Guide Dog Awareness Month
August 31, 2012 at 9:00:57 am | Posted by Annie M in Dog Behavior, Volunteer With AnimalsTweet
This guest blog was written by Leah Elzahed.
September is National Guide Dog Month! This month we celebrate the contribution Service Dogs make to our world. This special holiday all began with well known animal lover, Dick Van Patten. Dick’s career in show business began as a child actor on Broadway in 1937, and in 1989 he founded Natural Balance Pet Foods. During a visit to the Palm Springs Guide Dogs of the Desert campus in 2008, Dick was fascinated, impressed and astonished by the intelligence of guide dogs and the assistance they provide.
National Guide Dog month was started as a way to raise funds to help train and place these amazing dogs. Guide dogs go through extensive training that can cost around $42,000 and can take up to 2 years. Through his pet food company, all costs for the promotion of National Guide Dog Month are underwritten to ensure that all money raised will directly benefit non-profit accredited guide dog schools in the United States.
The first guide dog school was called The Seeing Eye (that’s why people commonly refer to Guide Dogs as “Seeing Eye dogs”) and was built in 1929, mainly in order to serve the injured veterans of World War I. Around that time it was difficult for the visually impaired to get around with their guide dogs, but today, federal law guarantees the rights of people to travel freely with their guide dogs anywhere in the United States. Assistance dogs are broken down into 3 categories. Guide Dogs help the blind and visually impaired. Hearing or signal dogs help the deaf or hearing impaired and Service dogs are trained to do a variety of different jobs. They help people with epilepsy, diabetes and autism. They are used to assist people with brain trauma and cognitive difficulties and the list goes on and on.
The Assistance Dogs International Organization, also known as ADI, has put together a specific set of guidelines that trainers, guide dogs and handlers must follow. There are currently 19 guide dog training schools in the US which must get ADI Accreditation. There are roughly 10,000 people who use guide dogs in the U.S. and roughly 1,500 dogs will graduate from these accredited schools annually. Guide dogs can work up to 11 years before retiring and the estimated cost of caring for a guide dog is between $900 and $1,200 per year, which the dog’s owner is responsible for. This may explain why more people do not have service dogs. Luckily, there are programs out there that aim to help cover some of the costs of caring for an assistance dog, since 70% of people who have service dogs are also on disability. Other non profits are also around to help cover the cost of actually getting the dog, which is not always free and can cost upwards of $50,000.
Recently I met a very fascinating lady named Alice who trains guide dogs. She let me in on a lot of interesting facts about these special dogs and told me why she was so eager to get involved. These dogs provide so much to the owners, big things like safe mobility, confidence and loving companionship. Alice can usually tell at an early age whether or not she will be able to train a puppy into becoming a successful guide dog. There are a ton of skills required that these special canines need to have and not all of the puppies make it to graduation, so it is quite an accomplishment when achieved! The most common breeds used in training are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds.
Once a puppy is selected, they will spend 18 months with their trainer, going everywhere the trainer goes and getting comfortable with all different types of situations, people, places, noises, smells, you name it. Then they go through basic obedience.
Once the dog successfully completes basic obedience, it’s time to move on to the second phase, which is getting to know their new handler. Handlers must be trained as well because they will be working together as a team with their guide dog in getting from place to place. Typically, Alice will work with the new handler several times before the puppy is passed over. When the time comes, it is very difficult for her to say goodbye, but at the same time she feels extremely rewarded. She warned me that when a Guide Dog is in their harness, it is never advisable to pet or play with them because they must devote their entire attention to their handler. Guide dogs love to play, and they do, but not when they are working.
Just like military working dogs and search and rescue dogs, assistance and guide dogs contribute immeasurable gifts. Let’s give some praise to the guide dog trainers who volunteer their time and congratulate the hardworking guide dogs of America this September!
There is a lot of info to cover about guide, service & assistance dogs! Leave a comment if you have something to add, Happy National Guide Dog Month!