Playing Matchmaker: Joining Guide Dogs With Their Handlers

guide dogs with their handlers
Rebecca Eden, Guide Dog Foundation
It takes a lot of work and attention to detail to pair a guide dog with a blind owner.

If you’ve ever watched how seamlessly guide dogs and their blind owners work together to navigate the world, you might assume it’s simple to pair them. But finding a dog who best fits a handler’s needs is complex.

“It’s kind of like in finding the right fit,” says Michelle Brier of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York.

Guide dog schools breed puppies, then send them off to live with volunteer puppy raisers who house train them, teach them basic commands and socialize them. The dogs return to the school at about 16 months old, and over the next four months or so, they work with professional instructors who become their matchmakers.

Screening Applicants

A blind person who wants a guide dog needs to have already completed mobility training (and be capable of walking with a cane, for instance) and have the ability to read traffic (dogs can’t read traffic signals, so the handler needs to determine when it’s safe to cross roads based on the sounds of traffic flow). After an applicant is screened, the school begins to work toward placing a dog with him or her. The wait time varies, but it is often about six months.

The applicant must also have an active enough lifestyle, says Michelle Barlak of The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey. “The training will disappear if the dog is not regularly working.”

An ideal applicant could be a busy executive who travels frequently, an office worker who commutes on the subway every day, or a retiree living in the suburbs who needs help at the grocery store and getting to the coffee shop.


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