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Frequently Asked Questions

Leader Dogs

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Guide Dog Training Program

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. 

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.

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.

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.

We provide free HumanWare Victor Reader Trek units for clients in the U.S. and Canada. GPS training is part of the Guide Dog Training program.

Yes. On-campus training is our most popular and most comprehensive type of Guide Dog Training, but to accommodate the wide variety of clients' lifestyles, ages, work/family obligations, health restrictions and other factors, we also offer in-home delivery, flex (blend of on-campus and in-home training), urban (for clients who live/work in heavily populated areas), warm weather (for clients who live in warm climates or whose health may prohibit training in cold weather), and Deaf-Blind (our on-campus training, adapted for clients who are both deaf and blind). Learn more about our Guide Dog Training options.

Orientation & Mobility (O&M) Training Program

Orientation and mobility (O&M) training is learning how to use a white cane to effectively know where you are, where you want to go and the skills to get to your destination. Leader Dog's O&M Training program teaches these skills in a condensed format to people of all skill levels in navigating with a white cane, whether they are new to using a cane or long-time users who want to brush up on their skills.

No, clients don’t need to have a cane to come to O&M Training. We encourage clients to bring their white cane if they are already using one; however, all participants will receive a white cane that is customized for their needs.

To participate in O&M Training, clients must be 16 years of age or older, legally blind, able to care for themselves and dispense their own medications, and a minimum of six months seizure free. Additionally, due to the condensed time frame of the program, we strongly recommend that participants have a healthy level of physical stamina and the ability to walk for at least two 30-minute sessions each morning and two 30-minute sessions each afternoon.

Clients do not have to want a guide dog to attend O&M Training at Leader Dog. Training is available to anyone who's eligible and would like to work on O&M/white cane skills. No previous skill level is required. We welcome beginners, those who want a brush-up on skills, those who would like to take their skills to a higher level and those who are interested in guide dog readiness.

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

Clients who participate in O&M Training are not guaranteed a GPS device. A benchmark skill level in O&M must be achieved and we must have enough time within training to incorporate GPS training.

What clients learn depends on their personal goals and goals identified by their certified orientation & mobility specialist at Leader Dog. Training begins with human guide, cane technique and progress with orientation, street crossing and problem-solving skills (just to name a few) in a variety of environments. Each client receives training best suited to individual current and desired skill levels, lifestyles, goals and other factors.

Summer Experience Camp

Campers participate in leadership activities, learn how to use an accessible GPS, practice orientation & mobility and night travel skills, experience a day with a Leader Dog and fun camp activities like tandem biking, rock wall, zip line, beep kickball and so much more!

Campers must be 16 or 17 years old, legally blind and live in the U.S. or Canada. Campers must be 16 or 17 during camp due to licensing restrictions from the state of Michigan.

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

A day of camp is dedicated to working with a guide dog. Campers are matched with a guide dog mobility instructor (GDMI) who introduces the basic elements of guide dog travel. The camper works one-on-one with the GDMI and a Leader Dog for the day, experiencing guide dog travel, skills needed for working with a guide dog, and an introduction to the care of a Leader Dog.

All campers receive a Victor Reader Trek that is generously donated by HumanWare.

Puppies and Breeding

We have our own breeding program. Leader Dog moms and dads live with volunteer host families in their homes. The moms and dads are bred at Leader Dog's facility then return to their respective host homes. The mom whelps (births) her puppies in the volunteer host's home, and around 7 weeks of age, the puppies are brought to the Leader Dog campus. At any given time, there are approximately 90 Leader Dog moms and dads.

The work performed by Leader Dogs requires a very special set of traits, personality, abilities and an excellent health record. By using our own breeding colony, we are able to keep detailed records for generations of dogs and use that data to make the best possible match for each mom and dad dog pairing. This gives us the best chance of having healthy puppies with the right traits to become guide dogs.

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.

To volunteer as a puppy raiser or breeding stock host for a mom or dad dog, you can apply online. There is lots of information on our website about what the requirements for each position are, what you can expect as a puppy raiser or breeding host, frequently asked questions and more. 

Career Changed Dogs

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.

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

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.

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 Questions

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.

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.

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