Behaviour Problems in Guide Dogs

The behavioural reasons why guide dogs sometimes end their working lives early, and what it tells us about pet dogs.

A Labrador Retriever curled up with a teddy toy
Photo: LauraVI/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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When guide dogs are withdrawn from service due to a behaviour issue, it's a problem for the person they work with, who now needs a new dog. Understanding more about these issues can help guide dogs stay in work longer - and it turns out it also tells something about the development of pet dogs.

A study by Geoffrey Caron-Lormier (University of Nottingham) et al looks at twenty years of data from Guide Dogs (UK). During this time, 7,770 working guide dogs, who had worked with blind or partially sighted people, were withdrawn from service. By far the most common reason was retirement, which applied to 6,465 dogs (83%). The authors looked at the reasons why other dogs were withdrawn from working.

Most of the dogs are bred specifically to be guide dogs, although some came from breeders. The most common breeds are Labrador and Golden Retriever x Labrador. They go through a five-stage training process before being matched with a blind or partially sighted person when they are about 2 years old.

There were three main behavioural reasons why guide dogs were withdrawn from service: environmental anxiety, training issues (a lack of willingness to work or confidence), and fear and aggression. Other reasons included chasing, attentiveness, social behaviour, excitability and distraction. 

Dogs would only have been withdrawn if these problems were serious enough to stop them from working; whenever possible, training was used to try and solve the problem.

When dogs were withdrawn because of behaviour issues, it had a substantial impact on the length of their working life. The normal working life of a guide dog is 3097 days. The dogs withdrawn from service for behavioural reasons lost between 1,580 – 2,286 days of work.

There were differences in the age at which these problems typically appeared. Younger dogs were more likely to be withdrawn because of fear and aggression problems; half of the dogs withdrawn from service for this reason were under three and a half years old (i.e. with less than two years of work under their belt). Training issues (willingness to work) seemed to occur at an older age, with dogs typically just over six years old.

Behaviour problems in guide dogs and age
Reproduced frorm Caron-Lormier et al (2016) under Creative Commons Licence

The researchers say, “The results of the current study provide evidence for age-associated risks of developing behavioural problems serious enough to stop a guide dog from working. Moreover, they allude to their being different trajectories for developing different types of behavioural issues.”

A white Labrador Retriever relaxing
Photo: Heroc/Shutterstock
It’s interesting to think that different behaviour problems may develop at different ages in dogs. We actually know little about the development of such problems and so, even though this study is of guide dogs, the results may also help us understand something about pet dogs. Of course, guide dogs have had very specific upbringing and training, and only the best dogs make it into service, so behaviour problems are far less likely in this group than in pet dogs.

Fear and aggression and chasing were more of a problem in male dogs (all of the dogs were neutered/spayed since they were guide dogs). Of the breeds and crossbreeds, Labrador Retrievers were the least likely to be withdrawn from service due to a behavioural issue. Fear and aggression was most likely to be a problem for German Shepherd Dogs.

The authors say, “Based on these results Labradors were suggested to be more suitable to being a guide dog than German Shepherds.”

The study does not look at the reasons why behaviour problems developed. We know that dog attacks on guide dogs can have serious consequences, but there are likely many reasons why the dogs in this study developed problems.

The authors say that further research into the age of development of behaviour problems in dogs may help in designing interventions or programs to reduce the likelihood of dogs being surrendered to shelters.

If your dog has behaviour problems, seek help from an appropriately qualified professional. Here's how to choose a dog trainer.

If you like this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.” 

You might also like: Eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe.

Caron-Lormier, G., Harvey, N., England, G., & Asher, L. (2016). Using the incidence and impact of behavioural conditions in guide dogs to investigate patterns in undesirable behaviour in dogs Scientific Reports, 6 
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