Simple everyday tasks can become incredibly challenging without vision. Some blind and visually impaired people decide to get a guide dog to regain some everyday functionality and to create a companionship.
Owning a guide dog has been linked to a higher quality of life (QOL) while also allowing the handler to navigate the world without feeling restricted.
What Is a Guide Dog?
A guide dog is a canine that has been specially trained to aid blind or visually impaired people. These assistance dogs are able to navigate their handlers through various obstacles that they cannot see or sense. Guide dogs prove to be incredibly useful when helping people get around public places, which is necessary for the safety of the visually impaired individual and others around them.
There are other dogs available that help with specific services, like performing important functions for the hearing impaired or for helping people cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, guide dogs are exclusive to helping just the blind and visually impaired.
Types of Guide Dogs
A guide dog must be appropriately sized, loyal, and instinctive enough to properly guide their handler.
The first breed adopted as guide dogs were German Shepherds. Since then, the most common dog breed chosen as a service animal is the Labrador Retriever, which combines the best traits of Golden Retrievers and Labradors. The latter two breeds are also commonly adopted and trained as guide dogs along with Standard Poodles and other mixes.
In certain cases where the recipient of the assistant animal has dog allergies, a Standard Poodle or a Labradoodle mix are viable options because both dogs are hypoallergenic. Guide dogs that do not cause allergic reactions are also recommended in households with other family members who have pet allergies.
Benefits of Having a Guide Dog
Adopting a guide dog is beneficial in many ways for the visually impaired. The most obvious benefit is the dog’s ability to guide a person around. This allows a visually impaired person to freely traverse the world and still be able to experience everyday life. Mobility assistance is essential when potential hazards are present, such as curbs, uneven walkways, crosswalks, or anything else that could lead to an accident.
Increased mobility, independence, confidence, and new social interactions all have positive effects on the handler and is why owning a guide dog can also be beneficial for a person’s mental health and overall well-being.
Anxiety, Stress & Depression Relief
There are many factors that contribute to anxiety, stress, and depression. There are also many things that can help relieve these conditions. Adopting a guide dog and building a relationship with the animal forms a companionship that alleviates anxiety and stress, which can help with depression.
A guide dog also helps a person exercise more and socialize with other people by going on walks.
Who Is a Candidate for Having a Guide Dog?
Visually impaired or blind people who want to improve mobility and regain everyday functionality are good candidates for adopting a guide dog if they have the time and financial ability to properly care for the animal. Many foundations and institutes that provide guide dogs typically require that the recipient of the dog is legally blind.
Having a guide dog increases physical activity while improving upon distance traveled, walking speed, and familiarity with walking routes. A person who has trouble getting around, especially in public places, can greatly benefit from a companionship with a guide dog.
It is widely accepted that guide dogs can be utilized for increased mobility and everyday functionality for visually impaired and permanently blind people. However, there are also many common misconceptions when it comes to guide dogs:
- Myth: A person should never touch or pet a guide dog.
Although bothering a guide dog while it is trying to lead a person can distract the animal, petting guide dogs is not off limits. However, it is important to always ask the owner of the guide dog before approaching it.
- Myth: Owning a guide dog always works out.
Guide dog ownership is highly encouraged for blind or visually impaired people and the positive effects of the companionship are undeniable. However, not all guide dog partnerships are initially successful. Sometimes, a person has to try out several different dogs before finding the right one.
- Myth: Guide dogs are not able to socialize with other dogs.
Dogs, in general, are naturally social creatures that enjoy the company of other dogs. Guide dogs are not exceptions to this.
- Myth: A guide dog is also a guard dog.
Guide dogs do develop affection toward their handlers, but they are not trained to protect people. Guide dogs are specially trained to provide more mobility and are generally passive creatures.
- Myth: Every guide dog automatically knows where to go.
Where a person goes is always determined by the person. Guide dogs are not able to follow directions on a map. However, familiarity of commonly traveled routes can eventually develop, allowing the dog to remember where to go.
- Myth: Any canine breed can become a guard dog.
- There are over 300 different dog breeds worldwide, but only Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Poodles, German Shepherds, and various mixes of the aforementioned breeds are used as guide dogs due to their size and intelligence.
- Myth: Guide dogs tell their handlers when to cross the street.
Like all canines, guide dogs do have heightened senses, but they are not able to tell when to cross the street. The dog’s handler will listen for traffic or other auditory clues and decide when it is safest to cross the street.
How to Get a Guide Dog
There are many different adoption centers and foundations that supply guide dogs to the visually impaired and the blind. The process may vary depending on where the guide dog is being adopted from. Yet all guide dog providers require similar basic steps for obtaining a guide dog since so much time and resources are required for training and housing.
These are the general steps to getting a guide dog:
Submit an Application
The initial step to guide dog ownership is filling out and submitting an application. This can include a traditional paper application as well as online submissions and video applications. The potential handler is required to provide basic contact information and information regarding their visual impairment.
Undergo a Consultation With the Guide Dog Provider
A consultation is done if the initial application is reviewed and approved. Conducted in person, online, or by phone, consultations typically give the potential handler an in-depth look at the process of adopting a guide dog. The potential handler’s background, lifestyle, and health are also reviewed in more detail to ensure that the guide dog ends up in an appropriate home.
Release Medical Records & Other Additional Information
A report conducted by an ophthalmologist is typically required when getting a guide dog. Further medical reports and records are also usually required for a full overview of the potential handler’s overall health. Mental health reports can also be required if the potential handler currently seeks treatment for mental health.
Conduct a Home Visit
Most guide dog providers conduct a home visit to ensure that the potential new environment is safe and appropriate for the dog. The person visiting the home will also assess how the potential guide dog owner travels around the house and the surrounding public environment.
Begin Guide Dog Training
When all aforementioned steps are completed, the guide dog applicant needs to begin a training program. Training ensures that the guide dog is properly utilized by the handler, so they get the most benefits from guide dog ownership. Training usually takes around two weeks and is typically conducted at the facility providing the guide dog.
How to Find Out if a Guide Dog Is the Right Fit for You
Guide dogs can be a great fit for the right person, but impaired vision isn’t the only criteria for guide dog ownership. When determining if a guide dog is the right fit, a person should be mindful of the following factors:
- Food, supplies, and visits to the veterinarian can be expensive, so a sufficient income is necessary.
- A person who is allergic to dogs cannot handle most breeds of guide dogs other than hypoallergenic poodles.
- Dogs require a lot of time and attention, so responsibility is important as well as comfort level in exploring public places and talking to new people.
Costs of Owning a Guide Dog
Owning a guide dog after it has been properly trained costs about the same as owning any other type of similar sized dog. However, training a guide dog can be expensive.
There are approximately 14 guide dog schools in the U.S. that are accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation. Training one guide dog takes about two years and can cost between $45,000 and $60,000.
Alternatives to Having a Guide Dog
Owning a guide dog isn’t for everybody, so there are some alternatives to guide visually impaired or blind people:
- Use a white cane. White canes, also called probing canes, are lightweight and can easily detect objects in a person’s walking path.
- Utilize technological advancements. While research and development is still underway, handheld robotic alternatives can detect surroundings similar to the way a guide dog does.
- Rely on the help of an aide or assistant. Having a sighted human guide the visually impaired person is a great way to safely go out in public.
Although these alternatives do help with mobility, they do not help treat anxiety, stress, and depression in the same way as having a guide dog can.
Resources for Finding, Training & Living With a Guide Dog
There are many organizations and schools to help find, train, and live with a guide dog:
- National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU)
- Guide Dog Users, Inc. (GDUI)
- Guide Dogs of America
- Southeastern Guide Dogs
- Leader Dogs for the Blind
- Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind
- Custom Canines Service Dog Academy
- OccuPaws Guide Dog Association
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Canine Companions Perform Important Functions for Hearing Impaired People. (April 2015). American Kennel Club.
Guide Dogs Offer Much More Than Mobility. (April 2017). Swinburne University of Technology.
How Dogs Can Help With Depression. (February 2018). National Alliance on Mental Illness.
How Many Breeds of Dogs Are There in the World? (May 2013). Psychology Today.
The Impact of Pet Health Insurance on Dog Owners’ Spending for Veterinary Services. (July 2020). Animals.
An Investigation of the Complexities of Successful and Unsuccessful Guide Dog Matching and Partnerships. (December 2016). Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
Perceptions on Health Benefits of Guide Dog Ownership in an Austrian Population of Blind People With and Without a Guide Dog. (July 2019). Animals (Basel).
Precious Eyes. (2013). The New York Times.
Robotic Guide Dog Offers Alternative to Real-Life Canine for Visually Impaired People. (July 2020). Engineering and Technology.
Welfare of Dogs: The Need for a Suitable Environment. (2022). NI Direct Government Services.
Why Are Labradors Guide Dogs for the Blind? (August 2022). K9 Rocks.
“We Now Fly”: Perspectives of Adults Who Are blind With Guide Dogs Trained for Running. (April 2019). British Journal of Visual Impairment.
The End of the Partnership With a Guide Dog: Emotional Responses, Effects on Quality of Life and Relationships With Subsequent Dogs. (April 2021). Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
Handlers’ Expectations and Perceived Compatibility Regarding the Partnership With Their First Guide Dogs. (September 2021). Animals.
Last Updated January 21, 2023
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