Two million people in France are classed as partially-sighted or blind, and those with the most limited vision (around 1%) can benefit from access to a guide dog to help them navigate daily life. We look at how the dogs are trained.
Guide dogs - sometimes also called ‘seeing eye dogs’ - are selected from birth and specially coached from young puppies to help them become highly-trained, safe and effective aids for people.
They are carefully bred and from the age of two months are fostered temporarily at a trainer’s home for two years to get them ready for work. Guide dogs tend to be golden or labrador retrievers as these breeds are known for their good-natured demeanour and ability to be trained effectively.
Most guide dogs in France are trained by a school that belongs to la Fédération Française des Associations de Chiens guides d'aveugles (FFAC), which is itself a member of the International Guide Dog Federation.
FFAC was started by friends Paul Corteville and Joseph Micoud in 1972. Mr Corteville trained the first guide dog in France in 1952 near Lille for a friend; while Mr Micoud set up his own guide dog training school near Nice at a similar time.
The FFAC now has nine regional schools and 16 training centres, plus several breeding centres. It also manages the national Association Nationale des Maîtres de Chiens Guides d'Aveugles, and a school for children and teenagers who need guide dogs.
Mandy Reveillère, a monitor who works with guide dogs, told France 3: “We are at the [dogs’] side from birth and step by step, we increase our time with the puppies so that they are as calm as possible with humans and in their environment.”
Fostering and training
Claudine de Ligne, a foster ‘parent’ for the association Les Chiens guides d'aveugles de l'Ouest, has welcomed 12 guide dog puppies into her home over the years.
She said: “For two years, I work to make a very good dog out of them - a perfect dog, who behaves, who won’t go on the sofas, who respects the house, who won’t follow me around, or beg for food at the table.”
At the age of one, the dogs return to the guide dog centre where they were born for training during the week, and return to their foster home at the weekends.
Trainer Adrien Santamaria said: “The role of a guide dog is to take me around a circuit without there being any risk that I will hit any obstacles. This includes ‘lateral’ obstacles: mid-height obstacles that are signposted with chains.”
Once the dogs have been trained successfully, they go back to the centre full-time, ready to be paired with a partially-sighted or blind person.
Labradors and similar breeds have a life expectancy of around 10 to 14 years, and are usually paired with their ‘person’ at the age of two.
Typically, they will become that person’s pet for life, while also helping them with their crucial day-to-day routine and responsibilities.
From training to instructing
Guide dog training is very advanced, as the dogs need to know when to obey their owner and when to disobey them if needed. For example, they might help their owner cross the road when the path is clear, but disobey the ‘cross the road’ command if there is a car coming.
They also need to be safe in potentially dangerous situations, such as around small children or other dogs, on escalators and stairs, and at railway stations next to fast trains or hazardous platform drops. They must learn not to chase or jump up and stay focused in the busiest or most confusing of environments.
Training to be an instructor can take four years with the FFAC; two years to become a simple trainer, and four years to become an instructor. The course also includes training in visual impairment, canine biology and behaviour, breeding, social science, and veterinary care.
To be eligible for the training scheme and begin training, you must:
Hold a level 4 qualification (baccalauréat, vocational or technical certificate).
Have a valid driving licence (licence B).
Apply to an accredited guide dog association with a CV and covering letter, and be recruited at least six months before the start of the course (because the association will register you for the course)
Follow the FFAC training programme, which combines theory and practice: two years to become a trainer and a further two years to become an instructor.
More information on the training and how to apply are available on the ChiensGuides.fr website.
Guide dog rights
The FFAC also lobbies for more rights for partially-sighted or blind people who use a guide dog. Users typically hold an ID card that certifies their dog as an official guide dog, which grants them access to all public places, even those in which dogs are usually not allowed.
They may be restricted in some places where sanitation is especially important, such as hospitals or kitchens, and may need to be muzzled in busy places such as airports.
However, unlawfully refusing access to a well-behaved guide dog to a place that is open to the public can be punished by a €305 fine.