Special thanks to Jane Russenberger, Louise Schofield and Lee Nordin at Guiding Eyes for the Blind for all their help with this article. Thanks also to Mary Cantando, for sharing her experiences of raising Sonar, a future guide dog in the Guiding Eyes puppy-raising program.
What Guide Dogs Do
Guide dogs help blind or visually impaired people get around in the world. In most countries, they are allowed anywhere that the public is allowed, so they can help their handlers be any place they might want to go. To do this, a guide dog must know how to:
- Keep on a direct route, ignoring distractions such as smells, other animals and people
- Maintain a steady pace, to the left and just ahead of the handler
- Stop at all curbs until told to proceed
- Turn left and right, move forward and stop on command
- Recognize and avoid obstacles that the handler won't be able to fit through (narrow passages and low overheads)
- Stop at the bottom and top of stairs until told to proceed
- Bring the handler to elevator buttons
- Lie quietly when the handler is sitting down
- Help the handler to board and move around buses, subways and other forms of public transportation
- Obey a number of verbal commands
Additionally, a guide dog must know to disobey any command that would put the handler in danger. This ability, called selective disobedience, is perhaps the most amazing thing about guide dogs -- that they can balance obedience with their own assessment of the situation.
This capacity is extremely important at crosswalks, where the handler and dog must work very closely together to navigate the situation safely. When the team reaches the curb, the dog stops, signaling to the handler that they have reached a crosswalk. Dogs cannot distinguish the color of traffic lights, so the handler must make the decision of when it is safe to proceed across the road. The handler listens to the flow of traffic to figure out when the light has changed and then gives the command "forward." If there is no danger, the dog proceeds across the road in a straight line. If there are cars approaching, the dog waits until the danger is gone and then follows the forward command.
In a handler-guide dog team, the guide dog doesn't lead the handler and the handler doesn't completely control the guide dog; the two work together to get from place to place. The guide dog doesn't know where the destination is, so it must follow the handler's instructions of how far to go and when to turn. The handler can't see the obstacles along the way, so the guide dog must make its own decisions as to how to navigate the team's path. Each half of the team relies on the other to accomplish the tasks at hand.
As a guide dog gets more experience with its handler, it may be able to take on even more responsibility. For example, many veteran guide dogs know all of their master's usual destinations. All the handler has to tell them is "go to the office" or "find the coffee shop," and the guide dog will follow the complete route!