The range of processes for selecting, breeding, raising, socializing and training suitable dogs to be mobility aids for people who are blind or visually impaired are complex, costly and time consuming [1
]. The building of a successful guide dog team, comprising the user (handler) and dog, involves matching a suitable dog to the handler, training the handler and dog as a dyad and providing ongoing follow-up and support. In New Zealand (NZ) these roles are adopted by Blind Low Vision NZ Guide Dogs, which was formerly, and at the time of this study, known as the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB) Guide Dog Services (GDS). This organization is the only one of its kind in NZ and services the entire country. Most guide dogs bred in NZ are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and purpose-bred crosses [2
] plus a small number of Standard Poodles. Around 100 potential guide dogs are bred each year. Training takes approximately two years and costs upwards of NZD 50,000. At any one time, around 150 people in NZ are using a guide dog, and about another 50 are on the waiting list for one (M. Dawson, Breeding and Production Advisor, Blind Low Vision NZ, personal communication, 21 May 2021).
Guide dogs fulfill a variety of roles for their handlers. The dogs’ main function is as a mobility aid, enabling people to increase their mobility by locating and negotiating their way around obstacles, finding destinations, and maintaining independence [3
]. Discussions with guide dog handlers suggest that getting around is less tiring with a dog than with a long cane as less effort is required [4
]. However, as with companion/pet dogs, guide dogs can also fulfill other psychosocial roles as companions, objects and providers of physical contact and affection, and social facilitators [7
]. Whitmarsh [5
] interviewed over 400 guide dog handlers and found that not only did they feel more confident and independent as a result of having a guide dog, but they also experienced better social relationships and appreciated the companionship afforded by the dog. Some cited security and increased exercise as additional benefits [5
]. Increased confidence has also been noted in other studies [8
]. As illustrated above, prior to getting a guide dog, a person with a vision impairment is likely to have certain expectations around what a guide dog will provide them with. According to Refson et al. [12
] these primarily relate to independence and mobility, but also include wanting more exercise, increased security and not wanting to use a long cane [5
]. Guide dogs may even have a positive impact on health [12
], although this may depend on the compatibility of the relationship [13
Although more advantages than disadvantages have been noted in the literature concerning the use of guide dogs [7
] and other assistance/service dogs [14
], challenges that hamper these benefits do exist, and not all matches are equally successful [15
]. The looks, behavior, health and temperament of the dog, and the physical and mental capabilities, personality and expectations of the potential handler may all influence the compatibility of the pairing and contribute to its success. In his exploration of the ways in which guide dog/handler partnerships were established in The Seeing Eye guide dog school of the 1930s, Pemberton described the “multispecies matchmaking” involved. He observed that “before arriving at the campus and meeting any dogs, the prospective guide dog owner had been matched with a canine partner by the instructors, in accordance with the individual physical capacities, temperaments, personalities and needs of each party” ([16
], p. 98). While the term ‘compatibility’ is not applied to this process, there is clearly scope for compatibility, or the lack of it, to be applied to any of these matchmaking elements. The notion of compatibility between companion dogs and cats and their owners was explored by Budge et al. who defined it as the behavioral, physical and psychological fit between a companion animal and its owner [17
] or, in this case, a guide dog and its handler.
Attachment or the emotional bond is another component of the relationship between humans and companion animals. This human-animal bond has been likened to that between a caregiver and a human infant [18
], and more recently it has been suggested that dog-human attachment is more akin to adult pair bonds or friendships [19
].The emotional bond is perhaps especially complex when the animal in question has a specific working, as well as social, role to play. Feelings of emotional attachment to the dog and perceptions of the bond is of major significance for the wellbeing of both handler and dog as it is likely to influence the success of the match [20
In this paper the relationships between 50 guide dog handlers and their first dogs are considered. There were four goals:
Goal 1: to explore the extent to which guide dog handlers considered their expectations to have been fulfilled by their first guide dog;
Goal 2: to explore how compatible they considered the pairing of dog and handler to be with respect to both working (mobility) and non-working (social) aspects of the relationship;
Goal 3: to see whether there were differences in the fulfilment of expectations and perceived compatibility between those who considered the handler/dog combination to be a matching success and those who considered it to be unsuccessful and judged it a mismatch;
Goal 4: to examine whether the degree of motivation to (a) get a guide dog and (b) make a success of the relationship was associated with fulfilment of expectations, compatibility and matching success.
3.1. Fulfilment of Expectations
The first goal was to examine how well participants’ expectations of having a guide dog were fulfilled by actually having and using the dog. The distribution of responses to the five fulfilment of expectations questions appears in Table 2
, expressed as percentages, along with the results of a chi-square goodness of fit based on equal expected frequencies.
The most frequent response was that the dogs exceeded their handlers’ expectations in all respects; with companionship being rated highest, followed by social function and then mobility (travel). Expectations were met or exceeded for at least 72% and up to 98% of the handlers; the dog’s behavior being the lowest and companionship the highest. The chi-square results demonstrate that for all five variables, the observed frequencies were significantly different from the expected, with dogs meeting or exceeding expectations more often than not. As these variables were not normally distributed, most being negatively skewed, Spearman’s correlations were used to investigate how there were correlated (Table 3
). These items were predominantly moderately positively correlated; the strongest correlation was between travel and behavior, the two work-related variables, the next strongest between travel and social function.
The five item scores were averaged to create the FES scale with a mean score of 3.38 (SD = 0.56).
The second goal was to examine how compatible participants considered the pairing of dog and handler to be with respect to the working and non-working related aspects of the relationship. As the data set was small and data were not normally distributed, the median responses on the 1–10 rating scale are presented in Table 4
along with the score ranges.
The median scores show that all 10 items were rated highly on average. However, the ranges revealed that there were some lower scores, particularly in relation to control, mobility, safety, and match. Due to the small sample size and non-normality of the data structure, Spearman’s rank correlations were used to examine the relationships between the compatibility items scores (Table 5
The strongest correlation was found between satisfaction with the dog and with the match between handler and dog, followed by that between the bond and attachment variables. Strong correlations were also seen between the mobility, safety and control variables, and between bond and companionship. The pattern of correlations and the qualitative content of the items suggested they could contain two different subsets: one concerning the working ability of the dog as a useful, controllable and safe mobility aid, the other concerning the emotional or non-work-related variables of bonding, attachment and companionship. Consequently, items 3–5 and 8 were averaged to make a ’Work Compatibility’ subscale (M = 8.52, SD = 1.72) and items 1, 2 and 10 were averaged to create an ‘Emotional Compatibility’ subscale (M = 9.27, SD = 1.01).
Spearman’s correlations found Work Compatibility to be moderately correlated with both Emotional Compatibility (rs = 0.50), and more strongly correlated with overall satisfaction (rs = 0.72) and satisfaction with the match (rs = 0.68). Emotional Compatibility was also correlated with satisfaction (rs = 0.65) and match (rs = 0.52). Social Compatibility (item 9) was correlated with Work Compatibility (rs = 0.34) and with Emotional Compatibility (rs = 0.32). The compatibility scales were correlated with the FES score as follows: Work Compatibility (rs = 0.69), Emotional Compatibility (rs = 0.60) and Social Compatibility (rs = 0.42).
3.3. FES and Compatibility Differences According to Match/Mismatch Decision
The third goal was to see whether there were differences in FES and Compatibility scores between those who considered the handler/dog combination to be a matching success and those who considered it to be a mismatch (Table 6
). Only 45 of the 50 handlers were able to indicate with certainty whether they considered the match to be a success (n = 37; 82.2%) or not (n = 8; 17.8%).
As shown in Table 6
, the mean differences are greatest for the FES scores, the Work Compatibility scores, and satisfaction with the match and with the dog overall. The differences are less pronounced for the Emotional Compatibility item scores and for Social Compatibility. With respect to FES, the largest difference of 1.83 on the 4-point scale related to travel (mobility), followed by a difference of 1.68 for the dog’s behavior. The largest contrasts within the Work Compatibility items were observed for safety and control with mean differences of 5.24 and 3.78 respectively.
3.4. Assocations between Motivation to Acquire and Succeed with a Guide Dog and Fulfillment of Expectations, Compatibiity and Matching Success
To achieve the last goal, the motivation to acquire and to succeed with the dog was rated on a 10-point rating scale (with 1 being ‘not at all motivated’ and 10 being ‘extremely motivated’); ratings of motivation to acquire ranged from 1–10 with a mean of 7.88 (SD = 2.40) and ratings of motivation to succeed from 6–10 (M = 9.40, SD = 0.93).
Correlations between the motivation scores and the FES and compatibility subscales are presented in Table 7
, showing that motivation to succeed with a dog was more strongly associated with the fulfillment of expectations and compatibility scores than was the motivation to acquire a dog. Work Compatibility was most strongly correlated with the motivation to succeed.
To see whether the motivation ratings were linked to perceptions of matching success, mean scores for the successful match and mismatch groups were compared. Again, the motivation to succeed appeared to have more discriminative power than the motivation to acquire a dog; mean scores for motivation to succeed were 9.49 for the successful match group and 8.88 for the mismatch group. Mean scores for motivation to acquire a dog were 7.89 for the successful match group and 7.25 for the mismatch group.
The goals of this paper were: firstly, to see whether having a first guide dog met the expectations of people with a vision impairment; secondly, whether they felt that they were compatible with their assigned dog; thirdly, whether ratings of fulfillment of expectations and compatibility differed according to whether or not the participants considered the handler/guide dog pairing a success; and finally, to see how motivation to acquire and succeed with a dog was related to fulfillment of expectations, compatibility and perceptions of whether or not the pairing was a matching success.
The FES results suggest that nearly all the handlers’ expectations of guide dog use were at least met, and mostly exceeded, by their first dog. This supports earlier findings by Whitmarsh [5
] that expectations and perceived benefits of guide dog use are well aligned. The example given by Whitmarsh (5) was that 90% of those indicating that improved mobility was a benefit of ownership, had applied for a dog with that reason in mind. Similarly, other studies [8
] found that all participants had mobility-related expectations of their prospective guide dogs, expecting them to be a superior aid to a long cane, to make journeys safer and faster, and unfamiliar environments more accessible. The authors reported that these expectations were satisfied in the main. Doorish [22
] also found that a desire to overcome the limitations of using a long cane was instrumental in the decision to apply for a guide dog. The way in which this expectation was met was described by his participants who defined the cane as an obstacle locator and the dog as an obstacle avoider, thus improving speed, confidence and decreasing pain from contact with obstacles when travelling. This equates to the travel component of the FES and also to the safety and mobility components of compatibility in the current study.
Lane and colleagues [23
] touched on other expectations of guide dog use with their focus group participants who described a range of ambitions they had held prior to getting a dog that had been subsequently achieved. These included engaging in more exercise and having an enhanced sense of well-being. Overall, the authors concluded that handlers associated improved fitness, improved emotional and physical health, higher self-esteem and more social engagement with using a canine guide [23
]. Companionship was also mentioned as an advantage of guide dog use. The greatest fulfillment in our study was associated with companionship, with only one participant indicating that their expectations on this front were only partially met.
Responses to the 10 compatibility questions were combined, based on their qualitative content, into three weak to moderately correlated components or subscales. The subscales constituted different aspects of the relationship between handler and dog related to work, emotional and social compatibility. Although the ratings of compatibility were very high overall, there was sufficient variation to demonstrate apparent mean differences between those who considered their pairing to be a matching success and those who did not. Compatibility between people and their animal companions has been explored before, a general measure having been developed in the context of cat and dog ownership [17
], and a compatibility of activity preferences measure for dogs and their owners [13
]. However, neither of these was appropriate for the current context, as guide dogs play such a specific and essential role with and for their handlers. A service dog matching tool was developed by Zapf and Rough [24
], involving assessment, of the client only, around functional needs, prior experience with animals, typical activity level, affective state and resources. It was described in a recent doctoral thesis as the only published matching tool but one that is too brief and possibly excluding of factors that are important to a successful service dog/client match [25
]. A profiling tool was recently developed by Meyer and colleagues [26
] which can be used to classify people with impaired vision into four different types of travelers in order to match them with appropriate guide dogs. These ideas are based predominantly on travel needs and the questions asked only touched on more social aspects of guide dog use and care.
When looking at the differences in ratings of expectation fulfillment and the different types of compatibility for the well-matched and mismatched groups, it was evident that the largest differences were linked to the work-related aspects of the relationship. This highlights the importance of guide dogs being good at their job and compatible with the handler’s vision-related needs for the match to be classified as successful. A big difference in compatibility between the groups was related to satisfaction with the safety of the dog as a mobility aid. While it is outside the scope of this paper to discuss the nuances of guide dog training, this draws attention to the necessity of guide dog schools to focus on key skills such as straight line walking, indicating curbs/stairs/intersections by stopping, understand and respond to the handler’s verbal instructions and ignore distractions such as other dogs, cats and food. It appears that there was less variation in emotional responses to the dogs across the two groups, and it may be that handlers get attached to their guide dog and feel there is a strong emotional bond between dog and handler regardless of how they perform as a working team. It must be remembered that although the dog is primarily a mobility aid, and work safety is paramount, it is also an animal companion and consequently provides the handler with other social and emotional benefits.
It has been suggested that there are important aspects of guide dog behavior that are not prioritized in assessments. Craigon et al. [27
] point out that the guide dog is only working for a small part of the day, with the rest of the time being spent just as a dog in the handler’s household. The need for compatibility applies to non-working time as well, including time a dog may spend, for example, lying under a desk in a handler’s office. As found in other studies by Lloyd and colleagues [8
], York and Whiteside [28
] observed that their focus group participants considered the way in which their guide dog behaved when out of harness was as important as when it was working, and suggested the need for better understanding of the prospective handler’s non-work as well as work expectations/requirements of a guide dog. As the emphasis on training a guide dog is predominantly on how the dog works in order to support the handler’s mobility, it would befit trainers/instructors to also focus on the social aspects (non-work) of the dog’s behavior and consider what the social expectations of the handler might be when making matching decisions. Puppy walkers (also known as puppy raisers or puppy fosters) will have a good sense of their previous charge’s social ‘at home’ behavior and could be asked to fill in any knowledge gaps to provide a fuller character profile of the dog, as recommended by York and Whiteside [28
]. Gravrok et al. [14
] explored challenges experienced by first-time handlers of a variety of assistance dogs and concluded that handlers’ medical conditions, cognitive ability and social environment (as well as dog-related factors) were important and should be considered prior to placing an assistance dog. This information may be helpful to the potential application of the findings of the present study for guide dog handlers with difficulties other than visual impairment.
When we looked at how motivated handlers rated themselves as being to firstly acquire a guide dog and then succeed with the dog they were matched with, it was clear that the motivation to succeed had stronger connections with the fulfillment of expectations, compatibility and the perceived success of the match. Perhaps motivation to succeed reflects the idea of readiness for change, as encompassed by the Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavior Change (also known as the Transtheoretical Model) [29
]. The Transtheoretical Model assesses individuals’ readiness to progress through various stages of change in six steps. These are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. Making the decision to get a guide dog represents a huge change in one’s life, with both positive and negative implications, and it may be that people who are more prepared to be flexible and modify certain attitudes and/or behaviors are more likely to make the new relationship work.
Limitations of the Study
Characteristics of well-matched versus mismatched dogs was explored by Lloyd et al. [15
] where handlers were asked to comment on what was good and bad behaviorally (and physically) about their dogs (118 handler-dog pairings). The most reported good behavior concerned social behavior including the dog being personable and well behaved at home and in other social settings, followed by the dog’s capacity to work and guiding ability. The bad behaviors most reported concerned work, closely followed by poor social behaviors. A limitation of the current study was that the only social aspect we enquired about was the effect
of the dog on social interaction rather than its social or non-working behavior. However, some of this may have come into participants’ ratings of their guide dog as a companion, as poor social behavior could be assumed to have a negative impact on companionship. Other limitations of this study include the relatively small sample size, although it should be acknowledged that it represents over a fifth of all current and previous guide dog users in New Zealand at the time. The relatively broad scope of the questions could also perhaps be viewed as a limitation. This was the first study to examine this topic, and we wished to take a wide exploratory approach, but had we divided the compatibility and expectations items into more precisely worded questions we could have gleaned more information about more specific aspects of these constructs. It is recommended that this be explored further in future research.
It is interesting to note that only a small fraction (<1–2%) of people in NZ and in other countries [30
] who are eligible to apply for a guide dog (i.e., are legally blind) use or are waiting for a dog. There are many reasons why this might be; secondary disabilities such as diabetes, hearing loss and neurological conditions may not necessarily preclude eligibility [21
], but it could mean that those who have or want a dog are already highly motivated compared to the blind and low vision community.
It is generally believed that applicants need to be able to demonstrate the need for a dog as a mobility aid to help them travel safely and with confidence. In NZ it is not mandatory for people to have received formal orientation and mobility (O&M) training prior to applying, but it is considered useful if people are confident in their travel ability. For some people, having poor or no long cane mobility skills may not be detrimental to travelling with a dog. A study by Lloyd and colleagues [4
] showed that peoples’ self-professed degree of O&M skills before they got a dog did not affect the level of their perceived travel performance. Indeed, those who described themselves as poor travelers appeared to gain the most from using a guide dog—provided the match was considered successful, and applicants were well oriented to their usual destinations. This study [4
] indicated that guide dog use also alleviated mobility restrictions for people with non-visual conditions such as repetitive strain injuries caused by long cane use, and hearing loss—the latter of which can impede orientation and is of greater concern with the current manufacturing of quieter cars. These findings support Milligan’s [31
] suggestions regarding who may benefit from using a guide dog and should be useful for instructors when assessing applications for guide dogs.
Having a guide dog is a big commitment and not everyone who is eligible chooses to, or should, have one. As with any assistance dog or pet dog, responsible ownership requires a commitment to provide for all the requirements of the dog—food, exercise, housing, reward-based training, love and affection, grooming and veterinary care [32
]. It is also necessary for users to learn about how dogs communicate and learn, and to thoroughly research the basics of dog care before acquiring the dog to ensure the physiological, behavioral and social needs of the dog are met [32
]. The onus need not be on the applicant to prove why they are eligible for a dog, but on the guide dog schools to show why certain individuals might not be trained to work with a dog. Guide dogs can make profound differences in the lives of those who use them, and awareness should be raised around these issues.