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Guide dogs for the blind

Posted in Animals, Psychology on Tuesday, 26 July 2011

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This edited article about guide dogs for the blind originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 995 published on 4 April 1981.

guide dog, picture, image, illustration

A guide dog becomes friend and guide to the sight-impaired

As he hurried through the hospital grounds, the German doctor was concerned. The year was 1916 and the First World War was at its height. Many soldiers had returned from the battle zones badly wounded.

Among them were a number who had lost their sight, and the doctor had been walking in the grounds with one of them together with the doctor’s Alsatian dog. The trio had been strolling together when the doctor had been summoned to the wards. He warned the soldier that he would not be long, and left him. Now he was wondering whether the soldier had avoided bumping into any obstacles in the grounds.

Once he came in sight of the man, the doctor saw that he need not have worried. The man, holding firmly on to the animal’s lead, was being led quite naturally around obstacles.

The sight of the pair cooperating successfully in this way made the doctor wonder to what extent a dog could be trained to lead a blind person to his destination. Blind people usually relied upon another human to take them safely through the busy streets and on trains and buses. How useful it would be if dogs could be trained to do this, he thought.

Inspired by this idea, the doctor began training dogs for this purpose, and his efforts were very successful. In 1923, an organisation was set up in the German city of Potsdam to take over this work.

This was called Guide Dogs for the Civilian Blind, and the news of its progress spread around the world. An American woman working in Switzerland formed kennels there for the training of guide dogs. Similar kennels were set up in the United States.

Fifty years ago – in 1931 – a garage in Wallasey, Cheshire, was taken over as kennels. This was the birth of what is now Britain’s Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. This year, their golden anniversary is being celebrated with special services and a civic banquet. But their greatest reward is the sight of blind people being led along the streets and across busy roads by patient dogs.

Three thousand dogs are performing this job. Most of them are bred at the Association’s kennels and are trained in their work at one of five centres.

Labrador retrievers are the best guide dogs, but Alsatians, golden retrievers and some other breeds and cross-breeds are also used. They are cared for by the Association until they are old enough to leave their mothers.

Each dog is then put into the care of a family, which make it their pet for a year, take it for walks, train it to resist the lure of the many scents a dog is tempted by, and to get over its fear of the roar and the closeness of traffic.

When its 12 months are over, the dog goes back to the Association, and the family take on another puppy. Meanwhile, the adult dog is undergoing its training. This consists of an eight month course, during which it is accustomed to its harness. It is taught to obey commands.

The dog also has to be able to judge height, so that it does not lead its charge into an overhanging obstruction. In order that it can cross a busy road safely, the dog is taught that a moving vehicle represents a command to stop. If a vehicle is stationary, the dog knows that it can cross the road.

Once this training is over, the dog meets its new owner, and for a month the two are trained together. The owner is taught how to command the dog and how to care for it.

If a person is eligible for the services of a guide dog, but cannot afford to pay for its training, this will not stop him getting a dog. The Association relies entirely upon voluntary contributions to pay for its work.

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