Training a Guide Dog

Nicholas has some mobility problems post-stroke. He has limited vision and frequent vertigo. He is afraid to go out on the street alone. He has a walking stick but because his depth perception difficulties make curbs dangerous, he wants to be accompanied outside. I have looked into training our sheepdog and she is doing well, mostly, except for squirrel distractions. I intend to register her with IAADP and when she has a little more training, put her into a harness and rigid handle.

Does anyone have advice on dealing with a guide dog? I am an experienced dog trainer (more than thirty years and at least a dozen dogs, some cats and a couple of sheep.)

The biggest challenge, really, is getting Nicholas to bond with the dog. He still misses his own little dog, gone to live with his daughter, and he thinks Ash is kind of stupid. (Which she isn’t; she is very bright and learns fast.) She is not an aggressive or alpha dog, is very friendly at home, very quiet – generally, the ideal dog for mobility work. She has learned many guide dog commands and is working well in traffic. She’s beginning to understand crosswalks and signals – which she had never seen until a month ago.

Soon I’ll have to get him out with her. It’s no good training her to be my guide dog! Any ideas on bonding? I tried to get him to feed her, but he has trouble getting her food to the right place by leaning over. Should he be handfeeding her treats? He seems to think she should do tricks like his old dog, but since she was a working dog, I never bothered to teach her cute tricks.

Do you have guide or service dog experience?


16 thoughts on “Training a Guide Dog

  1. Magdelaina,

    As someone with a significant vision impairment (remember, vision impairment and loss of depth perception will contribute to ‘vertigo’ and poor balance) i would strongly advise that Nicholas first learns to walk confidently with the long cane. This is not a walking stick but should reach the breastbone of the user so it can be held in front, touching the ground, to offer suitable tracking as the cane user stands upright. there is a proper method to its use; its not just waved along the ground in front of the person as they walk. In Australia, all potential guide dog applicants are necessitated to be skilled in mobility with long cane. The Orientation and Mobility instructor is trained to work with persons in Nicholas’ situation; to look at posture, learning to move through an environment changed by low vision, how to navigate steps, changeing terraine etc, different light conditions. When he is able to walk confidently, then he will be more ready to progress to a guide dog. I have a guide dog myself so from personal experience, am familliar with the issues Nicholas faces and the solutions. First

    SEEK A MOBILITY ASSESSMENT FROM CNIB OR YOUR CANADIAN GUIDE DOG PROVIDER; you’ll probably find the latter not only deals with guide dogs persay but also offers mobility and safe travel training. IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT NICHOLAS IS GROUNDED IN THIS FIRST. Steps are the hardest; progressing downward is difficult and a walking stick will not yield the same type of information that a long cane will; there is also a process to use the long cane properly on steps and kerbs. Additionally, we VI’s tend to habitually crouch forward defensively when progressing down steps or stairs; this though instinctive is actually detremental. Standing up straight will aid balance and enable better navigation of steps and kerbs. I would like to speak to you over the phone (I can make the call) please email me privately). What Nicholas is experiencing is normal for one who is learning to cope with low vision. have you made contact with CNIB and sheduled a low vision assessment? if he’s stubbornly resisting the idea, he needs to remember that this will give him back his independance and not stand as defeat.

    Even if print reading is largely uneffected, mobility vision can be really hammered by low vision; you DON’T NEED TO BE ‘BLIND’ TO use a long cane; remember, 97% of us have some degree of residual vision.

    Your local guide dog association may also be willing to assist with the training needs of a dog that may be suitable. DESTRACTION IS DANGEROUS; even if its only infrequent; remember, Nicholas’s life will depend on that dog’s reliability; I would counsel against going it alone and recommend going through a reputable guide dog training organization; regardless of one’s dog training and handling skills. Guide dogging is a life and death thing. if my girl became distracted while performing a road crossing, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the possible result.

    I’m saying this as someone who lives daily with low vision. I also know the frustration that comes with it and my time is your time; I am more than happy to speak with yourself and nicholas over the telephone (refer to above re emailing me so I can call you).

    he can and will ‘get it back’ not the sight perhaps, but the confidence and ability to move independantly. There is also nothing to stop him taking up the ministry once more.

    Do read ‘touching the rock’ by John Hull, a blind minister who lost his sight in the mid 80’s. I read this for the first time a few months ago and found myself crying as I related to his experiences – thinking that for all this time, nobody else feld or experienced these things (its often taboo in blindness circles to acknowledge any of this – indeed, ‘blindness circles’ are the last place I’d recommend; lots of sharpened knives and bitter hearts’; though perhaps god is opening up a ministry for Nicholas to reach this group!!

    How better to minister than by living it too? (this may sound flippant, but please, beleive me, through the pain, grief and frustration, for it is natural to grieve the loss of full vision and necessary if one is to adapt healthily) I would never dream of being glib).

    My heart, prayers, resources and experiences are at your service. Not for myself, but because I know that it can work, and doesn’t have to be so binding.

    You might like to read this
    Also check out his website. THough he’s a liberal, his understanding of ‘Disability theology’ is breathtaking.



  2. Magdelaina,

    Its good the dog is learning to recognize controlled crossings and ‘crosswalks’; however it is up to Nicholas to learn to use his hearing to determine when to cross. If using non audio-signlaled traffic lights (controlled crossing) the key here is to listen to the traffic cycle and go with the through traffic heading in the same direction as yourself when all other traffic has stopped. I learned crossing mobility back before audio signals were commonplace in Australia as a child.

    remember, the dog is simply the pilot; Nicholas is the navigator! he must know how to get around himself, first; the dog will ensure he does it safely. Guide dog commands are

    find the way
    many of these are accompanied with hand and even foot gestures.

    The guide dog user is to hold the harness handle loosely resting in the crook of the first joint of the fingers. The handle is not to be gripped and the thumb is not to be placed upon it. the guide dog user stands at the dog’s shoulder. All guide dogs are trained for the left unless specifically needed to work on the right.

    EVerything can be felt through the harness handle and check chain.

    generic commands are also taught
    ‘find the door’
    ‘find the ‘steps’
    ‘straight to the kerb’, ‘find the lift’, ‘find the counter’, ‘find the seat’.
    moving turns ‘find left’ or ‘find right’
    the guide dog user should hold the arm straight by their side with the harness handle held a thumb’s width from their leg (if you can reach out your thumb and touch your leg, that’s a good distance.

    Slip the guide-lead between your first and second fingers of the hand in which the harness handle is held.

    Before any guide dog user even dreams of taking the dog out for that first walk, the guide dog instructor will aclimatize the guide dog user to the harness (and guage their strength, correction ability etc) by holding the breastpiece while the GD user holds the handle; then you both go out on a walk as if you’ve got the dog; yes, one feels like a fool, but this rather odd practice makes sense especially to first time GD users. Guide dogging is nothing like any other work with dogs.

    then there are the corrections, dealing with pulling, sniffing, scrounging (a halti is a must) dealing with overhangs (dogs can and are trained to move the person away from overhangs; right shoulder work is the hardest.

    Then there’s inside work; destination training (shops, locations, bus stops, places on a farm (many rural folk use guide dogs on the farm successfully) etc. Then you’ve got to make sure the dog is obedient enough not to nick the communion bread in church!! (yes its happened to me!! She reared up and ‘snap!!’ Not funny! and this was after years of perfectly obedient church attendance!!!!!!

    herding dogs usually make poor guide dogs because of their nature.

    this is only the beginning. I cannot stress highly enough working with an experienced guide dog instructor and orientation & mobility/travel training instructor!



    • I really, really thank you for all the work you put into your replies! Nicholas has an appointment next week with the doctor and I intend to print off your replies and take them along. There are no guide dog trainers here, and I simply can’t afford to get another dog or send her away for training. It seems to be something of a cottage industry! Every website I check wants money. I have wroked almost exclusively with problem dogs, and I haven’t had a failure yet. Ash was something of a problem dog – at a year, she was living in akennel at the breeder’s – no life for an active dog! I find that Aussies aren’t nearly as twitchy as border collies even at herding – she didn’t try to run the sheep or nip them, just worked around them very calmly. She is already doing well with her new duties, after less than a month, but she’s not ready to really work. I know the training process can take up to a year. However, your advice is invaluable.

      I’ve seen people here with white canes. Some seem to have the knack you mention, others are almost a hazard – it’s as if they use the cane defensively – get out of my way! The doctors have been slow to respond to Nicholas’s vision issues, since they are more concerned with preventing another stroke, but I don’t want himm to become one of those poor people who sit at home watching the telly and waiting for visitors who never come. His hearing wasn’t affected at all, and was always acute. Which is especially good in our relationship, since I am slowly losing my hearing. We’re quite the pair.

      One of the post-stroke issues is that some cognition was affected, and this is where the long-term disability lies, not the vision impairment. Sarah, you are sure proff that VI is not a total disability. I doubt if he can return to ministry or any work. He has a lot of trouble making decisions, understanding complex situations, or following a convoluted conversation with several people. He has a lot of short term memory loss. Now, if yu needed someone to teach high physics or algebra, he could give the lectures, but he couldn’t grade papers or handle the social aspects of a classroom.

      This has been the most difficult aspect for me. I am now responsible for him. I try to include him in decisions, I tell him what’s going on, but then I often have to make the decision myself or cope with the fear or anxiety new matters cause him. Let’s just say I’ve been living on prayer for the last few months.

  3. Magdelaina,

    In Canada, as in Australia, I am pretty sure guide dogs are free. Canada has its own national guide dog association. Have you called CNIB? You don’t need a doctor’s referral; in fact, your doc will be, in all likeleyhood, the worst here; as they’re notorious anti agency and very uneducated in these areas; the amount of VI’s I’ve had to rouse to refer themselves to blindness agencies because their docs have been disgraceful here is not miniscule.

    Have you even called CNIB? (Sorry if I’m becomming a little strident, but do take the time and the opportunity). You’ll not require a doc’s letter; these orgs accept self referral.

    Just follow the links I sent you or even google CNIB. THey’ll have the links and the resources; if you’re remote, they’ll doubtless have some type of programme to meet the needs of clients in regional locations etc. Pick up the phone and drop them a line. these orgs are experts at dealing with low vision sight loss. Oh, one of my husband’s colleagues nearly lost her job because she didn’t want to face the ‘blindness’ agency thing; I spoke to her and lay it on the line; she made the call, now she’s kept her job and its been modified for her needs, she’s received orientation & mobility training to get around with more confidence & safety, and they’ve come into the home to give her daily living help and tips. If she had continued to hold off, she wouldn’t have gotten her help because her doctors sure as hell didn’t lift a finger in this area. Take it from both a VI and a VI trained in the community welfare field; please, please, self refer. and just make a few phone calls. the blindness agencies will best be able to make a low vision assessment, not the doctors; this is their job; they’ve their own optimetric specialists; opthalmologists, optitions, ocupational therapists who specialize in low vision etc. If you doc says ‘oh, no, this isn’t necessary’, go ahead anyway, because this is what my husband’s work colleague’s doc said and it nearly cost her her employment not to mention a whole lot of struggle muddling along ‘in the dark’ so to speak.

    I’m even happy to make the early running and call CNIB for you, making initial enquiries (no names or anything)…

    Once you take the leap, you’ll wonder why you held off.



    • I am on it as soon as I finish this reply! I had no idea that the CNIB could be so helpful, or that it was best to self-refer. Usually the doctors get kind of terrritorial about this, just as they do with self-prescribing, that is, when I say I’m going to use an herbal alternative to the expensive and potentially toxic pharmaceuticals. (Not all drugs are toxic, but many have toxicity levels.)

      Advocay is an important Christian witness. Those with knowledge and experience have to help those who are still puzzled or left behind. Thank you!

  4. Go here
    for Canadian guide dog’s newsletter
    and here
    these are the text only versions of their site; easy for VI’s to navigate; no pretty pics (there should be links for the sighted-friendly webpages)
    see, no doctor’s letter needed to self refer; if they need opthalmological reports, you can provide these; most GD organizations are used to wlrking with people who have stroke/neurological sight loss and/or some level of balance issue…

    As mentioned, a lot of Nicholas’s balance problems may well be related to his new low vision and loss of depth perception.
    And see, they’ll come to you.
    Now for Canadian National Institute for the Blind;
    about vision loss
    Their services
    Their vision loss services
    includes learning to travel safely again and do things new ways
    though they accept sevice referral from doctors and specialists, anyone can refer themselves
    Self advocacy is the strongest tool in the box, my friend; much more empowering than relying upon a specialist etc to do it for you.



  5. Magdelaina,

    yes, Canadian guide dogs will have a fund raiser; as do the Aus guide dog asociations, but their services are free, by and large. it is much more than a cottege industry; I suspect you’ve been looking in the wrong places and not at the specialists in the field. International guide dogs movement is far more than a cottege industry, and the canadians are as compitent as any other org.

    Oh me!!

    Just look at the blindness specific groups and not any ole dog trainer who’ll say they’ll do a guide dog for you.

    Follow the links I’ve provided in my previous emails to the proper agencies and don’t get put off by fly by nighters any more; and self refer; you don’t need your docs permission or his/her approval; self referral is the first step to really becoming pro active with properly manageing and dealing with this.



  6. Re Nicholas’s cognition probs; oh me; my heart goes out to you. Oh me. It is the hidden aspect of acquired brain injury that is the worst. When you get onto the above groups, they’re used to working with people who have vision loss post brain trauma; they’ll take all this into account. its a crying shame its felled him so, and I can’t even begin to imagine the frustration for either one of you. to be cognicent enough to know what one’s lost…

    You might like to look at these people
    Don’t be put off by the fund raiser requests in the side bar; all NFP’s openly request, but not from their clientelle, and you’ll find their support services will likely be free

    I don’t know how far Alberta is from you, but
    see what’s on offer… they may be able to assist with services to help Nicholas and yourself learn to deal with life post stroke; dealing with the neurological side of things/memory/thought processes/cognition… and provide someone with whom to speak so as to just unburden.

    I’ll keep praying.

    Please forgive me for my former ‘over enthusiasm…’



    • The enthusiasm is appreciated! It got me on the right track. I will talk to CNIB tomorrow. They have an office two blocks from here. If Nicholas could gain some self-confidence in mobility it would help other matters as well. He has a sense of humour about his injury – he’s named himself the “gimposaurus.” It’s toughest on him to have to turn to me or Matthew for help with everything he can’t do, but it has brought us closer in many ways.The Lord will have a witness for him, I’m sure, just not in the way it used to be.

      Alberta is almost all the way across the country! Canada is a really big place.

  7. Magdelaina,

    re CNIB and Canadian Guide dogs, you don’t need to get your doc’s approval; tell them if you wish though don’t be put off if they go on with ‘oh no, he doesn’t need that…..he’s not blind enough……..’ load o’ garbage! the only reason they need to know is so they can have it on their books and if necessary work in with Nicholas’s CNIB person…

    Re the alberta stroke organization, there should be an equivalent in your state; let me know the state you live in and I’ll search for relevant orgs for you if you like.

    I’ll keep on praying; together, you, Nicholas, CNIB, appropriate brain injury service agency, this whining Aussie and most importantly, our heavenly Father will get it sorted for you both.

    hey, if concentration etc is compromised for Nicholas, he might like to receive Christian material from in the UK (they assist folk all over the world; I have recieved their material and support since childhood). they’re free, he might like their audio literature (or giant print if the stroke has made reading vision awekward.

    This is a good one because half the board of trustees are VI and when last I checked, two of these are VI ministers; very im[portant as often, there little VI representation at senior levels of service agencies by the target group for whom the services are provided.

    I will continue to pray.



    • I wasn’t real impressed with the local H&S Society – they seemed to be very oriented to staying defined as disabled, a ‘poor me’ attitude – so didn’t pursue that, but Nicholas is psyched up about a vision and mobility assessment. I didn’t get an appointment made yet and next week is Canadian Thanksgiving – a long holiday for many! Somehow all this discussion has made him more hopeful and willing, and he’s even working on his relationship with the dog who is being an angel. Yes, reading is a big challenge. I’m so pleased to see that he makes the effort despite the problems. He is quick to ask me to help if he can’t make out whats before him on the computer screen or in the book. He struggled through a really interesting book despite the fact that some of the pages were brown or red paper. I ead them to him, sometimes three or four pages at a time, it was so important tohim to finish the book. He’s got a great attitude. Thanks again for your continued help and prayers.

  8. Magdelaina,

    Oh yes; I know all about the ‘poor me’ syndrome; gave a small supposed ‘self determination’ blindness group the flick two years ago because of it!

    Re reading, if Nicholas is struggling visually, there are several options that can make things much simpler from large print and different contrast on the PC to reading aids (CCTV/Video magnification systems).

    CNIB will be able to help with low vision reading assessment…

    Food for thought, look at
    struggling, while it might galvanize one’s determination for a season doesn’t have to be…
    CNIB will know about these; I used to use one before my sight got too bad; and would recommend nothing less than full colour; folk can get ‘seasick’ with the moving of the page across the screen in front of them (if they’re used to tracking with their eyes) but the CNIB should be able to loan one on trial basis…

    Its been 15 years since I could use this system of reading (if only…but god knows what He’s doing) and think they’re the best invention; fab for photos, illustrations, reading and writing, dead easy to use… I think CNIB may have a long term lending service.

    Don’t go for monochrome (black/white black/amber or black/green; yich!

    If Nicholas’s reading probs are because of cognition issues caused by the stroke affecting the language centres of the brain, there may be theraputic techniques to retrain the brain (neuro-elasticity) to compensate. if you’ve had no luck from local stroke associations etc, CNIB will be able to link you in with the best services to assist here; be sure to ask them and write a ‘top 10’ list to ask them.

    things to bear in mind

    reading/computer access (known in the traid as adaptive or assistive technology)
    low vision aids
    daily living
    psychological and emotional load (remember it is healthy and necessary to grieve)
    linking in with good Neurological services who are also good at assisting people with vision impairment – interdisciplinary co-operation etc).
    link to reputable guide dog organization

    These consultations can take up to five hours and the both of you will come out with a dose of information overload, but one step at a time.

    Even the prospect that there are fixes and solutions seems to be proving beneficial from what you’ve said.

    I’ll keep praying for you both; its a huge adjustment if one has lived in the world of the sighted all their lives…I guess I’ve had it easier in a way because I’ve never known sight that has enabled normal reading or ‘unassisted’ travel (without guide, cane or dog).

    Here’s another CCTV link
    again, try and go for the full colour; if one is going to rent or spend precious resources…
    And here’s a canadian mob
    this is their low vision page.
    CNIB will have some of these in their offices…

    I use humanware audio tech and it is unsurpassed.

    (and no, I’m not getting a commission!!!!!!!!! 🙂

    Praying always!!


    PS: I’ll leave you in peace, now 😀

    • I’ve gotten a lot out of this conversation, and I hope others struggling with these issues will, too. One of the biggest struggles is people thinking we are lazy, looking for a free ride, or faking it. As Nicholas said, “Why would you want to fake a stroke?” Besides, the pension is a lot less than what you can earn at even a non-professional job – it’s ‘getting by’ money! Worst case scenario is that I have to return to the States to work while he stays in Canada with family. I know immigrant families face this struggle all the time, and it is really not fair!

  9. Magdelaina,

    those individuals who think you both are being lazy ought to just shut their mouths and find something constructive to say like ‘is there anything I can do to help’! Where do people get off??????

    the greatest hurt to millions with low vision is the attitude of the sighted to the low vision sufferer of fraudulance orr ‘fake’. they simply will not understand that even if one has residual vision, and even good residual vision in some light/area of visual field, that it will be completely the opposite if light changes, contrast isn’t there, field deficite will impact upon some tasks but not others….then there is that invisible element of brain injury; people assume if one is not flat on their back in a flamin’ coma that everything’s OK WRONG!!!!! Just because a person can still verbalize and string together a conversation DOESN’T MEAN EVERYTHING’S ALLRIGHT!!!!! and if people who read this blog acuse Magdelaina and Nicholas of wanting a free ride or dare to acuse Nicholas of anything other than genuineness, GOD HELP YOU LEST YOU WIND UP FACING THE SAME THING YOURSELVES ONE DAY AND learn the hard way WHAT ITS LIKE WHEN THE BOOT IS ON THE OTHER FOOT!!!!! GROW UP, PEOPLE and leave these good, hard working folk alone to heal and try and make a new start with their changed circumstances!!

    PEOPLE DON’T CHOOSE THIS!! WE’RE CONSCRIPTS! and there’s no finite tour of duty here either; we’re presganged for life!

    people who acuse should think of that when next they cast snarky comments, especially those well to do Christians over the border in the US who are supposedly conservative etc etc YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!

    And so does our heavenly Father.

    if readers and folk who know this couple pearsonally want to make such lousy incinuations, go and read matt 25: 34-40 plus pretty much all of the book of James – then Go and seek mercy and forgiveness before the throne of grace for such a disgusting attitude toward your fellows.

    It is said by outsiders all too often that Christians are the only ones who prey on their weak… We call it a Kick in the guts when one is already on the ground.

    and there’s no room for it in the Christian life, not for one nanosecond!

    I’ll shut up now before I launch into a fire and brimstone sermon that would strip the paint from the walls; to those who assume laziness or faking, just thank your lucky stars I’m not your pastor, because you’d be hauled over the coals in a heartbeat if I got wind of it!

    As for income and resources, I will earnestly pray your church community supports you and our heavenly Father provides for you so you can remain with Nicholas in this his most vulnerable hour; he needs you, friend, and our heavenly Father knows what you both need – and what Nicholas needs to make life easier with his disabilities. I will pray faithfully for your provision trusting in our Lord’s bountiful mercy.



    • You go! We needed some defense today. Our Christian friends did come through for us, although the St. Paul route is very hard on my nerves. Those who have said what should not have been said: Judge not. And I’m still a priest; what I bind on earth is bound in heaven, what I loose on earth is loosed in heaven. Check the ordination service in the Book of Common Prayer; it’s still there. It means that if I retain your sins, they are retained; youa re still bound to them. Some have some ‘splainin’ to do…before the Judgment Seat. Always, always remember that all of us will end up there on that Day of Doom, sure to come.

      Blessings, Sarah, in what thee do. You will make a great preacher. Give em hell and heaven, too!

  10. Magdelaina,

    me a preacher, priest or paster……no, ma’am; I’ve my own charge sheet as long as your arm, sister, and am way too faulty and flawed to even dream of leading… God’s precious ones… Furthermore, I know I’ve the temprement that would give 500% and never ever be able to stand back and let go; I’ve seen too many fantastic pastors burn out, spent, with simply nothing left to give, left reeling from searing physical, mental, (or both) illness… Furthermore, hubby would have kittens! :-0

    If my ministry is to champion and advocate members of the body of Christ when they’re knocked out for the count (and ‘spitting teeth’ as you’ve so graphically commented in the past), then i open myself up, imperfections and all, to our heavenly Father doing with me as He will…

    Re the ‘Paul route’; however one slices and dices this, it is only suitable for meditation when one has travelled the new road for a long, long time and is able to muse upon such things in a more circumspect way. it is NOT to be whipped out like a magic formula immediately upon someone coming into difficulty or a ‘new world’ of life as John Hull puts it.

    Nancy Eiesland and John Hull both have written on the harm this can more often than not do; Eiesland from the perspective of a Christian growing up with Cerebral Palsey and Hull in reference to vision loss.

    its (in my thinking, life and counsel) only ever to be approached by the person themself (without outside prompting) and then only when one has grown and developed in their new circumstances……..and, even still, only as a matter for speculation, never as an answer.

    I’ll give ’em heaven, sister, but some of ’em need to learn what a hell they can so often turn the lives of others into with their off the cuff scripture quoting, ( usually born out of a lack of anything else to say, driven out of feelings of their own awkwardness, helplessness etc – not to let them off the hook; just an observation, ‘tsall), charges of laziness, playing it up, fraudulence etc., and worse still, those that trot out the ‘if you’ve simply enough faith, you’ll be healed!’ line! these types can be easily revealed for what they represent; simple test; three persons with vision impairment, and three persons with double amputation for instance Who do you think the ‘speak it, claim it’ adherrent will home in on first?????? Bingo!! Not the feller missing both legs. they also forget the difference between ‘healing’ and ‘cure’.

    I give thanks that our heavenly FAther has heard your prayers in some areas even now; and will keep on praying.

    Now I truly will leave you in peace, but I am compelled to write not for my own needs or reasons, but because the words of their own accord are insisting to be said…



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