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Guide Dogs: Everything You Always Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

Puppy raisers, trainers and staff members are always happily answering questions about guide dogs, so we thought you might enjoy reading some FAQs here.

It never fails, someone is bound to ask this first question no matter the situation — and if they didn’t ask, they were probably wondering …

Q: Who cleans up after a guide dog?

A: The short answer — the handler, of course! Here’s how it’s done: From the time the dogs are puppies, they are taught a very specific technique for taking care of business and trained to do so on command. After giving the command “busy, busy,” the handler stands in one spot while the dog circles around him or her. When the dog stops, the handler then checks to see what the dog is doing. If the dog is squatted down with a flat back, then the dog is peeing. (Side note here: even male guide dogs squat; they are trained to do that specifically for this reason, and they are also taught not to mark their territory.) If the dog’s back is rounded, then the handler knows there’s going to be some clean-up needed, so they will feel down the dog’s back to the tail and then point their foot toward that spot. When the dog is done, their foot points out where clean-up is needed.

Q: Does a guide dog work all the time? Do they ever get to be just a dog?

A: No and yes! Guide dogs work when their handler is mobile, but when the handler doesn’t need them to guide, off comes the harness and out comes the regular dog. Additionally, handlers know their way around their home without needing the help of their guide, so whenever they are home, the guide dog is off duty.

Experts say the bond between a guide dog (actually, any service dog) and a handler is much stronger than that of a pet dog because the guides know the person relies on them. The dogs that go on to become guide dogs have also shown that they have a strong desire to please and really enjoy working and having a purpose.

Q: Is it okay to pet a guide dog if they look like they aren’t doing anything?

A: It is okay to pet a guide dog only if the handler has given you permission. There may be times when it looks as if the dog is resting or the handler isn’t being guided, but in actuality, whenever the dog is in harness, it is working. There are some handlers who don’t want their dogs pet, so if you have your request declined, don’t feel bad, just smile and admire the dog from afar.

Q: What about those adorable guide dog puppies-in-training? Can I pet them?

A: If you have gotten permission from the Puppy Raiser, sure! We send our puppies out with Puppy Raisers so that they will get exposed to a multitude of people and places as part of their socialization. When the puppy is younger than 10 months old, the Puppy Raiser may let you pet the puppy while it is wearing its training coat (ours are blue), but if the puppy is older, the Puppy Raiser will remove the coat first, then let you know it is okay to pet the puppy. We do this because after 10 months the puppies begin to connect that when they are in coat, they are working, but when the coat is off, they are off duty — just like the guide dog harness.

Don’t get your feelings hurt if the Puppy Raiser asks that you not pet the puppy though — while they are very cuddly and cute, it is imperative that the puppy learn to ignore distractions (including people who really want to pet them).

Q: How do guide dogs get their names?

A: At Southeastern Guide Dogs there is a Puppy Sponsorship for $3,500. This donation goes to the care of a puppy for its first year of life and comes with naming rights. Lots of times dogs are named in honor of someone; for instance, J. C., a lovely, smooth-coat collie that was matched last year was named for the sponsor’s son, John Charles, a fallen civilian serving in Afghanistan. Often times the puppies are named after much-loved pets, such as Meghan, who was named after the sponsor family’s adored German shepherd and now is the name of a working guide dog.

There are a couple guidelines for naming a guide dog puppy. First, the name shouldn’t have too many syllables or more than two words because it is often used in advance of a command. We don’t want to give the handler too much of a mouthful to say every time they need to give their guide a command. Can you imagine a handler having to say something like “Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Forward”?  While Prince William is certainly an appropriate role model, “Billy” would work much better as a guide dog name.

Second, the name should pass the curb test.  In other words, if standing on the curb, waiting to cross the street, the name should be something they feel comfortable saying out loud (and obviously always in good taste).

Those were just a few of the myriad questions we are asked on a daily basis. What are some questions you would like answered? Ask them in the comments and we’ll cover them in an upcoming edition of .

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