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The Dog Blog: Returning Home

Returning home with a new guide dog is not exactly the same as driving off the lot with a new car because part of the thrill of having that new car is that you anticipate that everything will work perfectly, and, for the most part, it probably will. Unlike cars, dogs don’t come with warrantees.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, dogs are not machines. As smart as they are and as well-trained as they may be, they will make mistakes. As a trainer once told me, “It’s like working with a perpetual seven-year-old. About the time you think they’re really good, they’ll do something they’re not supposed to; and just when you’re really frustrated with them, they’ll do something that makes you think they’re really wonderful.”

Every dog has defects, things it’s just not very good at. This is never truer than when you return home from training. While home is familiar for you, everything about it is new for the dog and therein lies the challenge.

One of the primary ways of helping the dog to be comfortable with its new environment is to establish a set routine. Unlike people, as long as a dog is receiving sufficient stimulation, doing the same things, in the same way, at the same time provides reassurance. This means that the basics, eating and relieving (and you can’t get more basic than this), are done at the same time every day. This, in turn, greatly simplifies your life as a handler.

Incidentally, I’m often surprised when strangers stop me in public and ask for advice on house training their dog, so, as a public service, here are the basics:
* Take the dog out an absolute minimum of four times a day. If you think this is inconvenient, how would you like to be restricted to this schedule yourself? Do it at the same times every day. Make one of them the very first thing you do in the morning and one of them the very last thing you do at night and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief.
* Praise like crazy immediately after a successful experience. Immediately does mean immediately. Animal behaviorists now know that positive feedback delivered only five or ten seconds late has little value.
* If you see the dog starting to relieve in the house, immediately clap your hands. This startles him and likely causes him to stop.
* If you’re not this lucky and find an unexpected present, there’s no point in yelling, rubbing their nose in it, etc. Again, animal behaviorists report that, in such situations, the dog is incapable of linking cause and effect. In their little doggie brain, they’re thinking, “Gee, that’s a shame. I wonder how that got there.” If this seems hard to imagine, remember there’s a reason they haven’t advanced any higher on the evolutionary ladder. Think prevention and positive reinforcement. There’s a reason the military has almost completely eliminated punishment in training its dogs.

Within a day or two of coming home, you’ll want to begin teaching the dog some of the basic routes that you walk regularly. These could be as simple as learning to walk to the bus stop that’s a block away from your house or mastering a maze of streets that might take an hour to walk at a brisk clip. How this is done is a topic for another day, but dogs are accustomed to learning this way.

To repeat what I’ve said earlier in this series, it’s important to remember that you are the brain and the dog is the eyes. I have a friend in Toronto who walks several miles twice a day between his home and office, and, while in time the dog will pretty much learn the route and can anticipate the turns, it’s still necessary for the handler to issue the appropriate commands.

Before my retirement, there were probably about fifteen routes my dog and I walked regularly at the University; some were relatively simple while others were complex.

While dogs really excel at working predictable routes like this – this is really what they were trained for – not everything you’ll want the dog to do is this predictable. For example, sometimes you’ll be walking with one or more other people. You would think learning to follow another person would be a relatively simple thing to teach a dog. It isn’t! By really concentrating, you might be able to get a really teachable dog to begin to pick up the general drift of following, but it will never be something it is truly comfortable with. After all, tens of thousands of years of evolution haven’t prepared a dog to follow.

All of this having been said, there is a real learning curve for a new dog. The PR departments of guide dog schools have understandably worked at fostering the idea that they turn out nothing but Wonderdogs. However, there is a difference between a dog being really good and being perfect, and this distinction is never greater than in the first three to six months a dog returns home. Friends and family are often disappointed that the new dog sometimes makes obvious mistakes, misbehave, and, in general, doesn’t live up to the flawless image they anticipated.

It’s helpful to remember that the dog is still a puppy – a very smart, well-trained puppy – but still a puppy. It is a teen-ager. Be patient, keep up the dog’s training, and, in time, if not a Wonderdog, friends and family will see something pretty close.

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