Guide Dogs 101 With David Barnes of Guide Dogs NI

Guide Dogs 101 With David Barnes of Guide Dogs NI

Have you ever wondered if you’re ready for a Guide Dog?  What is the process to get one?  How are they trained and who trains the trainers? And what is involved once you get your dog?  Well, in today’s article I’m going to try to answer all those questions and more with the help of Guide Dogs NI’s David Barnes.

Dog’s have been man’s trusted companions for millennia.  They’ve helped us hunt, been loyal companions and eager workers on farms, in rescue units, in the military and police forces and yes, have guided the blind for many generations.

Today, there are Guide Dog training and services all around the world.  Each place has different rules and regulations, but most are similar.  I spoke with David Barnes, Service Delivery Manager for Guide Dogs Northern Ireland and he filled me in on how Guide Dogs work in the United Kingdom.


Let’s start with the training for the dogs and the people who train them.  There are four schools in the UK that teach guide dog training.  The program is 18 months long and then there is a period where one would work in the field.  The total length of time to become a certified trainer is 3 years.  There are exams that must be set and evidence of competency that must be achieved before you can become a trainer.  You must be very dedicated to completing the program, and what a wonderful opportunity to do good things in the world once you do.

In the UK there is an elaborate breeding system that takes place through the National Breeding Program.  Three-quarters of the puppies are accepted into the program.  The criteria for a good Guide Dog is good health, sensitivity, awareness, and robustness.  The breeds are usually labs, retrievers and German Shepherds but Labradoodles are also used for those who have allergies or don’t like a lot of shedding in their homes.

When the pups are 6-8 weeks old they are moved in with hosting families for 12-14 months.  They are in the Puppy Program at this point where they have monthly walking classes.  After that, they go for 4 months of early training and 10 weeks of advanced training.  Once this training is completed it’s time to match a dog with a blind person.

How do you know that you are ready for a guide dog?

Having a pet dog is a big commitment, having a guide dog is an even bigger commitment.  There are a lot of different considerations when you start thinking about applying for a guide dog.  The first thing is your vision.  The loss of your vision must be profound enough that you aren’t over-correcting the dog.  If you can see enough that you can still negotiate around curbs and signposts – you just aren’t blind enough for a guide dog.  You would be apt to pull the dog instead of the dog leading you and that would undo the months of training and investment already poured into the dog.  You must rely on the dog as much as you rely on your cane – maybe more so.  I use my cane at all times now because it allows me to look around at shop windows, pretty scenery and lovely architecture without having to watch my feet.  I know that I’m not ready for a guide dog because I would probably still be pulling the dog back as I admire some pretty thing along the way, or sense an obstacle and find my own way around it.

You also must consider your lifestyle.  You must have a stable routine in your life.  Places you go regularly, the routes you take.  You and your guide dog will be trained for 3-5 routes that you take on a regular basis, so if you travel a lot – like I do, or don’t have that kind of stability in your life, you either have to make changes so that you do or don’t get a dog, it’s that simple.  You also must be very disciplined.  There are strict rules that you must comply with if you are to have a guide dog.  If you break the rules you can lose the dog because spoiling an animal can bring about bad behavioural and health issues and a lack of routine will also throw the dog off its training.

The main consideration for getting a guide dog is this; are you not getting out as much as you did in the past due to your vision issues?  If the answer is yes, then you might just be ready for a guide dog.

Some of the Rules:

Routine and rules are important for a healthy psyche and working animals are particularly in need of such structures.  A guide dog visits the vet every 6 months to ensure it is in optimal health.  Feeding is vital.  A guide dog gets fed twice per day and only 150-200 grams depending on the size of your dog.  No treats or table scraps are allowed under any circumstances (that would be a tough one for me).

You must make sure that your dog gets downtime; two free runs per week and some toys like balls and kongs to play with.    There is also grooming involved and general cleaning and maintenance of the dog and its environment.

You are not allowed to be separated from your guide dog for more than three hours at any given time.  You must also ensure that you and the dog go out at least once per day for a good walk.  There are more rules but I think this gives you a general outline of what will be expected of you, should you be granted a dog.

When it’s time to apply for a Guide Dog:

When you have everything in place and believe that you are ready for a guide dog it’s time to start the process of application.  Depending on your circumstances you would make the application through an actual Guide Dog association, through Social Services or through a charity like the RNIB or CNIB.  There is paperwork that needs filled out and home visits to ensure that you truly are prepared for a dog.  The other aspect of this process is that you must be matched to a dog that is right for you.  How fast do you walk?  Are you stable on your feet?  Are you high energy or low energy?  Do you have a young family or is it just you?  All these aspects are important so that a dog of the right temperament can be found for you.

The first stage of application is the paperwork.  You can have someone from the agencies cited earlier to help you complete this information.  A few weeks after the paperwork is in, expect an assessment visit.  At this visit a representative from Guide Dogs will gather information, check that the environment is suitable for the dog, there is a health risk assessment, and other details are established.  Many things will be considered during this application stage and you may even be lucky enough to have a trial walk with a guide dog and see if it is something that will work for you.

Once all the information is gathered and you have been approved for a dog, the waiting begins.  It can take two years to finally be matched to just the right dog, but don’t give up hope – it will happen.  When the right match is made, your training begins.  In the UK, and in some other countries as well, you will spend two weeks at a hotel or training campus for intensive skill training.  During this time, you will spend 24 hours per day with your dog, building a relationship based on trust and respect, and learning how to work as a team.  You will be with two or three other new teams who are going through the same intensive training.

Once you have completed the initial training, you will go home and continue daily training for another two weeks, where you and your dog will learn your regular routes and further your working knowledge of your local area.  You will be qualified at this stage; however, it doesn’t end there.  There is a 26-week follow-up to make sure that the skills are still intact and then aftercare continues as needed.

Life with Your Guide Dog

At this point, you and your dog should be working seamlessly as a team.  For some people, the use of a guide dog will help them be more stable on their feet and with more stability comes the ability to get out of the house and live a far more independent life.  You will have support throughout your life with your dog.  If there are any problems you can always contact the Guide Dog Association.  There are also volunteers to make sure that your dog gets regular walks and care if you are unwell and unable to look after the dog for any amount of time.  If you go on vacation, your dog can be sheltered with a volunteer family.  This may be different in your area, but there should be some access to resources wherever you happen to live.    You and your dog should have many happy and independent years together.


Retirement comes for your dog when they are 8-10 years old.  At that time you will have another dog to replace your partner.  You can choose to keep your old companion, but you may find that it would be too hard on your dog not going everywhere with you anymore.  Your other options include nominating a home for your dog, perhaps a child or grandchild would like to take in a new pet that they are already familiar with, or the dog can be retired with a volunteer family.  There is no need to worry about the welfare of your old teammate.  There are well-vetted waiting lists of volunteers looking forward to taking care of your beloved friend.

Let’s Talk Money

Throughout the life of a guide dog, with training, food and healthcare – the costs run at about £60,000 or $80, 000 U.S. How much does it cost the blind person who requests and is approved for a dog – nothing!  Through very generous charitable donations and legacies, you will be matched with a dog at no cost to you.  Food, healthcare, grooming costs, everything is supplied so you need never worry that you won’t have the finances to look after your partner.  I was very fortunate in randomly meeting two individuals who were so proud of their history of donating to Guide Dogs NI, they showed me the photos they keep of the dogs they have sponsored – very touching!

In the News

Recently there have been reports of issues with owning a guide dog.  Some have complained that people have been impatient with guide dog teams, there have been guide dogs attacked by other dogs and teams have been turned away from restaurants and refused service by taxis.  So what do you do if you have a problem?

First, know your rights as a service animal owner.  Having the information at hand and standing up for your rights is important.  If you won’t do it for yourself, just remember that if it happens to you, it could happen to someone else.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of people being ignorant of the laws around guide dogs and if you can state the law to them, they often will come around – not always, but often.  Remember to always be courteous and respectful when you do have to confront someone.  As you’ve heard many times before, I’m sure, you catch more flies with honey.  Also, call ahead and let people know, that you will have a guide dog with you.  You can often avoid problems if the taxi company or restaurant know ahead of time that you are coming.

If your dog is attacked, your first concern is getting to safety and caring for your canine.  After that, a police report needs to be filed.  In most of the U.K. attacks are illegal and the owner will be held responsible for their dog is out of control.  This is not the case in Northern Ireland, so it is important that you know the law in your jurisdiction.  If it is not the law, it is still important that you keep a precise log of the occurrence.  It’s also a good idea to use these logs to petition for stronger legislation in areas where there isn’t currently a law.

Preventing Problems

Many service agencies and individuals are working hard to bring awareness of the challenges of the visual impaired and blind to the greater community.  Trying to help businesses understand the importance of keeping walkways clear of obstacles and how to aid someone with low vision who wants to access their company is a win-win situation.  Everyone has rights and responsibilities and must respect the rights of others.  Education is key to helping people understand this simple premise.  Be brave and be an example.

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