Frequently Asked Questions

Leader Dogs and Services

What breeds are Leader Dogs?

Leader Dogs are Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds or Labrador/golden crosses.

Where do Leader Dogs come from?

A majority of dogs are from our own breeding colony. On occasion, we receive dogs from other working dog organizations.

Do you use shelter or rescue dogs?

No. Leader Dog took dogs from Humane Societies throughout Michigan for many years. There are wonderful dogs in shelters, and we tried many different strategies to train these dogs to become guide dogs. However, guide work demands a very special set of traits, personality, abilities and an excellent health record, and unfortunately the vast majority of the shelter dogs did not meet the requirements we have to match a dog with someone who is blind or visually impaired. We eventually had to make the difficult decision to no longer procure shelter dogs.

What kind of dog makes the best guide dog?

How are Leader Dogs trained?

Leader Dogs are educated in the same way as many pets—with lots of repetition and positive reinforcement. For the first year, they grow up in homes with volunteer puppy raisers. The raisers teach them basic obedience and expose them to the world. Leader Dogs then participate in four months of formal harness training with a professional guide dog mobility instructor (GDMI). During this time, they learn guide dog skills such as stopping at curbs, avoiding obstacles and finding doors.

Do you use clicker training with your dogs?

Yes. Clicker training is a form of operant conditioning using positive reinforcement. Using a small handheld clicker device, a guide dog mobility instructor (GDMI) “marks” with a “click” when the dog performs a desired behavior and follows with a reinforcer (such as a treat). As the dog becomes proficient in the desired behavior, the clicker is phased out. Next, the GDMI begins to offer the food reinforcer randomly and introduces a secondary reinforcer (such as praise) to continue to support the desired behavior.

Who can get a Leader Dog?

Leader Dog recipients must be at least 16 years old, legally blind, physically and emotionally capable of caring for a dog and must agree to use the dog in the intended manner. Leader Dog recipients must have demonstrated safe traveling skills. 

How does someone get a Leader Dog?

Prospective clients complete an application, submit medical and physical exam forms, and supply personal references. They also send us a 10–15 minute video of themselves walking in their home area, demonstrating independent travel and the ability to safely navigate lighted intersections and street crossings. This video is important not only because it lets us know if a prospective client's orientation and mobility skills are advanced enough to work successfully with a guide dog, but also because it allows our instructors to begin the matching process of selecting a dog with the right size, gait, experiences and temperament for each client.

Do you only train dogs for people who are blind?

Yes. Leader Dog recipients must be legally blind to be considered to receive a dog. We also have a program for people who are both deaf and blind.

How much does it cost to get a guide dog or receive other types of training?

There is no charge for any of our programs and services, including the guide dog, equipment, training, transportation to and from our campus, and room and board during training.

How does a guide dog know when to cross the street?

Guide dogs don’t know when to cross the street. They wait until their handler gives them the command to go forward. Then the dog decides whether or not it is truly safe to cross. If the Leader Dog doesn’t see any approaching traffic, it will cross the street and stop at the curb. Then the dog's handler will tell it again which way to proceed.

How does a guide dog know where to go?

Guide dogs rely on their handlers to know how to get to destinations. Sometimes when a team has frequently walked to a certain destination, the Leader Dog will remember the route.

Do guide dogs ever get to play?

Of course! Part of the selection criteria for Leader Dogs is that they enjoy the work they do, but when they are out of harness, guide dogs are just like any other dog. Playtime is an important part of every dog's life, and playing with their Leader Dog helps to strengthen the bond between handler and guide dog.

What happens when a guide dog gets too old to work?

When a Leader Dog is no longer able to work in a safe and responsible fashion, it is time to for the dog to "retire." Some people will choose to keep the dog in their home as a pet, while others will place their dog with family or friends. If for any reason the handler cannot keep the retired dog in their home, Leader Dogs for the Blind will always accept the dog back and find a loving home through our career change program.

Can people take their guide dogs anywhere?

Any public place is accessible by a guide dog team. There are federal access laws that protect a guide dog handler and his or her canine partner from discrimination. The U.S. Department of Justice has published a helpful guide of frequently asked questions about service animals and their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

How does someone become a guide dog instructor?

A three-year apprentice program at Leader Dogs for the Blind is required to become a guide dog mobility instructor (GDMI). During this time, apprentices attend in-class lectures and receive hands-on training alongside a seasoned GDMI. Learn more about how to become an instructor at Leader Dog.

Do you work with guide dog organizations in other countries?

We have ongoing relationships with ONCE of Spain and IRIS Guide Dogs in Brazil to provide guide dog training to some of their clients each year. We also assisted the Taiwan Guide Dog Association with dogs and apprentice guide dog mobility instructor training when they first started.

What service dog organizations does Leader Dogs for the Blind belong to?

We are members of the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and the Council of US Dog Guide Schools (CUSDGS).

Puppies and Breeding Program

Where do your get your puppies?

We have our own breeding program. Leader Dog moms and dads live with volunteer host families in their homes. They are bred at the facility, then return to their homes where the mom whelps (births) her puppies. At any given time there are approximately 90 Leader Dog moms and dads.

Where do the puppies grow up?

Future Leader Dogs grow up in the homes of volunteer puppy raisers. There are about 400 puppy raisers in 22 states and Canada. Volunteer raisers teach puppies basic obedience, house manners and socialize them in the community. Puppies are returned to Leader Dog when they are 12 to 15 months old.

Some Future Leader Dogs are raised within correctional facilities as part of our Prison Puppies initiative. The initiative pairs puppies with carefully selected inmates who raise the puppies within correctional facilities for about a year.

How do I become a puppy raiser or host a Leader Dog mom or dad?

To volunteer as a puppy raiser or breeding stock host for a mom or dad dog, you must apply to the program. If accepted, it can take six months to a year before you receive a puppy. Leader Dog moms and dads are placed in homes based on the continuing needs of the program.

Career Changed Dogs

What is a career changed dog?

When a dog is not able to serve as a Leader Dog, we refer to that dog as career changed. These are wonderful dogs that make terrific pets or service animals in a different field but are not well suited to be guide dogs.

What happens to a dog that is career changed?

Some dogs will have the opportunity to be a service dog for a different kind of organization, such as police, customs and assistance dogs. Other career changed dogs may be available for adoption

Funding and Volunteering

Where does Leader Dogs for the Blind get its funding?

Our funding comes from individual gifts, endowment interest and service organizations, such as Lions clubs. Leader Dog relies on the generosity and dedication of our donors as we do not receive any federal funding.

What type of volunteer opportunities do you offer?

We have administrative needs, dog care needs and the option to house a puppy or breeding stock dog in your home. Learn more about our volunteer positions and see if we have an on-campus volunteer position that may fit you.

Other Programs

What other programs does Leader Dogs for the Blind offer?

Leader Dog offers a number of programs for people who are legally blind. A seven-day residential orientation and mobility (O&M) program empowers people by providing the skills needed to travel safely using a white cane in a much shorter timeframe than traditional O&M programs.

Leader Dog provides a free Trekker Breeze+ GPS to clients in our guide dog program who live in the United States and Canada. The Trekker Breeze+ is a simple to use, handheld personal navigation device that enhances travel by verbally announcing names of streets, intersections, route instructions and other information.

For people who are both deaf and blind, Leader Dog offers a specialized guide dog program to fit their needs.

For teens ages 16 and 17 who are legally blind, Leader Dog offers a unique summer camp each year that combines summer fun with an introduction to guide dogs and the opportunity to spend time with peers who are facing similar challenges. Campers kayak, rock wall climb and tandem bike, receive a free GPS device with instruction and spend time with dogs and Leader Dog instructors to learn more about living and working with a guide dog.