Guide dogs and hearing dogs

Zaglia

As far back as 1856, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that “The blind man walks wherever the dog pulls” in her poem Aurora Leigh. The first training school for guide dogs was opened in Germany during the Great War for soldiers who returned blind from the battlefield. One opened in the United States in 1929 and Britain opened its own five years later. A very large number of countries now have their own training centres. The International Guide Dog Federation is located in Reading, England.

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Selection

Most of the earlier guide dogs were German Shepherds, but Golden Retrievers and Labradors are the most commonly used breeds nowadays. A good guide dog must be obedient, able to learn and capable of concentrating for long stretches. Crossbreeding is sometimes practised in an attempt to combine the traits of different breeds. One such cross is the Labradoodle, which was bred in response to the need for a good guide dog that could also be used by people allergic to dog hair.

The aim of human selection is to produce dogs with the right behavioural and physical qualities, minimising character faults and hereditary joint disorders, such as hip dysplasia.

Weaned puppies are placed with host families (puppy walkers), before being enrolled in a training school. In some cases, the females will regularly return to the centre to give birth, which allows breeders to retain advantageous genetic traits, especially an aptitude for the work. The selection process will achieve good results over several generations.

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Training takes around four to six months, although this is split over several terms. The first thing the dog needs to learn is obedience. This is accomplished on the basis of simple exercises in which the dog learns to adopt and hold various stances, retrieve an object, get used to wearing a harness and walk to heel.

The dog then has to learn to avoid all types of obstacle and to give their human companion the information they need to avoid them too. This is the trickiest part of the entire training, so a specialised instructor is used. Once the dog has started to get the hang of it, it is handed over to a blind person who has to get used to it and learn to trust it in day-to-day situations. In the course of time a close bond is formed between the two, helped by the instructor, who trains not only the dog but the blind person as well, moulding them into an inseparable team. Guide dogs allow blind people to have a full social life and hold down a job, so that they can live independently wherever possible.

This basic training method is used throughout the globe, although approach and duration can vary slightly depending on the country. The goal is to establish a strong relationship of mutual trust and respect between human and dog.

Guide dogs are protected by law in virtually all countries, which means that they can accompany their human companions almost everywhere, even where other dogs are not allowed. Even in Muslim countries, where dogs continue to be regarded as unclean animals, it has been stated that guide dogs should not be subject to the ban on dogs in public places. Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain has called for his co-religionists to embrace guide dogs, given the duty under Sharia for all Muslims to help visually impaired people.

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Guide dogs and hearing dogs
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