Guide dogs offer invaluable assistance to the blind

We are all familiar with guide dogs, animals which provide irreplaceable assistance to many blind people. But what particular qualities are guide dog trainers looking for? And what percentage of dogs that begin training actually make the grade? Radio Slovakia International’s Maria Bulkova has been finding out.

The world of blind people is mostly defined by hearing and touch. The absence of sight makes moving therefore more complicated. And Slovak legislation doesn’t make it any easier. For example, guide dogs represent a massive help for blind people, but it is usual that in Slovakia they are not allowed to enter shops and restaurants. This is a sad fact, when you take into consideration the length of waiting lists that exists for every single guide dog and the training that is very demanding. Jarmila Viragova, the director of Training School for Guide Dogs in Slovakia explains what goes in to the training of guide dogs.

“Right now there are 13 people waiting for a guide dog in Slovakia. Waiting periods are difficult to predict which is caused by the personality of each dog - not every dog is able to deal with the very demanding training. So it is hard to calculate the exact waiting period. Sometimes it takes two years to find an eligible guide dog, sometimes even more. Even if we have a trained dog, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will meet the needs of its possible owner”

Jarmila Viragova believes that a new breeding centre located in Jakubovo near Bratislava will make the waiting period shorter.

“Now with the new breeding centre we are able to adjust the number of dogs according to our needs. It means that if we were able to breed and train a certain number, let’s say 20 dogs, there is worldwide standard that only 50% of them would become guide dogs, so only 10 dogs a year from our breeding station will become guide dogs.”

The criteria for the dogs is very strict from the very beginning.

“They have to be in great shape, their joints must be in good condition, these are most important aspects for us. Even though the guide dog is not pulling a load, there is still physical pressure on them during guiding, so their joints wear out faster. As well as health, temperament and character is also key. They can’t be restless, they have to be easy to control and they can’t be aggressive – and they have to come immediately when called. It doesn’t mean anything to a healthy person if the dog lies there five minutes longer on the floor. But in the case of a blind person it is not acceptable.”

Finally, Jarmila Viragova says that, contrary to what many believe, guide dogs are not trained to cross the street.

“We don’t teach them it intentionally, because in a city like Bratislava it is not possible. There are only a few places in the world where the guide dogs are trained to cross the street. One of them is in some parts of Australia, because there are no crossings. So there are still few things that an owner has to control with their hearing. He is giving the commands. But if there is long partnership between dog and a person, the dog won’t move if the owner gives a bad command.”