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The Dog Blog: Learning to Work with a Dog

Several years ago, a blind friend who taught political science at the local university was doing research that involved interviewing sheriffs in small Southern towns. He explained that he always found it relatively easy to establish rapport when he was accompanied by his guide dog. As he said, “Sheriffs are suckers for a well-trained dog.”

He used to tell the story of how one sheriff in a South Georgia town asked, “If you tell that dog to go to the bank, will he go to the bank?”

“Sure,” my friend said. “I just lean over and whisper First National, and he trots off to the Bank.”

Mystified, the sheriff turned to his deputy and said, “Buford, we got to get us one of them.”

Most people aren’t this gullible, but there is still an awful lot about working with a guide dog that is a mystery. So, in today’s post, I’ll be presenting the first of two quick and dirty explanations of how it is done.

The roughly three weeks of class at whatever school you attend is, essentially, a crash course in dog-training. In the beginning, the primary focus is ensuring you develop a strong bond with your dog. The dog you will receive has only spent a few weeks with its mother, then removed from its kennel and transplanted into a 4H family for about a year. After getting adjusted to the family environment, the puppy is moved back into the kennels for its training with an instructor for an additional four months. If all this turmoil weren’t enough, the puppy is then moved for a final time into a dorm room which it shares with a complete stranger it is suddenly expected to work for. (And you thought your first day at work was rough.)

Consequently, for the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours, dogs, and most new handlers as well for that matter, are dealing with a lot of stress. Personally, I’ve never felt any during this transition period, but many students do. The dogs that are chosen for guiding are especially attune to their environment, and this is your first important lesson as a new student: you are the most important part of that environment. So, even though you may be stressed yourself, you should never, never do anything to communicate that stress to the dog. There will be times, long after you’ve left class and returned home, that your dog will do things you find frustrating. You will be taught ways to deal with behavior you don’t want but communicating your frustration, stress, or anger is never one of them. You can be guaranteed that all this will do is make the negative behavior worse.

For people getting their first dog, it’s absolutely critical to learn to trust the dog. You don’t want to think that you’re entrusting your safety to an animal whose chief joy in life is smelling fresh urine, but you are.

The next time you see someone working with a dog, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the use of the harness enables the handler to follow the movements of the dog. The dog is always one step ahead. If you’re old enough to remember such things, it’s something like ballroom dancers following the movements of their partners. Most of a dog’s movements are slight and subtle.

Doing this is relatively simple for students without any residual vision, but it can be more challenging for people with some low vision. After all, when your eyes and brain are telling you that the shadow in the middle of the sidewalk looks like it could be a pothole and the dog is not making any effort to avoid it, all your instincts, illogical as they may be, want to ignore the dog. This issue usually resolves itself pretty quickly after you’ve slammed into a couple of objects that the dog tried to avoid and you paid no attention to.

While some of the commands used to work with a dog vary from school-to-school, the basics are pretty much what you would guess – come, left, right, forward, sit, and down. The goals is to make work fun for the dog. Consequently, every time the dog executes a command properly, it is praised: Fido, forward. Good boy!
Fido, left. At a, boy!

If this is done properly, whenever you’re ready to leave the house, the dog will practically dive into the harness because work is really fun. (Don’t you wish you were guaranteed a constant stream of praise like this for doing good work from your boss?)

From the perspective of trainers, the thing that makes guide dogs unique is their ability to know when to ignore a command that might place the master in danger, what is called “intelligent disobedience.” You can pretty much train a dog to do most things by enough repetition. The challenge is to train it so that it understands when it’s expected to execute a command promptly and when it should exercise its own judgment and ignore the command. In practice, this means that a dog may promptly execute the “forward” command 10,000 times but be expected to ignore it and remain perfectly still on 10,001 if going forward will place the master in danger.

One of the primary purposes of training is to develop complete trust in the dog. While the dog understands intelligent disobedience, you don’t want to tempt fate. Ideally, this is a skill you don’t want to test. I’ve had dogs for over thirty-five years, have probably issued the forward command well over 60,000 times, and have only had one (very memorable) occasion when the dog exercised its discretion to ignore the command.

A quick story will illustrate. When training with my current dog, the trainer stopped me at one point and said, “Somewhere in this next block there will be a quiet car coming out of an alley. We know the dog will stop but we’re doing this because we don’t know if you will.” Morristown, New Jersey was laid out before the American Revolution so the downtown area has no shortage of alleys. Trying to recall if my life insurance was paid up, I gave the forward command. Half-way down the block, there was the sudden sound of gravel a few feet to my right and the swoosh of air in front as the car passed. I can honestly say it was one of the more memorable experiences of my life. Three-and-a-half decades of working with dogs, however, made stopping on the proverbial dime second nature.

Note: If this seems unnecessarily reckless, training like this is essential to prepare handlers and dogs for the environment they will confront after class. The staff driving the quiet cars are highly skilled at driving this way or, at least, that’s what we were told.

In the final post in this series, I’ll talk about returning home with a new dog. There’s still more work to do.

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