man walking with dog guide along a building's exit ramp

Guide Dogs: Perception and Reality

We’re all familiar with the image of dogs guiding people with vision loss along streets and through public spaces. But unless you’ve actually benefited from one of these specially trained animals, you probably have no idea what wonderful mobility tools and loving companions they can be.

The guide dog is a “mobility aid” that can enable people who are blind or have low vision to travel safely. Guide dogs can guide people around obstacles and through crowds, stop at curbs and stairs, and sometimes even be trained to find a limited number of objects that are within sight when given orders such as “Find the chair,” “Find the door,” or “Find the elevator.” The guide dog user can also train (or “pattern”) the dog to find frequently used landmarks, such as a bus stop pole or a mailbox.

Some Common Misconceptions About Guide Dogs

One common misconception is that people who are blind or have low vision and don’t have orientation and mobility (O&M) travel skills can use a guide dog to travel safely and independently; people mistakenly assume that it is the dog that shows the person where to go. This is not true. The person who is blind or has low vision directs the dog; the function and purpose of the dog is to merely guide the person around obstacles and indicate the location of steps and curbs.

Another misconception is that guide dogs indicate when it is safe to cross the street. This is also not true. For example, at a traffic signal, the guide dog does not know when the light changes from green to amber to red. It is the person who determines when it is safe to cross the street and which way to go; the dog then guides the person across the street to reach the other side. Although the dog does not know when it is safe to cross the street, if it sees a car approaching too close, it has been trained to stop or attempt to move the person out of the way.

Is a Guide Dog Right for You?

To obtain a guide dog, you must attend a special guide dog school that will assign you a dog and train you to take care of the dog and use it to guide you. All reputable dog guide schools require that applicants demonstrate that they have the skills necessary to travel independently with a cane, including walking safely and efficiently in familiar areas, crossing streets, finding destinations, and being able to problem-solve when disoriented or lost.

Be aware, however, that dog guides are not for everyone. Two things to keep in mind if you’re considering a dog guide are:

  • High maintenance: Dog guides require daily care. They must be fed, relieved, groomed, and given regular exercise and affection.
  • Use it or lose it: Dog guides must perform their mobility tasks every day. While scientifically bred and highly trained, the animals will lose their skills without constant practice.

Ask Peer Advisor DeAnna Quietwater Noriega: Should I Use a Guide Dog or a White Cane?

DeAnna Noriega and her guide dog
DeAnna Noriega with
her guide dog

Questions You Need to Consider

If you have low vision, your lack of depth perception may make it hard to judge changes in the elevation of the ground where you are walking. Other questions to consider: Do you have trouble adjusting to differences in lighting when you go outside or come into a building? Are blind spots in your vision beginning to hamper your safe travel? Maybe it is time to look into training to use the long white cane.

You Still Need Mobility Basics

Even if you plan to use a guide dog to assist you during travel, you need to know mobility basics first. Contrary to common belief, a guide dog doesn’t know where you want to go until you direct him. He understands basic commands such as “right,” “left,” “find door,” and can learn to recognize places you visit frequently, but you must be able to judge traffic by sound, be able to remember how many blocks you need to walk, and when you have to turn a corner.

Guide dog Zoe sitting down on the sidewalk with boots on to protect her feet

If you enjoy the company of a dog and don’t see caring for the dog as a burden, a guide dog might be the right choice for you. You will have to take the dog outside multiple times a day, pick up waste, groom them, feed them, and carry things to make them comfortable. In exchange, you will have a friend by your side who is willing to use his vision to help you prevent falls, avoid traffic, locate doors and curbs, and dodge overhanging branches.

Read more from DeAnna at Guide Dog or White Cane? Mobility Tools for Individuals with Vision Loss at the Visually Impaired: Now What? blog.

Additional Resources for Finding, Training, and Living with a Dog Guide

The following organizations provide trained guide dogs for people who are blind or have low vision. They outline the requirements for getting a dog and answer questions about training and using dog guides:

Associations of Guide Dog Users

  • The National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU) is an affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind and an organization for blind people who currently use guide dogs as mobility tools, those considering getting a guide dog, or those who want to learn more about the use of such dogs. NAGDU provides a forum for people who are interested in the guide dog movement to discuss common issues and to increase opportunities for those who have chosen to use a guide dog for independent travel.
  • Guide Dog Users, Inc., an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, is an international organization dedicated to advocacy, peer support, public education, and all aspects of training, working, and living with dogs that are specially trained to guide people who are blind or have low vision.
  • Guide Dog Handlers All Ways is a special interest alumni affiliate of Guide Dogs for the Blind. They sponsor an alumni chapter of individuals who have disabilities in addition to blindness and vision impairment.