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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » What is a Guide Dog?

What is a Guide Dog?

Last updated on 3rd May 2023

A guide dog can transform the life of a person with serious visual impairment. Specially trained guide dogs are partnered with eligible people through certain charities.

From humble beginnings in 1931, the charity Guide Dogs for the Blind Association has partnered over 36,000 visually impaired people with a guide dog and is now the world’s leading breeder and trainer of working dogs.

A partnership with a guide dog can help a person with serious sight problems to live a more independent life. This includes their guide dog helping them with working, socialising, using public transport, shopping and walking around.

Guide dog helping visually impaired people

What is a guide dog?

A guide dog is a specially trained assistance dog that helps blind or visually impaired people to be more independent.

The world is designed for people who can see what is going on around them. Being able to see means that people know where they are going, what to avoid and how to move around safely. For those who have impaired sight, a guide dog can help them to navigate their way around without having to ask for help.

You will often recognise a guide dog by the special harnesses they wear when they are out in public. These harnesses are often emblazoned with a warning stating something like ‘Please don’t distract me I am working’. This is to discourage people from trying to pet the dog or otherwise distract them and to remind people that the guide dog is playing an important role in the life of their disabled owner. Guide dogs are not like standard pet dogs – they have a job to do.

Traditionally, dogs are popular pets for people, especially in the UK.

Dog owners may consider their dog to be in their life for:

  • Companionship.
  • A reason to exercise daily.
  • Learning about responsibility or caring for someone other than themselves.
  • Security/safety.

For a blind person, however, getting a dog is a significant step towards them getting their independence. It is something that has the potential to change their life a lot.

A blind person walking out in public with their guide dog is very different from a usual dog owner simply taking their dog for a walk. This is because of the special relationship the guide dog has with their owner; a guide dog is there to assist and protect their owner as they would be vulnerable if they were out walking by themselves.

How is a guide dog trained?

The UK’s leading charity for those with visual impairment, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association (which goes by the working name Guide Dogs) has a specialist national breeding centre near Leamington Spa where all of their puppies begin their transition to being assistance dogs. Here the puppies learn to socialise and are exposed to specific sights and sounds that will help them with their training later on.

After completing the first part of their training at the National Centre, the guide dog puppies meet their puppy raisers who will help them on their journey. They attend one of four regional centres to continue their training.

Once a person is assessed as eligible for a guide dog, they have to commit to a programme of further training so that they can get to know their guide dog and learn how to get the most out of the relationship.

If you are invited to attend guide dog training, you will receive instruction for both you and your dog, by an experienced handler. The specific training that a person goes through is unique to them, their circumstances and experience.

However, all training includes:

  • Dog welfare – Feeding, grooming, hygiene and understanding health issues.
  • Obedience – Training the dog not to jump up at people or furniture, bark unnecessarily or cause disruption to those around them.
  • Recall – Making sure that the dog comes back immediately when called if it is running freely.
  • Commands – How to command the dog to follow direction (left, right, ahead etc) and to stop at kerbs.
  • Following – Learning techniques to identify and avoid obstacles and hazards.
  • Safety – How to cross roads, use pedestrian crossings and learn techniques to assess traffic and move across roads safely.
  • Public transport – How to use public transport safely and appropriately.
  • Health and safety – Understanding best practice and what to avoid; this is vital for both the dog and owner.

You should also be taught how to support the dog in their training as this is a continuous learning process for both of you and requires mutual commitment.

You may also go through lessons specific to your circumstances, such as taking the guide dog to work or college.

Guide dog being trained with commands

What do guide dogs actually do?

A guide dog can understand basic commands and is highly trained to keep their owner safe. However, a guide dog is still a dog – it cannot read a map or sign or understand a command such as ‘Take me to a local restaurant’.

A guide dog can:

  • Assist with crossing roads safely.
  • Help you avoid bumping into static objects.
  • Help with navigating through crowds and around people.
  • Give a visually impaired person confidence to go out alone.
  • Offer companionship to their owner.
  • Help to combat loneliness.
  • Encourage their owner to be more independent.
  • Give their owner a sense of purpose as they have to look after their guide dog.

A guide dog will build a partnership with the visually impaired person that they have been matched with. They should form a bond and enrich one another’s lives.

Why are guide dogs needed?

The modern world is full of hazards from speeding cars to potholes in the road, uneven pavements, obstructions and pedestrians who are busy checking their phones or lost in conversation and have little awareness of their surroundings. For someone whose sight is seriously impaired, all of these risk factors can make going out alone unsafe.

Some blind people may also feel lonely and isolated. This is because it can be difficult and daunting to get out of the house and having to rely on others for help with getting out can make those with visual impairment feel as if they are a burden.

People who struggle with their sight might also find social situations difficult. They may feel awkward, clumsy or vulnerable and may worry about how they will get home safely afterwards. Having their guide dog there with them can help blind people to feel more confident, independent and more able to go out and mix with other people.

Guide dogs are available to those of any age who qualify and can also help visually impaired people in the workplace or at school.

What types of dogs are guide dogs?

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association uses a range of breeds for their guide dog programme, which reflects the fact that the needs of their clients are varied. The best breeds for guide dogs are ones that are highly intelligent, easily trained and loyal.

The most common breeds used in their programme are:

  • Labradors.
  • Golden Retrievers.
  • German Shepherds.

A dog will be matched to a person based on where they live (some, for example, may be more suited to city life, some to a rural location), the speed they walk at, their size and their general needs and lifestyle.

What disabilities are guide dogs used for?

To qualify for a guide dog, your sight must be impaired to the point that your ability to travel around safely and confidently is significantly affected. Having a highly trained guide dog can help you to be more mobile and get out and about with confidence.

Assistance dogs are also available for people with other kinds of disabilities such as a hearing dog for a deaf person or an assistance dog for people diagnosed with autism.

Labrador helping someone travel safely

How are guide dogs chosen?

A guide dog is matched to their owner based on the owner’s needs, location and lifestyle. To be eligible for a guide dog, a person may need to prove that they meet certain criteria and that they are able to provide a nurturing and caring environment for the dog to live in.

As part of the Guide Dog’s eligibility assessment, to have a guide dog you may have to:

  • Show proof of identity.
  • Have communication/language skills.
  • Declare any safeguarding issues (including those that may affect working with the dog, trainers or other staff).
  • Show your residency status.
  • Declare that you (and anyone in your household) are not subject to an animal disqualification/ban.
  • Agree with the charity’s policies including data protection and signing of the Guide Dog Partnership Agreement.

Having any type of dog means taking on a significant responsibility. To be eligible for a guide dog you will also have to undergo some health checks. This might require supporting evidence from your GP or other medical specialists.

As part of the medical evaluation to check your suitability for a guide dog, you can expect to be assessed on the following:

  • Vision – This is to ensure that those most in need are matched to a guide dog. To be eligible your visual impairment needs to be bad enough to significantly impact your day-to-day life, including whether you can move around safely and confidently.
  • Orientation and mobility – You will need to show that you can walk around (with one permitted aid such as one crutch or an electric wheelchair if required) and that you have the ability to give clear instruction to a dog and follow routes.
  • Walking ability – To be eligible for a guide dog you should be able to walk/travel for approximately one mile, or 40 minutes, each day.
  • General health and fitness – You have to be healthy and well enough to care for your guide dog’s basic needs, keeping in mind that your dog will arrive young and active.

You will also need to satisfy the charity that you can continue the necessary training of the dog and handle them appropriately.

This includes:

  • Working – Guide dogs should be worked for at least 40 minutes (one mile) 5 to 7 days a week. To maintain their skills, they should be consistently trained on at least three different routes.
  • Skill application – You have to agree to behave in line with the Guide Dog’s Ethical Training Policy and consistently handle the guide dog (based on your own health, mobility and vision capabilities) in a way that enhances your partnership and maintains their skills.
  • Personal development – This includes meeting any milestones that have been set by the charity in order for you to be deemed suitable to manage a guide dog.

It is also important to keep in mind that having a guide dog as part of your life means building a partnership and a relationship. It is not simply a case of the dog working for the visually impaired person. Although a guide dog will devote their training and skills to a person to improve their lives, these dogs require care and attention in return.

To have a guide dog, you must commit to providing the dog with a good quality of life.

This includes the Five Welfare Provisions:

  • Nutrition – Dogs need consistent access to fresh drinking water and a suitable diet.
  • Good environment – The dog requires access to a safe, secure space both inside and outside of the house, a bed and comfortable area to rest at a suitable temperature. Living areas should also be smoke free.
  • Good health – The guide dog requires a check-up by a qualified vet at least every six months and medical attention for any illness or issues in between.
  • Behaviour and stimulation – Dogs need the right amount of space, exercise and stimulation (for their age) to keep them relaxed and happy.
  • Good treatment – Dogs should not be left alone for longer than 4 hours in a 24-hour period and should have safe and appropriate toys to play with.

There may be some other lifestyle factors that affect someone’s eligibility to be partnered with a guide dog such as whether they have other pets or children, but all of this will be discussed during the assessment process.

If you are deemed suitable to own a guide dog you will be added to a waiting list and must be available to train immediately. You should also let the charity know if your circumstances change.

If you are provided with a guide dog through a charity, there is no charge for this or any of the necessary training involved. This is because charities survive on donations from the public.

A guide dog can enhance the life of a person with sight loss and serious visual impairment. If you are lucky enough to qualify for a guide dog you should realise that this is only the beginning of the journey to regaining some of your independence. You must commit to a lot of hard work and training and forge a strong relationship with your guide dog that should, ultimately, be beneficial to you both.

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.

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