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Student wearing arm braces crosses a street with her Guide Dog.Oftentimes blindness isn't the only physical challenge for some blind people. Certain causes of blindness, degenerative diseases, accidents and even aging often have results that impair physical abilities other than vision. In order to meet the diverse needs of students and continue as leaders in innovative training, Guide Dogs' Custom Needs Program was established in the 1990s. The Custom Needs Program includes many tools and resources that we can employ to fill the needs of students.

Continued Assessment Program:

Occasionally, we may recommend that an applicant come to one of our campuses for a more thorough assessment of their skills and abilities. The purpose of the continued assessment is to determine if a Guide Dog is the best form of mobility for them.

There are a number of advantages to the Continued Assessment. If an applicant has physical challenges or other custom needs, we can determine in advance if any individualized training for the dog or for the applicant is required. The Continued Assessment may provide the person with a better understanding of what is required to be successful in the future, and prepares others for immediate training.

Applicants who have disabilities in addition to their blindness may attend this free three-day program which gives them the opportunity to visit the campus and experience working with a Guide Dog.

Custom Needs Dog Training:

Certain dogs are trained to perform tasks in addition to guidework, often in an alternative manner to the one usually taught. The skills the dogs are taught are tailored to meet the needs of specific incoming students. It usually requires a longer training program for each dog in addition to specialized instruction for each student. Examples include training dogs to:

  • respond to modified hand/foot gestures and movements
  • respond solely to verbal commands (instead of a combination of verbal commands and hand signals)
  • stop at the top of wheelchair access ramps (to allow the handler to adjust to the change in grade)
  • take one step at a time when traveling on stairs (to wait for the handler to adjust position)
  • remain calmly and patiently in a stationary position for an extended period of time to allow a handler who has limited functional use of his hands or arms to set down the harness handle and accomplish tasks such as opening doors.

Custom Needs Student / Graduate Training:

In addition to their blindness, applicants may be dealing with medical conditions that affect their mobility. Their pace may be slowed due to age, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or other conditions. They may have neuropathy or lack of sensitivity in their hands or feet. They may have arthritis or prosthetic limbs. They may be on medication or dialysis. Individualized training can be coupled with modified routes (e.g. short routes, level routes) and schedules, reduced pace, or in-home training.

Custom Equipment:

Our harness handles come in a variety of lengths and shapes, and can be off-set rather than parallel to the dog's back. Ergonomic handles can ease the strain of repetitive motion. Modified snaps for the harness and leash can help those with dexterity problems. Support canes can be used if necessary in conjunction with the dog (additional dog training may be required). Leash usage can be modified (for example: secured to the handler by being wrapped in a variety of efficient ways, such as around the waist or as a sash).

Wheelchair Training:

Guide Dogs for the Blind has had a guide dog wheelchair program in place for five years. The program began as a way to provide continued services to former graduates who through health or trauma faced the challenge of wheelchair use for mobility in addition to their blindness. As a second stage to accepting applicants into the guide dog wheelchair program, Guide Dogs opened its training to graduates of other guide dog schools who had been successful guide dog users.

Guide Dogs for the Blind is now accepting applications for visually impaired wheelchair users who have not had previous experience working with a guide dog. Primary skills of independent orientation and mobility continue to be a requirement prior to acceptance into this program and the training requires the use of a power wheelchair. For further information on our programs, applications for training, or admission requirements, please call our Admissions Department at 800-295-4050.

Learn More:

"True Triumphs," an article about some of our Custom Needs Program graduates