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Guide Dog Program

What Is A Guide Dog?

A Guide Dog (also known as Seeing Eye Dogs) is a specially-trained dog, typically, a Labrador or Golden Retriever (although some other breeds are used) that provide assistance to someone living with blindness or vision impairment.

They provide companionship and support and help someone regain their independence and freedom. Guide Dogs help to:

  • Locate and negotiate regular routes and destinations eg. the Post Office
  • Give someone the confidence to leave the house on their own
  • Give someone the ability to use public transport to maintain employment
Lorna kisses Guide Dog Rinty's head

Lorna with Guide Dog, Rinty

But it’s the intangible benefits that really make all the difference.

“Until you have a Guide Dog, you don’t know what they can do—or the difference they will make… Rinty is my best friend. He is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” – Lorna with Guide Dog Rinty.

Our Guide Dog training program is the only one of its kind in Western Australia. We provide services within the local community that increase mobility, independence and quality of life.

The dogs complete a comprehensive, two-year, multi-stage training program to teach them the necessary skills they need to support someone with a vision impairment. This includes:

  • Locate a pedestrian crossing box
  • Stop at kerbs or stairs
  • Negotiate obstacles in the street (eg. parked cars)
  • Find a door or a seat
  • Boarding public transport

Because of this specialist training, it is extremely important that dogs are not distracted by members of the public while they are working. Find out more about how to act around a Guide Dog.

Where Do We Get Our Guide Dog Puppies From?

A senior Instructor will review puppies’ breeding profiles and carefully select a young dog from one of our specialised Guide Dog breeding programs. These are run by our sister schools in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales or, occasionally, New Zealand. Purebred Labradors or Labrador/Retriever cross are most commonly used in our Guide Dog program as they are calm, loyal and intelligent and have a proven record in training to become guides.

To ensure the very best chance of them succeeding in training and becoming a Guide, Autism Assistance or Companion/Therapy Dog, there are several traits they look for including:

  • Confidence (a timid or unsure dog will struggle to make the decisions required to guide someone effectively)
  • Responsiveness (it is vital that a dog responds well to commands and requests)
  • Focused and relaxed (not phased by everyday distractions)
  • Health

Stages of Guide Dog Training

They enter our training program at approximately 8-10 weeks of age, where they are placed with one of our volunteer puppy raisers, who raise, teach basic obedience skills, socialise and expose them to a wide variety of different environments and situations for the next 12 – 18 months. Meet our current lineup of puppies in our training program.

Throughout their time as a puppy, they undergo careful assessment for their suitability to enter formal training. Some dogs are better suited to different roles and depending on their individual personality and strengths, this could be as either a Guide Dog, an Autism Assistance or a Companion or Therapy Dog.

Guide Dog Instructor Jean Eastland with Guide Dog-in-training Ellie

Instructor Jean & trainee, Ellie

Formal Training

Once they enter formal training, at around 16-18 months of age, they leave their puppy raiser and join a volunteer formal boarder who will provide the young dog a home for the next 6-8 months. During this period, the dog attends “school” each week day, with one Guide Dog Trainer who adopts the role of “pack leader” to build trust and a strong and positive relationship with the dog.

They undertake a number of training sessions each day, relaxing in the Guide Dog office, playing in the exercise yard, chewing toys or sleeping in-between training sessions and walks.

Out of school, the dogs enjoy playtime, free running and toys as any other pet dog would.

What Do Guide Dogs Learn?

In the early stages, they begin with simple tasks such as:

  • Walking in a straight line without sniffing
  • Walking on the left-hand side slightly ahead of the trainer
  • Stopping at all kerbs
  • Waiting for a command before crossing roads
  • Stopping at the top and bottom of stairs
  • Laying quietly for some time, particularly at work or in restaurants

Progressing to more complex and challenging tasks, when the dog is ready. This may include:

  • Avoiding obstacles at head height
  • Avoiding spaces too narrow for a person and a dog to walk through side by side
  • Boarding and travelling on all forms of public transport
  • Taking the Instructor to a lift
  • Refusing commands that may lead the Instructor into danger (eg. if the Instructor commands the dog to walk them into a hole, the dog should refuse to walk forward).

Training With A Guide Dog User

Dogs that successfully complete the intensive training program, are identified as a possible match with someone who needs a Guide Dog (User).

Specialist trainers, Guide Dog Mobility Instructors (GDMI) review and consider the traits of the dog against aspects of the user’s life including:

  • Lifestyle – is the user fit & active or less active or able to walk?
  • Walking speed – a partnership will struggle if a dog walks fast and the user is a slow walker – or vice versa
  • Location – do they live in a rural area or busy city? Some dogs are more sensitive to traffic or noise and may be better suited for a quieter location
  • Travel – how much daily travel is required?
  • Occupation –  is the user employed, studying or unemployed?
  • Parenting/caring – what responsibilities does the user have?
  • Social activities – does a user like to go out frequently or prefer to stay home?

After the matching process is completed and finalised, the new Guide Dog and user ‘partnership’ training is tailored to the specific needs of the user, usually in and around the user’s home.

Over the course of 2 – 3 weeks, the GDMI will teach the dog and user how to negotiate routes or journeys that are regularly taken (eg. to the shops, bus or train station). This allows them to become familiar with the journey and be comfortable working together as a partnership.

A formal assessment is undertaken at the end of the course, to determine if a partnership is able to graduate. Once the partnership has graduated, the GDMI will maintain a relationship with he user and visit periodically, to check everything is going smoothly and there are no issues or problems. This happens for the remainder of the dog’s working life.

How Long Does A Guide Dog Work For?

This varies, depending on the individual dog. Typically, a dog will work for 8 – 10 years before retiring. Upon retirement, they get to hang up their harness and enjoy relaxing

How Much Does A Guide Dog Cost?

Here at Guide Dogs WA, we want to see a world where everybody who needs a Guide Dog, has a Guide Dog. For that reason, each of our dogs is provided free of charge to people who are blind or vision impaired.

Can NDIS Funding Be Used For A Guide Dog?

NDIS Guide Dog mobility services are provided by Guide Dogs WA. Our specialist team can advise and recommend services and supports that can be accessed and built into your plan. This should be done at an early stage, before your plan is finalised, as it is difficult to make changes to NDIS plans once implemented.

Please email Shea Heinsen in our NDIS Planning Team or call her on (08) 9311 8247 to discuss the different aspects of the service.

Find out more about NDIS and Guide Dog mobility services.

What Happens To Guide Dogs That Fail?

We don’t believe in failure! The dogs we train are specially bred for their temperament and suitability for the role. This means we rarely have dogs that have to be withdrawn from the program.

Occasionally, some dogs are not suited for the responsibility and demands of being a Guide or Autism Assistance Dog or are withdrawn for health reasons.

If that does happen, we try and reassign them to a different role that better suits their skills, personality or their own health needs.

Xavier with Companion Dog Zandie

Xavier & Companion Dog Zandie

Wherever possible, we’ll place them within our Companion or Therapy dog program and they’ll be placed with someone else who needs a different kind of help.

Some have also gone on to become Ambassador Dogs – our team of “PR” dogs who visit schools and events to raise awareness and educate people about what it is we do.

Regardless of the job they have, they will all remain within WA

Who is Eligible for a Guide Dog?

You do not have to be totally blind to receive a Guide Dog and you can apply if you meet the eligibility criteria. You are:

  • 16 years of age or more
  • Classed as legally blind
  • Resident of Western Australia

How To Apply for a Guide Dog

If you meet the above criteria please complete the online form below.  Alternatively, please contact us on (08) 9311 8202 or email GuideDogEnquiries@guidedogswa.com.au.

Owned and operated by VisAbility, Guide Dogs WA relies on the generous support of the community to fund the ongoing Guide Dog program. Please consider making a donation to support the future of the training program.

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