Although dogs can be trained to navigate various obstacles, many are (red-green) color blind and are not capable of interpreting street signs. The human does the directing, based on skills acquired through previous mobility training. The handler might be likened to an aircraft's navigator, who must know how to get from one place to another, and the dog is the pilot, who gets them there safely.
In several countries, guide dogs, along with most service and hearing dogs, are exempt from regulations against the presence of animals in places such as restaurants and public transportation.
References to service animals date at least as far back as the mid-16th century; the second line of the popular verse alphabet "A was an Archer" is most commonly "B was a Blind-man/Led by a dog". In the 19th-century verse novel Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the title character remarks, "The blind man walks wherever the dog pulls / And so I answered."
The first service animal training schools were established in Germany during World War I to enhance the mobility of returning veterans who were blinded in combat, but interest in service animals outside of Germany did not become widespread until Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog breeder living in Switzerland, wrote a first-hand account about a service animal training school in Potsdam, Germany, that was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1927. That same year, United States Senator Thomas D. Schall of Minnesota was paired with a service animal imported from Germany, who was trained by Jack Sinykin of Minnesota, owner of LaSalle Kennels. The service animal movement did not take hold in America until Nashville resident Morris Frank returned from Switzerland after being trained with one of Eustis's dogs, a female German shepherd named Buddy. Frank and Buddy embarked on a publicity tour to convince Americans of the abilities of service animals and the need to allow people with service animals access to public transportation, hotels, and other areas open to the public. In 1929, Eustis and Frank co-founded The Seeing Eye school in Nashville, Tennessee (relocated in 1931 to New Jersey).
The first service animals in Great Britain were German shepherds. Four of these first were Flash, Judy, Meta, and Folly, who were handed over to their new owners, veterans blinded in World War I, on 6 October 1931 in Wallasey, Merseyside. Judy's new owner was Musgrave Frankland. In 1934, The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in Great Britain began operation, although their first permanent trainer was a Russian military officer, Captain Nikolai Liakhoff, who moved to the UK in 1933.
Important studies on the behavior and training methods of service animals were done in the 1920s and 1930s by Jakob von Uexküll and Emanuel Georg Sarris. They studied the richness of service animals and introduced advanced methods of training. There have also been important studies into the discrimination experienced by people that use service and assistance animals.
Guide dog breeds are chosen for temperament and trainability. Early on, trainers began to recognize which breeds produced dogs most appropriate for guide work; today, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and German Shepherds are most likely to be chosen by service animals facilities, although other breeds such as Standard Poodles and Vizslas may also be selected.
Crosses such as Golden Retriever/Labrador (which combine the sensitivity of the Golden Retriever and the tolerance of the Labrador Retriever) and Labradoodles (Labrador/Poodles bred to help reduce allergens as all breeds shed but levels vary) are also common.
The most popular breed used globally today is the Labrador Retriever. This breed has a good range of size, is easily kept due to its short coat, is generally healthy and has a gentle but willing temperament.
Despite regulations or rules that deny access to animals in restaurants and other public places, in many countries, service animals are protected by law and therefore may accompany their handlers most places that are open to the public. Laws and regulations vary worldwide:
Because some schools of thought in Islam consider dogs in general to be unclean, many Muslim taxi drivers and store owners have refused to accommodate customers who have service animals, which has led to discrimination charges against them. However, in 2003 the Islamic Sharia Council, a British organisation that provides non-binding guidance on interpreting Islamic religious law, ruled that the ban on dogs does not apply to those used for guide work.
Studies show owning a pet or therapy animal offer positive effects psychologically, socially, and physiologically. Guide dogs especially come with a variety of benefits and help in many ways. They give a blind person more confidence, friendship, and security. Blind people who use service animals have increased confidence in going about day-to-day life and are comforted by a constant friend. Companionship offered by a service dog helps reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Because animals offer support, security, and companionship, stress is reduced, which in turn improves cardiovascular health. "A number of studies identify pet ownership as a factor in improved recovery from illness and in improved health in general".
Guide dogs make it easier to get around, resulting in the person getting more exercise or walking more. People are more willing to go places and feel a sense of independence. Meeting people and socializing is easier, and people are more likely to offer a blind person help when there is a service animal present. The animals may also lead to increased interaction with other people. Animals are seen as "ice breakers" to a conversation with something to talk about. In many cases, guide dogs offer a life changing experience. They are more advantageous than long canes when one is in an unfamiliar place. The animal directs the right path, instead of poking around wondering if you might bump into something. Guide dogs make the experience of the unknown more relaxing. Getting from point A to point B using a guide dog is much faster and safer. Owners of guide dogs share a special bond with their animal. Many report that the animal is a member of the family, and go to their animal for comfort and support. The animal isn't seen as a working animal, but more as a loyal friend. However it is important to remember that guide dogs are working animals and should not be distracted or treated as a normal animal while they are working.
The problem to carry guide dogs on religious grounds has become so widespread that the matter was raised in the House of Lords last week, prompting transport minister Norman Baker to warn that a religious objection was not a reason to eject a passenger with a well-behaved guide dog.
... guide dogs can accompany disabled people into restaurants or taxis managed or driven by Muslims.