Dogs are truly amazing, intelligent animals. Not only can they be our best friends and companions, they can also perform a wide range of jobs to assist humans. Guide dogs and assistance dogs are trained to improve their owner’s life and help them live to the fullest.
Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about guide dogs and assistance dogs.
What is a Guide Dog?
A guide dog is a specially trained dog who is partnered with a visually impaired person. They’re trained to give the individual more independence and help them navigate the world with more confidence.
What Do Guide Dogs Do?
Guide dogs help their visually impaired owner to get out and about safely. They perform a wide variety of tasks to achieve this, including:
- Guiding their owner safely along pavements avoiding obstacles
- Turning corners safely when instructed by their owner
- Stopping at kerbs and steps until their owner gives them further instruction
- Judging the height and width of their surroundings to keep their owner safe
- Helping their owner cross the road in a straight line when instructed
- Finding routes which their owner walks regularly to guide them in the right direction
- ‘Intelligently disobeying’ their owner’s direction if they feel that the path ahead is not safe, and calculating a safe alternative route forward
Aside from their trained tasks, guide dogs also provide their owner with unconditional love and give them emotional support, just like our pet dogs do. They’re there at all times to comfort their owner, make them smile, and give them plenty of cuddles (when they’re not working).
Who Can Have a Guide Dog?
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association explains that guide dogs are provided to individuals if: “your sight impairment significantly impacts your ability to travel around safely, efficiently and confidently”.
You must also meet other requirements, including being able to care for the dog assigned to you and meet all their needs moving forward. Each person who applies for a guide dog is given in-depth assessments to ensure they’re a suitable partner for the guide dog.
Which Dogs Can Be Guide Dogs?
Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are the 2 most common breeds used as guide dogs. Less commonly German Shepherds and Standard Poodles may be used. Poodles may be chosen if the individual has a dog allergy, as they shed much less than other breeds.
These breeds are chosen because of their characteristics, including their intelligence and willingness to learn. Not every dog of these breeds can be used as a guide dog. Guide dogs are selected carefully as puppies and trained from a young age to carry out this special job.
Guide Dog Training
Guide dog training starts when the dogs are puppies. At 8 weeks of age, the chosen puppies will go to ‘puppy raisers’: these are experienced volunteers who socialize the puppies, get them used to living in a home, and teach them basic obedience skills.
When they’re between 12 and 18 months old, the guide dogs then return to the organization for formal guide dog training with professional instructors. This training is very detailed and lasts for months, ensuring the guide dog knows how to perform all the tasks required.
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association explains that they use positive reinforcement to train their puppies. They state: “We use our own Standardised Training for Excellent Partnerships (STEP) programme, which uses the principles of positive reinforcement to teach our dogs everything they need to learn to be successful and happy in their lives.”
The training doesn’t stop there. Once the dogs have completed their individual training and are matched with the right owner, the owner and dog go through a training course together. This teaches both owner and dog how to work together to achieve their goals.
How Do You Apply for a Guide Dog?
As we mentioned earlier, there is a range of eligibility criteria you must meet to apply for a guide dog. If you meet all the criteria, you can contact the guide dog charity to talk to them about next steps. They will talk you through the process and gather lots of information. They will likely need to talk to your doctor for your medical details.
You’ll then go through 2 assessments: a mobility assessment to assess your vision and mobility, and a guide dog assessment, to assess your suitability for a guide dog. If you pass these assessments, your case will be evaluated by a panel of experts who will determine whether you will get a guide dog. The process can be quite lengthy and there may be a waiting list depending on where you live and the available guide dogs.
How Much Does a Guide Dog Cost?
In the UK, guide dogs are provided by The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, which is a charity. They don’t charge for guide dogs, including their training and care. However, some people choose to pay for part of their dog’s ongoing care to help the charity out.
What is an assistance dog?
Assistance dogs are simply dogs who help their owners live fuller lives. They can support owners with a wide range of physical disabilities and mental health conditions.
The terms assistance dog and support dog are often used interchangeably. These terms both refer to dogs who are trained to perform specific tasks for their disabled owner. However, you’ll sometimes hear the term ‘emotional support dog’ or ‘emotional support animal (ESA)’. An emotional support dog is not a service dog, but they can provide their owner with comfort and build confidence, especially for those with mental illness.
The American Kennel Club explains: “ESAs provide support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias. However, they are not service dogs, and ESA users do not receive the same accommodations as service dog users.” We’ll be focusing on assistance dogs rather than ESAs.
What Do Assistance Dogs Do?
Assistance dogs support their disabled owner by performing a range of tasks to improve the individual’s life and help them to be more independent. Assistance dogs can help people with a wide range of disabilities. The tasks they perform depend on the person’s disability and individual needs.
Canine Partners UK, part of Assistance Dogs (UK) explains that assistance dogs are trained to: “help with everyday tasks such as opening and closing doors, unloading the washing machine, picking up dropped items, pressing buttons and switches and fetching help in an emergency. They can even help people to get undressed and remove a card from an ATM!”
They can apply deep pressure on people who are having a panic attack. They can alert individuals that they’re about to faint or have a seizure. They can even help to take care of themselves, for example putting their own bowls in the sink!
These are only a few of the many tasks an assistance dog could perform. Aside from trained tasks, assistance dogs can also help to build confidence and give their owner unconditional love.
Who Can Have an Assistance Dog?
There are several charities in the UK that work under the umbrella organization, Assistance Dogs UK. Each charity has its own eligibility criteria. Since assistance dogs can be useful for such a wide range of physical and mental disabilities, cases need to be evaluated individually to determine whether an individual can have an assistance dog.
Essentially, if you have a confirmed medical disability that significantly impacts your life, you may be able to apply for an assistance dog. You must also be able to care for the dog and provide everything they need.
Which Dogs Can Be Assistance Dogs?
Most charities train Labradors and Golden Retrievers to be assistance dogs. Some will train Poodle crosses for people with allergies.
Some charities will help you train your pet dog to be an assistance dog. However, this option is less common, and dogs must meet a specific set of criteria.
Assistance Dog Training
Similarly, to guide dogs, assistance dogs are typically chosen as puppies of 8 weeks old for their personality and characteristics. They’re placed with ‘puppy parents’ who are experienced. They socialize them and teach them basic commands.
Once they’re 14 to 16 months old, they’re taken to a specialist training centre where they have more detailed training. Once they’re matched with a disabled person, they learn specific tasks which are going to help their new owner.
When the dog is ready, the new owner and their dog will be paired together and attend training to learn how to work with one another. They begin to bond, and the owner learns how to take care of their dog too!
How Do You Apply for an Assistance Dog?
Each charity will have its own application method and specific eligibility criteria. Often the first step will be to fill out a form to register your interest and attend an open day run by the charity to help you figure out the next steps.
How Much Does an Assistance Dog Cost?
Assistance dogs are trained by charities in the UK. These charities typically don’t charge for providing assistance dogs; however, they do accept donations towards the dog’s training and care.
How Can You Help: Volunteering, Fundraising, and Sponsoring
If you’re wondering how you can help these amazing charities and superstar dogs, there are lots of ways you can get involved. Most of these charities rely on donations to run. It costs a lot of money to breed, raise, train, and provide care to the assistance dogs. The charity Support Dogs explains that it costs an average of £23,000 to cover, “training a support dog from introductory assessment up to graduation over a 2-year period.”
You can make a one off donation or a regular donation to help fund their work. Links to 4 charities that accept donations are included below:
You could also run your own fundraising event to support these charities. Some people choose to leave a gift in their will to support their work. Canine Partners explains that a third of their income comes from gifts left in people’s wills.
Some charities allow you to sponsor a puppy, helping the charity to fund your sponsored puppy through training. You’ll get regular ‘pupdates’ about your puppy’s process. This can even be a great gift for a loved one.
If you want to be even more proactive, you could volunteer for an assistance dog’s charity. There are a wide range of roles you can get involved with, including helping to foster dogs and puppies during their training, exercising the dogs, providing transport for the dogs, or even working in admin roles.
Guide dogs and assistance dogs are amazing animals. They literally change their owner’s lives. The work these charities do is incredible and enables disabled people to live fuller, more independent lives. If this article has inspired you, you can get involved and help these dogs do their life-changing jobs!
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, (2021), “Guide Dogs”.
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, (2021), “Applying for a guide dog”.
Stephanie Gibeault, MSc, CPDT, (2021), “Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals”. The American Kennel Club.
Canine Partners, (2021), “What our dogs do”.
Support Dogs, (2021), “Donate”.
Canine Partners, (2021), “Leave a gift in your will”
My Amazing Puppy, (2021), “Sponsor an amazing puppy”. Canine Partners.