Although dogs can be trained to navigate various obstacles, they are (red–green) color blind and incapable of interpreting street signs. The human does the directing, based on skills acquired through previous mobility training. The handler might be likened to an aircraft's navigator, who must know how to get from one place to another, and the dog is the pilot, who gets them there safely.
In several countries guide dogs, along with most service and hearing dogs, are exempt from regulations against the presence of animals in places such as restaurants and public transportation.
References to service animals date at least as far back as the mid-16th century. The second line of the popular verse alphabet "A was an Archer" is most commonly "B was a Blind-man/Led by a dog". In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 19th-century verse novel Aurora Leigh, the title character remarks, "The blind man walks wherever the dog pulls / And so I answered."
The first service animal training schools were established in Germany during World War I, to enhance the mobility of returning veterans who were blinded in combat. Interest in service animals outside of Germany did not become widespread until Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog breeder living in Switzerland, wrote a first-hand account about a service animal training school in Potsdam, Germany, that was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1927. That same year, United States Senator Thomas D. Schall of Minnesota was paired with a service animal imported from Germany, who was trained by the owner of LaSalle Kennels: Jack Sinykin of Minnesota.
The service animal movement did not take hold in America until Nashville resident Morris Frank returned from Switzerland after being trained with one of Eustis's dogs, a female German shepherd named Buddy. Frank and Buddy embarked on a publicity tour to convince Americans of the abilities of service animals and the need to allow people with service animals access to public transportation, hotels, and other areas open to the public. In 1929, Eustis and Frank co-founded The Seeing Eye school in Nashville, Tennessee (relocated in 1931 to New Jersey).
The first service animals in Great Britain were German shepherds. Four of these first were Flash, Judy, Meta, and Folly, who were handed over to their new owners, veterans blinded in World War I, on 6 October 1931 in Wallasey, Merseyside. Judy's new owner was Musgrave Frankland. In 1934, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in Great Britain began operation, although their first permanent trainer was a Russian military officer, Captain Nikolai Liakhoff, who moved to the UK in 1933.
Elliott S. Humphrey, an animal breeder who trained the first guide dogs for the blind used in the United States. Mr. Humphrey was hired to breed German shepherds at a center in Switzerland that had been set up by Dorothy Harrison Eustis of Phildelphia and began the work that led to the Seeing-Eye Dog program.
The first dogs produced at the center, known as Fortunate Fields, were used for military and police work and for tracking missing persons. Then Mr. Humphrey trained German shepherds to guide the blind.
The Germans had developed a guide dog program during World War I, but Mr. Humphrey devised different procedures and it is his that are followed in the United States
Important studies on the behavior and training methods of service animals were done in the 1920s and 1930s by Jakob von Uexküll and Emanuel Georg Sarris. They studied the value of service animals and introduced advanced methods of training. There have also been important studies into the discrimination experienced by people that use service and assistance animals.
The most popular breed used globally today is the Labrador Retriever. This breed has a good range of size, is easily kept due to its short coat, is generally healthy and has a gentle but willing temperament. Crosses such as the Goldador (Golden Retriever/Labrador), combine the sensitivity of the Golden Retriever and the tolerance of the Labrador Retriever and Labradoodles (Labrador/Poodles bred to help reduce allergens as all breeds shed but levels vary) are also common.
Some schools, such as the Guide Dog Foundation, have added Standard Poodles to their breed registry. Although German Shepherds were once a common breed used for guide work, many schools have discontinued using these dogs due to the skills and unwavering leadership role required by the handler to keep the breed active and non-destructive.
Despite regulations or rules that deny access to animals in restaurants and other public places, in many countries, service animals are protected by law and therefore may accompany their handlers most places that are open to the public. Laws and regulations vary worldwide:
- In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits any business, government agency, or other organization that provides access to the general public from barring service animals, except where their presence would cause a health or safety risk. However, religious organizations are not required to provide such access. Whether service animals in training have the same rights or not usually falls on each individual state government. In addition, the Fair Housing Act requires that landlords allow tenants to have service animals, as well as other types of assistance animals, in residences that normally have a No Pets policy and that no extra fees may be charged for such tenants. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity investigates complaints from the public alleging denials of reasonable accommodation requests involving assistance animals.
- In the United Kingdom the Equality Act 2010 provides for people with disabilities to have the same right to services supplied by shops, banks, hotels, libraries, pubs, taxis and restaurants as everyone else. Service providers have to make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate service animals and assistance animal owners. Under Part 12 of the EA it is illegal for assistance animal owners to be refused access to a taxi or minicab with their assistance animal, but medical exemptions are available if drivers have a certificate from their GPs.
- In most South American countries and Mexico, service animal access depends solely upon the goodwill of the owner or manager. In more tourist-heavy areas, service animals are generally welcomed without problems. In Brazil, however, a 2006 federal decree requires allowance of service animals in all public and open-to-public places. The Brasília Metro has developed a program that trains service animals to ride it.
- In Malta, the Equal Opportunities Act 2000 (Cap. 413) states that it is illegal to discriminate against a disabled person who needs an assistant, in this case, a service animal. The few exceptions are restaurant kitchens, hospital special wards, toilets and premises where other animals are kept.
- In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 protects service animals handlers. Each state and territory has its own laws, which may differ slightly.
- In Canada, service animals are allowed anywhere that the general public is allowed. Service Animal laws by province:
- Alberta: Blind Persons' Rights Act, Service Dogs Act
- British Columbia: Guide Animal Act
- Manitoba: The Human Rights Code, The Service Animals Protection Act
- New Brunswick: Human Rights Act
- Newfoundland & Labrador: Blind Persons' Rights Act, Human Rights Act
- Northwest Territories: Human Rights Act
- Nova Scotia: Blind Persons' Rights Act, Human Rights Act
- Nunavut: Human Rights Act
- Ontario: Blind Persons' Rights Act, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Human Rights Code
- Prince Edward Island: Human Rights Act
- Quebec: Individuals with Disabilities Act, Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms
- Saskatchewan: Human Rights Code
- Yukon: Human Rights Act
- In South Korea, it is illegal to deny access to service animals in any areas that are open to the public. Violators are fined no more than 2 million Korean Won.
- In Portugal, service animals are allowed anywhere that the general public is allowed. The Law - Decreto-Lei n.74/2007 - Establish their rights.
- In Switzerland, service animals are allowed anywhere that the general public is allowed.
- In Russia, service animals are allowed anywhere that the general public is allowed. Guide dogs are exempt from the fare charges in public transportation.
Because some schools of thought in Islam consider dogs in general to be unclean, many Muslim taxi drivers and store owners have refused to accommodate customers who have service animals, which has led to discrimination charges against them. However, in 2003 the Islamic Sharia Council, a British organisation that provides non-binding guidance on interpreting Islamic religious law, ruled that the ban on dogs does not apply to those used for guide work.
Benefits of owning a guide dog
Studies show owning a pet or therapy animal offer positive effects psychologically, socially, and physiologically. Guide dogs especially come with a variety of benefits and help in many ways. They give a blind person more confidence, friendship, and security. Blind people who use service animals have increased confidence in going about day-to-day life and are comforted by a constant friend. Companionship offered by a service dog helps reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Because animals offer support, security, and companionship, stress is reduced, which in turn improves cardiovascular health. "A number of studies identify pet ownership as a factor in improved recovery from illness and in improved health in general".
Guide dogs make it easier to get around, resulting in the person getting more exercise or walking more. People are more willing to go places and feel a sense of independence. Meeting people and socializing is easier, and people are more likely to offer a blind person help when there is a service animal present. The animals may also lead to increased interaction with other people. Animals are seen as "ice breakers" to a conversation with something to talk about. They are more advantageous than long canes when one is in an unfamiliar place. The animal directs the right path, instead of poking around wondering if you might bump into something. Guide dogs make the experience of the unknown more relaxing. Getting from point A to point B using a guide dog is much faster and safer. Owners of guide dogs share a special bond with their animal. Many report that the animal is a member of the family, and go to their animal for comfort and support. The animal isn't seen as a working animal, but more as a loyal friend. However it is important to remember that guide dogs are working animals and should not be distracted or treated as a pet while they are working.
Guide dogs and public etiquette
Guide dogs can naturally attract the curiosity and admiration of those that come into contact with them. Some guide dog users do not mind introducing their dogs to someone new and curious, and the subject can be a great ice breaker. However, it's important to keep in mind that a guide dog is responsible for leading its blind or visually impaired handler. The dog should never be distracted from that duty. The safety of a team depends on the dog's alertness, concentration, and focus on its handler and surroundings.
General etiquette for children and adults alike include the following:
- Never pet or talk to a guide dog without permission from the handler. If the handler declines to allow the interaction, respect the decision. Some dogs can easily develop the habit of seeking out the attention of others and losing focus on their partner.
- Be calm and soft when interacting with a guide dog.
- Do not “flirt” with a guide dog; making kissing noises, whistling at, or trying to entice a dog over are all inappropriate actions and will not be appreciated by the handler.
- Never offer food or treats to a guide dog. Guide dogs are often trained using food as a motivational tool and positive reinforcement from the handler, and should only receive food from the handler. Guide dog diets are also particular; feeding them people food can cause illness in the dog.
- Do not allow pets, including other dogs, to approach a guide dog team for any reason, whether they are friendly or not. While many people may see this as an opportunity for dogs to just say hello to each other, it is distracting to the team and can ambush a blind handler. Guide dogs need to retain their training of ignoring other dogs and animals while working.
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