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Mardi Richmond

Mardi Richmond, MA, CPTD-KA, is a writer, editor and trainer. Her articles on canine health, training and behavior have appeared in The Dog Trainer’s Resource and Whole Dog Journal.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Guide Dogs for the Blind
Guide Dogs for the Blind changes training methods, and the results are amazing.
Jenai Garcia, Apprentice Instructor for Guide Dogs for the Blind

In the dog-training world, “crossing over” refers to switching from using old-school traditional training methods (catching the dog making a mistake and correcting that mistake) to modern positive- reinforcement methods (catching the dog doing something right and rewarding those good choices).

Quietly and without fanfare, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB)—an organization with a rich history and proven track record of training safe and effective guide dogs—began the process of crossing over almost a decade ago. The results have been nothing short of astounding.

According to Michele Pouliot, GDB’s director of research and development, Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, international Freestyle champion and the force behind the switch, success rates have soared. Using traditional methods, roughly 45 to 50 percent of the dogs entering the formal training process made guide dog status. With the incorporation of clicker training (one type of positive reinforcement), 60 to 85 percent graduate and are successfully paired with a blind partner.

The transition officially began within the training department in 2006. Then, in 2013, GDB adopted an organizationwide mission of maximizing the use of positive reinforcement in all departments. Their current goal is to roll out the changes over a five-year period. All of the dogs in GDB programs— the dogs in formal training, of course, but also the breeding dogs, the smallest puppies and even career-change dogs— will benefit from the commitment to clicker training. For those in the formal training program, the advantages are already clear.

“The dogs are more enthusiastic, better thinkers and problem solvers,” says Pouliot. “Their attitude is over the top. They are confident of the job. They want to do it—they can’t wait to do it!” Pouliot says that dogs who are not part of formal training, such as the breeding dogs, will also gain from the transition. For example, rather than being wrestled on and off exam tables, breeding dogs will be taught to happily get on and off by themselves. This will eliminate some of the stress experienced by both dogs and veterinary staff.

People will also be affected by the switch to clicker-training protocols. Puppy-raising families, volunteers and the blind partners with whom the dogs are paired will all be learning the power of positive reinforcement training. As they are exposed to positive reinforcement, they will learn to notice and acknowledge what the dogs are doing right, rather than looking for mistakes. Those of us who have experienced this transition know that it has the potential to be life altering.

Karen Pryor, CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training, author of Don’t Shoot the Dog and the person largely credited with bringing clicker methods to dog training, is equally excited by how positive reinforcement training affects people. Pryor says that learning to train this way is rewarding, and the training itself can be a powerful experience.

As an example, Pryor says she watched a blind handler learn to teach his dog to find things like the mailbox and a signal- crossing button. “What was really amazing was watching this well-dressed man and the expression on his face when he got to reward his dog. He was empowered in this process, too.”

Pouliot says that the impact of clicker training on the dogs has been more than she originally expected. “We hoped we’d get the same performance, but a happier dog. What we didn’t expect was how much better the performance would be.”

One of the initial challenges Pouliot faced was teaching the dogs to ignore food in the environment. Trainers were concerned that using food in training might make it more difficult for the dogs to learn to leave other food alone—a fair concern, to be sure. What they discovered, however, was just the opposite. Clicker-trained dogs were much more successful at this than dogs trained with traditional techniques.

Part of what worked was having a specific food-delivery protocol—a list of food do’s and don’ts that helped make it clear for the dogs. For example, the dogs are not rewarded on the ground, only by the person handling the dog and only when the dog stands in a specific position. Pouliot says that consistency with the protocol is important to a dog’s success.

Like many monumental changes, GDB’s crossing over had humble beginnings. “I started with Guide Dogs for the Blind in 1974,” says Pouliot. “I grew up with them, learning traditional training techniques: waiting for the dog to do something wrong, correcting it and then praising for the right response.” She was entrenched in traditional training, as was the rest of the organization.

For Pouliot, the change began in 2000 when she explored clicker training with her own dogs and horses. Pouliot says that when she clicker-trained her horses—not just one, but all of them—to retrieve objects from across a field, she knew she was on to something very powerful. “That was my big ‘a-ha’ moment. I was so impressed with the success.”

Inspired, Pouliot went to work trying out clicker training with the guide dog program in mind. She conducted a few unofficial trials, training dogs who had already been dropped from the program for various reasons. One, a young female yellow Lab, was too afraid of other dogs to be successful as a guide dog. Pouliot began clicker training her with the primary goal of reducing her fear. Not only was Pouliot successful in turning around the dog’s fearful response—the young Lab went from being scared to actively engaging with the other dogs—but also, the Lab was able to finish training and go on to be a career guide dog.

This and other equally exciting results encouraged Pouliot and others at GDB to begin an official pilot program. Pouliot and one of the training supervisors, Lori Brown, would formally train two dogs using clicker techniques. Because she had previously worked with dolphins (where positive reinforcement training is the norm), Brown was a natural choice for the pilot program.

The other trainers chose the dogs who would take part in the program; their candidates were considered difficult to work with, which set a very high bar for success. But after just one week, the transition in attitude alone spoke in favor of clicker training. The dogs had switched from being low energy and lacking enthusiasm to being animated and excited.

Following the initial success of the pilot program, Pouliot and her colleagues began working on specific procedures and techniques. By 2006, GDB was educating all 65 trainers on two campuses in this “new” method.

“The transition wasn’t instant,” says Pouliot. “In fact, it has been a long journey.” Because they couldn’t stop the training program long enough to establish the new routines and teach all the staff at once, progress was incremental. “We had to teach the staff in small chunks. Each year, we would add new pieces.”

Pouliot acknowledges that it was a challenge at times. Consider trainers—good trainers with 20 or more years of experience— being asked to learn and embrace new methods. But once they saw for themselves how powerful the method was, everyone got excited, and the transition moved forward at a steady pace.

Guide Dogs for the Blind’s organization-wide crossover to clicker training has and will continue to have a tremendous and powerful effect on the people and animals associated with its programs. But the reach of this transition has already been felt far beyond the immediate scope of the organization. Pouliot and GDB have shared the success of their program with guide-dog trainers worldwide through a series of weeklong seminars.

Pryor says that what GDB and Pouliot have done is not just develop a model for training guide- and other service dogs, but also showed how to reach people and organizations entrenched in traditions, and how to help them successfully make changes.

She also points out that the success of this program and the lessons learned about working in a positive manner for positive changes have had a big influence on her own life, giving her better tools to help with organizational transitions.

The magnitude of change brought about by the use of principles of positive reinforcement will continue to ripple outward to the larger guide dog world, the even larger service-dog-training world and beyond. How far? Imagine the power when a family-dog trainer can say to a doubting client, “These are similar to the methods used by Guide Dogs for the Blind. Let’s give them a try and see if they might work for your dog, too.”

Special thanks to Michele Pouliot and Karen Pryor for their contributions to this article.

 

The Puppy Handoff
Guide Dogs for the Blind and Karen Pryor Academy have partnered with clicker trainers on a new puppy-raising project. The kickoff took place with a ceremonial “puppy handoff” at the 2014 ClickerExpo in San Diego. According to Michele Pouliot, this joint project will help GDB explore various protocols for puppy raising using clicker techniques. The project’s puppy raisers, all experienced clicker trainers and Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners (KPA CTP), have a list of things the puppies need to know by the time they enter the formal training program at 14 months. The puppy raisers are free to use their own creativity in reaching the goals. The only thing they’re required to do is film the training sessions. Pouliot and others will then review the techniques employed by these trainers to learn more about developing the most effective puppy-raising protocols for future guide dogs.

Wellness: Health Care
Titer Testing
An alternative to annual "jabs"
Needle and Vaccine Bottle

For most of us who share our lives with dogs, making sure they are vaccinated tops the list of preventive-care tasks. We mindfully take our puppies or newly adopted dogs for their recommended vaccines. We routinely return to our veterinarian or vaccine clinic when that postcard or email arrives, reminding us that our dogs are due for booster shots. We know vaccination offers critical protection from diseases such as canine parvovirus, canine distemper virus, rabies and more.

However, many of us question the concept of “routine” when it comes to vaccinations. While grateful for the protection that vaccines offer, we are increasingly aware of their possible unintended consequences. That’s where titer testing comes in.

Titer tests are among the tools that dog owners and veterinarians can use to help minimize the risks of both infectious diseases and unnecessary vaccinations. Simply put, these tests can tell you if a previous vaccine is still protecting your dog. If it’s still working, you don’t have to revaccinate.

Dr. Evelyn Sharp of My Personal Vet in Santa Cruz, Calif., has used titer tests with her own dogs since she began practicing veterinary medicine in the mid-1990s. The first dog she regularly tested was her Border Collie mix, Ace. Titers showed that the protection provided by Ace’s initial puppy series and one-year booster lasted the rest of his life. With the recent availability of in-practice titer-test kits—VacciCheck from Biogal Laboratories and TiterCHEK from Synbiotics Corporation—titer testing has become even easier to do.

Because the newer titer-test kits are affordable, accurate and can be run inhouse (rather than by a lab), Dr. Sharp now suggests titer testing as part of preventive care. With the information she gets from the titers, she can provide a customized vaccination protocol for each dog, keeping the dog well protected while minimizing the risks of over-vaccination.

The most recent American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Canine Vaccination Guidelines say that reported side effects from vaccines vary from injection-site reactions, lethargy, lack of appetite and fever to more serious adverse events, including allergic reactions, autoimmune problems and, rarely, sarcoma or other tumors. The decision about when to vaccinate requires a riskbenefit analysis. Most experts agree that vaccines are critical to the overall health and wellness of our dogs (and cats), but many also agree that giving a vaccine when it is not needed exposes animals to unnecessary hazards.

So what exactly is involved in titer testing? A “titer” is a method of measuring antibodies in a blood sample for specific diseases. Your vet will draw a small amount of blood and then run that blood through the test. Titers are usually expressed as a ratio; if the titer number is high, it means that your dog has enough antibodies to fight off that specific disease and is considered to have immunity from infection. For many of our dogs, that immunity is the result of a previous vaccine. However, immunity can also develop because a dog had the disease in the past. Either way, a high titer means your dog is protected.

If the test shows a low titer, your dog may not have immunity. The interesting and perhaps odd detail (odd, at least, from a layperson’s viewpoint) is that a low titer is not completely definitive. A dog may still have some protection. Still, the accepted standard with the in-house test kit is that a low titer means that you and your veterinarian should discuss revaccinating.

Just as vaccine prices vary, the price of a titer test can also vary from veterinary practice to veterinary practice. According to Dr. Sharp, the VacciCheck tests three diseases—parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus (canine hepatitis)— and generally runs between $45 and $80, which is a little more than most vaccines, but not unreasonably high.

AAHA vaccine guidelines say that titer testing is an appropriate way to check for immunity to parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus. However, it is not recommended for canine leptospirosis, bordetella or Lyme disease, because these vaccines only provide short-term protection.

Rabies vaccines do provide long-term protection, and the titer tests for rabies are also considered to be a very accurate measure of immunity. However, vaccination against rabies is mandated by law and at this time, no state in the U.S. accepts titer-test results in lieu of vaccination history. If your dog bites someone, she will still need to be quarantined, even if a titer test shows she has immunity. Specific types of rabies titer tests are used, however, when moving to rabies-free countries or regions—for example, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, New Zealand or Great Britain. In this case, the rabies titer test will help qualify a dog for a shorter quarantine.

Along with using titer tests to check for immunity to parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus in a previously vaccinated adult dog, titers are also a good option for a newly adopted dog whose vaccination or health history you may not know. In addition, a titer test may be used to make sure young puppies have responded to the initial vaccine series and are fully protected. If a pup did not respond, the vaccine may have been compromised, the mother’s immunity may still be active or the pup may be a non-responder (meaning she will not have an immune reaction to vaccines). Your veterinarian can help you decide on the best course of action if your pup does not have an acceptable titer.

Another place titer tests are gaining momentum is in the shelter environment, although with a much different goal than when used with individual dogs. There, titers are being used to help separate low-risk and high-risk dogs and cats during a disease outbreak. Shelter dogs who have a high titer to the outbreak disease—meaning they are at low risk for infection—can be separated from the higher-risk animals, and they may be considered adoptable. (You can learn more about titer testing in shelter environments by visiting maddiesfund. org and searching for “titer tests.”)

While vaccinating animals against infectious diseases is critical to protecting individual dogs and communities at large, over-vaccinating is also a real concern for those of us who share our lives with dogs. Titer tests give us another tool and can help when it comes time to discuss vaccines with our veterinarian and make the best health-care decisions for our dogs.