The Dog Blog: Creating the Right Dog

In my last post, I talked in general about the experience of working with a guide dog. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it’s not quite the same as training the family pet. So, this time I’ll raise the curtain a bit on what goes on behind the scene to “create” a guide dog.

It’s so obvious that guide dogs, even as puppies, are not typical of their breed that it’s often overlooked. A Labrador retriever puppy at the local shelter is almost certainly a different dog than the Labrador Retriever in training to be a guide dog.

The better schools have their own breeding program, in some cases, extending back over almost a century. The most popular breeds for guide work are Labrador and Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and crosses of these breeds. Some schools include standard poodles, and, occasionally, another breed to meet special circumstances, but, generally, speaking, guide dogs are Labs, Goldens, or Shepherds.
My knowledge of genetics leaves a great deal to be desired. Mendel and his pea plants were about as far as I got, but trainers have told me that the breeding programs are primarily interested in three characteristics. First, they are looking for dogs who are curious about their environment without being hyper. Adult dogs need to be alert and attuned to what’s around them in order to be good guides. Second, they are looking for dogs with a gentle disposition. They don’t want a dog who is prone to going after the little old lady who innocently steps on their foot in an elevator.

Finally, they are trying to identify dogs who like to work. And, yes, there are some dogs who really enjoy it. As anyone who has ever spent much time around dogs knows, some breeds have been bred for special tasks and, consequently, are far more predisposed to love to work than others. It’s not an accident that Labs, Goldens, and Shepherds are preferred; they’ve all been bred to work and are “happier” when they have a purpose in life.

I’ll return to this later, but one of the most important goals in working with a dog is to make the work enjoyable for the dog. If you do this right, the dog practically dives into the harness – and, no, I’m not kidding; they really do dive.

There are two other characteristics, at least in my experience, that seem to loom large in the breeding and selecting of dogs for training: a desire to please and an emotional empathy with people. When it comes to training, not all breeds are created equal and not all individuals within those breeds are the same. I’ve seen a couple of surveys that have been done of professional trainers in which they’re asked about the challenges of training various breeds. As you might guess, there is a clear consensus; some breeds, for whatever reasons, are far easier to work with. It’s not clear what accounts for this – intelligence, distractibility, a simple unwillingness to cooperate – but, whatever the cause, Shepherds, Labs, and Goldens are always in the top 10% of the most trainable breeds. Again, I don’t think it’s an accident that these are dogs that are known for their desire to please and emotional attuneness to their human handlers.

Once a puppy has been selected for training and has been weaned, it is placed with a pre-selected family for socialization. Different schools do this differently; the Seeing Eye, for example, uses 4-H kids, but it’s a pretty safe bet that there are a lot of 4-H moms that end up with this as their project.

The families do some very basic dog obedience, but their primary responsibility is the socialization of their puppy. A guide dog is likely to be called on to work in a variety of different situations that evolution didn’t prepare it for, and it is the family’s job to introduce the puppy to things it will encounter in its working life. Schools provide a check-list of activities: church; the mall; public transportation; school; family outings; cars, etc.

Dogs do not view the world the way we do. Things that are small and insignificant to us may be seen entirely differently by a dog. Even relatively young children, for example, understand that someone of a different race is just a human being of a different ethnicity. To a dog that has not been socialized to other races, however, this is a completely new and strange creature and one that might be very frightening. Similarly, the person wearing a uniform, to a dog who has never seen this before, might appear as an alien being. It is the responsibility of the puppy-raiser family to ensure that their dogs get exposed to as many unique and potentially problematic situations like these as possible.

Training dogs is a real art, but some really terrific dogs just don’t make the cut. There are some qualities that can’t be overcome with even the best training. Think here of fear of thunder storms or a compulsion to chase cats. In such cases, the puppy-raising family is given first right of refusal to adopt the dog itself.

In the next post, we’ll turn to what happens when someone goes to train with a new dog. This is where the real fun begins.

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