A bird’s eye view of the Royal Dutch Guide Dog Federation (KNGF Geleidehonden)
KNGF Geleidehonden – our organisation
KNGF Geleidehonden (The Royal Dutch Guide Dog Foundation) has been training guide dogs for visually impaired people for more than 75 years. Established in 1935, the organisation has trained over 4,000 dogs for guide dog users in various parts of the Netherlands. Our organisation is an accredited member of the International Guide Dog Federation, which sets operational standards that its members must comply with. Also, the International Federation offers assistance to new guide dog schools.
KNGF is the oldest, largest and best-known dog school in the Netherlands. It has a staff of more than 70 employees, 500 volunteers, 45,000 donors and several key sponsors. Next to our core business of training guide dogs for the blind, in 2007 we started training autism guide dogs and recently we have started to train assistance dogs for people in a wheelchair.
Training the trainer
Our instructors are trained internally over a period of approximately three years. They are not only taught how to train guide dogs but also how to instruct visually impaired people on working with their guide dogs. This means that our instructors have studied several disciplines such as orientation and mobility of visually impaired people, causes and consequences of the different eye diseases, psychology and first aid. It goes without saying that canine behaviour and training are an important part of the studies.
Not just any puppy
In the last 20 years, most of our dogs have originated from our own breeding programme. This programme has provided us with the best dogs for training as guide dogs. When it comes to both physical health and the required behaviour, these dogs are far more suitable than the dogs purchased from external dog breeders. We focus on a special mix of capabilities needed in dogs rather than concentrating on the external characteristics or the hunting/working attributes that pedigree dogs are bred for. Our dogs must be intelligent and active, and of a sweet, stable nature. Breeds commonly used are the Labrador and Golden Retriever, the German shepherd, and cross-breeds from these pedigree dogs.
To maintain and improve the outstanding quality of our dogs, we have been working closely with the University of Utrecht and foreign guide dog schools to research the best breeding methods and to breed dogs from special guide dog bloodlines. We have also established a close working relationship with the Veterinary Faculty of the University of Utrecht to provide our pregnant bitches, their pups and the dogs in training with the best medical care. All dogs are screened for hereditary diseases like hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia and several eye diseases.
The majority of our puppies are bred for the purpose of being trained as guide dogs for the blind. 25 to 30 brood bitches supply us with the necessary number of pups. Every year KNGF Guide Dogs breed approximately 150 puppies. All puppies are born in so-called volunteer “brood bitch families” that take care of the brood bitch and their litter. At the age of 7 to 8 weeks, the pups leave their mother and siblings to explore the world.
Puppy walking families
The puppies spend their first year with carefully selected volunteer puppy walkers. They feed, socialize and generally look after the dogs and offer them a carefree childhood. During this period a solid foundation is created for their future training as a guide dog or assistance dog. In this first year it is of vital importance that the young dogs are exposed to as many different experiences as possible. They have to get used to different kinds of people, children and animals, but also to busy shops, railway stations and noisy traffic. KNGF Guide Dogs carefully monitors the development of the puppies during this stage of life. All puppy walking families are frequently visited by representatives of our breeding department. At the age of approximately 14 months and when deemed suitable physically and personality-wise, the dogs return to our training centre and are taken into training.
Off to school
The young dogs are trained by experienced trainers in about six to eight months at the guide dog school in Amstelveen. They are taught to avoid obstacles and indicate orientation points like pavements and side streets. They also learn to indicate many other things, such as a pedestrian crossing, a mailbox, doors, the staircase or an empty seat on the bus. What makes a guide dog so special as opposed to other assistance dogs is that they act upon their own initiative. They have to decide for themselves whether a certain route is safe or even possible for their owners to take. If coming across e.g. a roadblock, the dog will refuse the command ‘forward’ and will decide on an alternative route. He will do this even if the command to go ‘forward’ is given quite forcefully.
In order to avoid obstacles, the dog is taught to take into account one metre of space horizontally and two metres of space vertically. This space allows both the guide dog user and the dog to walk safely by or underneath any obstacle.
A team for years to come
Once a dog has mastered all the skills a reliable guide dog needs, the final training can be completed. This comprises all skills the dog will need in order to work adequately with a specific user. If, e.g. the new user lives in the city, extra attention will be paid to public transport and complicated crossings. When living in the country, the guide dog will spend extra time practising how to guide on roads without a footpath.
Specialists ensure that the specific needs of deaf blind people as well as people with other multiple handicaps can be met where possible. Not every person with multiple handicaps can be supplied with a guide dog or assistance dog, due to the severity of their handicaps. KNGF Guide Dogs will, however, always try their hardest to supply as many impaired people as possible with a suitably trained dog.
A good match between a dog and its potential user is crucial. After all, they have to work together as a team for many years to come. A lot of attention is paid to making the best combination of dog and owner in terms of characteristics like personality, needs, activity levels, and gait.
The novice guide dog user (our client) is taught how to work with the guide dog during a two-week training period, tailor-made to suit his or her specific needs and wishes, under the guidance of a trained instructor. During this instruction period the client stays over at our training centre. We have comfortable rooms available for this purpose.
Upon completion of the instruction period, the dog and its new owner go home. There the dog is trained to cope with the home environment with the assistance of a guide dog instructor. Of course, it doesn’t end there. Every guide dog user can count on after-care and 24-hour support from KNGF Guide Dogs.
Special dogs for special people
Since 2007, we have been training autism guide dogs for young children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. We deliver an average twenty of these dogs every year. Autism guide dogs are guiding child and parent outside the home. With the dog’s help, a family is able to go out again, as the dog prevents the child from bolting and breaking away. Dogs prove to have positive effects on the social and communicative behaviour of children with ASS.
Recently we have started training assistance dogs for people in a wheelchair. As an experienced dog school, we find it our duty and aim to help a broader group of impaired people with a specially trained dog. We use several training methods for the training of assistance dogs, depending on the client’s situation. The training and instruction programme is planned together with the client, in order to create an ideal cooperation between the dog and its user.
Now and forever
We believe that good training and support are a long-term goal. Our after-care includes home visits and a special helpdesk where all questions are answered by expert personnel.
Experience proves that most of our clients do not wish to do without a guide dog after their first dog has retired. Continuity is, therefore, of the utmost importance to our organisation. We have made a commitment to our clients to always have a specially trained dog available for them, for now and in the future.