by Diana Bocco
When it comes to helping those dealing with blindness and vision problems, dogs fill a very particular role. For starters, they are not meant to replace a cane, according to Gerald Brenninkmeyer, Director of Canine Development at Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
“Canes are used to detect things,” Brenninkmeyer says. “They locate everything in your path – both things that may be helpful and all the things you don’t want.”
The problem is that a cane will not help you find the door of your favorite restaurant or avoid the car turning in front of you because they didn’t want to yield to a pedestrian, says Brenninkmeyer. A guiding eyes dog, on the other hand, can help make daily life easier and safer.
“Once the handler and dog understand each other, typically they are able to travel faster and more fluidly,” Brenninkmeyer explains.
The role of a guide dog is a lot more comprehensive: not only are guide dogs excellent companions, but they can also help their owners avoid obstacles when they’re out.
“For example, the dog will correct a handler’s veer in a street crossing or on the sidewalk and will learn a lot of the handler’s routines,” Brenninkmeyer explains.
An Early Start
When it comes to picking the perfect guide dog, not all breeds are the same. Guiding Eyes for the Blind works primarily with Labradors and some German shepherds.
“We need an overall resilient dog who can take on the challenges of being a guide,” Brenninkmeyer says. “Both these breeds are great for the work.”
According to Brenninkmeyer, training starts as early as five weeks of age at their facility, but continues with their “puppy raisers,” volunteers who agree to take on the dogs and raise them from the age of eight weeks. It’s up to them to teach the dogs basic obedience skills and house manners, and make sure the dogs become well socialized and able to adapt to any environment.
“They lay the foundation so our guiding eyes instructors can focus on the guide dog training when the dog leaves the raiser’s home,” Brenninkmeyer explains.
Once the dogs are ready for their formal training, they start working with an instructor.
“Training starts with a lot of fun targeting behaviors and clicker work,” Brenninkmeyer says. “The whole process takes up to five months.”
The training itself keeps going until the dogs are matched with someone – at which time the instructors start working with the students (future dog owners) as well.
“The students live at our Yorktown Heights, NY campus for three weeks,” Brenninkmeyer explains. “There, they can focus on learning how to work with their new partner; we have to take into account how fast the person walks, how much pull in the harness they like, the environment where the dog will work, and many other variables.”
What Guide Dogs Really Do
Guide dogs are trained to do more than just perform tasks. In fact, according to Brenninkmeyer they are trained to fit in seamlessly into a blind/visually impaired person’s life.
“The dogs need to learn the guide dog aspect: avoid obstacles, indicate changes in elevation, cross streets, avoid traffic, locate familiar targets such as stairs, elevators and escalators.”
In addition, dogs need to learn to navigate different environments – whether that means distracting noisy city life or rural environments. But perhaps one of the most important – and most tricky – things a guide dog must learn is to disobey a command that could put their owners at risk.
This is known as intelligence disobedience.
“For example, forward does not always mean forward, it means forward only when it is safe to do so,” Brenninkmeyer explains. “We need to train our dogs to take other variables, like traffic or drop offs into account, otherwise the teams would not be safe.”
When asked about a particular success story he can share, Brenninkmeyer points out that all their teams (team meaning a dog and owner) are successful.
“We have around 1000 active teams out there doing amazing things,” Brenninkmeyer says. “By the end of the first week they are traveling almost independently in a city that they have never been to before; it takes a lot of courage.”
And the proof of their success is, without a doubt, seeing new owners experience the world around them in a new way.
“Next time you are in a city, stop midblock, close your eyes, listen to the sounds, and now try to imagine navigating that world with a guide dog,” Brenninkmeyer says.