Woof! 9 interesting — and surprising — facts about guide dogs

You may be aware that guide dogs help those who are blind or have low vision, but do you know the most common breeds, or what they do when "off-harness"?

September is National Guide Dog Month, a time to recognize and appreciate the hard working pups who help people who are blind lead independent lives.

A guide dog is a specific type of service dog that is trained to assist people who are blind or have low vision. Guide dogs learn to stop at curbs and stairs, move around obstacles and sometimes to respond to simple commands like “Find the chair.” The dog’s handler decides where they are going and gives the commands, forming a team.

Paws on sidewalk and hand on harness, the team is ready to take on the world — together.

But remember, no matter how cute you find that furry face, you should not pet or distract a guide dog at work, or “in-harness.” For the team’s safety, working guide dogs should be left to focus on doing their job.

If the team appears lost or in need of help, just ask. Or, if you see they are in imminent danger, communicate guidance calmly and clearly.

Now — Sit. Stay. And learn some fascinating facts about guide dogs:

1. Ancient bond. A first-century mural dating from the Roman ruins of Herculaneum and a 13th century Chinese scroll are believed to be among the earliest depictions of dogs leading people who are blind.

2. On alert. Guide dogs are trained to lead around obstacles, including hazards like low branches that may be above the height of the dog but not of its owner. The dogs learn to be responsible for a space two times as wide and up to three times as tall as themselves to keep their owners safe.

3. Popular pups. Labradors, golden retrievers, German shepherds and labrador/golden crosses are common guide dog breeds, chosen for traits including size, intelligence and temperament.

4. Buddies indeed. On June 11, 1928, Morris Frank, who was blind, and his German shepherd guide dog Buddy made the papers when they safely crossed a dangerous street in New York City in front of reporters. Frank and Dorothy Harrison Eustis, who bred and trained Buddy, went on to start the first guide dog school in the United States.

5. Critical thinkers. Guide dogs are trained to display “intelligent disobedience” — they will actually refuse to obey an unsafe command from their owners if they see a danger their owners may have missed, such as a car that ran a red light.

6. Top dogs. Not all dogs will actually graduate from guide school. Only the most qualified — some programs estimate 75 percent — will complete the rigorous training.

7. Did you say, “Neil” or “heel?” Owners should choose guide dog names thoughtfully: suggestions include picking short, one- or two-syllable names that allow for faster communication and avoiding names that sound similar to a command — for example, “Kit” could be confused with “sit.”

8. They’re a team. Under legal protections in many countries, including the U.S., and with very rare exceptions (like around certain zoo animals!), guide dogs are allowed access with their owners anywhere that the general public can go.

9. Guide dogs let their hair — or fur — down, too. When guide dogs are “off-harness,” or not working, they can play, romp or sniff like any other dog. And just like humans, guide dogs eventually retire — usually after roughly eight to 10 years of service.

For more resources and content surrounding the history and services of guide dogs, click here.

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