How Do Guide Dogs Work?

Most people have heard about and seen guide dogs when out and about. These service animals are carefully trained to lead their owners around other people and obstacles. Individuals with vision loss throughout the world use guide dogs (also called dog guides) to travel safely and independently to and from home, work, school and countless other places. Here are some of the frequently asked questions about guide dogs and how they work.

Q: How and where are guide dogs trained?

A: Guide dogs can either be trained at special schools, or by owners themselves. Regardless of the training method, the dogs must learn how to guide their owner safely around all types of obstacles. Owners also have to learn how to give the dog the different commands for when traveling out and about.

Q: What kind of breeds are used?

A: Guide dog breeds include Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Poodles and Labradoodles. These last two are primarily used for people who are allergic to dogs. All of these breeds are used because they have the necessary intelligence, temperament and health qualities to be a successful dog guide. Dogs are matched with their future owners based on his or her personality, walking speed and other characteristics.

Q: How do dog guides know where to go when traveling?

A: This is a team effort between the dog and its owner. The owner knows where and how he wants to get to a certain place, and he or she is responsible for telling the dog through verbal and hand signals. Directions include forward, left and right. When at a street crossing, the owner is responsible for judging when it is safe to cross based on the sound of the cars, and should then command the dog to begin crossing. Intelligent disobedience is when a dog refuses to cross the street because it is unsafe to do so, even when the owner has commanded it to go forward.

Q: Do people have to be totally blind to have a dog guide?

A: People who are legally blind but still have some usable vision may also qualify for a dog guide. Although these individuals might still have some sight, they can still benefit from the assistance from a dog.

Q: Why do some people use dogs and others use canes?

A: Only about 5 percent of people who are blind or severely visually impaired use dog guides. Like with anything else, this all depends on many factors, including a person’s lifestyle, travel skills and preferences. Some people prefer to travel with a white cane, while others are more comfortable using a dog. You can read this Sandy’s View post about different thoughts and experiences from various cane and dog guide users.

Q: Is it ok to pet or feed a dog guide while it is working?

A: If you see a dog guide wearing a harness, that means it is working and should not be pet, fed or distracted. Doing so can put its owner in great danger, because it is not focusing on guiding. Never come up to a dog guide and pet it without asking its owner! Always check if it is ok, and please do not feel offended if he or she says no. This Sandy’s View post explains more about why dog guides should never be distracted.

Q: Where can I find out more about guide dogs?

A: The International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) provides a wealth of information about dog guides, as well as other resources on dog guide schools and other websites from all over the world.


Guest Commentary: On Why Requiring Licensing of Service Animals is Impractical

Today’s guest post is from Wayne Scace, who comments on a proposed bill in Illinois that would require service dogs to be licensed by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR). Readers might remember Wayne’s previous commentary about fake service animals.

I am writing today, in response to the proposed bill HB3162 sponsored by Illinois Rep. Natalie A. Manley. This is representative Manley’s second attempt to pass a service animal licensing law in Illinois. HB3162 is identical to HB5807 from 2016. I am writing as a service dog owner, owner trainer, and a concerned Illinois citizen who would be negatively impacted should this bill become law.

The majority of the provisions of this bill run counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), by requiring licensure of Service dogs. Provisions within this bill propose a gross invasion of the right to privacy of Illinois citizens, and discriminate against a protected class. Last year after HB5807 did not make it out of the Rules Committee, Ms. Manley received input from myself, other service dog owners, and Heartland Service Dogs, Inc. one of the few service dog training organizations in Illinois. Yet, Ms. Manley has cavalierly chosen to ignore the preponderance of that input and inflicted HB3162 upon the state. The provisions in HB3162 that run counter to those of the ADA would be unenforceable for the following reasons.

The provision requiring that a service dog be licensed, in a vest, cape or wear a harness or that an Identification card be carried is directly against the ADA, as per the service animal FAQ issued in 2015 by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ):

“Q8: Do service animals have to wear a vest or patch or special harness identifying them as service animals?

A: No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or special harness.”

The provision requiring that a service dog behave in the home, is problematic as it is an invasion of privacy. Mandating proof that a service dog be trained to perform three tasks is also counter to the ADA, given that it only sets a minimum of one task. Besides, service animals, such as guide dogs, seizure response dogs, or diabetic alert dogs only perform one task. Again from the DOJ 2015 service animal FAQs:

“Q1: What is a service animal?

A: Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

Q2: What does “do work or perform tasks” mean? A: The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”….

This bill appears to be a clear attempt to legislate away the right of the disabled citizens of Illinois to choose to train their own service dog. Which is allowed under the ADA. From Question five from the service dog FAQs:

“Q5: Does the ADA require service animals to be professionally trained?

A: No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.”

Additionally, some states, including Illinois, permit service dogs in training into public places under the Illinois White Cane Law. (775 ILCS 30/3) (From Ch. 23, par. 3363):

“Every totally or partially blind or hearing impaired person, person who is subject to epilepsy or other seizure disorders, or person who has any other physical disability or a trainer of support dogs, guide dogs, seizure-alert dogs, seizure-response dogs, or hearing dogs shall have the right to be accompanied by a support dog or guide dog especially trained for the purpose, or a dog that is being trained to be a support dog, guide dog, seizure-alert dog, seizure-response dog, or hearing dog, in any of the places listed in this Section without being required to pay an extra charge for the guide, support, seizure-alert, seizure-response, or hearing dog; provided that he shall be liable for any damage done to the premises or facilities by such dog. (Source: P.A. 99-143, eff. 7-27-15.)”

In conclusion, this bill is unnecessary, as the ADA and Illinois laws are already adequate. Some folks may suggest that getting a license for a service dog is analogous to getting a driver’s license or a handicapped placard, but that is erroneous. Getting a driver’s license or handicapped parking placard are privileges. Being accompanied in public by our service dogs, which are legally classed as durable medical equipment, is a civil right.

Commentary: On Training Wrangler and Other Future Guide Dogs

image2Training a future guide dog requires a lot of time, effort and patience. Those who watch the Today Show on a regular basis got the rare opportunity of seeing the training and socialization of Wrangler, a prospective guide dog. The Today Show partnered with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit organization in New York that trains guide dogs for people with vision loss. For over a year, viewers saw how puppies are trained and exposed to different social situations. Wrangler’s time on the Today Show concluded last week, and now the formal guide dog training begins!

We at the Chicago Lighthouse know firsthand the importance of well-trained guide dogs and service animals. These special dogs enable their handlers to live full and independent lives every day. People who are blind or visually impaired can travel independently with the help of guide dogs, and this obviously gives them more freedom to go wherever they please. Most importantly, these animals help their handlers travel safely, thereby giving them more confidence in going out of their comfort zone and trying out new things.

As much as we would not want to think about it, guide dogs can only work for a limited number of years, typically from 8 to 10. Handlers choose to retire these dogs for a variety of reasons. Such is the case with Promise, the faithful guide dog of Maureen Reid. Maureen is a job placement counselor at the Chicago Lighthouse, and will soon train with a new dog. Like Wrangler, Maureen’s soon to be guide dog received special training and socialization as a puppy from a volunteer puppy raising family. Thanks to this training, the pup will know how to behave and react during different situations it will likely encounter as a working dog.

I am thrilled that the Today Show and Guiding Eyes for the Blind showcased the training of Wrangler. This partnership will spread more awareness to the general public, both about what it takes to train a guide dog and about how these animals assist those with vision loss. Although guide dogs are allowed to go anywhere with their handlers, many people still refuse their entrance to businesses. I sincerely hope that by learning about Wrangler and guide dogs on the Today Show, people will become more aware about the importance of these special animals.

Kudos to Guiding Eyes for the Blind and the Today Show for such an entertaining and informative project! The media has a great potential of spreading awareness about disabilities, and Wrangler’s year long appearance on the Today Show did just that. I hope that more media outlets and nonprofit organizations will join forces in the future. Finally, best of luck to Wrangler on his formal guide dog training! I’m sure he will be a great guide dog thanks to all the support he received from his puppy raiser, the Today Show and of course the thousands of viewers who kept track of his training and progress!

Fake Service Animals

The Department of Justice recently released a document explaining what constitutes a service animal. According to the ADA revised guidelines of 2011, a service animal is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” These revisions to the ADA were made in part to stop people without disabilities from pretending their pets are service animals.

While I myself do not use a service animal, several of my blind friends can travel independently thanks to their dog guides. Hearing about people posing their pet snakes, monkeys, birds and even pigs as service animals infuriates me. Individuals with disabilities utilize service animals to be more independent, not simply because they want to have their pets with them all the time.

I applaud the government’s effort to clarify the definition and duties of service animals, but more needs to be done to decrease the number of people who pose pets as such. Several dog guide schools give students identification cards, but public entities are not allowed to require patrons to show such documentation in order to provide service. Furthermore, people can easily purchase things like vests, harnesses, etc. online.

Much more needs to be done to stop people from using their pets as service animals, but the reality is that it is not as easy as it might appear. The government should do more to protect the rights of persons with disabilities and penalize non-disabled individuals who think lying about their pets is cool. People need to understand the importance of service animals to those of us with disabilities. These creatures are much more than your average pet because they give independence to people, whether that might be leading someone who is blind across the street or picking up something from the ground for someone in a wheelchair.

You can read more about this new document here. Have you heard or seen stories of people using fake service animals? If you use a service animal, what are your experiences? Please share your thoughts and comments, and thanks as always for reading!