Have you ever participated in a team building activity such as a trust exercise? If you haven’t yet, it’s a group game that’s meant to build trust, respect and confidence among co-workers. A popular one is being blindfolded, both arms placed across the chest then falling back, trusting your colleagues to catch you.

Guide dogs are like co-workers in a trust exercise. They provide companionship, security, and confidence to their handlers. They help visually impaired people get from one place to another in public places like hospitals, restaurants, and hotels. They can also accompany their handlers on planes, trains, and buses as well. If you often see them around town and have grown curious about them, this post will shed some light on what these awesome furkids do.

They’re bred and raised to be guide dogs

Because they have such a huge responsibility, guide dogs have to be bred from carefully selected male and female Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, and golden retrievers. These breeds are known to be highly intelligent, friendly, obedient and have high stamina. However, not all that are bred proceed to the training programme. The demanding job is often not cut for some of the feisty ones. Don’t worry though! These puppies are still placed in loving homes to become members of a family.

They spend a little over a year with puppy raisers

From about 8 weeks old or when a puppy is ready to leave his mom, a guide dog will be going to a volunteer’s home to learn about basic skills. These volunteers are called puppy raisers, and the puppy will be staying with them for more than a year. He’ll be exposed to different people and a variety of environments such as public places and transport and grow accustomed to these situations.

Socialization is extremely important as he must be used to distractions such as other people’s pets, noise, weather conditions, busy streets and more. After basic obedience training, raisers bring the dogs back to the training school, often proving to be the most difficult, highly emotionally part. It’s a highly emotional experience, but volunteers take pride and joy in the fact that these dogs will be helping someone with impaired vision immensely.

They’re not easily distracted

There’s a huge “but” to this, but we’ll get to that in a few. So, by now we know that guide dogs are trained not to be easily distracted and are highly focused on their handler’s needs. As soon as they leave the puppy raisers and are brought back to the training school, the dogs are evaluated. Although some dogs pass the evaluation, they might not be ready for training yet and are sent back to the raisers for another month or two. Otherwise, the training school will find a suitable “job” for them such as tracking or offer their puppy raisers a chance to be their forever homes.

Training is tough to ensure that these dogs will be able to deal with any kind of situation. One of the most important parts of training is for them to learn not to be easily distracted while at work. Some people tend to get carried away with these guide dogs’ adorable looks and attempt to pet them. While they’re not distracted by a bustling crowd or other pets, guide dogs that are being fed, whistled at or talked to suddenly lose focus which could be very dangerous to the handler. When you see guide dogs on the streets or on a bus, just ignore them and let them do their jobs.

It’s actually the handler’s job to understand traffic lights

Unbeknownst to most people, it’s the human who has to “observe” the traffic. The guide dog’s job is to position his handler to listen to the traffic. The handler will then listen to motors revving and moving and fading off into the distance. Once he’s sure that the light is green, he’ll be giving a command to his dog to move forward. This is where the dog’s training springs into place. If he sees danger, such a car trying to beat the red light, he’ll not move until he’s sure that it’s okay to go. Guide dogs won’t know their destination as well, so they’ll be following instructions on which way to go, how far, where to turn, or stop. Their job is to guide the handler to avoid obstacles.

They’re supposed to “retire” from work

Another heart-wrenching moment is when guide dogs have to give up their career. The average time a guide dog spends with his handler is 7 to 10 years. Due to the work they do, they usually have to retire by the time they’re eight to ten years old. There are still older dogs who are capable of working, but they’ll slow down quite a bit and might not be able to keep up with their handler.

Depending on the handler’s capability, he or she might want to keep his retired fur buddy as a pet. But if it’s not possible, the training school will look for a good home for the guide dog where he will live out his final years. This time is usually the hardest for both guide dog and handler as they’ve been together practically every day and have developed an irrefutable bond.

The Bottom Line

Loyal friend. Trusty guide. Close confidante. Whatever you might want to call these guide dogs, these amazing creatures are clearly more than just service dogs who have to get their handlers safely from one place to another. Did you know that we get to celebrate these trustworthy dogs and the work they do every January 29? The first school for seeing eye dogs was opened on January 29, 1929, and we have marked our calendars to appreciate these special canines since then.

Which of the five facts about guide dogs surprised you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.