It costs approximately $100,000 to train one guide dog puppy.
It takes an average of 251 volunteers to help a single puppy become a guide dog (guidedogs.com).
A guide dog puppy is in training for eighteen to twenty-four months before they are able to graduate. This is the human equivalent of an associate’s degree.
So many people ask me what the training process is like for a guide dog. They don’t realize that question takes an essay to explain. I’ve tried for eight years to summarize it swiftly, don’t judge me, I have a busy life, and I have failed every time. The answer is, there is no swift answer. The training process for a guide is too detailed, too involved to summarize into a couple sentences. Without a long answer, I am unable to give credit to the hundreds of people who have helped my sweet guide dog become the beautiful, brilliant canine she is today.
And so, without further ado, let’s discuss a guide dog’s training, start to finish, pup to graduate.
First eight weeks
All GDB puppies are born on the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus. Every birth is overseen by a trained veterinarian, and every tiny pup is given the best medical care a dog can have. The puppies and their mother remain on the GDB campus for eight weeks. There, mamma and puppies are spoiled by volunteers and staff alike. They get playtime, cuddle time, and continued, on sight vet services. When the eight weeks are up, the mamma goes back home to her human family, and the puppies are distributed to puppy raisers. If a puppy has some health issue that may prevent them from becoming a guide or breeder, he/she is either career changed or given to a loving family to live a life of luxury as a pampered pet.
Eight weeks to 14-18 months
Puppies live with their puppy raisers during this time. The volunteer raiser gets a crazy, non-housebroken, sweet, little terror and turns them into a calm, well-adjusted puppy who is socialized and trained to near perfection. The raisers pour their hearts and souls into raising these incredible puppies, and it is to them I offer the most heartfelt of thank you’s.
The raisers housebreak the puppy, train them not to chew on things, and teach them basic obedience like sit, stay, and come. They work on a variety of behavior issues such as jumping up on people and knowing when and when it is not okay to play with people and other dogs. And, perhaps most importantly, they socialize them to as wide a range of different environments as possible. This may include airports, flights, shopping malls, sports events, busy sidewalks, the countryside, riding the subway, etc. The more exposure the puppy has from a young age, the more likely they are to succeed in whatever environment their future person may live in.
Not all puppies make it through puppy raiser training. Some are too stubborn, others, too timid. But everyone, raisers and puppies alike, does their best. The pups who don’t make it are either career changed, offered back to the puppy raiser as a pet, or given to a loving family to be spoiled and well-cared for for the rest of their long, happy life.
14-18 months to 24 months
Dogs who have succeeded with their raisers are recalled back to GDB. They are ready to begin the most rigorous part of their training. This training is broken into eight phases.
Phase 0: Dogs in this phase are getting ready to start formal training. They are waiting to be sorted into a training string and are getting used to life in the GDB kennels. They go on fun walks around campus and are matched up with a kennelmate. They get lots of cuddle time and playtime with humans and other dogs.
Phase 1: This phase is the official start of formal training. The dogs are introduced to clicker training, where desired behaviors are “marked” with a click and rewarded with food. Puppies are prepared for clicker training while with their puppy raisers, because raisers mark desired behaviors with a word, such as “Good,” then reward the pup with food. Phase 1 also includes adopting precise body positioning in preparation for guiding, recognizing new commands such as “forward” and “halt”, learning to stop at streets, learning to target up-curbs, introduction to the training vans, and practicing skills they already know with various distractions introduced.
Phase 2: In this phase pups continue working on many of the things they began in Phase 1. More distractions are added in to some of their exercises. The verbal cue “over here” is also introduced. With this command the handler asks the dog to move from the heel position on their left. The dog is asked to walk behind the handler’s back and takes a position on the handler’s right. This is particularly helpful when going through doorways that open with the hinge on the left. Dogs in this phase continue to have body handling acceptance training, and now know how to lie down and roll over in a variety of settings to allow the handler to inspect and care for them as needed. They work on obstacle courses, adding challenges as they progress. They have learned to indicate up-curbs, walk in a straight line on course, and have also had experience with dog distractions. And of course, they still get to enjoy playtime, massages, walks around campus, and free time in a fenced area.
Phase 3: Dogs in this phase have passed their first college exams! They are assessed by experienced trainers and then formally tested by apprentice trainers in each of the following areas: understanding and responding to “sit”, “down”, “heel”, “come”, and “stay” amid mild distractions with consistency and a single verbal cue; demonstration of food refusal; and general ease of body handling. These dogs also have to pass their first blindfold test, where they work with a blindfolded instructor for a distance of 8-10 blocks. They continue to work in all of the things they had learned in previous phases, adding in more distractions. This is also the phase where dogs are introduced to “intelligent disobedience.” This means they learn to disobey a command given by the handler if it is not safe to obey the command. They also begin learning how to work routes without sidewalks and on reasonable shoulders. As in previous phases, they get playtime, strolls around campus, massages, and other fun, relaxing activities.
Phase 4: Dogs in this phase are getting into the heart of guide work training. During this phase, dog’s are allowed to make decisions on their own, including occasional mistakes where their trainers will then show them the correct answer before they become to confused. These dogs are also introduced to escalators and taught how to safely step on to, ride, and step off of an escalator. Puppies in training do not ride escalators. Instructors do short blindfolded walks with the dogs while being spotted by another instructor. These walks show where the dog’s strengths and weaknesses are so that their weaknesses can be strengthened, and their strengths can be reinforced. They also begin working inside buildings. Obstacle course training continues, and they are now able to alert for overhead obstacles. As in previous phases, the dogs still get lots of playtime, leisurely walks around campus, cuddles with volunteers, body massages, and even hang out with staff in their offices.
Phase 5: This phase introduces some pretty intense, impressive training. In Phase 5, dogs begin traffic training, where they are taught how to respond to various instances that may occur with vehicles. This includes learning the stop and hold position if a car is about to cross their path, backing up when necessary, and even learning to make emergency decisions with traffic problems. These dogs also begin city training, more intense training inside buildings, such as busy, crowded malls, working carefully through crowded aisles, reinforcing patience while waiting at check-out counters, etc., subway training, more challenging obstacle course work, increasingly varied and challenging distraction work. And of course these hardworking pups get continued massages, playtime with buddies, and cuddle time with people.
Phase 6: The dogs continue to proof their obedience and distraction training, as well as obstacle course progression, as in Phase 5. They also work in residential areas without sidewalks and urban areas with challenging environments. They are introduced to revolving doors and also learn to avoid drop-offs similar to subway platform edges. They are evaluated to see if they might be potential matches for clients with special needs or requirements in a guide. They still get plenty of play and cuddle time, massages, and relaxing strolls around campus.
Phase 7: This phase continues everything the pups have learned in previous phases, adding increasing difficulty and more exposures. They also work with multiple instructors during this phase to teach that good responses are expected with new handlers. Playtime, massages, and other socialization activities are still a large part of the dog’s life.
Phase 8: Final tests. A blindfolded GDB instructor tests the dogs in the following: obedience, guide work, work inside buildings, and traffic. Dogs that pass these tests are deemed “class ready.” Other work includes hand and chair targeting intros, pole targeting on route, dormitory building exposure, pre-class physicals, and pre-class meetings with the instructor team, supervisor, dorm manager, and nurses.
Statistics vary, but it is a safe bet that only about half of all puppies make it through the entire training process. Only the very best dogs can become guide dogs, as they literally hold lives in their paws. Several dogs who do not make it become service dogs at different schools, such as Dogs4Diabetics and Next Step Service Dogs. Every GDB pup ends up somewhere happy.
Final two weeks of training
Once a dog has been deemed class ready, they wait to be matched with a blind handler. Dogs and humans are matched based on speed, the handler’s home area, and the handler’s requested levels of energy, confidence, and affection.
Dogs are brought into class on the handler’s second day on campus. They have a snugly meet and greet session, and then training begins.
These two weeks are more to train the handler than the dog. Instructors work with each team to ensure dog and human work well together. The team spends the majority of the first week walking a basic street route and moves on to more complex training such as traffic checks and subway platforms in the second week.
Occasionally, a team will not be as perfect as the instructors had hoped. This usually results in a dog switch, hopefully near to the beginning of class. The dog may undergo more training and be reassigned to another handler in a future class, or they may be career changed or offered back to their raiser.
The now grown up puppies and their handlers all attend a formal graduation on the last day of class. There, the handlers have the opportunity to thank the school, their instructors, and their puppy’s raisers for the exemplary job they have done and the beautiful, furry gift they have been given. Tears are shed, friends are made, and hearts are touched forever. The puppy has become a guide dog, the training journey is complete.
If you would like to learn more, feel free to visit http://www.guidedogs.com. Also, I highly recommend the movie “Pick of the Litter”. It is a collaboration between GDB and Disney and follows a litter of puppies as they journey through the process of becoming guide dogs.
This post’s content is based off Guide Dogs for the Blind training protocol and may not be representative of all guide dog schools. In addition, I am merely a delighted client of GDB, not an employee fully in the know, and so cannot guarantee 100% accuracy.
Special thanks to Heidi Springstroh for helping with research and co-authoring this post, and to the Guide Dogs for the Blind – San Antonio, TX Puppy Raisers’ Facebook page for providing the fantastic information!
Huge thanks to one of Nouveau’s incredible puppy raisers, Terri Sachs, and the Guide Dogs for the Blind – Palo Alto, CA Puppy Raisers’ Facebook page for the pictures of puppy Nouveau and for our darling furry friend.
Be kind, and be aware.
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