According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 3.4 million Americans, 40 years of age or older, are living with legal blindness. Blindness can occur at any age; however, a majority of people affected are in this age group. This is when age-related eye diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy are more likely to occur.
Today, people affected by blindness have a multitude of innovative tools and technologies at their disposal to assist them in daily life. These include mobile apps to connect blind people to sighted volunteers via video chat to complete tasks which require use of vision, screen reading technology for smartphone usage and a number of wearables that allow people to navigate independently in public.
Before technology made these modern visual aids possible, blind people relied on another assistive tool in the form of guide dogs. The widespread use of guide dogs in the modern day began with the foundation of the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) after World War I. Since then, the work of these canines has provided their handlers with meaningful support.
Listed below are four things to know about guide dogs and their work with people living with blindness.
1. There are specific canine breeds best suited to guide dog service.
In theory, many different breeds can be capable of acting as guide dogs. However, certain breeds are considered to be best suited for the practice based on specific traits of their temperament.
The ideal guide dog breed is intelligent, eager to work, of a larger size and is energized by praise. Within each breed, training organizations look for specific dogs which are friendly, easily managed, have a low impulse for distraction, have high confidence and are adaptable in unfamiliar situations.
Based on these criteria, Labrador Retrievers tend to make the most successful guide dogs. Other breeds commonly successful in the position include German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and the Labrador-Golden Retriever mixed breed. In the event a person in need of a guide dog struggles with dog allergies, Standard Poodles are sometimes trained to be guides.
2. There are many misconceptions about the life of a guide dog.
As with any service dog acting as a source of support for a person with a disability, guide dogs for people with blindness wear vests to signal they are working. People should not attempt to interact with the dog during these times.
Unfamiliarity with the experience of living with a guide dog leads many people to believe the dogs lead joyless lives of service and are deprived of pleasures typical canine pets enjoy. Fortunately, this is entirely false.
Guide dogs are trained to know they are at work when wearing a harness. In the privacy of its owner’s home with its harness removed, a guide dog enjoys a life similar to any other pet. This includes interacting with other family members, being petted and playing.
Because they are known to provide a service to a person with blindness, many people believe these dogs are considered by their owners to be more akin to tools than pets and so are not loved deeply like pets. This is also untrue. In fact, the bond between a guide dog and person with blindness is often more meaningful due to the amount of trust and loyalty which must exist between the pair.
Some people believe guide dogs are stressed by the work they perform and it is cruel to depend on a dog for a service. In reality, the breeds and specific dogs selected to become guide dogs thrive on the work they do and the praise they receive. Dogs with jobs are expending the mental and physical energy inherent to their breeds, preventing boredom and giving them fuller, happier lives.
3. Guide dogs do not “lead” their humans.
People unfamiliar with the role of guide dogs mistakenly assume the dogs act as a sort of canine GPS system. This is not their function. Guide dogs do not lead owners — an owner is always in control of where the dog goes. A guide dog cannot read a traffic signal or lead a handler to a destination, with a few exceptions of key locations such as work, bus stops or frequented shops.
Instead, the owner relies on the guide dog to alert potential danger of obstacles or hazards in the way during travel. Guide dogs signal danger through intelligent disobedience. This enables the person with visual impairment to recognize when to avoid a blocked path or hanging object.
Even crossing the street still requires a person with blindness to listen for traffic to determine when it is safe to cross. A guide dog will then confirm to its handler the intersection is clear of errant vehicles and hazards or not, allowing the handler to cross safely.
4. Guide dogs provide much more than a safety service.
Beyond their ability to act as a useful aid for avoiding danger in public, guide dogs also perform other, equally important functions for their owners. People who are blind often experience feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. The relationship between a trusted guide dog and the owner can help manage mild mental health issues.
Guide dogs provide people with blindness with the opportunity to exercise greater independence in public than they would otherwise be capable of. This can improve confidence and fight depression.
Feelings of confidence can also be strengthened through the care and keeping of a guide dog, who needs to be fed, exercised, and shown affection by the owner. The trust implicit in the guide dog-handler relationship can also alleviate some of the anxieties associated with navigating the world without sight.
Lastly, a guide dog is a source of unconditional love and companionship in the lives of those who may feel isolated by their visual condition. For the people who own them, guide dogs become faithful companions who do not pass judgment. The connection between the two deeply enriches the lives of both handler and canine.