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Stages of Guide Dog Training

Each Guide Dog that enters our training program takes part in over 2 years of training and assessment. Our highly qualified Guide Dog Services Team assist each dog through the various stages of training, before the matching process can begin with their Guide Dog user.

Guiding is a complex and demanding task for a dog. The love, dedication, energy and hope invested in the training of each puppy prepares them for a life of assisting people in need. Our comprehensive matching process ensures that each dog goes to a person most suited to them. Depending on their specific skills, personality and temperament, a puppy in training may graduate as a Guide Dog, or be selected as a Companion, Assistance or Therapy Dog.

Choosing a Guide Dog puppy

Yellow Labrador puppy in coatOur young recruits are carefully selected by one of our Guide Dog Instructors from specialised Guide Dog breeding programs and enter our training program at approximately 8-10 weeks of age. Guide Dog puppies must be confident, responsive and healthy to ensure their best chance of succeeding in training and one day becoming a guide.

We primarily use purebred Labradors in our Guide Dog program because they are calm, loyal and intelligent, and have a proven record in training to become guides. Our Labradors can come in three distinct colours: yellow, black and chocolate.

Puppy Raising

The first stage of Guide Dog training is Puppy Raising. Our puppies stay with their Puppy Raiser right from the beginning, up until they’re approximately 16-18 months old.

In this time, our puppies accompany their Puppy Raiser almost everywhere they go, including shops, restaurants and work. This way, our puppies can learn basic socialisation and obedience skills and ensuring they’re calm and familiarised with a range of different situations that they may encounter in their life as a working Guide Dog.

“There is an extra level of adjustment needed when raising a Guide Dog puppy, as they need to learn how to behave in different environments, such as shopping centres, cafés, and on public transport.” – Laura, Puppy Raiser of Annie.

Our puppies also attend fortnightly Puppy Classes in various locations, giving Puppy Raisers a chance to ask any questions and learn the next stages of obedience and training.

Throughout this Puppy Raising phase, our Guide Dog Instructors carefully assess each puppy for their suitability to enter formal training to become a guide. Prospective Guide Dogs must be eager to work, with good concentration and initiative, and exercise self-control around other animals so as to not become distracted. Because of this, not all dogs in our program are suited to the responsibility of guiding, and instead are placed as a Buddy Dog.

You can find out more about becoming a Puppy Raiser and how you can help our next generation of Guide Dog puppies.

Formal Training

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

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

Puppies that are selected to become Guide Dogs undergo an intensive 6 month formal training program that begins at about 16-18 months of age. Each dog has their own Guide Dog Instructor, who adopts the role of the ‘pack leader’. A young dog will naturally seek out the pack leader for guidance, and places their trust in this leadership.
Guide Dogs are trained through positive reinforcement. It’s important that each dog and their Instructor develop a positive working relationship, therefore the dog is praised every time they make the correct choice or produce the desired behaviour. The dogs soon learn what the Instructor is asking, and will happily demonstrate their newly acquired skills.

 

What do our Guide Dogs learn?

Our Guide Dog Instructors begin with simple commands, only progressing to more complex and challenging tasks when the dog is ready. These tasks include:

  • 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,
  • 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,
  • Laying quietly for some time, particularly at work or in restaurants,
  • Refusing commands that may lead the Instructor into danger, for example, if the Instructor commands the Guide Dog to walk them into a hole, the dog may refuse to walk forward.

Training each Guide Dog takes a lot of hard work, patience and perseverance, but every time our dogs are matched with their user, we feel a great sense of satisfaction in seeing our dogs succeed in their highly rewarding roles. These intelligent dogs lead very interesting lives—and they certainly demonstrate that they enjoy the challenge.

“I enjoy knowing that my work makes a real difference to the lives of people who are blind and vision impaired, and their families, in many different ways—and of course working with incredibly smart dogs who, for the reward of a little praise and affection, willingly learn to do one of the most demanding jobs that dogs do for humans.” – Phil Stanley, Senior Guide Dog Instructor.

Training with the Guide Dog user

Dogs that successfully complete our rigorous training program are then matched with a potential Guide Dog user. We make sure that each dog is well-suited to the user’s specific lifestyle and travel needs. There are a range of considerations in the matching process, including the user’s walking speed, if they are in employment or studying, how much travel is undertaken on a day-to-day basis, parenting responsibilities, social activities, and so on.

Janine with Guide Dog Tom

Janine with Guide Dog Tom

After this matching process has taken place and the new Guide Dog and user ‘partnership’ has been finalised, training with the Guide Dog is tailored to the needs of the user. The training takes place in and around the user’s home, as well as a variety of other locations, and is provided free of charge.

“Towards the end of formal training is the time to match the dog’s guiding skills and personality to the user. When the new partnership comes together and they’re working in unison, it’s fantastic, and that’s what the job is all about.” – Jean Eastland, Guide Dog Instructor.

Over a period of at least 4-6 weeks, the new Guide Dog Partnership learn the skills they need to be able to travel safely through different types of environments, including their most common travel routes. The Guide Dog user also learns how to care for the dog, and most importantly, how the dog thinks in different situations. Each and every training program is individually managed to cater for the needs of the unique partnership involved, only slowing down once a minimum standard of safe, independent travel is reached.

When a successful match is made and a Guide Dog Partnership has been independent for some months, Guide Dogs WA hosts a Babbingur Graduation Ceremony to celebrate the unique bond formed between each partnership. Babbingur is a Nyoongar word, describing a ‘very loyal and devoted friendship’, and sponsors, Puppy Raisers, Instructors, family, friends and supporters all come together to mark the special occasion.

“Watching the dogs grow and change—and then being matched with a Guide Dog user—it brings a lump to my throat every time.” – Phil Stanley, Senior Guide Dog Instructor.

Ongoing Training and Support

Our Guide Dog Services staff will continue to work with and support our Guide Dog Partnerships throughout their working life, which can be up to 8-10 years. Guide Dogs WA provides ongoing support and training, such as when a Guide Dog user is faced with new areas of travel. By maintaining this high standard of service, we ensure that each person lives as independently as possible with their Guide Dog.

Should a user require a new Guide Dog, our Instructors have the important task of matching and retraining the user with their new dog, as each of our Guide Dogs are unique and we ensure the match is suitable for both the user and their Guide Dog. For those who have a Guide Dog nearing retirement, the thought of life without their guidance is a scary one. It can mean losing the freedom and independence they have treasured for close to a decade. This is why our existing Guide Dog users are placed first in line for a new dog.

Find out how you can Apply for a Guide Dog, or how you can support our Guide Dog program by Fundraising for us!

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