Courtesy of Guide Dog Association
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It might seem like a miracle to some people that a young, energetic, boisterous Labrador can be transformed into a guide dog. This article will explain the stages of training from the time that the pup graduates from the Puppy Raising Programme until it is a working guide dog.
The Puppy Raising Scheme was developed to provide The South African Guide-dogs Association for the Blind with dogs who are well prepared for both advanced training and their future work as Guide Dogs.
The majority of the puppies come from our own breeding programme, but we do accept selected donated puppies occasionally. The pups are placed with their Puppy Raising families at around 7 weeks of age and here the first stage of training begins.
Puppy Raisers are very special volunteers who take a puppy into their homes, lives and hearts for11 to 18 months and then, just when that mischievous puppy has developed into a well behaved and mature dog, they give them back! Many of them then start all over again with a new puppy!
While the puppy is with the Puppy Raisers, they are socialized as much as possible. It is very important that the dogs are introduced to as wide a range of experiences, places, people and animals as possible.
The pups need to be:-
- Introduced to people of all races and ages, especially children.
- Taught to relieve themselves only on command when on lead and working – and not to mess in inappropriate places.
- Introduced to and be able to behave in an appropriate manner in shopping centres, post offices, shops, restaurants etc.
- Taught how to behave in the home, e.g. not messing, chewing, sleeping on furniture etc.
- Taught how to behave around people, e.g. not jumping up on them. Taught basic obedience work.
- Taught how to walk on a lead, according to Guide-dogs specifications, e.g. no sniffing, scavenging or pulling and without being distracted by what is going on around them, e.g. barking dogs at gates.
The Puppy Raising Scheme is a supervised programme, beginning with an 8 week puppy socializing course at our Training Centre. The older pups move onto a monthly group or individual training session with one of the Puppy Raising Supervisors, either at the SAGA training centre, a shopping centre or a suburban area. All these training sessions take place during working hours, Monday to Friday.
Puppies can only learn appropriate and desired behaviour when the Puppy Raisers are with them to teach them, so a home where the puppy would be left alone all day during the week would not be suitable. In addition the puppies need to attend training sessions and the Puppy Raising Supervisors need to be able to do home visits with the Puppy Raiser and not just the puppy. Homes in which the Puppy Raiser works ½ day are however acceptable. Puppy Raisers, for the reasons stated above, need to reside in Johannesburg or Pretoria.
The male pups are castrated between 6 and 8 months of age, but the females are usually only spayed after a year of age, so they will have at least one season while on the Puppy Raising Scheme.
The South African Guide-dogs Association covers the veterinary costs incurred for pups on the scheme, in addition to vaccinations, deworming and micro-chipping. When Puppy Raisers go away on holiday or bitches are in season, we will board the pups in our boarding kennel. Food for the pups on the scheme is also sponsored.
Once the young dog is about a year old it is ready for its formal training. It will leave its Puppy Raising home and come into the Gladys Evan’s Training Centre for its training. Each Guide Dog Mobility Instructor is responsible for the training of 6 dogs. It may seem like a lot of dogs for one person to train but the dogs are worked individually. Each dog is worked for a short session, praised for good behaviour and then given a rest period before it has its next lesson.
It is very important that there is a good bond between the dog and the instructor. Once this has been achieved then the instructor will spend some time assessing the dog. A guide dog needs to be calm and confident in all environments. Not every dog has the correct temperament but dogs that have been well socialised through the Puppy Rearing Programme are more likely to be successful. During the assessment potential problem areas will be identified and closely monitored, if there is no improvement than the dog may not be suitable as a guide dog.
The next phase is obedience training. Learner guide dogs are taught to “sit”, “down”, “stand” and “stay” and these commands are practiced at every opportunity. Every guide dog spends a large part of its day in social situations (not working in harness but spending time on lead at the guide dog owner’s place of work, at church, in shops, restaurants etc). The dog is expected to behave in an obedient and calm manner. Obedience is also the foundation for the more advanced guiding work that will follow. Only when the dog is a lot more advanced will it wear a harness. The early training is only done on a lead.
One of the first lessons is to teach the dog to walk in the correct “guiding position.” A guide dog has to learn to walk ¾ of a body length in front of its instructor (this position gives the blind or partially sighted owner time to respond to obstacles and environmental hazards). The young dogs in training are very eager to get going so the “forward” command is often easier to teach than the “stop” command. The new recruits also have to learn the “back” command. Each dog is different and the energetic dogs learn to walk faster (or “Hup-up”) quicker than they learn to slow down (or “steady”).
A blind person and guide dog work together as a team. The blind person needs to know how to direct their guide dog from their home to their destination. Each route is made up of a series of straight lines with left and right turns at certain points. Learning to walk in a straight line is a skill that every potential guide dog must master. Once the dog is “on the straight and narrow” (and is no longer trying to walk up driveways and around corners) it is taught the left and right turn. Dogs seem far better at learning their left from their right than most people. To ensure that there is clear communication between the dog and the instructor most of the commands have a hand signal, a foot position and a vocal command. This also makes it easier for the dog when it has to make the transition from its instructor to its blind owner.
Guide dog training harnesses many of the dog’s natural instincts like the dogs willingness to please the pack leader and the dog’s instinct of self preservation. Not every natural instinct of the dog is beneficial to the training. It is natural for all dogs to be aware of their environment but the guide dog should be able to focus on its work even in environments where there is a high level of distractions (food, scents, children, dogs, birds etc). If a dog in training lacks this concentration then it may not be suitable as a guide dog. Most of the early training takes place in quieter environments; once the dog can stay focused on its work here it is ready to move into busier areas.
In the early stages of training the instructor tries to keep the training as positive and stress free as possible. The instructor uses a technique called “guided learning” where the dog is shown the correct behaviour over and over again. Dogs have excellent memories and after a while they start to understand what is expected of them. The instructor is constantly observing the dog’s body language so that they can prevent the dog from making mistakes and praise the dog timeously for good behaviour. Guided learning is used extensively to teach the dog to guide its handler around obstacles. Ideally the dog should see the instructor as an extension of its own body when negotiating obstacles. This means that it should leave enough space for the instructor when moving around obstacles. The instructor shows the dog how much space to leave in the early stages. When the dog is more advanced the instructor would allow the dog to decide how much space to leave. If the dog has not left enough space then the instructor would draw the dog’s attention to the obstacle and direct the dog around it. Once the dog has settled into its training routine it will start to wear the leather harness. At this stage the harness is worn without the metal handle that provides a link between a working guide dog and its blind owner. Training gradually moves into busier areas where the dog has the opportunity to learn how to cope with crowded pavements, street vendors, escalators, steps, lifts and the daily hustle and bustle of city life.
Contrary to popular belief the guide dog does not decide when it is safe to cross a road. Crossing a road is potentially very dangerous and dogs can’t be expected to understand the complexities of modern day traffic. If a guide dog is approaching a cross road it is taught to stop automatically when it reaches the road edge (this is called the downkerb as there is a step down from the pavement into the road). The instructor gives the dog the “forward” command when it is safe to cross. The dog will cross in a straight line and step up onto the upkerb and continue in a straight line unless it is re-directed by the instructor.
In the final stages of training a guide dog is experienced enough to work in the full harness (leather jacket and metal handle). At this stage the dog is also taught traffic work. The dog is given the command to cross the road but at the same time a car approaches from the right hand side. This car prevents the dog from leaving the downkerb. In time the dog learns to disobey the instructor’s command to leave the pavement if there is a car approaching from the right. If the car approaches from the left hand side then the instructor will teach the dog to stop in the road and only proceed once the car has passed. Traffic training only gives the dog a basic awareness of cars and it is hoped that it will assist the guide dog owner in the event of an emergency.
The guide dog is now fully trained and it is the instructor’s responsibility to test the dogs work. The instructor will test the dog by working the dog while wearing a blindfold. This gives the instructor an idea of the dogs understanding of its role. The instructor is generally less confident under blindfold, their balance and general following of the dog will usually deteriorate. This is excellent preparation for the dog who will shortly be guiding a blind person who may not be used to using a guide dog. The dog is now ready to be matched to a blind or partially sighted person.
The hard work does not stop here, the matching of the guide dog with its new owner and the training that the new owner will receive which will enable him, or her, to use the guide dog safely and effectively.