guide dogs with their handlers

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.

a guide dog instructor and student on a

A school often sends an instructor or representative to the person’s home to evaluate its safety and get a sense of the person’s independence and travel ability. In some cases, this is done through videos submitted to the school.

Among the elements considered are the personalities of the dog and the person, the pace at which they each walk, the amount of pull the person needs from the dog — some owners prefer a dog with a strong pull, while others don’t like the dog to pull too hard to direct them — and the environment they’ll be working in.

Joan Markey, a master instructor at The Seeing Eye, says her school’s instructors visit the applicant and spend two days doing "Juno walks" (Juno being a fictional guide dog). The instructor holds the harness as if he or she were the dog and guides the blind person, who holds the other end. The purpose of this technique is to measure the person’s gait.

“The dog guides by pulling, giving the person information about which way to go,” Barlak says. Some people like a strong pull and a lot of information, while others can be really sensitive to it, she explains.

Brier says Guiding Eyes sometimes puts GPS to work to provide movement information that helps match the pace of the person with the pace of the dog, so they can pair teams that walk at about the same speed.

“We have dogs with a lot of energy who just want to go, go, go, go; then we have dogs who just want to meander,” says Maria Nuzzi, an instructor at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, New York. “It’s funny how it just kind of works out.”

Pairing Personalities and Lifestyles

“Probably as important as all that is the time that we spend with the student just talking — about where they’re going to be working the dog, do they have children at home, do they travel a lot, their personality,” Markey says.

The schools also match the type of environment that the dog likes to work in with the person’s lifestyle. “Some dogs prefer working in the city; some dogs prefer working in the country,” Barlak says. “Some are great traveling companions, and some would get burnt out too quickly.”

Nuzzi explains that for someone living in a major city, they’d likely choose a “rock solid” dog who isn’t bothered by crowds, getting bumped in the head by shopping bags or being around loud noises. In a rural location, on the other hand, where there are no sidewalks, they’d want a dog who is well-versed at sticking to the edge of the street.

a guide dog instructor shadowing a blind handler and her guide dog

Some more in-depth questions might include “Are they going to be around a lot of children, going to conferences and conventions with a lot of people, in an area with a lot of squirrels in the park?” Nuzzi says. They also listen to the person’s tone when handling the dog. Some of the dogs are “just a little bit on the sensitive side,” she says.

Even handlers who have had several guide dogs need to be paired carefully because lifestyles and walking paces change over time.

Creating a Team

The instructors take all the information they collect and look at the pool of available dogs to find the best candidates. Often, they’ll have one strong choice and one backup dog for each person, and they make their final choices when the new handlers come to the school for training classes that lasts three to four weeks.

“A lot goes into it, but it’s amazing to see how the student gets here and how [the dog and student] kind of click in and start working together,” Nuzzi says. “A little bit is some magic pixie dust we dust over them.”

Markey echoes that sentiment.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and once in a while… there’s something they’ve said or the way they move, and I go, ‘Oh, my god. This dog would be perfect for this person,’” Markey says. “It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does, it’s joyous.”

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