I am currently three weeks away from starting class, and my whole team is in the process of finishing up our final blindfolds and reviewing the videos sent in by people coming in to our classes. Let me just back up for a minute and say how much I love having the videos. When I worked at Guiding Eyes and Seeing Eye, we didn't have videos. (Maybe they do now; I've been away for so long I really don't know how they do admissions anymore.) Every applicant was visited by a field representative, and the field rep's written reports were what we relied on to get a sense of which dog would probably be going to which person. Usually the written reports were pretty accurate, but there were still plenty of times when the person who walked through the door on the first day of class was not the person we had all seen on paper, which caused us to have to reshuffle our dog assignments. Not that this never happens with videos, but I find that is so much easier than it used to be to look at a person's video and just KNOW that that person and this dog are the right match.
Anyway, my short answer when people ask, "How do you decide which dog goes to which person?" is something like, "Well, it depends on how fast the dog walks and how hard it pulls, and also what kind of environment the person lives and works in. Some dogs are better suited to busy city life; some are better suited for a quiet rural area. We also match based on energy. So if a dog has lots of energy and needs to walk 5 miles a day, we're going to give it to someone who has a busy life and needs a dog with that much energy. And if a dog is laid back and would be happy just hanging out all day, maybe we give that dog to someone who doesn't do a whole lot." That is a perfectly acceptable answer, but really just a starting point.
If I had to pick the single thing that is the most important to me in making a match, I would say energy. If the energy is wrong, everything else probably will be too. Matching a person with a dog who has too much energy often results in a control problem. It's like the excess energy sort of "bubbles over" and expends itself in distraction, poor social behavior, poor settling, and that kind of thing. Not to mention pace and pull problems. If the dog walks too fast and/or pulls too hard, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. The dog can get out of position, with the handler's arm extended too far forward, which leads to all kinds of work errors. The dog can actually pull harder if the person tries to slow it down by pulling back on the harness handle. Every walk becomes stressful and uncomfortable with the handler just hoping he or she can hang on and get to the destination safely and then rest up for the return destination which will be more of the same.
Nevertheless, overmatching energy is not quite as bad, in my opinion, as undermatching energy. A person who is always on the go is not going to be happy with a dog who is a layabout type. As ugly as control problems can be, there is usually SOMETHING you can do about them. More exercise, Gentle Leader, more rigorous obedience sessions… It is much more difficult to put some oomph into a dog that doesn't have much to begin with. Undermatching for energy is something that I used to do much more often than I do now. That is one of the best things about getting more and more experience in this job -- it's not that I never make the same mistakes anymore, but I do make them much less frequently.
Even after saying all of the above, I can now go on to say that there are some cases where you do have to overmatch or undermatch for energy. An example of the first would be if you have someone whose handling style -- for a variety of reasons -- is going to put a lot of pressure on a dog. That person needs a dog who is going to be able to stand up to that pressure. A softer, easier-to-manage dog might just decide to quit working in that situation. So, that person is going to have to learn some management techniques. An example of the second would be if you have someone who has a lot of health problems and/or very limited physical strength but wants to walk fast. The dog that will walk fast and at the same time not require much handling is very elusive. Sometimes people like this just have to be under matched a little, especially if it's someone with a health condition that results in no guarantee of frequent work for the dog, so that the person is able to control the dog.
Environment is also a very big part of the match. I have dogs in this string that could probably function in a city environment for a while with a very supportive, low-pressure handler and a lot of cheerleading and confidence-building, but that are just not wired for the constant onslaught of challenges thrown at them in a busy city. They worry about making mistakes and about the consequences of making the wrong decision, and situations that require them to make quick decisions are much more numerous in a complex city environment. They lose confidence and assertiveness when working in challenging area and do things like drift off the straight line, into parking lots or towards building entrances or anywhere they think will be easier than the busy street. These dogs will function much better in a small town where the person goes to the post office or the gym every day, and the dog can learn the routine and become secure in it. These dogs don't need a lot of challenges and are happy to find their groove and stick to it. I have other dogs who thrive on the challenges of complex environments. When I work these dogs in rural or residential neighborhoods, the work is so easy for them that their attention drifts, to squirrels or people or scents or barking dogs or whatever. These are the same dogs that could work through a crowd of people and dogs on leash and never deviate because they have to make work decisions every few seconds and they can't take their mind off of the work to investigate distractions. They are energized by city work and are not overly bothered by people stepping on them, doors opening on them, cars cutting in front of them, or other things that are a part of city life. It would be a shame not to send these dogs to places where they will be challenged, because they love the challenge.
Dogs are also matched based on how much handling they will require and how much the person is capable of giving. When I say "handling", I mean things like management of distraction, enforcement of commands, awareness of what the dog is doing, et cetera. All dogs have some level of distraction. We absolutely cannot breed it out of them, not without also breeding out the "spark" they need to be able to guide well. A top handler would be able to do all of the following things: know when the dog is distracted (both by paying a lot of attention to the environment and by reading the dog's movements in harness), know how to refocus the dog (whether by verbal correction, leash correction, asking for an alternative behavior, or some other way), pay attention to whether the dog responds to a command or not and take appropriate action if the dog doesn't respond, insist that the dog stay under control and in proper position at all times, pay attention to what the dog is doing when the handler is doing something else (like talking to a friend, sitting at a table, paying for a purchase at a store, et cetera), and follow directions for handling problems. There are some amazing handlers in the guide dog world, some of whom can get better work out of a dog than I can. True statement. Sometimes a top-notch worker needs a lot of handling to get that top-notch work. Is the person capable of AND willing to do that much handling, or would they rather have a dog that maybe is not quite as outstanding a worker but is a lot easier to handle?
On top of all that, there are some cases where there is one thing that the person HAS to have, and everything else comes second. For example, the person has two hours of daily commuting on bus and subway. That dog has to be sound, period. There has to be room for compromise on everything else, but a dog that is not 100% comfortable with noisy, busy, crowded public transit is not going to work. So the person might have to do a little more handling than he or she would prefer, or walk a little faster or slower, if we don't have exactly the right city-sound dog. (You can only compromise so much on handling and pace and pull, though, because outside of a certain range it becomes unworkable, so someone who has specific circumstances like that, really should be pre-matched with a fair amount of confidence on the part of the instructors.)
Most dogs also have something stellar about them, some skill or trait where they are naturally superior. Maybe it is confidence, or maybe it is extremely good social behavior, or extremely low distraction, or very good country work. It is good to keep these "super-star" qualities in mind when matching, because sometimes the thing that the person has to have matches up nicely with a dog's super ability, and if energy and pace and pull are also right, then you may have a perfect or almost perfect match.
Like buying a house, people have "needs" and "wants" when it comes to guide dogs. Sometimes there are things that are deal-breakers for one person that another person would not care about at all. Things like, alert barking, parking on route, up-and-down under the table. All dogs, when they go into class, should not alert bark, should not park on route, and should not pop up and down under the table. But we always remember the dog's early history. If they did some alert barking during the first couple of weeks of training, but then stopped with correction and haven't done it since, the trainer should still remember that. It could be part of the dog's response to stress, and there is stress in transition. The alert barking might recur in class. It could reasonably be expected to go away again once the dog has adjusted to the change, but you also probably would not want to give that dog to someone who has just had to retire a dog early because it was alert-barking inappropriately in public. Same with parking on route. There are some dogs who are slower to make the transition to parking on leash in new areas, and may have a couple of accidents during the first few days of class. There are some people who are so mortified by the thought of a dog having an accident that if it happens, they will worry and stress over it and the stress will affect their work with the dog. There are other people who will shrug and say, "Hey, you gotta' go, you gotta' go", and not give it a second thought. These are also things to keep in mind.
Finally, matching personalities is the icing on the cake. There are dogs who are stoic and will not mind a nervous, anxious handler, while other dogs will worry when they see their handler worrying, and will become erratic in their work and spend so much time worrying about what the handler is doing that they can't concentrate properly on their work. Some dogs need a bouncy, energetic handler to keep them "up". Some dogs need someone who is able to give firm, effective verbal corrections. (Some people just cannot do this. I had one match once where any misbehavior on the part of the dog could be easily addressed by a firm, sharp "No!" on the part of the handler, but I matched the dog with someone who was extremely soft-spoken and was literally not capable of raising his voice. That handler had a much harder time managing the dog than he should have. Although, to give myself credit, the match was good and they did work through the problem, and had a long and successful working career. But if I had the guy again, I would really look for a dog that didn't need much verbal correction.) Some dogs need that warm, supportive person who thinks everything the dog does right is worth effusive praise, and praises naturally without having to be told to praise. Some dogs are aloof and find it annoying to be touched or hugged or snuggled, and would prefer to just be left alone to do the work. Some dogs need a confident handler and will shut down if matched with an anxious, tentative person, while other dogs will just put their head down and do the job no matter who is on the other end of the harness. All kinds of dogs, all kinds of people.
Matching is an art, not a science. There is no way anyone will ever be perfect at it. But it does get easier the more you do it. One of the most compelling things about this job is the challenge. Getting the match right is so intoxicating that it keeps me motivated to always get better at making the right matches. In the meantime, both puppy raisers and clients can help a lot. I've gotten so much good information from puppy raisers, about how the dog responds to different types of people, about what the dog likes and doesn't like, about the situations where the dog shines versus the ones where it struggles. (And we do find a lot of this out through the training process, but it is very helpful to me to know that the dog has ALWAYS been a certain way, because that shows that the quality in question is stable and can be realistically counted on to stay the same with a client.) If you're a client, I want to know as much information as possible, not only about your lifestyle but also about the little quirky things that you really love or really can't stand about a dog. Tell me all of it! We can't make the perfect match if we don't have all of the information. You may not get every single thing you ask for, but you might be surprised at how close we can come sometimes.