PDPM > About Service Dogs > Types of Service Dogs > Guide Dogs
Guide dog, Diva.
One of the most recognizable types of service dogs is the guide dog. For years, guide dogs were the most prevalent of service dogs. Guide dogs are alternatively referred to as dog guides.
In many cases, they are referred to as “Seeing Eye Dogs.” Unless the guide dog team has graduated from the school in Morristown, New Jersey, “The Seeing Eye,” referring to a guide dog as a, “seeing eye dog,” is a misnomer. This distinction may seem to be splitting hairs, but it is worth mentioning, as feeling the need to explain the difference does bother some guide dog handlers.
Despite the widespread knowledge that guide dogs have become one of the traditional means of assisting blind people with mobility, these dogs and their jobs remain drastically misunderstood. Let’s establish what a guide dog’s job entails.
The Partnership between a Guide Dog and a Handler
First, it is important to understand the disability that guide dogs are trained to mitigate, for their handlers. Contrary to popular belief, not every guide dog handler is totally blind. For the purposes of this explanation, the term, “totally blind,” is defined by a complete lack of light perception. This would mean that a person who is completely blind would only see blackness.
Many blind guide dog handlers are not totally blind. Another term, used to describe blindness, is, “vision impairment.” Some individuals only have enough light perception to identify from which direction a light source is coming. Others may have relatively normal residual vision, but have very limited peripheral vision: also known as a visual field or field of vision. This type of vision impairment is not uncommon and is typically referred to as, “tunnel vision.” There are a myriad of factors, caused by a wide variety of conditions that can affect eyesight, so each blind person’s vision impairment is unique.
Guide dogs serve important roles in the lives of people who are blind, as mobility aids. They can offer much more than a traditional mobility cane can provide. This is the result of two years of training, including several months of intensive formal training.
There are several basic areas of mobility, that people who live with blindness, need assistance with, in order to navigate their surroundings. The work that guide dogs do, plays an integral role in the independence in the lives of their blind handlers.
Some of these basic areas of mobility include: navigating various terrain, avoiding obstacles; whether they are moving, stationary or overhead, navigating areas with changes in elevation; like steps up or down, curbs and flights of stairs and finding specific points of interest, like: entrances and exits to buildings, empty seats in a room full of people and other places that the guide dogs become accustomed to, in their daily lives.
Most of what a guide dog can do, can be broken up into many specific steps. When these steps come together, the final product results in a highly trained dog, who can demonstrate a wide variety of skills, that serve as the mobility assistance a blind person requires.
Some aspects of a guide dog’s job include:
• Gently pulling the handler, while in a harness, in forward direction.
• Indicating changes in elevation, like steps, curbs, stairs, etc.
• Avoiding stationary, moving and overhead obstacles.
• Responding to directional cues that may be given verbally or with hand signals.
• Making independent decisions to keep the team safe.
• Navigating to a specific place, that he or she has been trained to identify, like an entrance to a building.
Feedback from the dog’s movement is translated through the harness. This feedback gives the handler information about the underfooting and areas to avoid, which may involve hazards. The handler uses the information that that physical feedback provides to respond accordingly.
Some additional skills a guide dog can be trained include:
• Following the person the handler is with.
• Following other people, like: wait staff at a restaurant or seating ushers.
• Finding a person.
• Finding and retrieving items
One of the most invaluable behaviors that a guide dog can manifest can be life-saving. This behavior is typically referred to as, “intelligent disobedience.” One of the most common manifestations of this behavior is when the guide dog handler instructs the dog to advance forward; when crossing the street, for example. If the dog determines that there is a potential danger present and that it is not safe to obey the cue that his or her handler has given, the guide dog will refuse to do so.
Service dog Bradley also works as a guide dog.
Misconceptions and Reality
There are a whole host of misconceptions about guide dog teams; from others’ images of what a guide dog handler looks like, to what others think a guide dog’s job entails. Here, we will try to separate the misconceptions from reality.
As earlier mentioned, a guide dog handler need not be totally blind. There is a wide variety of visual impairments, which render individuals blind. A person who is visually impaired, but not totally blind, is sometimes referred to as being, “legally blind.” Legal blindness is defined by visual acuity of 20/200, or worse, or a visual field of 20 degrees, or less.
Because there is a wide spectrum of vision impairment, others tend to be confused, upon observing someone, who they thought was totally blind, conducting themselves in a manner that would be more typical of a person who has at least some functional vision. This conflicts with their images of what a blind person looks like or acts like.
Just as there are misconceptions about the characteristics of blindness, there are just as many misconceptions or simple questions about what a guide dog’s job entails. While guide dogs can perform some unbelievable behaviors, to keep their blind handers safe, there are limits to what they can be trained to do.
Because there have been so many questions about what guide dogs can do, it makes more sense to explain how a guide dog performs his or her job, rather than listing specific skills guide dogs do not have.
As with any other type of disability, the individual with the disability (the handler) and the guide dog work as a team. Neither party is entirely responsible for the handler’s safety and independence. While a guide dog has some very specific responsibilities to keep the team safe, like avoiding obstacles, he or she is not responsible for exercising all of the skills that are necessary for safe mobility.
No matter the extent of the visual impairment, a blind person should go through training called, “orientation and mobility (O&M),” instruction. This training teaches a blind person how to navigate his or her surroundings, by using cues from the environment, like sounds and feedback from a mobility cane. A blind person must master some of the most important of orientation and mobility skills, before he or she is ready to navigate any environment, with a guide dog. This is because he or she will need to use these skills, while handling a guide dog.
One of the foremost, if not the most important, of orientation and mobility skills, is that the blind person maintains an awareness of where he or she is, in relation to other aspects of the environment. It is this awareness that allows the team to navigate their surroundings.
Rather than being trained to do things that put the guide dog, ‘behind the wheel,’ the guide dog is trained to respond to cues from the handler throughout each point in their journey. The guide dog is not expected to know the destination of a particular route.
It is the handler who is responsible for knowing where the team is going, at a given point. Throughout a route, the guide dog is given very straight forward cues, like: “forward,” “left,” “right,” and some other specific cues, including additional directional cues. The team’s mobility is dependent on a combination direction from the handler and the guide dog’s ability to keep the team safe from environmental hazards.
In some cases, a guide dog learns a specific route, that the team travels on a regular basis. The guide dog may become so accustomed to the route, that he or she may make take steps to maintain the same route, including dealing with typical obstacles to avoid, handling traffic situations in the same manner, each day and bringing the handler directly to the entrance of the final destination.
In fact it’s not uncommon for guide dogs to try to bring their handlers to destinations that they are used to traveling to, even when that is not where the team needs to go! In such a case, the handler must remind the dog whose decision it is, where the team will go.
As with other types of service dogs, guide dog can offer his or her handler the safety and independence that was not previously possible. Many handlers of guide dogs refer to their movement, together, as fluid and like their guide dogs are extensions of themselves.