Long gone are the days when only German Shepherds were used as seeing eye dogs for the blind.
This article will explore the best guide dog breeds used today, along with some general information about how guide dogs are selected and ways to get involved in training these hard working canines.
Qualities of the Best Guide Dogs
Guide dog breeds for the blind are chosen based on having certain qualities that play a vital role in servicing the needs of their blind charges. These qualities include:
- Even Temperament: The best guide dog breeds can maintain focus under pressure and in distracting environments.
- Highly Intelligent: Because they are expected to make critical decisions in a complex and fast paced world, these important service dogs need to be quick thinkers who can learn a variety of key tasks according to their charge’s needs.
- Biddable: This quality includes a dog’s eagerness to learn and desire to please their trainer. Intelligence alone won’t do – a stubborn dog can be smart but unwilling to learn which would make them ineligible as a candidate for a service dog.
- Appropriately Social: While it is important for guide dogs to get along well with other dogs and people, they should not be so interested in others that they take their attention off their charge when working.
- Health and Longevity: Because it takes years and tens of thousands of dollars to train a guide dog for the blind, the longevity and health of a breed plays a major role in suitability for this kind of service work.
Selecting the Best Guide Dog Puppies
Although breed does offer some indication of a dog’s natural tendencies, individual personality in canines still plays a role in selecting the best dogs for this important service work. In addition, the personality of a dog plays a big role in determining the fit when matched to their person.
Choosing individual dogs that are likely to succeed in the lengthy and expensive training programs used to build a guide dog for the blind has been the subject of a good deal of research. However, different studies have looked at different aspects of puppy behavior as predictors of success.
- A 2001 study focused on early signs of dog/dog or dog/human aggression as a means to identify puppies unlikely to find ultimate success as guide dogs.
- A 2011 study tested dogs under stimuli designed to produce distractions and stress such as loud noises. The study found that dogs who showed less reaction to these tests were more likely to be successful in their training programs.
- A 2013 study used a variety of controlled scenarios such as responsiveness to coming when called, being encouraged to go through a tunnel, and distraction with a toy squirrel to test candidate puppies.
While no standard behavior test has yet been agreed upon, experienced guide dog trainers use a mix of research and experience when looking for the best puppies to include in the extensive training programs on the way to becoming a service dog for the blind.
In addition, trained “Puppy Raisers,” that is, volunteers who take the first leg of training with new candidates also look for a variety of behavioral markers for choosing the best dogs to move on to the next round of training.
The bottom line is this: Although certain breeds do tend to be used more often, the individual dog’s personality also plays a big role in selecting dogs for service and service breeding programs.
Seeing Eye Guide Dog Breeds
Although certain breeds have become iconic as guide dogs, the types of guide dogs by breed is actually a fairly diverse field these days. There are several breeds that seem to naturally embody many of the qualities covered above. They each have some unique benefits and drawbacks, as we will explore below.
German Shepherd Guide Dog
The very first breed used as Seeing Eye Dogs were German Shepherds. Germans, who had been successfully using these dogs in military service, began to train these dogs to help WWI veterans in their country.
It took almost a decade for the use of German Shepherds as guide dogs for the blind to spread across Europe and the United States. In 1929 The Seeing Eye school in Nashville, Tennessee was opened in the U.S. and German Shepherds were used exclusively for many years to come.
However, as iconic as the German Shepherd guide dog for the blind may remain in the public imagination, the truth is that have fallen somewhat out of favor as other breeds such as the Lab and Golden retriever have become more popular as service dogs.
|Extremely hard working breed dedicated to doing their work efficiently and accurately||Not as effective on extremely thick double coated breeds during the molting season|
|Instantly recognizable service dog breed which commands respect in public spaces||Can become aggressive to other dogs and people if not constantly socialized appropriately|
|Very intelligent breed capable of learning complex tasks and performing under pressure||Double coated breed which is a heavy shedder|
|Cell||Health issues including hip dysplasia and a shorter lifespan compared to other breeds|
Golden Retriever Guide Dog
To address some of the temperament and health downsides that can come with German Shepherds, other breeds have gained popularity as service dogs for the blind. One is the Golden Retriever. With a bit more of a laid back personality, the Goldie gets big praise for being easy to work with while still providing a recognizable presence when working in public.
|Gentle disposition with a strong desire to please||Double coated breed with relatively high grooming needs|
|Intelligent and highly biddable||Cell|
|Laid back personality with lower exercise needs than some other guide dog breeds||Cell|
|Get along well with other pets and people when properly socialized||Cell|
Labrador Retriever Guide Dog
The Labrador Retriever isn’t just the most popular dog in America according the AKC, it is also the most popular breed for seeing eye dogs. With their excellent temperament and strong trainability, the main downside of this breed is that they have fairly high energy needs, particularly when young. They can make a great fit for a very active charge, however.
|Excellent personality that tends to include loyalty, high drive to please, and sociability||Relatively high exercise needs and excitability when young|
|Intelligent and easy to train and handle||Cell|
|Low grooming needs with a naturally short coat||Cell|
|Get along well with other pets and children||Cell|
Golden & Lab Mix Guide Dogs
The two most popular breeds used as guide dogs include the Lab and the Goldie, and more and more breeding programs are crossing these breeds for a lab/golden hybrid that is showing a lot of promise in seeing eye dog training programs.
|Excellent temperament and ability to work under pressure||Grooming needs can still be high for some|
|Highly focused without being too intense||Cell|
|Sociable but not distracted by other pets or people while working||Cell|
|Lower grooming needs than pure Goldies||Cell|
|Lower exercise needs than pure Labs||Cell|
|Excellent health and longevity||Cell|
Poodle Guide Dog
Poodles rank among the most intelligent dog breeds. They are easy to train and quick to please. And, thanks to the fact that they are hypoallergenic, they are making headway as guide dogs for blind people who are allergic to dogs.
A potential downside of this breed is that many in the public may be so surprised by the use of a Poodle as a guide dog, they may rush over to pet or otherwise interfere with her work.
|Hypoallergenic coat for those that are sensitive to dog allergies||High exercise needs|
|Easy to train and eager to please||Can be demanding in terms of the need for attention and mental stimulation|
|Loyal and loving companions||Not always recognized by the public as a working dog|
|Long lived with few health problems||Cell|
Border Collie or Australian Shepherd Guide Dogs
Here are two breeds that share many characteristics: Both the Australian Shepherd and the Border Collie are highly intelligent, easy as pie to train, able to understand and complete very complex tasks, and have a very high level of focus when working.
However, despite their popularity as competition dogs in the agility ring, these two breeds are only rarely found as guide dogs in service to the blind. That being said, for the right charge, these intense and hardworking dogs can be a great fit – as long as the person is highly active and able to meet the high exercise and mental stimulation needs of these intense herding breeds.
|Easy to train a variety of tasks to help their charges||Extremely high energy with big exercise needs|
|Intense focus even under highly distracting situations||Can become nervous if they are not challenged and worked regularly|
|Unmatched intelligence||Double coats can provide a big grooming challenge in the Spring|
|Tend to do well with other pets and people||Cell|
|Few health problems and long life spans||Cell|
Best Guide Dog Breeds
Do you have experience with one of the guide dog breeds mentioned in this article? Or, perhaps you have trained or worked with another breed that you find has made an ideal service dog for the blind? Please feel free to join in the conversation by leaving a comment below.
What are guide dogs used for?
As Service Dogs, guide dogs for the blind are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are allowed unrestricted access to public spaces such as public transportations, retail stores, and restaurants.
Guide dogs for the blind perform a variety of tasks which offer their charges independence and mobility in a world of hazards built for the sighted. Chief among those tasks include:
- Navigating hazards both stationary and moving
- Alerting their charges of changes in elevation, low hanging obstacles such as tree branches, or drop offs such as a subway platform
- Refusing a direct command if following the command would result in danger (such as walking in front of a moving vehicle)
- Identify exits and entrances to a room or building
- Find empty seats when using public transportation
- Find and retrieve a variety of objects such as keys, shoes, blankets, etc.
How should I act when I see a guide dog working?
In almost all cases, seeing eye dogs will be easy to recognize by their service dog vest and the special harness with handle that is used to help blind people maintain their bearings.
In most cases, just go about your business. Do not try to pet or interact verbally with a working or resting guide dog.
However, if you see that the person needs help, such as opening a door or reaching an object, feel free to ask them directly if you can be of assistance, giving their dog some space while doing so.
How long does it take to train a guide dog for the blind?
Typically, formal training for guide dogs takes 14-16 months. However, once a guide dog has been paired with their human, training continues. In fact, guide dogs are always learning more ways to help their charges live more independent lives.
How can I get involved in training Seeing Eye Dogs?
There are several ways that people who are not professional dog trainers can get involved in helping guide dogs go from puppyhood to retirement. Here are just a few:
- Become a Puppy Raiser: All seeing eye dogs start their puppyhoods in the home of “Puppy Raiser” volunteers. These homes play a special role in properly socializing young candidates, identifying potential behavioral problems, and teaching basic manners.
- Donate to Guide Dogs Training Programs: If you have more money than time, donating to groups that are training guide dogs is another way to get involved. Training a single guide dog can cost as much as $45,000 to $60,000. Your donation to a 401C guide dog training program is tax deductible and makes a big difference for the blind.
- Adopt a Retired Seeing Eye Dog: For all service dogs, the time comes when they are ready to be retired from their duties serving the needs of their charges. Due to the expense and care giving responsibilities of older dogs, not all charges are able to keep their dogs through retirement. Adopting these older dogs and giving them a great life post-retirement is another way to help support the guide dog community and the blind people they serve.