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The Dog Blog: for Dogs

Can you remember the day you graduated from high school? Your first day of work? There are a few events in our lives that are so life-changing that, even in the moment, we realize their significance. It’s no exaggeration to say that Getting a guide dog is in the same category for most blind people.

The schools that train dogs have always described the process of pairing dogs with prospective handlers as “matching,” and I have to admit that it has more than a passing similarity with an electronic dating service. After all, reduced to its naked essentials there are a couple of dozen people seeking a long-term relationship with the right dog and several dozen dogs prepared to be matched to that right person.

Before that happens, however, a few other things have to take place. After puppies have served their time with their puppy-raising families, somewhere around one-and-a-half years of age, they are returned to the school to be trained by a professional trainer. For approximately four months, trainers work with a string of about ten dogs, devoting about forty-five minutes a day to each dog.

Trainers at the best schools are about as skilled in their work as any professional you’ll ever encounter. It takes a two-year apprenticeship, beginning with mucking out the kennels, before an apprentice graduates to teaching their first class of students. As one supervisor told me years ago, “It’s not hard to find people who are good at training dogs and it’s not hard to find people who are good at working with people; but it’s very hard to find people who are good with both dogs and people” because trainers not only need to be skilled with dogs but they must also be able to adapt to the varieties of personalities they will encounter in their students.

Within a few minutes of arriving for training at the school and unpacking, every student takes a “Juno walk” with their assigned trainer. “Juno” is the name of a mythical dog the trainer simulates by placing a harness and leash over their right arm while the student walks beside them “handling” Juno. This charade is intended to help the instructor to better judge which of the dogs which have already been trained and are ready for placement are best suited for that particular student.

To begin with, the instructor is interested in assessing some basics:

How fast can the student walk?
How strong is the student? Really, all they are interested in here is the strength of the left arm since the dog always works on the handler’s left.
How good are the student’s reflexes? You don’t want to match a dog who stops on the proverbial dime with someone whose response time is measured by a sun dial.
What is the student’s “command presence”? An important part of working with a dog is conveying to your partner that you know what you’re doing. Being able to do this conveys a sense of security to a working dog.

Because every dog has its own individual strengths and weaknesses, the instructor will also visit with the student about what characteristics are most important for them. The dog that is a perfect match for one student may be less than ideal for someone else. In my last class, for example, we had several students whose jobs required them to work with small children. The little pocket rocket Labs they received were perfectly suited for that environment. On the other hand, mediating divorces and child custody as I do, I needed a dog who wouldn’t be bothered by being confined in a small room for several hours where the atmosphere drips with hostility. The cute, friendly Lab that was just right for my fellow students would be all wrong for me.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about how you actually work with the dog, the nuts and bolts of being a good handler.

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