5 Facts about Guide Dogs

Recently I wrote a short post for social media that included five facts about guide dogs. I wanted to share these facts as responses to common misconceptions that people have. People often ask me, “Does your dog EVER get to play?” or “What is he like when the harness comes off?” I did not expect the post to be a big deal. I did not expect it to be liked over 550 times and shared over 600 times!

So I decided to expand the post with some stories and pictures. My current guide dog York is my first, and we have been working together for five years. York comes from Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Florida, where he was the final pup in a litter of eight. Six of his siblings have gone on to guide work and other professions, so he is from a very career-oriented family.

Here we are being photogenic during our month-long training at Southeastern.

Emily & York at Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Emily and guide York at Southeastern Guide Dogs, 2014.

York is my best friend, an adventurous, capable partner. He loves weaving through crowds and obstacles, and he hates working in the rain. I hope the information below help you to learn about us — and about all the other dedicated guide dog teams working in the world.

Guide dogs don’t watch traffic signals. They wait on their blind handler to give a forward command.

A guide dog is not a GPS; the blind handler needs to know where she is and reroute herself if she gets disoriented. To qualify for a guide dog, a blind handler must undergo interviews, health checkups, and mobility evaluations. A trainer once told me that 80% of applicants at her school were denied because their mobility skills were not where they needed to be.

When preparing to cross a street, the handler listens to traffic patterns and makes an educated judgment about the best time to move forward. If the guide dog perceives a threat, such as an obstacle or oncoming car, the dog exercises Intelligent Disobedience: the ability to ignore a handler’s command in order to keep the team safe. When I was in training with York, I told him to cross a street — only to feel him give a firm, no-nonsense stop. He put on the brakes, and I felt the wind of a passing car on my face. It was a car I had not heard, a car the trainers had chosen precisely for its silence. Without a dog, I would’ve been in the street relying on the goodwill of a driver. With York, I was safely on the curb, trying to catch my breath. And he was completely unphased.

Petting distracts guide dogs from their work. When a guide dog is in harness, his whole focus should be on his handler.

Many people know the “no petting” rule, but they don’t get why it exists. Dog lovers see this rule as a cruel restriction. Dogs love to be petted and dog lovers love to pet. But if you’re petting the dog or calling his name, you’re taking his attention away from his handler and making his job harder. 

Imagine that you or someone you love is undergoing surgery. Would you want the nurses and assistants to flirt with the surgeon? Tickle her as she reaches for instruments? Tell her long, involved stories while she attempts to perform a complicated procedure? Would you want people to accost her right before she steps into the O.R. so that she loses her focus?

Like the surgeon, a guide dog saves lives. Distracting my dog means that he might miss our turn or rush forward. Guide dogs are pros, so it is not easy to distract them. But it is not kind or considerate to reach for them and use puppy talk. When you do these things, you’re effectively saying that your need to pet a dog is more important than my safety.

York remains focused as we walk a route on Puppy Raiser Day.

Even though I work with a guide dog and understand the rules, I still feel the instinctive urge to reach out for fluffy passersby, whether they are working or not. So you are not alone in your desire to pet my dog. I feel the same desire every time I meet a working dog. We all must be strong together!

Guide dogs get lots of play time out of harness.

When you see a guide dog in public, he’s working. But handlers give their dogs plenty of toys, love, massages, and running time. York loves to run in the backyard, gallop around the house, chew on bones, and cuddle. In training, we were taught how to massage our pups to help them relax and make sure they feel good. And even bathtime and grooming are peaceful bonding times for us.

A guide dog behaves differently when he’s working in harness.

You will often see a totally different dog in and out of harness. The harness also comes off for food, water, and potty breaks. When York’s harness comes off, he usually rolls on the floor or leaps in the air. When I slide it on, his whole body stands to attention. If he sees me pick up his harness, he usually runs to his favorite rug and sits patiently, tail wagging.

From puppyhood, guide dogs have been trained to understand that harness time is work time. Guide dog puppies start their training in a “puppy cape” which is like a pre-harness (think “training wheels”). In the cape, they can be petted by strangers and do everything a puppy wants to do. When they are a little older, they graduate to a “puppy coat”: in the coat, they can’t eat, be petted, or do their business. The coat prepares the pup for harness time, when he will need to put his handler’s safety before a delicious apple core lying in the grass.

But just as York focuses on my safety while in harness, I focus on his needs whether the harness is on or not. I watch his body language to see when he needs a break, and I keep his meals on a strict schedule. I never want him to feel distressed when he’s working, so sometimes we step over to the grass for a quick break.

Guide dogs enjoy their work.

You cannot force a dog to guide a handler, especially not a Labrador. The dog has to decide that this handler is worth guiding. When you show a dog his harness, he often gets excited. Similarly, when a dog is ready to retire, he lets his handler know – either by showing signs of stress while working or by being reluctant to work.

If a dog does not love guide work, he does not become a guide dog. Each training program has their own assessments for the dog’s skills, temperament, and health. Guide dog training is designed to make sure that the pups with the right attitude and aptitude work toward a handler. Some dogs don’t pass the initial tests, and some dogs decide midway through “school” that they are no longer interested. Some dogs even graduate from training with a handler and then decide that this isn’t the job for them.

A skilled trainer or puppy raiser can look at a young dog and spot the signs of a guide in the making. They’re looking for confidence, curiosity, empathy, and intelligence. A guide dog is a leader who isn’t afraid of sudden sounds or unforeseen obstacles. I know without a doubt that my dog is far more adventurous than I am!

Emily and York at UNF, 2019. Photo by Chelsea Whiteman.

I am so honored to work beside York. He returns my love and teaches me to be bold. He is the product of a network of trainers, puppy raisers, sponsors, and furry friends. And he is a wonderful, wonderful companion!

The bond between a guide dog and handler is an intense stretching of the heart. Please respect our bond and our need to travel safely.

8 thoughts on “5 Facts about Guide Dogs

  1. What an informative and enlightening article, Emily! I think anyone who reads this will know and understand the behavior required of anyone who sees a guide dog at work.

  2. Your description of having York hold you back and then feeling the wind of a passing car, makes me think of the subtle changes that are happening with traffic. With the advent of electric cars, it must be harder to hear them approaching. And electric motor has a rather quiet hum compared to a conventional gas or diesel engine.

      1. My electric car is equipped with an beeper for when I am backing up. That was probably considered a prudent addition for situations like parking lots where situations and get chaotic.

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