Let Me Lead: Perspectives From Guide Dog Handlers
The guide dog strides along confidently, walking slightly in front of the person they’re leading. Deftly navigating around a barricade across the sidewalk and a low-hanging tree branch, they stop and sit on the curb at a traffic-choked intersection. When the traffic stops, the dog moves forward, safely delivering their handler across the street and to the door of the coffee shop. After the stop for a drink, the dog leads on to the bus stop and climbs aboard, their handler in tow. As the bus pulls away, the dog curls up under the seat, out of the way of other passengers.
Guide dogs are provided to persons with vision loss by schools around the world. Handlers vary in age, degree of vision loss, how often they need guiding, and living situations. Canine guides can improve a person’s sense of independence, confidence, and safety, as well as physical activity level — and of course, there is the powerful emotional connection to a companion animal. Training for guide dogs is extensive. They learn to move forward and change direction on command, stop and sit at curbs, stop to avoid oncoming vehicles, and guide their handler to places to which they’ve been trained to go. They also must learn “intelligent disobedience,” where they use their own judgment and ignore a handler’s command if following it would be unsafe.
Most guide dogs are bred by guide dog organizations. They often have decades of experience with dogs, but even so, most puppies bred by the schools fail to become guide dogs. Instead, they find their way into other service work or become companion animals. A variety of assessment methods are in use to improve their chances of success. These tools look for traits such as trainability, reactivity, low aggressiveness, fearfulness, energy, and attachment behavior. But are these the traits most valued by the handlers themselves in their daily work with their dogs?
To examine this question, researchers conducted 63 semi-structured phone interviews with guide dog handlers in the United Kingdom. The aim was to find out which aspects of guide dog behavior most concerned their handlers. They were asked about their work with their dogs, their dog’s behavior in and out of harness, along with demographic information. The questions were designed to elicit the handler’s levels of satisfaction with their work and their relationship with their dogs. The responses were also compared with data collected during the raising and training of the dogs.
Safe conduct in traffic was the most important positive behavior. Pulling on the lead or harness was the most negative attribute. Other traits noted by handlers included attentiveness, whether to task, environment, or handler. Having to give a command just once was highly valued by handlers, as was focused attention while working. Distractions happen, and handlers remained alert to the potential for food, other dogs, people, scents, and other animals to capture their dog’s attention and make them unpredictable.
Confidence in work and decision-making improved the confidence of the handler. This was especially true when the dog correctly ignored the handler’s commands for safety reasons. Otherwise, obedience was highly valued, along with calmness in stressful situations. Handlers are proud of their dogs and impressed when dogs could lead them to doors, street crossings, shop counters or trash bins without prior training for that specific place or item. Handlers like the interdependence that comes from the partnership and appreciate a dog’s relaxed demeanor when off duty.
The interviews highlighted traits that are not currently considered in guide dog assessments. These included behavioral consistency, dog maturity, and behavior around children. Dogs that behave the same way whether in harness, on a lead or not working are also predictable. This allows handlers to prepare themselves accordingly. Professional dog trainers and guide dog handlers have different levels of skill with dogs. Schools should consider this when matching dogs and handlers. It’s important to note that it’s not only dogs, but handlers themselves who may require additional or ongoing training.
The results showed that there is a wide variety in what handlers like and don’t like in their dogs. Animal advocates can use this study to encourage the use of dog personality assessments that capture some of the traits not currently evaluated but valued by guide dog handlers. The better the match between dog and handler, the better the quality of life for both members of this important partnership.