Whenever you see someone using a guide dog, there’s a pretty high likelihood that dog is a Labrador Retriever. This may seem like an arbitrary choice ‒ but it honestly isn’t.
Why are labrador retrievers used as guide dogs? Labrador Retrievers are used as guide dogs for a number of good reasons. They’re steady, smart, hard-working, and highly trainable These are all traits that are essential for guide dogs to have, and Labradors have these traits in large amounts.
To understand why Labrador Retrievers are such good guide dogs, need to dive into how each of these traits translates into a good guide dog.
Labradors have a steady temperament
The biggest reason Labradors are used as guide dogs is their even-keeled temperament. It’s hard to shake or rattle a Labrador, even in highly stressful situations.
It’s hard to overstate critical this is for guide dogs. Service animals have to deal with a whole bunch of stress scenarios that other animals can’t even dream about. The world that humans have created is confusing enough for many of us two-legged creatures.
Now imagine navigating that world as a four-legged dog with zero ability to communicate via language or perform any kind of higher-level thinking. If it sounds challenging, you’re right ‒ it is.
For example, some guide dogs have to lead their owners through the chaos and complexity of public transit. Depending on the mode of transit, this can lead to quite a few stressful scenarios.
When a subway train pulls into a station, the tunnels that connect the subway systems to the streets of major cities can become filled with people in a matter of seconds. If a guide dog and its owner get caught up in one of these surges, the dog will need to remain calm and level-headed to get their owner safely through the throng of travelers.
Many other dog breeds would have a real problem doing something like this. Some would get excited and start happily greeting everyone who walked by.
Others would become fiercely aggressive and begin snapping their teeth at every heel within reach. And others still would find the nearest corner and cower in it.
A properly trained Labrador Retriever guide dog wouldn’t have an issue though. It would successfully navigate its owner through the crowd and into a safer area.
It wouldn’t get caught up in the excitement and start greeting or snapping at strangers.
Another example ‒ this one much more common than the previous ‒ is crossing the road. Now, most humans don’t find the road a particularly scary place.
Although there are a lot of multi-ton pieces of metal careening by us at ridiculously fast speeds, we understand that these pieces of metal are extremely easy to control. We also understand that almost every person who is operating these pieces of metal is completely competent at it.
Dogs don’t understand these things. They don’t know what cars are, they don’t know what drivers licenses are, and they certainly don’t know what traffic laws are.
And yet, people with guide dogs need to cross the road like everyone else ‒ and the guide dogs help them do it. In the face of giant cars and speeding traffic, a dog with a steady temperament is basically a requirement ‒ and Labrador Retrievers more than meet this requirement.
Labrador Retrievers can handle stressful situations like this, which is one of the things that makes them such good guide dogs.
Labradors are highly trainable
Teaching a dog the intricacies of being a guide dog is a tad bit harder than teaching them how to sit or play fetch. For starters, there are a variety of commands guide dogs need to learn that are far more complex than the simple stuff most dogs learn.
To give you an idea of how many commands a guide dog needs to learn before graduating service dog school, here’s a list of the most popular options:
- “Name!” ‒ This command gets the dog’s attention.
- “Watch me!” ‒ This command tells the dog to make eye contact with you.
- “Sit!” ‒ This command tells the dog to sit down.
- “Down!” ‒ This command tells the dog to lay on the floor.
- “Stand!” ‒ This command tells the dog to stand back up from a sitting or prone position.
- “Come!” This command tells the dog to come to you and sit.
- “Here!” ‒ This command tells the dog to come to you, but not necessarily to sit.
- “Stay!” ‒ This command tells the dog to remain in their current position.
- “Wait!” ‒ This command tells the dog to stop moving in a forward direction.
- “Release!” ‒ This command tells the dog that work is over and they can have some playtime.
- “No!” ‒ This command tells the dog that they aren’t doing something correctly and need to change their behavior.
- “Don’t!” ‒ This command tells the dog that whatever they’re about to do, they shouldn’t do it.
- “Off!” ‒ This command tells the dog that they need to take their feet off of whatever they’re standing on and get back on the floor.
- “Settle!” ‒ This command is used when the dog is being rambunctious and needs to take it down a few notches.
- “Back!” ‒ This command is used to tell the dog to step backwards.
This is only a sampling of the total commands a guide dog might learn in its time at service dog school. For a dog to successfully learn all of these commands, they need to have a highly trainable demeanor. Labrador Retrievers have this demeanor, which is another thing that makes them excellent guide dogs.
Labradors are intelligent
Intelligence is extremely important in guide dog work ‒ and Labrador Retrievers have this trait in abundance. One of the tasks guide dogs are expected to consistently complete is leading their owners safely around all sorts of different obstacles:
People are an obstacle made extra difficult to avoid by how unpredictable they can be. A Labrador needs to be able to detect these people, see the direction they’re moving in, and lead their owner in a direction that won’t result in a collision.
This task is arguably harder than it ever used to be, as so many people are walking around with their eyes glued to their phones. Fortunately, the highly intelligent mind of the Labrador is more than up to the task.
When walking around a building or a campus of some kind, steps can seemingly appear out of nowhere. Avoiding this obstacle is particularly important because a fall on steps can lead to serious injury.
While intelligence is certainly important for obstacle avoidance, guide dogs also need a baseline of intelligence to understand and remember all of the commands a guide dog needs to learn.
All of the training in the world won’t mean a thing if your guide dog can’t remember which actions certain words are supposed to trigger.
Labradors are hard workers
Being a guide dog is hard work. Whenever your human wants to go somewhere, you need to be ready for action at a moment’s notice. And when you do go out, it’s often for a good portion of the day.
The workday doesn’t involve much lounging either. Guide dogs often spend most of the day on their feet helping their owners get to where they need to go in a safe manner.
While many dogs are bred for certain kinds of work, much of that work is something that can be classified as “fun”.
Herding dogs get to run around chasing sheep and cows all day, and hunting dogs get to track prey for their owners to shoot.
Guide dogs don’t get these “fun” jobs. Their job typically consists of walking and waiting. While it might be less intense than hunting or herding, it’s not a fun activity in the way that those are.
This makes being a hard worker even more important in guide dog jobs than it is in other dog jobs, which is something the patient and even-tempered Labrador is perfect for.