Dog Attacks on Guide Dogs: The Personal and Financial Cost

A new report finds there are 11 dog attacks on guide dogs every month in the UK, on average.

Severe consequences of dog attacks on guide dogs. Photo shows golden retriever puppy
The lifetime cost of a guide dog for the blind is approximately US$75,000

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Guide dogs provide essential assistance to people who are blind or partially sighted. When other dogs attack guide dogs, the consequences can be severe. The charity Guide Dogs has been keeping records of these attacks, and a new paper by Rachel Moxon (of Guide Dogs) et al details the problems faced over a 56 month period from 2010 to 2015.

During this time, there were 629 attacks. 68% of the victims were qualified Guide Dogs (almost three-quarters of which were in harness at the time of the attack). 20% were dogs in puppy walk (aged up to 1.5 years), 8% were dogs in training, and the remainder were retired, breeding dogs, or buddy dogs.

“Within the current study, 20 dogs were withdrawn from the Guide Dogs programme as a direct result of a dog attack,” write the authors, “20% of qualified guide dogs required time off from working and 13 dogs were withdrawn from working as a guide. The implications for the guide dog owners of these dogs are likely to be long-term and complex affecting not only their mobility and physical health, but also their social and emotional well-being.”

Dog attacks on guide dogs have severe consequences for both dog and handler. Photo shows seeing eye dog at work.
Photo: Jeroen van den Broek; top, Pornchai Chanachai. Both Shutterstock

Because 50 incidents had 2 or more attacking dogs, there were a total of 689 aggressing dogs responsible for these attacks. The person with the guide dog described the attack as being due to lack of control of the aggressing dog (29%), caused by the aggressing dog (22%) or unprovoked (19%). The attacking dogs were usually with their owner (46% off-leash and 31% on-leash), but in 22% of cases the dog was off-leash with no owner present.

97% of the attacks occurred in public areas, just over a quarter of them in places where you expect to see off-leash dogs. At the time of the attack, 56% of the victim dogs were in harness and working, 26% on leash and 18% were loose.

Most of the Guide Dogs are yellow or black. More dark-coloured dogs and fewer light-coloured dogs were attacked compared to the average numbers of those dogs, but it’s not known why.

43% of the dogs had injuries, and three quarters of these needed to see a vet; some dogs with no injuries also visited the vet to be checked over. Dogs were more likely to be injured if they were off-leash at the time of the attack, rather than in harness or on-leash. Only 6 owners of attacking dogs paid for vet bills. In 5 cases, vets kindly treated the dogs for free.

There was an impact on working ability for 42% of the dogs, with 22% having to take some time off work. 20 dogs had to be withdrawn from the Guide Dogs programme, which included 13 qualified dogs, 6 that were in training and 1 puppy. The authors say, “Dogs were withdrawn because the dog attack impacted their behaviour and their ability to safely guide a person that is blind or partially sighted.”

The charity estimates the cost of withdrawing these dogs to be over £600,000. It costs £39,700 to breed and train a guide dog and the charity typically spends a further £13,000 to support the ongoing relationship with the handler until the dog retires.

The attacks also had significant effects on the handlers. 59 handlers and 28 other people were injured in the attacks. In 71% of cases, the handler said it affected their emotional well-being; feelings of anxiety, being shaken and upset were the most common reactions.

"The guide dog harness is designed to be visible and should have been apparent to the owners of aggressors who were present in 76.8 per cent of  attacks," write Moxon et al. “It is feasible that a proportion of these attacks could have been avoided if the aggressor was put on a lead when the owner saw a guide dog in harness.”

You should never distract a guide dog in harness because they are working. Even if your dog is friendly, it would be helpful to put him or her on leash if you see a guide dog, so they can work without distractions. Or, as Julie Hecht puts it, “only you can prevent sniffing of guide dogs’ butts.”

Under UK law, the owner of a dog that attacks an assistance dog may receive a fine and/or up to three years in prison.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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Moxon, R., Whiteside, H., & England, G. (2016). Incidence and impact of dog attacks on guide dogs in the UK: an update Veterinary Record, 178 (15), 367-367 DOI: 10.1136/vr.103433

P.S. How we can improve working dog programs and differences between show and field Labrador Retrievers.

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  1. I can't speak for anyone else but myself. I live in the suburbs outside the DC Metro area and am an animal behavior professional, now not working due to worsened disabilities. I stress coercion free training of service dogs, with suitable temperaments. With respect for the dog as a highly intelligent, emotive individual with needs and wants.

    Dog aggression towards service dogs is so bad that I now stay and expose service dogs I've trained to reactive dogs (it's impossible to avoid them with a dog working out in society) with the reactive dog owner's knowledge and permission, at a very safe distance, and DS/CC to it. At the same time, teaching retaining distance from reactive dogs, we don't work on increasing exposure, of course! It IS going to happen, the dog needs to be prepared, and I don't would rather the dog be prepared via DS/CC than flooding.

    My own personal experience: My (now passed) public access service dog was often the target of dog aggression by other service dogs (even police dogs). We didn't come across other service dogs every day, but we would occasionally. Oddly enough, none of these aggressive service dogs seemed to have been owner trained. I think we just didn't come in contact with many owner trained dogs, just a handful. She also wasn't targeted by "fakers". Teams I couldn't confirm but strongly could suspect weren't legit. For instance, I doubt a few months old puppy is a service dog, nor that all 12 service dog teams encountered in Walmart during our hour and a half shopping trip was a probable number. Or the glitzed out teacup dog, who might die if stepped on, being fed ON the table in the food court, is a likely real working dog. I could be wrong though...

    Most of the service dogs we encountered were organization trained dogs, identified as such by their patches, and other insignia identifying which org they were associated with.

    Situations varied from a German Shepherd guide dog puppy in training veering over to my dog in a parking lot as we passed, to greet her with friendly loose body language, getting a vicious chain collar pop, to a fully graduated labrador retriever service dog lunging and snarling for all he was worth, kicking up a horrifically loud racket that had everyone in Home Depot turning and staring. It was all the handler could do to hold him back. I feared what would happen if the leash came out of his grasp.

    We also walked by (Ginger and I were volunteering at a dog event with a rescue) the table of a service dog organization, where we were snarked at. I turn and look; every single service dog was in a pinch collar, even a few weeks old puppies.

    There was the SINGLE org service dog I encountered being trained with what was an attempt at DS/CC and positive reinforcement. It was outside the dog park, marching the dog around at varying levels of exposure (there was no graduation or rhyme or reason to the level) to the fence to the dog park, while going through the various trick behaviors the dog knew. Again, no rhyme or reason. No differential reinforcement behavior assigned, just lots of behaviors at random.

    This is the USA. Where everyone has a "service dog", and everyone is a dog "trainer", and many organizations still tell the disabled to be the "pack leaders", not to show weakness to their ASSISTANCE dogs. In the UK, there is some regulation of training service dogs. It at least takes many of the aggressive service dogs out of the equation, I'd think? Why attacks on service dogs here aren't making the news as frequently is beyond me. Maybe because so many dogs here have been robotized with harsh training? I'm not sure. But either way, sad state of affairs.

  2. This is so sad! Guide dogs are not only at work they are the person's lifeline!They need to be owner trained to provide effective service. Thanks for bringing this to light.


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