On Wednesday 2 December I gave a talk about my experience of working with guide dogs. Below are extracts from that presentation.
I remember being struck on reading Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” by the reference to guide dogs. Speaking of Scrooge Dickens writes,
“Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then
would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm).
Researching the history of guide dogs, I have been unable to discover any record of guide dogs being trained in the United Kingdom until the 1930s, when the Guide Dogs For The Blind Association was established (the same charity that trains guide dogs today). However the reference to blind men’s dogs in “A Christmas Carol” indicates that dogs where being used by blind people in Victorian England. I can only surmise that visually impaired people trained the dogs themselves or training took place with the aid of family and friends.
The history of guide dogs does, however go back far beyond the 19th century. A roman sculpture exists of a blind man being lead by a dog, while a plaque from the middle ages shows a blind man being lead on a leash.
In the late 18th century the Paris hospital for the blind trained guide dogs.
It appears that the first (modern) and systematic attempt to train guide dogs took place in Germany. A German Doctor left his dog with a patient while he was called away to business elsewhere. On his return he was so impressed by the way in which the dog had been looking after his patient that he determined to train dogs as guides for the blind. The doctor’s work lead to the establishment of several guide dog schools in Germany and there is evidence of dogs being sent to the UK amongst other countries.
The work of Doctor Stalling inspired the founding of The Seeing Eye in the United States which trained dogs for the blind and (later) the establishment of The Guide Dogs For The Blind Association in the UK. (http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/aboutus/guide-dogs-organisation/history#.VmMIbL-yKSo).
I am now working with my fourth guide dog, a lovely brindle lab/retriever called Trigger. All of my companions have been male with the exception of my third dog, Drew, a lovely yellow lab/retriever who sadly died in March 2011 as a result of a heart attack.
Guide dogs are trained to walk in a straight line and to avoid obstacles. On reaching an obstacle they can not navigate the dog stops and it is then incumbent on the owner to assess the situation and (if in any doubt as to how to proceed) to ask for sighted assistance.
Guide dogs are taught to stop at kerbs and to only go into the road at the command of their owner. Guide dogs lack the capacity to know that vehicles pose a danger (there sitting at kerbs is, therefore purely down to their training). However guide dogs are taught not to go into the road when a vehicle is approaching. However owners are told not to rely on the dog taking evasive action as they have no understanding of road safety (I.E. it is a useful aspect of training but the responsibility for safety remains fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the owner). Having said that, Trigger has, on several occasions pulled me back when I have misjudged the situation and attempted to cross as vehicles approach.
In the UK guide and other assistance dogs are allowed by law to enter food and other premises which pet dogs are prohibited from entering. It is, in fact an offense for a provider of goods or services to refuse entry to a working guide dog. Despite the legislation discrimination does, unfortunately persist and I have myself experienced it on a number of occasions.
In conclusion, guide dogs enhance the independence of visually impaired people and on a much deeper level provide companionship. I and other guide dog owners have built up strong bonds with our dogs who are, to us much more than mere working animals.