A friend of mine, who has given me a great deal of guidance in my training efforts, offered an amusing, yet accurate piece of anecdotal wisdom. She expressed that having a smart dog, while it is quite a blessing, can also serve as a disadvantage to the trainer. A smart dog who learns quickly with little effort on the trainer’s part, doesn’t provide the trainer with a variety of challenges to improve her skill in the long run. In a sense, this is the predicament in which I am with Bradley.
I now find myself with a dog who has practically trained himself to be a guide dog and who could probably beat me in a game of Scrabble if he wanted to. He’s learning faster than I can teach him.
Before this entry takes the tone of bragging even further, let me interject. While I’m proud of and amazed by the extent of Bradley’s intelligence, I can’t take credit for it any more than I can for his good looks. If anything, my own lack of skill has inhibited his progress. It may be better that way though. Who knows what he could have achieved in more capable hands? The bumper sticker that says, “My Golden Retriever is smarter than your honor student,” comes to mind.
Approaching the Threshold
A few weeks ago, Bradley had his first opportunity to really work in his harness. He’s been wearing his harness when I take him out for a couple months now, but until a recently, he’s only been working on a leather slip lead.
We were at the mall, on a training mission, and I decided to give his harness a test drive. My husband planted himself on a bench and I set out with Bradley’s harness in hand.
By default, a dog will resist against pressure on his chest, so the nature of the equipment provided Bradley with the encouragement he needed to do a quarter of what his job involves: gently pulling me. Bradley’s first inclination is to heel at my side without pulling, so it took a little extra verbal reinforcement from me for him to realize that pulling was OK under these circumstances.
What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. He took control of the situation as if he had an epiphany, finally realizing his role in our partnership. He proceeded with the ideal level of resistance against my grip and matched my pace with expert precision. He escorted me down the walkway with purpose, as if he knew exactly where he was going. To the untrained eye, he appeared to be performing with the finesse of a seasoned guide- although, I knew better.
Simultaneously overcome with awe and befuddlement, I embraced Bradley’s newfound drive, whatever it may have been. My intention was to allow him to guide me around, wherever he chose to go, to show him that he could make decisions for himself and I would follow his lead. I set the bar just about as low as it could go and he soared above it within the first 30 seconds of the experiment.
At a brisk, yet controlled pace, Bradley took me through the mall as if he knew just exactly where we were going. He guided me to the end of one section of the mall, into the entrance of a department store and then back out the way we came. To my surprise, his next choice was to turn down the hall from which we came. He proceeded to bring me back to the bench, where we left my husband.
My jaw dropped with an intensity it never before had . I was stunned. I’ve worked on a “go to daddy” command with Bradley, but he was given no instruction whatsoever this time. Maybe it was just a stroke of luck. I expressed my delight to my husband and decided to give it another go. After all, an experiment isn’t valid unless its results can be reproduced.
These results were successfully reproduced- multiple times. It was incredible!
My reason for performing this exercise was to establish a foundation for the skills that Bradley will need to use as a working guide dog. In Bradley’s case, this means teaching him to think in a manner I’ve never asked of him. Rather than telling him to follow my lead with unwavering compliance, I must now ask him to do what I say but to think for himself. It’ll be asking him to use a muscle he didn’t know he had.
I should have planted this seed a long time ago, when I first started training him. Thank goodness he’s such a forgiving student because he has quite the inexperienced teacher!
Thinking Outside the Box
What sets service dogs apart from others isn’t their level of training, but the small cognitive miracles that allow them to manipulate this training to its maximum potential. Service dogs are invaluable assets to their handlers because they do so much more than obey learned commands. They’re neither robotic, nor omniscient, but rather compliant assistants with minds like sponges.
In almost all cases, in order to perform his job well, a service dog needs a calculated balance between obedience and ingenuity. A great deal of this substance is dependent on training, but some of it must be inherent within the dog, independent of training. The responsibility of fostering this is in the hands of the trainer.
Wrapping my head around just how to foster this phenomenon within Bradley has been a learning experience for me. Training concrete skills like down, stay, recall, etc. are a piece of cake. Training a dog to act on little more than intuition, on the other hand, is not.
In the past couple of months, Bradley has adopted a new level of awareness, which is responsible for him developing what can only be described as intuition. From a behavioral standpoint, I suppose his new sharpness of mind is more thanks to conditioning than some sort of sixth sense. All I can say is that these new skills were not ingrained in his psyche intentionally by me.
For example, I trained Bradley to find and retrieve my phone on command. On a separate occasion, I trained him to pick up my keys when I dropped them. Recently, I dropped my phone while he wasn’t in the room but he heard it hit the floor. He immediately came into the room, picked up my phone and gave it to me. This was the first time he shaped a completed behavior on his own. He’s repeated this skill a few times since the first. Most remarkable of these incidents was when he accidentally knocked the TV remote off the coffee table with his tail and immediately picked it up and gave it to me. Needless to say, I was impressed!
Another task Bradley’s been taking it upon himself to perform is to bring me to the exit of a store. I’ve been working on the “find the door” command with him but every once in a while he’ll start looking for it without me asking him to do so. He’s also started taking me, against my will, to the entrances of stores from outside. It was during our mall experiment that he brought me into a store I wouldn’t have otherwise gone into. No one else was in there, except a single employee, so it was very awkward. I had to pretend I meant to go in there and browse around as if I was interested for a few minutes! I had a good laugh about it afterwards.
While taking me in or out of somewhere I didn’t tell him to isn’t a desirable quality, it shows me that he grasps the concept of the skill and it shouldn’t take long for him to respond to the cue reliably. He’s already showing great promise by bringing me into the entrances of familiar stores and out through the exit when we really are done there. This is a tremendous help to me, as I frequently lose my bearings inside large stores.
One of the most important elements of a guide dog’s training is the dog’s ability to recognize when it’s imprudent or unsafe to obey the handler’s command. This is referred to as intelligent disobedience. A guide dog with no sense of intelligent disobedience can put a handler in grave danger. A good example of when this would be necessary is crossing the street. A bicycle may be approaching and the handler doesn’t hear it. She’ll instruct the dog to cross the street and unless the dog can make the decision to remain in place, defying the command, a collision may occur.
I must confess; I haven’t dedicated nearly as much time to exposing Bradley to this concept as I should have. Although recent events suggest that Bradley may already possess what it takes to make such determinations. That’s a good starting point, but it’s not enough. Fine tuning and proofing is definitely in order and I’ll undoubtedly need to work on this with our trainer’s help.
Intelligent disobedience is a delicate concept that must be introduced and reinforced with care. There’s a fine line between showing a dog it’s OK to disobey under select circumstances but not others and teaching a dog that he can consistently choose whether or not to comply with a command. In Bradley’s case, my delay in introducing intelligent disobedience is going to make his learning process more difficult. However, I strongly believe he has it in him.
As I mentioned earlier, a smart dog isn’t as demanding as a slow learner. His trainer isn’t challenged to meet the dog’s training needs so she misses out on the opportunity to gain new skills. However, that doesn’t mean training an intelligent, willing worker is devoid of learning experiences. In fact, I’ve been pushed to approach this journey from an entirely different perspective from where I originally expected to. Rather than learning how I’ll eventually teach Bradley something, I find myself trying to figure out how I already did.