How are Guide Dogs Trained?

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Guide dogs help the blind and visually impaired regain their mobility and independence. They assist their owners in navigating through traffic, judge the height and width of various daily obstacles, and assess the danger involved in particular situations. Providing a companion that can be relied upon to keep its owner safe involves selecting the right dog, and years of careful training. Many different breeds can become effective guide dogs, although german shepherds, golden retrievers, and labrador retrievers are often best suited to this special work. Basic training begins at the puppy stage, then dogs with suitable temperaments receive more detailed and complex coaching and instruction.

A seeing-eye dog assists a visually impaired person.
A seeing-eye dog assists a visually impaired person.

It takes a special type of dog to become a good guide dog. The animal must be good natured, intelligent, observant, and not easily frightened by noises or crowds. Even the best trainer cannot make a nervous and skittish dog into an effective companion.

The process of training a guide dog begins when the animal is a puppy.
The process of training a guide dog begins when the animal is a puppy.

Puppy Training

Guide dogs are trained at non-profit schools that specialize in providing service animals for the blind and visually impaired. The training process begins as soon as a puppy is old enough to leave its mother. Volunteer puppy raisers help socialize the dog and teach basic obedience skills. This involves instructing the dog to obey simple commands such as “sit”, “stay” and “come”, and also exposing it to different situations it may encounter as a service animal, such as busy streets, homes and buses.

A Labrador Retriever, which can be used as a guide dog.
A Labrador Retriever, which can be used as a guide dog.

The puppy training stage typically lasts until the dog is 12-14 months old. This stage also provides an opportunity to see if the dog’s temperament is suited to more extensive coaching. Approximately 20% of the puppies are released from the program at this time.

German shepherds are intelligent breeds, used as guide and police dogs.
German shepherds are intelligent breeds, used as guide and police dogs.

Dog Training

After the volunteer puppy raiser returns the guide dog, it is coached by a professional trainer for possibly two to three months. The trainer uses methods such as positive reinforcement, rewards of food and praise, and clicker training to teach skills such as walking in a straight line, stopping at curbs, and dealing with large crowds. The dog must also learn to ignore distractions such as other animals, and to behave well in public places such as restaurants, shops, buses and trains.

More advanced skills include leading the owner around obstructions, and recognizing less obvious obstacles such as overhead branches and stopping at them. Sometimes the training can involve not obeying commands. In a type of coaching known as “intelligent disobedience”, dogs learn not to obey commands that would lead their owners into danger, for example, crossing a road when there is oncoming traffic.


If the dog is able to master these skills, he is paired with an owner for additional training, which may take around two weeks. Training schools match guide dogs and their blind or visually impaired owners on the basis of compatible personalities and good communication, then help the pair through a program that teaches them to develop a strong working relationship. During this phase, the dog may need to learn some new skills, for example, if the prospective owner has other disabilities. After this training, the guide dog begins his new life as a service animal.

Typically, guide dogs are expected to work until they are eight to ten years old, although animals in peak physical condition may be able to work for longer. Some owners have their dogs in service for ten years or more. After retirement, the dog is either kept on as a pet by the owner or her family, or given back to the training school to be placed in a new home. Training schools are able to arrange adoption for anyone interested in having a retired guide dog as a pet.

Although guide dogs may be fun loving and playful when off-duty, they have a very demanding job and take it very seriously. When a service animal is at work people should avoid doing anything that might interfere with its concentration. It is important never to give a service animal food or attempt to touch it without its owner’s permission. Guide dogs may be good-natured but they are not to be confused with pets.

Golden retrievers are one of the best dogs for specialty work.
Golden retrievers are one of the best dogs for specialty work.
Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Dana holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa. She has loved being part of the wiseGEEK team ever since discovering the joys of freelance writing after her son was born. Dana also hones her writing skills by contributing articles to various blogs, as well as creating sales copy and content for e-courses.

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Discussion Comments


I figured that any dog could be made into a guide dog if it were trained early. I'm amazed to learn that some are just naturally too temperamental to work with!

I've seen some nervous dogs in the past, but I figured this was just because of a lack of proper training. I didn't know that personality issues could actually keep a dog from becoming a guide dog!


@cloudel – Yes, they do live with their dogs, and yes, they do show them affection. I know a man who owns a guide dog, and he says that while the dog is wearing the harness, it knows that it is on duty. When he takes it off, it knows that it is time to play.

He feels more attached to this dog than others he has had in the past, because it does so much for him. I believe he shows it more love and affection because of this.


I have often been curious about guide dogs and how they are trained. This article cleared several things up for me.

I think it is amazing that these dogs can decide when it is safe to obey a command. That isn't something an untrained dog would be capable of doing.

I'm sure that training must progress from simple learning of commands like “sit” to training in an area with lots of noise and potential distractions. If a dog isn't exposed to these things while being trained, he would freak out in the real world and probably wouldn't be able to respond appropriately.

I've heard that the puppy years are the most influential, so that is why training starts when they are so young. I'm amazed that hyper young puppies can learn such complicated things!


I know that golden retrievers made great guide dogs. I have one who hasn't been trained to do this, but he is naturally very intelligent, and he even leans against me to help me up when he senses that I need it!

I can see how it would be important for the dog not to get distracted by affection or food while working, but what about when it is at home with the disabled person? Does the guide dog typically live with the person, and is it okay for the handler to pet it and love on it when it isn't on duty?


I have heard of people who also trained "helper dogs" which were slightly different from service guide dogs. Helper dogs can be trained to do things like get stray socks out of a dryer, fetch things for their owners to help accomplish tasks, and other tricks to ease life around the house. They are really valuable companions for people who have paralysis or other health problems which obstruct their natural movement.


In addition to the most common types, like seeing eye or hearing guide dogs, there are also service animals for other disabilities. One particularly genius sort of service animal I have read about but have never seen is the epilepsy dog. Epilepsy dogs can be trained to notice the difference in a human being's attitude and subconscious tics before a fit even when the human can't; they then know to signal to the person to go into a secluded place until the fit is over with, and if that is not possible, some are able to retrieve things like a block to put in the person's mouth to keep him or her from biting or swallowing his or her tongue. It really is fascinating, from what I have read.

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