If you are someone without a visual impairment, you might not have much experience with seeing eye dogs. Seeing eye dogs are service dogs trained specifically to assist and guide people who are blind or visually impaired. With this guidance, people who are blind can enhance their independence and self-confidence throughout their daily activities.
The Seeing Eye is a great non-profit organization to turn to, whether you are in need of a seeing eye dog or in need of information on them. There are also Guide Dogs of America and Guide Dogs for the Blind, both of which offer free services.
If you’ve ever wondered how seeing eye dogs are trained and chosen for work, and how you should interact with one, then look no further! Here is everything you need to know about these fascinating guide dogs.
Breeding and Training
In the first seven to eight weeks of life, puppies are shown love, care, and affection in order to get them comfortable with human interaction. They are exposed to many different types of sights and sounds, such as vacuum cleaners, loud social environments and sound machines, in order to familiarize them with these every day occurrences. The goal is to desensitize the puppies, so that they are used to any given situation.
After their first seven to eight weeks, they are raised in foster homes until they reach 12 to 18 months of age. The goal is to train them, further expose them to social situations and human interactions, and get them comfortable with going out in public places. It’s important that their foster family is showing them as much of the outside world as they possibly can during their first year of life. Foster families are encouraged to take the puppies with them in public or anywhere that dogs are allowed.
Once they are in their first year, the dogs are checked for health and trained by a professional for four months. They train in rural, suburban and urban areas, and clicker-training is an important tool used by the instructors. After those four months, the instructor trains with the seeing eye dogs and their new owners. Bonding is an important part of this training; trainers will spend hours working with the dog and handler, in order to solidify their relationship before they go off on their own. It is important to note that seeing eye dogs are not pets; their relationship with their handler goes much deeper than that. Therefore, it is imperative that dog and owner are perfectly matched.
Trainers take many considerations when pairing a handler with a service dog, such as matching personalities and environments. Some considerations include whether there are children or other pets in the home, what the hobbies are of the handler, how active their lifestyle is, and what type of city they live in. On top of this information, trainers will take note of how strong of a pull the handler has on a leash, so they can pair them a dog who matches that pull.
Because dogs are color blind, seeing eye dogs cannot interpret street signs. However, they do assist their owners in crossing streets and navigating through traffic. In addition, they are trained to intelligently disobey. This means that they will ignore a command by their owner if it will jeopardize their owner’s safety, such as stepping out into oncoming traffic. It is important that seeing eye dogs take directional cues from their owners, but also be on the lookout for hazards and obstacles that their owners cannot see.
Interacting with Service Dogs
It is very important for people to be aware that service dogs are working dogs. When you see a service dog in a public setting, it is not appropriate to approach them with the intent to pet them, like you would a non-service dog. This can cause a distraction, and interacting with a distracted service dog can put the safety of their owner at risk. Unless you have been given permission by their owner, do not pet, feed, or make eye contact with a guide dog at work. If you are given permission to interact with a seeing eye dog, make sure to do so calmly. Otherwise, when you encounter someone with a service dog, it is best to ignore the dog completely.
Common breeds that are chosen for seeing eye dogs include Labrador and Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds, while Standard Poodles can be good candidates for people in need of a hypoallergenic dog.
Female dogs retire at age four, and male dogs sire eight to ten litters before they are adopted. If a dog is not chosen to work as a seeing eye dog, oftentimes their foster family is given the opportunity to adopt them before they are adopted by someone else.
Dogs of various breeds, sizes, and personalities are acceptable and closely matched to their human partner. The Seeing Eye in particular puts less emphasis on breeding the perfect dog, and more on finding the perfect partnership between owner and dog.
National Seeing Eye Dog Day is coming up on January 14th, and International Guide Dogs Day is celebrated on April 25th.