How Good Dogs Become Guide Dogs

The life, training and joy of being a Leader Dog for the Blind

When you see a person who is visually impaired walking confidently down a busy city sidewalk with his devoted guide dog, you may wonder how the dog knows where to go and what to do. How does a puppy grow up to be a guide dog and take on the enormous responsibility of seeing for his human companion?

We asked Leader Dog for the Blind, a non-profit organization that has been training dogs for 71 years, to let us into the life of guide dogs and the people who depend on them.

Picking Puppies

Leader Dogs for the Blind relies on Golden Retrievers, Labradors and German Shepherds most often, and Standard Poodles for people with allergies. These breeds are selected because of their size and temperament, and because of their double coat. "We don't know what part of the country our dogs will end up in," says Rachelle Kniffen, Marketing Specialist at Leader Dogs for the Blind. "They have to be comfortable in any climate."

Volunteer host families keep mom and dad dogs in their homes for breeding, and have the wonderful job of birthing the puppies who will grow up to be Leader Dogs.

This organization also rescues dogs from shelters for training. As long as they have Golden, Lab or Shepherd in their mix, and have the double coat and temperament, they can make great Leader Dogs.

Leader Dog Puppy Training

Leader Dogs begin training as soon as they are weaned. Volunteer puppy raisers take puppies home to live in a family environment for a year. These puppies get obedience training like any other dog, but also get to do a whole lot more than your average pup!

Wearing a bandana that says Future Leader Dog, the puppy goes to the grocery store, movies, restaurants, church, and sporting events - sometimes even to the school of the puppy raiser's children. The more the puppy experiences as a puppy, the less likely he is to have an adverse reaction to the experience as an adult.

Training to be a Leader Dog

When the puppy is a year old, he goes to the Leader Dogs for the Blind facility in Michigan for testing and training. Then the real work begins.

The dog has to learn to notice obstacles in his owner's path and guide him around them. He has to understand traffic and when it's safe to cross a street. He learns to find the door in a building, and find an empty chair for his owner in a waiting room. Training is done with repetition and praise. It takes a good, obedient dog to learn these skills, but one of the most important skills is disobedience!

Leader Dogs Learn to Disobey

A guide dog must learn "intelligent disobedience" to keep his owner from harm. It's the last and most difficult thing a guide dog is taught, but one of the most critical. A guide dog will disobey the command "Go right" if going right would cause his owner to fall into a hole. Leader Dogs are trained for all kinds of scenarios that would cause them to have to disobey. But they can't be trained for everything, and sometimes dogs make these decisions on their own.

Len and his Leader Dog, Mikey, a large Yellow Lab, live in a senior home in Wisconsin and walk to a coffee shop every morning. One morning, at the first intersection, Mikey stopped as usual. Len listened for traffic, heard none, and gave the command "Forward." Mikey sat down. Len gave the command several more times, and even tugged on his chain. Mikey stepped in front of Len so he could not walk into the street. Mikey then turned around and took Len home.

Back in the senior home lobby, Len mentioned to the maintenance man that something was wrong with his dog. He wasn't working. The man said, "He shouldn't be working. The fog is so thick out there you can't see three feet in front of your face."

Mikey was never "fog trained" as that would be impossible to do. But he determined on his own that it wasn't safe to cross the street.

Training People to Trust their Guide Dog

It's not easy at first for a blind person to put their trust in an animal. Imagine how unnerving it would be to go out in a strange city blindfolded, trusting that a dog you just met will keep you safe. The training at Leader Dogs for the Blind is a 26-day course, in which the trained dog is paired with an untrained person. While the dog knows exactly what to do, the person has to learn how to use and trust the Leader Dog.

When Len first got Mikey, during their training, it was Len who wouldn't cross the street. Len could hear traffic but Mikey pulled to go forward. The trainer told Len that Mikey knows what he's doing. Trust him. Len since learned how true that is. Len says, "The more you believe in your dog, that he's not going to let you get hurt, the stronger you will be as a team."

"There is no way to know how many times Mikey has saved my life," Len says. Mikey, like every Leader Dog, quietly guides his owner away from danger each day. Being blind, the owner often doesn't know what the danger was he avoided.

"I don’t have a handicap," Len says. "I have an inconvenience that's cured by the love of a dog."

Leader Dogs and the Cycle of Love

From puppyhood to retirement, Leader Dogs experience a life of love and devotion. Puppy raisers become enormously attached to the pups they raise, and enjoy the pride of seeing them become Leader Dogs. Many describe it as seeing their own children graduating high school. They get to meet the people who will own the Leader Dog, and they often form a strong attachment. The Leader Dog and owner form a loving bond far stronger than that of most pets and owners. After many years of service, when the Leader Dog is ready to retire, if the owner is unable to care for him, the dog sometimes ends up back where he began, in the loving home of his puppy raiser!

How does a dog adjust to living in one home as a puppy, then in a kennel environment during training, then to a whole new owner in a distant city? "Purina Pro Plan Chicken & Rice Formula," Rachelle explains. "No matter what they do or where they go, at dinnertime, they always have Pro Plan in their bowl." Rachelle says the dogs adjust very well, but making sure they get the same Pro Plan diet keeps them from having any digestive upset during their transitions, and gives them a certain level of comfort.

How Purina Supports Leader Dogs for the Blind - and how you can too

Leader Dogs for the Blind is a remarkable organization that provides all their services to the blind for free. Everything in the 26-day training program - the flight to and from Michigan, room and board, the dog and all of his supplies are absolutely free of charge. And once the person is back home with their new Leader Dog, the organization continues to provide support and guidance.

Purina and Pet Supplies Plus are donating $25,000 to support Leader Dogs for the Blind. By purchasing your pet food and toys at Pet Supplies Plus, you help support the organization.

If you'd like to donate, volunteer as a puppy raiser, or host a breeding dog, go to leaderdog.org.