A guide dog makes life easier and safer for someone with a visual impairment. The Belgian Centre for Guide Dogs NFPO (BCG) trains guide dogs and makes them available free of charge to anyone who needs them.
The BGC has been training guide dogs for the blind since 1990. Why? Because they change the life of a person with a visual impairment in a positive way. Guide dogs increase the mobility of visually impaired people. People who are blind or visually impaired can once again be active members of our society – safely, comfortably, and efficiently. All this is possible thanks to a guide dog that helps people to shop independently, go to work, or take part in social and cultural activities.
The Belgian Centre for Guide Dogs is a professional training centre for guide dogs for the blind. They buy and breed dogs and train them to be guide dogs. They also train people with a visual impairment how to interact with their new life buddy. Finally, they provide lasting aftercare for both dog and owner.
A guide dog – why?
The help given by a guide dog brings lots of advantages. Rubbish bags on the pavement or a fallen bicycle blocking the path make for a challenging obstacle course for visually impaired people. A guide dog indicates where the kerbs begin and leads his owner on command to a bus stop, stairs, a zebra crossing or a free seat.
Guide dogs in training are allowed to be taken anywhere: from the supermarket to the cinema. Did you know that the law even states they cannot be refused? The cute dog also encourages a friendly chat, adding to the social contact with others. But the biggest advantage, of course, is that you are never alone: you’ve got a buddy for life!
From puppy to guide dog
When a dog becomes a fully-fledged guide dog, he has come a long way already. The entire programme takes an average of two years, including six to eight months of training at the BCG. Not every dog is suitable for this training. The animals must be medically fit and have the right temperament. If these two conditions are met, the real work starts: practise, practise, practise!
Behaviours are partly genetically determined, and that is why the BCG breeds a number of their dogs. However, dogs are also bought if they meet strict criteria. The breeds we mainly work with are Labradors and Golden Retrievers. The puppies stay with their mother for the first eight weeks, where they can get used to the different situations and stimuli. They learn how to deal with people, sounds, and even go on their first car ride. The puppies are also medically tested for various disorders.
Off to school
After the first eight weeks, the puppies move to a foster family, where they learn all the basic commands. Would you like to become a foster family? All the information you need is available on the BCG website.
After about sixteen months, the dog starts his training in the BCG training centre and then moves on to extensive schooling. During training, the dogs learn to become one with their instructor when wearing their harness. This is how they learn to be an extension of their future owner. They also learn to avoid obstacles and make sure their owner does not bump into anything.
The most difficult part is teaching the dog to refuse a command. They have to do this in dangerous situations, such as crossing the road when a car is approaching. In this case, the guide dog must refuse the command to cross the road. He does this by waiting or standing in front of the person, so that the owner knows it is not safe to cross.
A match made in heaven
The BCG pairs dogs and owners based on the dog’s character. They look for the best owner for the dog, not the other way around. Some dogs love working for hours on end, while others tire sooner. Once the centre feels the perfect match has been found, the guide dog will stay with that person for two weeks. The blind or visually impaired person goes through training with his matched dog, to improve their partnership.
Slowly but surely, the bond of trust between the two grows. After two weeks of getting used to one another, there is intensive training at the new owner’s home. This is where they learn the guide dog owner’s regular routes, and that’s when their life together starts.
Into the future
The dog’s trainer visits the duo every year to see if the partnership is still the best it can be. It may be that refresher training is needed, because of a house move or other major change in the owner’s life.
This aftercare can also be used to decide what the dog’s retirement will look like. The instructor makes this decision during his home visits. As soon as the guiding is no longer hassle-free or safe, a decision is made. Guide dogs work for eight years on average. In consultation with the guide dog owner, the BCG will find a place where the dog can enjoy his well-earned retirement. If desired, the guide dog owner can opt to have a new guide dog.