The Golden Retriever's natural calm temperament, very low level dog aggression, high intelligence and true love for his or her owner and family makes the breed an ideal guide or assistance dog. Since they are also substantial in size without being overly large and have been bred for strength and endurance, their physical attributes as well as their temperament is a perfect match. In addition the friendliness towards strangers and the very accepting temperament of the Golden Retriever is really idea for this very demanding type of working situation.
The Golden Retriever used as a guide or assistance dog is often not a purebred, registered dog, although they may also be of purebred lineage. Some common hybrids that are used as guide or assistance dogs include the Goldendoodle, a cross between a Golden Retriever and a Standard Poodle and a Golden Labrador, a cross between the Golden Retriever and the Labrador Retriever. The advantage to the Goldendoodle is this hybrid tends to be lower shedding dog, however they are usually not completely non-shedding and may or may not be hypoallergenic.
Starting the Golden Retriever off with basic obedience is the first step in becoming a guide or assistance dog. This typically occurs in a specially selected and approved foster family that has been trained in what to do with the young puppy. Socialization with a wide number of animals, places and people figures in prominently in this type of training. The family will also provide different activities for the puppy and young dog, reporting back to the trainers as to how the puppy is progressing. Puppies that appear to be overly aggressive, timid or are showing difficulties in mastering basic obedience work may not be carried forward in the program. There are, however, typically waiting lists of people interested in adopting these puppies as they are often wonderfully trained dogs that just aren't suited for the demanding job of a guide or assistance job.
From the puppy stage, dogs that are eligible for formal training typically go into a training facility. This may include partial training in a prison system, where inmates actually work with professional dog trainers to provide the advanced levels of obedience. These programs are especially popular for assistance dogs and they allow both the inmates and the young dogs to acquire new skills in a very well supervised environment.
From this type of basic training, further screening is done to again select the top dogs from the group. Although there is always a significant number or applications for guide and assistance dogs, reputable trainers only use the highest quality and most intelligent of the dogs going through the classes. This is because the new owners will be literally trusting the dogs with their lives in most cases, so only the best suited dogs are used.
At this stage the dogs enter into intensive training programs by specially trained and licensed guide and assistance dog trainers. Some of these programs are managed by national groups such as the Guide Dogs of America, while others may be on the state level. Each training program will have their own specific criteria for the dogs, however typically they are more similar than dissimilar.
Training for the Golden Retriever will include how to get on and off public transportation, how to travel by airplane, ride on escalators and in elevators, entering buildings and understanding how to be an effective guide for the blind individual. This will include learning to watch for potential dangers to the human. These dangers can be issues such as oncoming traffic, low hanging branches or even irregular surfaces that may be dangerous. Dogs are also taught "intelligent disobedience" which means they may, if danger is present, not respond to a command.
This intelligent disobedience is partly trained and partially a natural response by the dog. For example, if a blind individual was to command the dog to walk forward, but the dog was able to see that the sidewalk was blocked off for construction, the dog is trained to stand across the owner's legs, preventing him or her from walking forward. This is a very important part of training for guide dogs as it is an issue of life and safety for the owner.
Assistance dogs and guide dogs alike may also be trained to position themselves to provide support for the owner in moving about or getting up or down. Bracing or standing to allow the human to use the dog as a way to stand is an essential part of training for most assistance and guide dogs. Assistance dogs may also be taught to fetch a phone on command or to push a panic button in the event that the owner is unable to call for help.
Typically once the dog has gone through their training and passed all temperament and physical requirement tests, they are paired with a human counterpart. Ideally this pairing will be for the life of the dog and the trainers and staff work very diligently to pair the dog with the best match for an owner. With Golden Retrievers the owners do need to have the ability to care for the dog, which includes daily grooming and exercise for the dog.
New owners and the dogs work with the trainers for a set period of time. For people working with the Guide Dogs of America group this training is typically one month, with the owners getting to know about the dog's needs as well as how to work together as a team. The new owners have to also learn how to trust the dog to take them safely through their day. Once the owners and the dogs have finished the training they graduate from the program and return to their home. Ongoing follow up is typically provided on a as needed basis for either first time dog owners or those that have had a guide or assistance dog before.
Any dogs that don't work with the new owner can be matched with another owner or, if there is a temperament or health issue with the dog, they can be adopted out to a loving family and live their life as a pet and companion dog.