Preparing for Guide Dog Training
Once you’ve gathered information about using a guide dog to help you travel independently, you might decide to apply to a Guide Dog School for training. On this page, you'll find an overview of what to keep in mind and how our Orientation and Mobility program can get you ready.
Guide dog and training considerations
- Having a guide dog means extra expenses. You’ll need to budget for food and also for routine and emergency veterinary costs.
- If you are receiving O.D.S.P. income supports, you may be eligible for an increase in your monthly income to assist with the cost of caring for a guide dog. Contact your O.D.S.P. worker when you return with your dog.
- When you research training facilities, ask if they have a program to assist with veterinary expenses.
- If you are a first-time guide dog handler, prepare for training by working with an Orientation and Mobility instructor. If you are already enrolled in an Orientation and Mobility program, let your instructor know well in advance that you are applying for guide dog training.
- Guide dog training is an intensive program, usually four weeks long. It involves learning the skills to work with and groom your dog, but it's also a time for bonding and for learning to trust the dog with your safety. Without prior Orientation and Mobility training, you'll need to work on these skills “on the job.” This takes away from the time you need to learn to handle your dog effectively and gain confidence.
- Travelling with a guide dog is not like taking a taxi. It isn't simply about telling the dog to take you to the bank for example, and then holding the harness and magically arriving. It's your responsibility to direct the dog—to let it know when to move forward, when to turn left or right, when to speed up or slow down, and when to leave the curb to cross the street.
Preparation for training—Orientation and Mobility skills
Travelling with a guide dog means less direct physical contact with your environment. Your Orientation and Mobility instructor can help you learn how to judge distances more effectively and to estimate the time it takes to travel a given distance. This enables you to direct the dog to turn left or right to find a landmark.
Spatial orientation skills include the ability to walk in a straight line, but also to realize when you may be veering from that line or curving around a corner. Your instructor can teach you how to maintain your orientation so you can keep control of your dog. The dog will steer you around people or obstacles, but there will also be times when it unexpectedly misreads one of your signals or leads you to a routine destination instead of where you actually want to go. Other spatial orientation skills include recognizing changes in slope and terrain, and being able to orient yourself in space. There may be times, for example, when you're unable to navigate your planned route due to construction or other situations. Mapping routes in your mind enables you to figure out an alternative route and direct your dog accordingly.
Listening skills help you to maintain or regain your spatial orientation. When you travel with a guide dog, it's very important to pay attention to your environment. Is the moving traffic on your left or your right? Has the traffic become further away from you than it should be? Do you hear the children playing in the school yard across the street?
Effective listening also helps you to align yourself with parallel and perpendicular traffic, and identify traffic surges when crossing streets. You will need to tell your dog when to leave the curb based on the sound of the traffic. Also, although your dog is trained to locate the curb on the other side of the street, it can become confused if you are significantly out of alignment. This means the dog could lead you to the wrong corner as you cross, which can be dangerous and disorienting. If you aren’t confident with these skills, your O&M instructor can work on them with you.
When you travel with your guide dog on unfamiliar routes, you might need to solicit aid along the way. Your Orientation and Mobility instructor can help you practice how to ask for assistance clearly and how to interact effectively with a sighted guide.
Generally speaking, you'll walk faster with a guide dog than with a long cane. The training is also physically demanding. Talk to your doctor about increasing your physical activity before attending guide dog training. To build up stamina, you can increase the amount of walking you do with your cane or a sighted guide, and try to walk a little faster.
If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor about the increase in physical activity needed for guide dog training. You'll want to closely monitor your blood sugar levels and insulin intake.
Preparing your family and friends
If you live with friends or family, they will need to understand how and when to interact with your guide dog. When you return from training, you and your dog will continue to bond and learn to trust each other. If others interfere with your handling of the dog or play with it without permission and guidance, it can have a detrimental effect on your team.
It's important that your dog relies on you for its food, discipline, and relieving and exercise needs. It is vital that your dog is not fed food scraps or any food other than its own.
If you have functional vision
Many people who travel with guide dogs have residual vision. An Orientation and Mobility instructor can help you learn to trust the dog’s judgement and follow it around obstacles. This means understanding when your vision is useful and when it might interfere with the dog’s work. Trying, for example, to override the dog’s decisions will be confusing for both of you.
For more information on preparing for guide dog training, contact BALANCE to speak with an Orientation and Mobility instructor.