Guide Dogs In Training Swap Families for a Fortnight

Three years ago we decided, as part of our guide dog training programme, to swap guide dogs in training and their families to see what the impact would be on the young dogs. Our experience was extremely positive: not only do the dogs enjoy the swap but we found that it has a positive impact on their social development as well. We would like to share our findings with you in this short article.

It is a noble and rewarding career for a dog to become a blind person’s guide. Training a guide dog, however, doesn’t start with the actual training but it starts much earlier. It starts when the host families receive a puppy to raise.

Five years ago we started our own breeding programme in order to have suitable puppies from reliable lines of guide dogs. Such a breeding programme requires the dedication of puppy host families as well who look after the puppies before their official training begins.

Our puppy host families treat our dogs as a member of their family. It is natural that the puppies – the same way as children in a family – visit relatives or spend some time with grandparents. By doing this the children – but also the puppies – not only have a lot of fun, but learn how to adapt to new situations and meet lots of people. Our guide dog puppies spend the first year of their lives with their host families to learn about everything in a stimuli rich environment. The official guide dog training starts when the puppies reach 1 year of age and lasts for about 4-6 months. Once our dogs are trained they spend around 10 years with their blind owner before they retire as a family pet. Such is the wonderful life span of a guide dog, a story of continuous love and service.

In this article we would like to explain how the puppy exchange works. Imagine 10 puppies, all born in 2022 and having names starting with A. In January 2023, all 10 puppies swapped families for 2 weeks. Here is how it happened.

Puppies in a new environment

When swapping host families, our guide dog puppies found themselves in exciting new situations.

Anizs was surprised to see a fork-lift trolley carrying delivery boxes and also learnt how to ride in a see-though lift. Praising our puppies with treats is a great way to teach them how to react calmly in unexpected situations. Anizs also enjoyed long daily walks on the outskirts of Budapest in a nearby forest, was only startled by a deer running past nearby. He ran up this handler and stayed by his feet instead of chasing the wild animal.

Akkord spent the 2 weeks in Budaors and Budafok and got to ride the metro for the first time. He also went inside a shopping mall which was confusing at first but as the young dog calmed down he managed to walk around perfectly.

Akac spent 2 weeks in Vac with a couple who already have a guide dog, Kiwi. The two dogs got on like a house on fire from day one: they played together, they slept together. Akac – being such a young dog – didn’t understand that his host was blind and sometimes was lying in the middle of the hall and got in his host’s way who had to gently nudge him away with his feet. The young dog soon seem to have learnt how not to get in the way by the end of the 2 weeks.

Amper enjoyed riding on the tram in Miskolc which was a completely new experience for him. He has never had the chance to learn about public transport with his original host family who live in Telki (a small village outside of Budapest).

Our host families also enjoyed the puppy-swap: they have already met all 10 puppies previously at our monthly puppy get togethers. All the host families follow our guidelines on how to train our young students and teach them the same commands. Everybody missed their own puppy of course; it was like sending your kid away on vacation. And having another puppy as an exchange student meant lots of fun for everyone!

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We need more guide dogs! Currently we have 40-50 people on our waiting list. We have 12 dogs in training and we are hoping to breed 30 new puppies this year. They will become guide dogs next year.

Everybody wins
“Guide dogs need to be super adaptable” – said Piroska Komondi, guide dog trainer at Barathegyi Guide Dog School . “The puppy swap helps them to learn to adapt to new situations quickly and confidently. Labradors make wonderful guide dogs because they are highly adaptable, love human contact so they really enjoy the 2 weeks holiday with another family.”
The puppy swap in January was really effective in providing our dogs in training with many new situations.

During these two weeks, our puppy host families learnt a lot too. Our volunteers learnt how to make initial contact with another puppy and how to get them to respond to commands straight away. By taking part in the 2 week puppy swap, members of our host families realised again what an important job they were doing; they are raising the guide dogs of the future.