Guide dogs are one of the three main types of assistance dogs (along with hearing and service dogs). They’re the most familiar to the general public, who often refer to them as “seeing eye dogs.” In part, they’re so well known because they’re by far the oldest type of assistance dog.
A visual depiction has been discovered in a Roman mural from the 1st century AD. Fast-forwarding a bit, there’s a line in some verse dating back to the mid 1500s referring to “a Blind-man/Led by a dog.” Systematically trained guide dogs can be traced back to Les Quinze-Vingts, a Parisian hospital for the blind, where they began teaching dogs to help the blind some time around 1780.
But modern-day guide dogs are generally considered to date back to the WWI years, when German doctor Gerhard Stalling began training dogs in groups to improve life for the significant number of soldiers being blinded in the war. He opened the first guide dog training school in 1916 in Oldenburg, Germany. It wasn’t long before more branches opened across Europe, the US, Canada, and Russia.
There’s another simple reason guide dogs are so familiar: they’re easily identifiable. No assistance dog has to be identified in any way, and there’s no official assistance dog uniform. But guide dogs wear a harness with a handle that their human partner holds onto, typically while walking with a white cane. This makes it much easier to spot a guide dog than, say, a diabetic alert dog who has no identification and is usually only monitoring their partner’s condition, rather than performing active, observable tasks.
Here’s some information about guide dogs to further explain what these amazing animals do for the blind and severely visually impaired, and for those who may be considering a partnership.
Information About Guide Dogs’ Tasks
The most fundamental job of a guide dog is obviously to help her human partner safely navigate the world. Guide dogs lead their partners from place to place, keeping them clear of all manner of hazards on and off the ground, helping them cross streets, indicating elevation changes, and so on.
But they’re trained for a wide variety of other tasks to improve their partner’s independence and quality of life. Training is also customized based on an individual’s needs. So, not all guide dogs do all the same things. But some common guide dog tasks include:
- Finding entrances, exits, elevators, stairways, etc.
- Opening and closing doors or indicating doorknobs
- Clearing walking paths of potential tripping hazards
- Locating empty seats, lines, unoccupied areas, etc.
- Following someone like a waiter, usher, etc.
- Fetching needed items
- Picking up dropped items
- Calling or signaling for help in an emergency
- Providing companionship, comfort, and emotional support
Guide Dog Breeds
There’s no one breed exclusively trained as guide dogs, though golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and German shepherds are the most common three. Many characteristics of the individual dog are taken into account, and those chosen for training as guide dogs or other types of assistance dog are special animals that meet a variety of important criteria. Of course, guide dogs need to be tall enough to help lead their human partners with a standard harness and handle. Some other breeds regularly trained as guide dogs include standard poodles, collies, and vizslas.
Take a look at our article about choosing an assistance dog breed for more about this topic.
Think You or a Loved One Would Benefit from a Guide Dog?
A guide dog can make a huge difference in the quality of life of a person who’s blind or severely visually impaired. However, it’s also a significant financial and time commitment, as well as a commitment to providing proper care for the dog.
Start by reading our article about deciding whether an assistance dog is right for you, and also check out this page on whether a guide dog would help you from the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF). The IGDF is an important organization to get acquainted with, setting training and partnering standards and accrediting providers. If you decide to pursue a guide dog partnership, we also suggest getting to know the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU).