Training our guide dogs
Dogs are fast learners, picking up knowledge from their surroundings, their training and their interactions with people and other animals.
They're on a constant learning journey, with each experience shaping their understanding of the world and their behaviour. In turn, the way we react to our dogs and communicate with them can influence how they behave and inform the way we train our guide dogs.
Are all guide dogs trained the same way?
Training our guide dogs is a comprehensive and structured process that includes different stages of learning.
Each of our dogs are different, and many factors influence how a dog learns. This includes their breed, age, genetics, health status, past experiences, and overall environment, so we take the time to find out what works best for each individual dog.
Understanding a dog’s personality, preferences and what motivates them can help tailor training to suit each dog’s unique needs. This encourages them to problem-solve, and builds their confidence, resulting in motivated, happy dogs who have the best possible start for their future as a life-changing guide dog.
How our guide dogs are trained
The approach to dog training and our understanding of how dogs learn has developed over the years and will continue to do so, resulting in updated techniques for teaching dogs new behaviours. Our guide dogs go on a comprehensive training journey where they’re supported by a team of health, wellbeing and training experts, encompassing three main stages before they can be matched:
Early learning - nurturing foundations:
From birth to eight weeks old, our future guide dogs begin their journey in the warm embrace of a dedicated breeding dog volunteer’s home, alongside their guide dog mum. During this critical phase, they’re immersed in early socialisation, becoming accustomed to various people, sounds, smells, textures, and home environments, both indoors and in the garden.
Growing up - shaping skills:
At eight weeks old, our young puppies transition to the care of our volunteer puppy raisers. Here, they’re carefully introduced to the world around them, experiencing all the different sights, sounds, smells, and different situations that will help them become confident young adults. They learn vital practical skills, master essential cues, and most importantly, build positive relationships with the people in their lives. As they mature, they expand their horizons by exploring a broad range of environments and situations, building positive associations, learning how to be calm and ensuring a solid foundation for their journey ahead.
Formal training - transforming into guide dogs:
Our guide dogs will typically begin their formal training at around 14 months of age, at one of Guide Dogs’ centres. Accompanied by skilled trainers and cared for by dedicated dog wellbeing staff on site, or at home with volunteer fosterers, our dogs go through a comprehensive curriculum, learning 37 key behaviours. This includes learning skills and responses to verbal, visual and environmental cues, all taught through marker training.
A cue is a word or gesture we use to teach our dogs to associate with a particular behaviour, such as ‘sit’, ‘down’ and ‘forward’. They also learn that certain environmental features should be used as a cue. For example, a kerb or approaching vehicle becomes a cue for our dogs to stop. Our guide dogs even need to learn when to not follow a particular cue if this would lead to a dangerous situation, such as refusing the cue ‘forward’ if there’s an approaching vehicle. In other words, guide dogs need to work independently of their handler, and not just because of what they're asked.
We make training both fun and rewarding, so our dogs enjoy their work and thrive in this role as partner and guide. They're introduced to their specialised equipment, most importantly their guiding harness. The harness becomes their ‘working uniform’ and is a clear signal to people that the dog should not be interrupted or distracted. Our dogs' experience and knowledge are further developed as they encounter a wide array of environments and situations, practising their key behaviours and ensuring that they have all the skills required to safely guide a person with sight loss and learning to work together with their human partner in all aspects of their life.
Through these three stages of development, our dogs evolve into confident and capable companions, ready to be partnered with someone with a vision impairment, usually when they’re around two years of age.
Consistency is key
We use clear and consistent communication to train our guide dogs, to support their understanding of how to behave and how to respond in different situations. We always aim to set them up for success in training by teaching everything in small steps, making it easy and rewarding for the dog.
So, when we're teaching our dogs to ignore distractions such as food, dogs and cats, we start at a distance with an easy distraction and reward the dog for walking straight past; then, as they master that, we make the challenge harder by reducing the distance or having more tempting distractions in different situations.
All dogs and animals, including humans, learn through association and consequences, so by being consistent in our training and reinforcing behaviour, our dogs develop reliable and predictable responses. Our dogs learn that training is fun, which means they’re engaged, motivated and look forward to their work.
What is positive reinforcement, and how does it work?
At Guide Dogs, we reward desired behaviour through positive reinforcement, which builds trust and cooperation, resulting in happy guide dogs. Positive reinforcement is a training approach that involves rewarding our guide dogs for desired behaviour. The reward can be food, verbal praise, toys, or something that we know motivates the individual dog.
Positive reinforcement encourages our guide dogs to repeat desired behaviour and helps them understand what's expected of them.
Marker training is a technique we use as part of our guide dog training. Our dogs are taught to associate a marker sound such as a clicker or verbal cue ‘Yep!’ with a reward. This is then used to mark the exact moment the dog performs the correct behaviour. So, if we’re teaching a sit, the clicker or verbal marker would sound at the exact moment the dog adopts the sit position and this is followed with the reward.
Once the behaviour of sit has been learned, the marker is no longer needed. Most dogs love food, so it makes for a highly effective reward and the one that is most often paired with the marker. Marker training with food is quick and easy to use and enables lots of precise repetitions. This means dogs can learn tasks in a fast and accurate way.
What are the most effective rewards for guide dogs?
While food is an excellent motivator for many dogs, some prefer other rewards! For some of our dogs, hearing verbal praise can be just as rewarding as receiving food. Physical touch, such as petting or giving dogs a scratch behind the ears (if they enjoy this), can also be used as a reward.
Another option is to reward with toys and activities. Some of our dogs are highly motivated by play and enjoy a game of fetch with their favourite toy or time spent off lead.
As our dogs become more skilled the need to use rewards such as food for simple tasks is reduced.
Matching a qualified guide dog with their new partner
The guide dog matching process is a personalised journey where each trained guide dog is carefully paired with their new partner.
It begins with an in-depth assessment of the person’s specific needs, lifestyle, and preferences, followed by the careful selection of a guide dog whose temperament, skills, and personality align with those requirements. It’s important that the dog matches the person and the person matches the dog.
Once the perfect match is found, we provide five weeks of tailored training and relationship-building sessions take place to ensure the dog and their partner get off to the best start. We continue to support our dogs and their partners for the lifetime of their partnership and are always on hand for help and advice.
Become a Guide Dog Trainer or Guide Dog Mobility Specialist through our very own Guide Dogs Academy.