a sense of freedom and mobility that canes can’t provide.
According to gold medal Paralympian Jen Armbruster, “It’s just such a feeling of freedom and independence. Using the cane was a reality check for me of how much freedom that dog gave me.” She has had several guide dogs since losing her vision as a teenager.
Students Spend A Lot Of Time Bonding With Their Dogs
At The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey, students with limited vision live on campus and spend weeks bonding with their dogs and learning all kinds of training exercises. They must apply to the program and be accepted before they are matched with a dog.
Students spend nearly a month working with the animals before they graduate. The classes are both emotionally and physically challenging. The trainers liken it to a boot camp in which the students learn a great amount of information in a short period of time.
The First Seeing Eye Dog Came To America In 1928
A visually impaired college student named Morris Frank brought home the first seeing eye dog from Switzerland to the United States in 1928. He traveled to Europe and trained with a German shepherd dog named Buddy that was bred specifically to lead a blind person. Frank trained with the dog for several weeks and then returned to America.
His goal was to educate others about the dog. When he got off the ship, reporters watched Buddy safely navigate a busy street in New York City. Frank later commented on how the dog led more people to converse with him. When Buddy died, the New York Times featured his obituary.
Seeing Eye Dogs Became A Necessity During World War I
Dorothy Harrison Eustis, Morris Frank, and others co-founded The Seeing Eye, a facility that trains guide dogs and their owners, in 1929. It initially operated in Nashville, Tennessee, before moving to its present location in New Jersey.
The world realized there was a need for seeing eye dogs during World War I. Specifically, German soldiers were left blind or visually impaired, so schools started teaching guide dogs certain skills. That’s when Eustis moved to Switzerland from the United States to set up a breeding and training program involving German Shepherds.
The Seeing Eye Breeds Its Own Dogs
The Seeing Eye has a facility in Chester, New Jersey, in which it runs a breeding program. It has very strict requirements. The dogs must pass both medical and temperament tests before they qualify for the program. Only the top dogs are picked for the breeding program.
When puppies are seven weeks old, volunteers start raising them and teaching them basic commands. They are then tested when they’re 14 months old to see if they’re qualified for the program. If they are, they train for another four months.
Some Breeds Are Better Than Others
Most seeing eye dogs are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds, or a combination of these breeds. That’s because they are working dogs and have the best personalities and physical abilities to do the job.
They work alongside people really well and have the perfect temperaments. Because they have a drive to work, they also have a drive to please people. They love getting praise from humans and do what they can to make them happy.
Retrievers And Shepherds Are The Right Size for the Job
Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds are also big enough to get the job done. They have the right physical requirements to do the work. For example, they can lead a person down the road or prevent him or her from going into traffic.
On the other hand, these dogs are also small enough to travel on a train or a bus and can lie down comfortably under a desk at the office. This combination makes them perfect for the task.
Positive Reinforcement Is Key During Training
Seeing eye dogs are trained to help their owners navigate the environment securely, comfortably, and confidently. That means they stop at curbs, move around obstacles, and block their owners from walking in front of cars. The canines learn these skills through praise and positive reinforcement.
During training, the dogs are showered with love and attention. If they make a mistake, they are alerted to the problem and have a chance to do it over again. The trainers don’t want to discourage the dogs.
The Dogs Can’t Read Signs Or Interpret Stop Lights
While seeing eye dogs are able to avoid sidewalk obstacles and prevent a person from falling off a curb, they are not a fuzzy form of GPS. These animals do not know how to read street signs or figure out when a light is green versus red.
It isn’t just the dog who has to do the work. It’s the person, not the dog, who decides that it’s time to cross the street. The animals don’t know the way to the grocery store — the person does.
Dogs In Training Are Exposed To Real-Life Obstacles
When dogs in training are ready, they are exposed to more advanced scenarios, such as navigating in urban areas. In some training facilities, the dogs learn how to get operate in similar situations on campus.
For example, they may be subjected to vehicles driving around, which simulates the type of traffic the dogs may encounter while in public with their owners. This includes more silent cars, such as Honda Priuses. The animals also learn how to use staircases and escalators.
Dogs Have The Ability To Keep An Eye Out For Above Ground-Level Obstacles, Too
Once a dog knows how to look out for cars and pedestrians in front of them, they also have to learn to be aware of obstacles that are above the ground. Seeing eye dogs have to be aware of objects that may hit a person from above, such as a tree branch.
Dogs are usually pretty quick to adapt when it comes to sizes as well. Their owner may be taller than their trainer was, but they have the ability to adapt and keep an eye out for higher obstacles.
Trainers Learn About The Human Eye
When doing their apprenticeships, trainers also learn about the types of vision problems that the students have. This includes diseases and disorders related to the optic nerve. This allows the trainers to communicate with the students and learn more about their particular vision issues.
Instead of just being dog professionals, the trainers are educated so they can get a good idea of the needs of the students. Training is all-encompassing and helpful to both the instructors and the students.
Trainers Wear Blindfolds To Feel What Students Feel
During their training, instructors wear blindfolds for one whole week and live with the students. They are advised on how to use a cane while traveling and are taught how to keep themselves safe when crossing the street and encountering traffic.
They are also matched with a dog, which allows them to experience the same sort of thing that the students feel when they are paired with dogs. This allows the trainers to feel what the students feel.
The Dog’s Name Is Very Important
Choosing a name for a guide dog is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it needs to be a well-thought-out decision. For example, you don’t want your dog to “heel” if you’re simply calling him “Neil.”
The general rule is to pick short one or two-syllable names. This allows the owner to quickly communicate with the canine. Also, the name should not sound anything like a command. You don’t want to name your dog “Kit” because that may be confused with a direction to “sit.”
Strangers Shouldn’t Interact With Seeing Eye Dogs That Are Wearing Harnesses
If a seeing eye dog is wearing a harness, that means he or she is working and must pay full attention to his owner and what he or she is doing. When the dogs are in working mode, it’s best to let them do their job.
People are encouraged not to distract or pet a working seeing eye dog because it can prevent them from doing their job and interrupt their concentration. Always ask permission from the owner before you interact with the animal.
It’s Not All Work And No Play
We all know that seeing eye dogs do a lot of work. You won’t see them, for example, chasing squirrels around the yard or sniffing garbage cans while they’re with their handlers. But that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy being regular dogs once in a while.
These pups also get well-deserved breaks. When they’re done working for the day and no longer wearing their “business suits,” these canines are allowed to play fetch and snuggle with people. When they’re in the comfort of their own homes, they’re a part of the family just like everyone else.
The Dogs Retire By Age 10 At The Latest
Seeing eye dogs have a set retirement age just like humans. They typically work for seven to 10 years. Eventually, they get a little too old for the job. It’s not uncommon for seeing eye dogs to be adopted by another family to live out the rest of their lives.
That’s because visually impaired people need to continue their lives with a younger and more adept canine. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard for the dog and the person to move on.
The Dogs Sometimes Disobey Their Owners
Seeing eye dogs are critical thinkers. Trainers make sure they learn how to demonstrate “intelligent disobedience” when necessary. What this means is that the dog will refuse to obey an unsafe command.
If the dog notices that the owner is about to encounter something dangerous that the owner may not realize, then the dog will not go through with the command. For example, the dog may see a car run a red light and prevent the person from going into the intersection.
The Dogs Are Allowed To Go Anywhere
Seeing eye dogs are granted certain privileges that other dogs aren’t. In many countries, including the United States, they are legally protected and are considered their owner’s teammate. Guide dogs can go anywhere their humans go and where the general public goes.
But there is one exception. Guide dogs are not allowed around certain zoo animals. Other than that, don’t be surprised to see them on planes, in restaurants, or in other establishments in which you don’t usually see canines.