I have always been in awe of guide dogs and the incredible way in which they keep their human partners safe on a daily basis, literally acting as their eyes. When I read Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero I could barely put it down as Michael Hingson described the horrors of September 11, 2001 and the journey that he and his dog took out of the north tower of the World Trade Center to safety. Last summer my younger black Labrador and I attended Basic Obedience class with an adorable golden retriever who was being raised as a potential guide dog puppy. I marveled at the enormous heart of her temporary family who would selflessly turn her over to their guide dog organization at the end of her puppy training time with them. I could not imagine handing my own puppy over to anyone else after a year together.
International Guide Dog Day occurs every April to honor the dogs who work very hard to help their vision impaired owners navigate through the world independently without relying on other humans. Guide dogs are different than service dogs. The term Guide Dog is specific to dogs who assist blind or visually impaired people; the term Service Dog is used more broadly to include dogs who provide additional types of service. There are countless hours of training and socialization by volunteers like the selfless woman in my obedience school class who work extremely hard to pair guide dogs with the people who need them.
According to Guide Dogs of America, “the Labrador Retriever is the dog most often used for guide dog programs throughout the world.” Their particular organization typically uses 70% Labrador Retrievers, 15% Golden Retrievers and 15% German Shepherds.
In general, future guide dogs are evaluated as puppies and typically places into volunteer homes with “puppy raisers” for a year. The puppies are socialized, loved and taught basic obedience by their host families. Puppies in training are often spotted in obedience schools, shopping malls, amusement parks and other populated public areas as they learn to navigate through these areas unbothered by the noise and commotion.
Puppies then return to a guide dog training center at around one year old. They then go through another evaluation and if selected advance to guide dog training. Graduates of guide dog training are then matched with clients of the organization and then advance to a final and intensive round of training together, dog and human learning and working as a team.
There are many guide dog organizations and schools around the United States and Canada for interested people to explore for volunteer and donation opportunities. This link has a list of guide dog resources in the United States: https://nfb.org/resource-list-guide-dog-schools and worldwide at this link: http://www.nagdu.org/programs.html. The Lions Club also maintains this list: http://www.lionsclubs.org/EN/common/pdfs/iad9m2.pdf.