Striding Toward Guiding

Bradley relaxes while I spend an hour looking at paint colors.

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.

Intelligent Disobedience
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.

Bradley is content on a crisp December day.

Teacher’s Pet
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.

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10 thoughts on “Striding Toward Guiding

  1. I think you did right being careful with intelligent disobedience. In this situation a dog comes into a conflict: do I obey the command or do I react to the situation like I learned it? If this conflicts are not solved properly he will be in constant stress. So it is necessary to train the dog first very well for the obstacles (curbs, high obstacles, stairs…), and waiting for your reaction (feeling the obstacle), reward him for stopping and waiting. If he knows what to do you can start giving him commands like “like “go on” where he could only walk underneath an obstacle. He will come into a conflict and if he hesitates the least you reward him so he knows in this situation not obeying the command is the right thing to do. Then you try all situations where he should show intelligent disobedience in different locations. Dogs learn by associating situations in locations. If you do this often enough he will generalize where to obey and where to refuse a command without getting in stress.
    English is not my maternal language, so I hope you understand what I mean.

  2. I enjoyed reading your blog, give you a lot of credit trying to train your own guide dog. Huge task, hope you’ll be successful. I’ve been handling guide dogs for several years now (my 3 were program trained). I have a few comments to share.

    Be careful about letting the dog make decisions on where to go so freely (you mentioned he took you into a store you’d not planned to go into). It’s important in guide work that you make the decisions, not the dog (with the exception of course of situations involving intelligent disobedience). It’s your job to know where you are, where you want to go and how to get there; it’s the dog’s job to get you there saftely, period. He is not the one to decide what store to go into. You must become oriented to your surroundings, understand landmarks and become familiar with where destinations you frequent are located so that you can then direct your guide to get you to those places.
    Curious about the video “Bradley Working”. I’m guessing the person with him is a trainer, since he’s not in a guide dog harness, is walking at heel rather then leading out, and she crosses a street mid-block (or it appears so in the video). The latter, definite no-no for guide dog handlers. Never safe to cross mid-block, always safest to cross at intersections where traffic can be read more accurately. I have some degree of functional vision in one eye and even I wouldn’t take the risk of expecting my guide to cross mid-block.
    I noticed Bradley was told to stop at the down curb before crossing, but he never slowed or stopped at the upcurb on the other side… essential for guide work (you wouldn’t want to trip over the up curb). Dog should identify curbs, both up & down, the same way he should with steps.
    I found it very unnerving that he was put in a down & left unattended next to the street (and without a “stay” follow-up to the “down” as well). NEVER NEVER leave a dog that way, always have the leash in hand. No matter how well trained a dog may be, a dog is a dog and all that training goes out the window in a heartbeat if he were to suddenly bolt out into the street (due to a distraction beyond your control). Any number of things could’ve resulted in Bradley breaking that “down” and bolting. More responsibility is called for on the handler’s part in that situation. And especially if the person handling him in the video is a trainer, shame on her. Even for a training video’s sake, disaster could’ve occurred. How horrible that would’ve been for both Bradley and for you. 😦
    I’m curious about the harness he’s wearing in the pic where he’s just relaxing laying on his side. Is it a balance harness? It’s not a guide dog harness for sure. While guiding the dog needs to be a bit ahead of the handler, leading out. A dog walking at heel is not going to be much good guiding a sight impaired person, as the dog must be ahead to identify things to its handler (curbs, steps, train platforms, etc). The harness on Bradley in the picture would not allow the dog to be “leading out”, but rather right along side the handler.
    FYI – guide dog harnesses are not expensive in the scheme of things (considering the cost of a program-trained guide can be in excess of $50,000 depending on the program… of course students are not charged for the dogs, that’s just an estimate of what the actual breeding, raising, training & handler-dog training costs). A harness can be purchased for under $100. Sadly people can purchase them virtually anywhere – just look on ebay, you’ll find a gazillion of them starting at around $70 any day of the week. Such a small amount, even I on a fixed income was able to pay for my dog’s replacement harness.
    Kudos to Bradley finding your hubby on the bench. Any smart dog will do this without being “trained” to. Each of my guides has been expert at finding our car in an expansive crowded parking lot after a shopping adventure at a mall, taking me back to our starting point wherever it may have been and regardless of how many places in a mall we’ve been to, and never find a person I’ve gone shopping with after we’ve split up and gone our separate ways to do our individual shopping. It’s not something they need to be trained to do, they just do it. Never ceases to amaze me, even after working many years with 3 different guides.

    • Hi Kellie,
      Thank you so much for your thorough comment! It’s always very helpful getting input from those who have worked with guides before, as I have not. I’m still learning myself and have made quite a few mistakes, although I was oblivious to them at the time!

      I wrote this entry about a month ago. Since then, I’m certainly not letting him take me wherever he wants LOL! I’ll be touching on that in an update I plan to post later this week.

      That actually is me handling him in the video you’re referring to. It was recorded before I started doing any guide work with him, which is why he is neither in harness, nor guiding in any way. Once we were on the sidewalk where I put him in the down, it was no longer on the street. That’s the driveway to where I lived at the time. Although, it was closer to the street than I should have done that exercise. We practiced that in that place every time I took him out and I was extremely confident that he was not going to dart away.

      You’re right, his harness is not a guide harness. I wish I knew that when I ordered it! It would be my luck that the website I ordered it from called it a guide dog harness and they don’t take returns. I ended up buying a longer handle for it so now he does walk a little ahead of me.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Oops sorry, was supposed to have the words “never FAILS” re: finding the person I’m shopping with after we’ve split up and gone to do our individual shopping & then meet up later. lol

  4. That’s a shame about the harness and not being able to return or exchange it. 😦 Unfortunately there are a lot of sites out there that use incorrect information for the equipment they peddle. Glad you were able to adjust the harness to work for you and Bradley. I look forward to reading your future posts.

  5. Just reading through all of the posts here and after realising that many places claim they are selling the genuine article but actually are not, could someone send me in the right direction reguarding assistance/service dog vests. I have been told that there are patterns that can be downloaded off the internet and places that they can be bought over the internet, but just wondering the best and most reliable place is to buy one as I currently have no access to a sewing machine, so downloading the pattern would be a disadvantage, although the pattern would be handy for future reference when we do have access to a sewing machine.
    I am also wondering what is the coloured vest used for a disability such as the one that my brother and I have (a non curable circulatory condition which affects tendons, skeletal system, nerves etc). I know that there are three main colours used for guide dogs, hearing impaired and alert dogs, but not sure what it would be for the disabilities that we suffer with.
    Any help we can get regaurding this would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks

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