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Are There Differences Between Guide Dog Breeds?

From puppy to partner, guide dogs are a special breed.

by Jane Brackman, PhD
Updated July 1, 2015
Blind man with walking stick walks with Golden Retriever guide dog

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Does the breed of a service dog make a difference? When so many intelligent, loving shelter dogs are in need of homes, why don’t guide dog schools rescue dogs like some of the other service-dog programs (like Animal Farm Foundation)? The answer lies in the nature of the work guide dogs are required to do. Dog jobs, like people jobs, are task-specific and require specific temperaments, some of which can be selected through breeding.

Read on to hear the real-life experiences of seven blind people who’ve used guide dogs most of their lives. They compare problem-solving strategies between 36 dogs representing six breeds. If you’ve lived with a Lab, Golden, German Shepherd, Aussie, Border Collie, Flat Coat, Poodle or hybrid of these breeds, you’ll probably be pretty fascinated by how each breed handles the job.

What type of dogs are guide dogs?

Terry Barrett, director of training operations at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael, Calif., says, “In our earliest days, the 1940s, most of our dogs came from animal shelters. It soon became evident that we were looking for something very specific: Dogs who not only had excellent health, intelligence and temperament but also exhibited a willingness to work and thrived on praise.” By the late 1970s, opportunities for shelter dogs all but disappeared.

Although German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are the most familiar types of guide dog, any confident, friendly, intelligent and willing dog—large enough for the harness but small enough to lie comfortably under a bus seat—is eligible. Boxers, Smooth-Coated Collies, Poodles, Dobermans, Border Collies and Australian Shepherds are increasingly finding employment as guide dogs, as are their more genetically sound hybrid offspring.

Labs are the most common guide dog breed.

Labrador Retrievers, who constitute about 60 percent of these working dogs, have proven to be the most successful guide worldwide, mainly because there is enough variation within the breed to meet blind students’ myriad needs. “It’s a 50-50 relationship,” says a handler who’s worked with one Lab, two mixed-breed Labs and two Goldens, and now is partnered with a Lab-Poodle cross. “Neither one of us is in total control at any given time. Both of our lives depend on what the other one does. Neither of us may be able to make a safe street crossing alone, but together we do it gracefully.”

Guide dog schools select for temperament characteristics that are broadly adaptable. A guide dog’s disposition requires them to be easily trainable, friendly, calm under pressure, and confident in their job — in all environments. Regardless of lineage, guide dogs have distinct counterintuitive characteristics in common. Because they are, to a great extent, bred for a specific temperament, they are more like one another than they are like others of their particular breed.

Is there a best guide dog breed?

Both the person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class, then deepens and broadens over time. But some blind handlers argue that there are marked differences in each breed’s approach to guide work, while others think that the traits that make good guides neutralize the larger behaviors that characterize each breed. 

German Shepherd Guide Dogs

One blind handler who has worked with a German Shepherd for 10 years, a Lab for seven, two different Golden Retrievers for 15 years, and now has two years experience under his belt working with a Golden-Lab cross says that there are some physical characteristics that are different among breeds, such as the gait and how the dog feels through the harness. “Even so, the dog’s unique personality, combined with the person’s — how they work together and what they expect of each other — that’s where the differences are.”

Another woman who has worked with two Shepherd guides and one Lab-Golden cross said, “In my opinion, you might say that the retrievers’ style provides more information about the specifics of the environment, but the Shepherds’ style makes for more efficient travel. My Shepherds, in comparison to my Retriever, both typically looked farther ahead as they guided. They corrected for upcoming obstacles from a distance and our travel path was typically a smooth line. Sudden turns or stops happened only in response to an obstacle that unexpectedly crossed our intended path. My retriever cross clearly does not take the same approach. In general, this dog will stop and show me the obstacle, and he will almost always seek prompting from me on which way to go next.”

One woman got her first German Shepherd in 1996 after working with three Labs. She says she had to learn the body language that was unique to the Shepherd. “At first, I thought when my Shepherd would insist on going a certain way and I wanted to go another that she was being stubborn or willful. I soon discovered that if I acknowledged her for what she was showing me, and then asked her to go the direction I wanted to go, she was totally fine with that. My second Shepherd is the same way.”

Border Collie Guide Dogs

“How my dogs dealt with obstacles isn’t, in my opinion, a function of breed-specific differences,” says a seasoned 25-year guide dog user who has partnered with an Airedale, a Border Collie mix, an Australian Shepherd and, briefly, a Siberian Husky. “My Airedale, as I recall him, was quick to generalize about the concept “obstacle” but wasn’t particularly good at scoping out his environment and making decisions in advance.” The Aussie and the Border Collie mix seemed to generalize quickly.

“The Border Collie mix had very high head carriage and was by far the very best dog I’ve worked when it came to overhead hazards,” he said. “The Aussie has been harder to teach naturally occurring overheads like tree limbs, but whether that’s a breed thing or a result of their tendency to work with their heads a little low, I’m not sure.”

Golden Retriever Guide Dogs

Another typical difference between dogs, explains a blind handler, is their approach to routes. “Personally, I find that my retrievers enjoyed familiar routes. In comparison, my Shepherd gets bored with routine, so you have to get creative with routes and mix things up,” she says.

She adds that retrievers are looking to please the handler, as if asking, “Did I do what you wanted, am I making you happy?” whereas her shepherds have been motivated by doing the job and solving the problems. “With Shepherds, it’s not so much about what pleases me as it is about pleasing themselves,” she says.

A guide dog handler who has worked with three Labs, a Lab mix, a Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd explained, “If I were to generalize,” she says, “I’d say my Labs often worked up to an obstacle before deciding what to do about it, while my Shepherd would decide in advance what to do, perhaps starting the turn more gradually as we approached the barrier. My Golden would stop to show me before trying to work it out.”

Labrador Retriever Guide Dogs

“My Goldens were much more attuned to my reactions to things. If I did hit a branch, I needed only to flinch and they both acted as if they had been corrected. I would describe my Lab as being solid, but she had the attitude that things would move for her or she would move them. She was careful, generally, but also had no compunction about moving me through some tight gaps. It wasn’t always pretty, but she would get you where you needed to go safely and with enthusiasm.”

“Working a guide dog is like dancing,” she explains. “And being responsive to my partner’s moves is how it works best for me. I’ve had two very large Labs, both with a lot of initiative. They seldom asked for my input, made quick swift movements and expected I would be able to keep up and go with them. They were more likely to try to interpose their bodies between me and muscle me out of the way or into safety. My Golden and my small Lab were likely to be cautious and refuse to leave the curb until they determined that a car they watched was not going to move toward us.”

Flat Coat Retriever Guide Dogs

Eight guide dogs and 34 years later, a handler contemplated her experiences with four Labs, two Goldens, one Shepherd, and one Flat-coat Retriever. “My Flat Coat solved problems by coming to a full stop. Sometimes he would just stand there, and I could feel his head moving. People said that he looked like he was weighing all the possibilities. Then he would make his decision. And in nine years of partnership, he never made a mistake.”

Australian Shepherd Guide Dogs

Regardless of genealogy, each dog takes a unique approach to problem-solving. “I noticed that the Aussie I’m working with now had a very strong preference for traveling on one or another side of a street when we walked home from work,” explained his handler. “Eventually, I figured out the preference stemmed from whether it was or had recently been raining. One side of the street was commercial, the other had lots of trees with branches that hung low when wet.”

It Boils Down to Trust

A blind woman who has traveled with guides said, “My assumption is that my dog is acting to keep us safe until he proves to be distracted or is putting his agenda ahead of mine. Sure, if that sudden plunge proves to be because my Lab dove for a French fry, the appropriate correction needs to be made. Extra work to minimize that behavior may be called for, but ‘follow your dog’ has to be the first response if we are going to learn to trust and read each other. My safety depends on my ability to read their reactions and go with it and figure out the ‘whys’ later.”

One man described all his dogs as having been keen observers. “They’ve all had similar complex personalities,” he says. “They enjoyed their work and have been more than willing to guide and do things such as squeeze into small spaces and stay for hours, only because I have asked them to.”

A thirty-year guide dog veteran summed it up. “I’ve owned plenty of dogs as pets, but my relationship with the half dozen guide dogs I’ve worked with was different: All of my guide dogs seemed to own me rather than the other way around.”

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Jane Brackman, PhD

Jane Brackman, PhD, is an authority on the cultural history of canine domestication and the author of two books on pets in 19th-century America.