Guide Dog Schools: How Service Dogs Learn

Guide dog schools help dogs and their foster master the job duties of a service dog. Not every dog is cut out for service dog work. However, with patience and training, many dogs perform extraordinarily well.

Trainers working with future service dogs must be licensed in some states. Many of these dog trainers complete a multi-year apprenticeship before operating a guide dog school program. For example, California law requires a three-year apprenticeship with a licensed instructor before one can teach in a service dog training program.

Best Breeds for Guide Dog Schools

Any dog can become a service dog if he has the right temperament and learning ability. However, most professional service dog trainers find that yellow and black labs are the best breeds for service dog work. Approximately 7 in 10 dogs trained by Guide Dogs of America are labs. German shepherds and golden retrievers make up the balance.

Important First Steps in Entering Guide Dog Schools

Before any dog enters a guide dog school's program, the puppy is raised in a loving foster home. The goal of the foster home is to provide the puppy with plenty of love and basic obedience—sit, stay, down and come. After a year and a half, the puppy is then ready to enter a training program.

Once at the training school, the dogs are given a health and temperament evaluation. The dog is checked for any potential issue, including bone and joint health, a full vision check and blood work. Any dogs that fail this process are denied entry into a program and become family pets. The foster home that raised the puppy is given the option of permanently adopting the dog. If they pass, the dog enters a formal adoption program.

Rigorous Training Process

Once a dog is enrolled in a formal guide dog school, they begin mastering important tasks. For dogs that will be aiding the blind, they learn to walk on busy streets, in crowded stores, at beaches, on school campuses and other crowded areas. These dogs learn how to walk onto escalators, onto subway platforms and how to get on and off elevators.

Dogs are taught how to avoid obstacles by stopping and moving to one side or another. When dogs perform their task correctly, they are rewarded with praise.

When a blind person is aided by a service dog, they give voice commands to the dog and use their heightened sense of hearing. However, the dog ultimately makes the final choice if it really is safe to move ahead or not. While the dog is not trained to view walk/don't walk signs and the likes, they are taught to be aware of their surroundings and watch for foot traffic and moving vehicles.

Guide dog schools provide training that takes four to six months to complete. Once the dog has completed the training with a licensed instructor, they spend another month working with their blind owner. They work together as a team, learning how to give and take commands. Working with the blind owner gives the guide dog school's trainers a chance to fine-tune the training, to ensure the dog and owner are a perfect match.