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Guide dogs – what they do and don’t do

What can guide dogs do?

Note: This is a guest post from one of my blog followers named Jon. He is visually impaired, and I asked if he would be willing to write a post on what it’s like to live and work with a guide dog.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to guide dogs and what they do or do not do.

I am here to save the day, if you will.

At one time or another, the majority of guide dog handlers have been approached by a random person and asked a totally weird question pertaining to their dogs’ abilities.

I have openly started laughing during such occasions – which is kinda rude, I guess – but sometimes I just can’t help it.

I know people are just curious when they see a guy walking down the street with a big, black, gorgeous Labrador Retriever, but some of the questions people have asked have been so out of left field that they simply deserve to be laughed at.

A few of the questions I get asked on a regular basis:

Lard the guide dogDoes your guide dog know when it’s safe to cross the street?

Yes, and no.

My dog Lars knows when it’s safe to cross because there are no cars zooming across our line of travel, but he does not have the ability to read traffic lights.

It is up to me to let him know when I want to cross the street. That said, if I tell him to go and there are cars that pose a danger to us, Lars is trained to intelligently disobey me and not move, thus saving both our lives.

Does your guide dog work all the time?

Lars does not work all the time.

When I am out in public with Lars, he has a job to do, but when we are at home or at friend’s house or anywhere where I do not need his eyes to help me out, he is off duty and free to charm. And believe me, Lars loves to woo people and is very good at it.

Does your guide dog work while you are at home?

Umm, no.

Believe it or not, blind people do know the layout of their own living area and do not need help from their service animals to find their kitchen when they are hungry.

This is probably the most annoying question I am asked because when I answer it, the retort usually is something like: “So how do you find your way around then?”

I am a bad ambassador for blind people because at this stage of the conversation I get very frustrated with the sheer ignorance of the person I am talking to and simply become quite rude. Enough said …

Does your guide dog get play time?

Lars gets lots of play time.

Play time is a great way for him to unwind and is a great method of relieving stress for both of us. The saying “all work and no play” does not apply with service animals, and when the harness comes off, Lars turns into a normal, bouncy Labrador who needs to blow off steam with a good game of tug or a good jaunt.

Does your guide dog know where you want to go when you leave your house?

Lars does not know where we are going when I leave home with him, and I can not simply put him on autopilot when I step out my door.

My dog’s job is to insure that I get where I am going in a safe manner, but when it comes to giving directions, he is not in charge – although there are times when he thinks he is!

Labradors as guide dogs

Labrador Retrievers are by far the most popular dogs for guide dog work because of the many breed characteristics that make them perfect candidates for the job.

They are generally gentle, eager to please, very intelligent, easy to train and hard workers that are always up for an adventure. They are generally patient, non-aggressive, lovable dogs that are very good at what they do when trained to do it.

Guide dog training

The puppies selected for guide work live with foster owners for the first year of their lives before attending guide school for formal training.

While with their foster homes, the dogs are exposed to as many aspects of the big, bad world as possible, including long road trips, trips to busy public areas, time on trains, planes and underground subways, etc.

It is very important for the dogs to be exposed to all aspects of life so when they experience them with their real handlers they will be calm, responsive and safe.

After their foster year, the dogs go back to school for a minimum of four months of intense training before being paired with a blind handler.

Dogs are initially taught to walk in harness, following an imaginary straight line that they can either only deviate from upon command from their handler, or when it is necessary to do so, to avoid obstacles.

They are then trained to navigate busy public areas by avoiding obstacles, stopping at any major change in elevation such as stairs, finding doorways and exits upon command, and basically any other mobility requirement that is necessary for independent travel.

I hope you now have a little better understanding when it comes to what a service animal does and does not do.

The black Labrador retriever guide dog named Lars!


Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 20th of November 2012

Hi Colby! I love what you do with training those puppies! It is something I am interested in doing at some point. I am sure you get all kinds of questions when you are out with the pups.


Sunday 9th of December 2012

Hey Lindsay,

Sorry for the late response. It's been hectic with the holidays.

Yes, people ask all kinds of questions and always like to tell you about their own dogs. The most common question is probably how do you give them up after 18 months. It's definitely difficult to give them up, but well worth it when you see your pup help someone regain their independence.

Happy Holidays! Colby


Monday 19th of November 2012

Great article! I've been puppy raising for Guide Dogs of America for the past 6 years and people ask me all the time how I train the dogs to read the traffic signals. I'm just a puppy raiser and I don't teach intelligent disobedience, but I usually explain to people a little bit about how a guide dog team safely crosses a street. Thanks for sharing!


Friday 16th of November 2012

Thanks for your response (and here's to never tripping over him :))


Monday 12th of November 2012

Hmmm: there, is a good question. Ironically I have never tripped over him. Totally just jynxed myself now though lol.


Monday 12th of November 2012

Although I have never asked the above questions, the answers did make me think of another one: how do you avoid tripping over your dog at home? I tripped over my GSD when I got out of bed one night when she wasn't were she was supposed to be (dog bed), but streched out right in my path instead (she was only startled, I hurt for days after!). I now keep a small flashlight on my night table for night-time bathroom visits.