Guide Dogs For The Blind

The sight of a guide dog leading its blind master or mistress through the bustle of busy streets is a source of pleasure and admiration. In and out of crowds through stores and markets boarding buses and trains, owner and dog stride out confidently together. Theirs a partnership shared by thousands of blind men and women throughout the world. It is now not new, record services of dogs being used as guide-companions in Pompeii and thirteen century today they may be seen in Norway and New Zealand on fifth Avenue and on Gorky Street.

Without its distinctive harness, usually white, there is noting to distinguish the trained guide for any other dog. Out side working hours, it romps as freely in the park as any other pet dog, and its just skilled at turning and appealing eye to any visitor who might offer a tidbit, but it is special. A guide dog is the eyes of the owner, the trusted companion, and the link outside world.

A potential guide dog must possess certain qualities. It should be intelligent and even-tempered, displaying neither nervousness nor indifference to sudden noise and obstacle. It must be strong and healthy, obedient yet capable of exercising judgment. Only a few breeds fulfill these conditions; in Britain where the Guide dog for the blind Association was establish in 1934. German Shepherded Dogs were long the preferred breed, but today half of trained guide dogs are Labradors. Crosses between Labradors and Golden Retrievers have also proved successful and the association maintains carefully selected bitches and stud dogs for breeding. Most guide dogs are bitches which are less domineering than males, both sexes are neutered before intensive training begins.

The puppy will stay with the foster family until it is ready to began the serious training; for Labradors and Labrador-Retrievers crosses, this usually occurs in their twelfth month. At this point the are returned to the training center. German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and other breeds may take longer to mature. For a young dog, the transition is perplexing time. Life in kennels is very much more Spartan than the home comforts he or she has been used to, but the majority quickly adjust to the pack life. Others respond slowly to the reassurances of the handlers, and few are unable to settle; they are returned to their puppy Walkers or found per homes, as they lack the ability to adopt which ever guide dog must have. It requires a great deal of self-confidence to walk through strange streets and to pass potentially aggressive dogs.

Training Guide Dogs:
Once at the training center, work begins in quiet areas. On the long, straight walks to the park the dog is taught to trot ahead, not to walk at heel. Any attempt by the dog to anticipate a turn leads to the route being altered, to terminate at a different destination. At the end of the walk there will still be the pleasure of  game or a romp. In this way the dog learns that by accepting directions its walks will always be rewarded, and each outing becomes an exciting mystery tour.  

When the dog has begun  to think  ahead  and  anticipate, the next stage, the kerb drill is introduced. The dog is taught to indicate each road by stopping  at the pavement edge. This will give its future blind owner warning of a step down chance to listen carefully  for traffic. The guide dog is not always able to cope with modern traffic. The responsibility for choosing a safe time  to cross rests with its  master, and guide-dog users are advised by the training schools to obtain sighted help  at  busy  road  junctions.

With time,  training becomes  more intensive, quiet  side roads giving way to suburban areas,  with   people,   prams   and  shopping  trolleys   cluttering  the pavement Guide-dog trainers refuse to pass through gaps too small for their height and width, and slowly,  by constant repetition, the dog learns  to choose that path which will allow for its companion's bulk. Eventually it will forget that a choice ever existed and will automatically take  the  clear  space.  Artificial Obstacle courses are set up within  the grounds of the training school, where the dog learns  to avoid them  before being faced with increasingly difficult  hazards on the road. At  times  it  will have to leave the  pavement  to negotiate major obstructions, or  to retrace its steps  to  get  round  a temporary barricade.

In town it learns  to tackle  public  transport, lifts,  revolving doors, stores, escalators and  pedestrian crossings. With  practice and  yet more  practice the dog  becomes  foot-perfect. Visits to the  park and  the country become  rewards for hard working conditions  chosen to test it to the full. Finally, all the potential errors. a blind  person  might  make are re-created. The trainer dons a blindfold, and only after  successful guided   walks  through town  conditions will  he  be convinced  that the dog is fully trained and safe to be handed over to its new owner.

The  ultimate partnership:
The choice of the dog's future master  or mistress will already  have been made, with  compatibility, size, walking speed  and  work load having been  taken  into account, togther with  other  physical, temperamental and  social  factors.  The new owner must attend the training school for a four-week residential course to learn how to care for and use the dog. Under professional guidance, owner and Guide dog learn  to adjust to each  other  without outside distractions.

The training course is a concentrated repeat of the  dog's training. Quiet walks, on which owner and dog come to know and understand each other, give way to busier areas. Short outings stretch to  periods  of  up  to  two  hours' duration. Throughout, the trainer is on hand  to encourage, instruct and cajole. The unit, as a owner  and  dog  are  described, must  learn  from  mistakes and experience, like  mother and  toddler. A child  must  fall before  it ca n learn  to walk; the trainer's job is to ensure that the 'falls' in city streets full of traffic and there  hazards are not  too dangerous. For  the owner,  the course is demanding and nerve wracking. He or she may never before have walked without holding someone's arm or have ventured beyond their immediate neighborhood. It takes a great deal of courage, after years of dependency, to pick up the harness handle and give the very first command forward.

Over the weeks a bound between owners and the dog is forged which will last for years. Although there are doubts and moments of despair, mistakes grow fewer, and mutual confidence shows in the visible pride in enjoyment man and dog have in each other. Ownership of a guide means more than having the freedom to go anywhere at will. It enable a blind person to take his or her egual place among family and friends, join in social activities and gain a large measure of independence to such an extent that the blind owner can become the one to offer help instead of receiving it. The blind mother may offer to collect her neighbor's children from school or help with shopping in times of sickness. A husband  will not need the wife's guidance to go to the barber's. Young people can attend  classes, social gatherings  and  youth  clubs on their  own.   After   years  of  being  dependent  and   met  with  sympathy   and   social embarrassment, the blind  person as a guide-dog user becomes the object of envy as the possessor of something beautiful and enviable. The dog becomes an ice-breaker, and people who would not know how to start a conversation  with a blind person can do so with a simple query about the dog's age, name or breed. The  dog returns its owner to society.

I t is not the white harness that makes a guide dog special, for only special dogs are good enough to wear one. Once owner and dog become one unit, their progress is checked and  maintained  with regular  aftercare  visits and  health checks. The average working life of a guide dog is eight to nine years; it is then retired as an ordinary  pet animal, often into the same household, and replaced with a young guide dog. In Britain, the high costs of training and keeping guide dogs are met entirely  by charity.  This  in itself bears testimony  to the  high regard  in which guide dogs, the best of man's best friends, are held.