Incorporating Youth in Guide Dog Programs

Does your organization offer a youth program? Youth programs are an excellent way to establish relationships and integrate families into your programs and organization. The positive effects of guide dogs on their handlers’ lives are well known: helping to reduce everyday challenges faced by vision-impaired people can create more space for handlers to grow and flourish. 

Unfortunately for vision-impaired teenagers, the minimum age required to qualify for a guide dog is often 16 or 18, depending on the organisation. A study conducted at La Trobe University explored these rules and highlighted the potential advantages and disadvantages of allowing younger handlers to utilise guide dogs. 

Jennifer Gravrok and co-authors from the Anthrozoology Research Group and Research Education and Development team explained in the paper how visually impaired young people may find the formative years of adolescence “particularly demanding, as they confront additional challenges, including limited independence, social stigma, isolation and discrimination.”

The help of a guide dog could be especially useful in alleviating some of these challenges in developmentally crucial years of life.

By conducting semi-structured interviews with vision-impaired youths and parents who attended a 3-day “Guide Dog 101” training camp, the study found the majority of interviewees perceived the following benefits of having a guide dog:

  • Physical: Improved freedom of mobility and greater levels of safety.
  • Psychological: More independence and feelings of confidence.
  • Social: A source of direct companionship as well as facilitated social interactions with other people.

The primary concern around adolescents using guide dogs is the well-being of the dogs and the handlers themselves. Younger people may not have the ability, maturity, or responsibility necessary for the proper safety measures and levels of care required.

These barriers were pointed out in the study by guide dog training staff, who were similarly interviewed. Some specific concerns raised included:

  • Mobility improvement depends on the handler having sufficient existing orientation and mobility skills, as well as the physical ability to handle their dog.
  • Unreasonably high expectations of dogs “knowing what to do” in dangerous situations, such as crossing roads, may lead to a reduction in actual safety.
  • Dogs cannot be depended upon to fend off or deter potential threats, which was mentioned as a potential expectation by some handlers.

The study concludes that while adolescents may not always be able to obtain the full physical benefits of a guide dog, the psychological and social benefits are significant enough to make major positive differences in young people’s lives. This is supported by a review of children and youth service dog studies by the University of Toronto in 2021, which found that almost 80% of studies spanning a 32-year period reported improvements in areas such as quality of life, stress, anxiety, self-confidence, social interactions, and school/work performance.

Similar benefits are reported in many existing guide dog youth programs around the world. The first to allow guide dogs for people under 15 was the Canadian foundation Mira, which routinely caters for youth as young as 11 years old, and now partners with Mira USA. Instruction classes for child handlers at Mira are lowered from ten to six students, incorporating games and jokes into the educational strategy to engage younger learners. These dogs undergo more extensive training than dogs intended for adult handlers. They are taught “intelligent disobedience,” and will refuse a command if it could put the child in danger.

  • BC & Alberta Guide Dogs have a youth training program for 13 to 18-year-olds. Teenagers undergo training over a summer vacation period, beginning as soon as school has finished. An instructor accompanies the teen and their matched dog for three weeks of one-on-one in-house training. They conduct some of the training on the student’s school grounds and accompany the student on their first day back at school. As part of the service, the student’s school receives an educational program to ensure staff and classmates know how to support the handler and their dog when they return to class. 
  • Guide Dogs of Texas have a “Buddy Dogs Youth Program” for under 17-year-olds, which provides dogs that are not fully trained as guide dogs. Instead, the program claims the “Buddies for Sight” dogs help kids develop the skills necessary to take care of future fully trained guide dogs, while simultaneously benefiting from improved self-esteem and reduced anxiety. 
  • Southeastern Guide Dogs states their guide dogs for 15 to 17-year-olds in the US allow teens to “experience new freedom and confidence, before finishing high school and venturing out on their own.” These teens must be “mature” and “ready,” and are encouraged to attend a two-day Guide Dog Camp to learn more about life with a guide dog before formally applying for one. 
  • Guide Dogs for the Blind in California provides free workshops, “buddy” dogs, and summer camps to prepare younger Americans for adult life with a guide dog. To attend the free annual summer camps (Camp GDB), students (14+) are asked to write an essay explaining why they would like to have a guide dog. This helps staff to understand and manage the expectations and goals of each student. The camp instructors then focus on the importance of strong orientation and mobility skills, as well as providing hands-on practice feeding, watering, grooming, and relieving a dog.  
  • Guide Dogs Australia matches therapy dogs to children and teens, along with tailored training programs, to provide emotional support and help foster a sense of responsibility in young owners.
  • Seeing Eye Dogs of Vision Australia recently began offering Youth Camps for 12 to 18-year-olds, teaching independence, mobility, and orientation skills with a guide dog over the span of a week. While this organisation states there is no official age limit to apply for a guide dog, the handler must be deemed “able to take sole responsibility for caring for [the] dog.” 
  • Guide Dogs UK now has no minimum age requirement for their dogs since a successful 3-year pilot program in 2006. They utilise a “Standardised Training for Excellent Partnerships” (STEP) programme, which reduces the necessary training time from 25–31 weeks down to 20–24 weeks, according to their website. This is conducted in training centres that have been specially designed to work around the STEP programme. Guide Dogs UK carries out a thorough mobility assessment to determine whether a dog would be suitable and sufficiently improve a young applicant’s quality of life. 
  • CNIB Guide Dogs provides buddy dogs to help 7 to 16-year-olds learn how to care for a dog and ease the transition into future guide dog partnerships. One parent said of their 8-year-old daughter and her buddy dog, Chelsea: “Deepa loves the responsibility, and she is thrilled whenever she gives Chelsey a command and Chelsey listens. She helps with Deepa’s independence; she’s a great conversation starter and helps her meet new people.”

These examples show that with proper training, education and support programs in place, the challenges of offering guide dogs to youths might be outweighed by potential lifelong benefits. Gravrok’s team states that supporting vision-impaired young people during developmental years “may profoundly impact their immediate- and long-term ability to thrive.

Article by Kerri Duncan


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