Why Does The Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind Exist?

Guide dog schools and instructors serve important functions. Non-profits in California and around the country train dogs to be of assistance to the visually impaired. Guide dog instructors help train dogs and assist the visually impaired in effectively utilizing the services of a guide dog. While 49 states have decided that licensing any of this activity is unwarranted, there is one that for half a century has insisted on creating a Board to regulate these: California.

Created in 1948, the Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind has had very little to do. With an annual revenue of ~$300,000 in licensing fees, the Board is charged with licensing guide dog training schools, guide dog instructors and fundraising programs to open new guide dog schools, the Board currently licenses three guide dog schools and just over 100 guide dog instructors and no fundraisers. California is the only state that licenses any of this.

Coupled with the low numbers of schools and instructors actually working in California, the Joint Legislative Sunset Review Committee (JLSRC) had recommended the abolition of the Board in 1997. Cited was that “there appeared to be little problem with unlicensed activity, in part due to the close community related to the activities of the Board’s licensees.” In addition, the JLSRC noted that the Board hadn’t licensed any schools since 1972 (it still hasn’t).

Considering how vital guide dogs are for those who need them, and how costly they are (the Board estimates a trained dog can cost $40,000-60,000), there is every reason to believe that those who seek guide dogs will likely be scrutinizing the capacities of a guide dog before purchasing one. According to the Board, there are 2,000 Californians who own a guide dog.

However, legislation (AB 1546) was passed anyway in 1997, with support from the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) to continue the existence of the Board for five more years. Consideration of abolition hasn’t come ever since.

Other states haven’t bothered creating licensing schemes. Private certification organizations such as the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, the US Council of Dog Guide Schools, and a litany of dog training certification programs already fill the need for oversight. Given that private certification programs exist for those interested in professionally training service dogs and that non-profits effectively train dogs and provide instruction services for visually impaired clients, the need for government licensure is simply unnecessary. This isn’t so in California.

In California, aspiring guide dog instructors must take and pass a written, practical, and oral examination. The first step involves producing a video, a minimum of twenty minutes to a maximum of thirty minutes in length, showing the applicant “interacting with a person who is visually impaired and currently receiving guide dog instruction with a new dog (client).” The “exam facilitator will stop the video” if it runs longer than thirty minutes.

If the video is accepted, the applicant must submit their fingerprints and an application. To do this, you must have had at least three years’ experience (applies largely to out-of-state applicants) or having served as an “apprentice under a licensed instructor or under an instructor in a school” approved by the Board for three years.

If accepted at this stage, applicants must then take a written exam consisting of 100 multiple-choice questions. If they pass, they return to the testing location the next day to take an oral exam. Upon passing the oral exam, they will be notified if they are to be granted a license within 48 hours. Further, every year, licensees must pay $100 for a license renewal and prove that they completed mandatory Continuing Education.

Unsurprisingly, the Board’s sunset reports only highlight how little it actually does. Though it recently acquired the power to levy $5000 fines on unlicensed guide dog instructors, the most recent sunset report from 2012 shows that it has undertaken no disciplinary actions against anyone. Between 2009 and 2012, it received 4 complaints and on two of them took an average of 17 days to resolve the issue. According to the report, the DCA does not track annual performance for the Board and the Board doesn’t conduct consumer satisfaction surveys. In other words, there hasn’t been a problem of unlicensed trainers or schools and the Board doesn’t even bother to ensure that customers are satisfied.

According to a March 2013 Senate Committee on Business, Professions and Economic Development background paper, the Board has also expanded regulatory authority over informal “follow-up instruction” in recent years. While the Senate Committee raised the point that “some guide dog users have questioned the validity of a law that prohibits unlicensed follow-up instruction in this state,” the Board responded that “follow-up training is guide dog instruction which for consumer protection purposes requires a license” and that “the process for licensure is neither cost prohibitive nor overly burdensome.” In other words, even if you are certified to train guide dogs and have experience helping the visually impaired in using guide dogs, you must still get a license to provide follow-up instruction, or you might face a $5000 fine.

Unfortunately, serious questioning of the existence of the Board has been absent since 1995. It has continued to exist on vague claims that licensing activity “is essential to the health and welfare of blind persons desiring to use guide dogs.” It isn’t. California should follow the lead of every other state in the nation and leave the important work of guide dog training and guide dog instructors to the schools, instructors, and consumers.