Dog's Life: Travel
Volunteering at Hetta Huskies in Finnish Lapland
It’s hard to believe that this time a year ago, I was fumbling in the pre-dawn darkness, pulling on multiple thermal layers to face the Arctic weather and more than 100 spirited, vocal sled dogs. I never knew what each day would hold–breaking up fearsome fights, marking trails, checking stock, giving medication or butchering fresh meat for evening meals. I’ve held demanding jobs in my life, including time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Africa, but tackling a three-month volunteer stint at Hetta Huskies high in Finnish Lapland pushed me to my limits. However, despite the daily mélange of euphoria, anxiety, pride and anger, I emerged victorious. And I brought home a Husky to prove it!
My time with Hetta Huskies was part of what turned out to be an almost two-year-long backpacking trip around the world with my husband, Steve Aguirre. Our bold decision to undertake a shared epic journey was precipitated by a year of loss. In 2011, my best friend was viciously murdered, and our beloved dog was hit and killed by a car. Every two months, it seemed, there was a new trauma. We finally realized that life really is too short; if we didn’t leave soon, we may not have the chance later.
Before we knew it, we had walked away from our jobs and said goodbye to friends, family and favorite San Diegan locales. We started in Guatemala and wove our way overland through Central and South America, flew to New Zealand, then up to Thailand, Dubai, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and the Ukraine before zigzagging through Eastern Europe, up to Finland and over to the Netherlands. We rounded out our trip by wending through the UK. In total, over the course of 20 months, we visited 27 countries and five continents. We also relied heavily on Workaway opportunities, in which hosts provide full room and board in exchange for daily volunteer work. As the Workaway site describes it, the swap was simple: “a few hours honest help per day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community, with friendly hosts in varying situations and surroundings.”
All 19 of our Workaway experiences were transformational in their own ways, but the one that had the most impact also happened to be the most grueling and beautiful. While still in San Diego, I clicked through possible Workaway experiences and happened upon a sled dog farm in remote Finnish Lapland. One of the pictures accompanying the lengthy list of volunteer expectations and requirements was a close up of a blue-eyed puffball of a Husky puppy, which I promptly emailed to Steve with the subject line “This is what you could be looking at instead of spreadsheets…” We’re both wild about dogs, and we knew that a stint with Hetta Huskies was definitely in the cards.
Thus, in September 2013, we found ourselves in the tiny reindeer herding village of Hetta, 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, after 17 hours of travel via train and bus. Hetta Huskies is owned by two former professional athletes and explorers, Finn Pasi Ikonen and Brit Anna McCormack. Our bosses expected a consistently high level of professionalism and perfection.
At 32, Steve and I were among the oldest in the group, which consisted of as many as 16 volunteers living dorm style, sleeping in bunk beds and sharing a toilet, shower, living area and kitchen. Cooking and cleaning duties were unofficially rotated, and every night, four to five dogs from the farm would spend the night with us for either medical or socialization purposes.
We were in charge of 116 howling, furry, excitable powerhouse work dogs (and 86 at Valimaa, a second farm) who needed daily care. Our work days were at least 12 hours with a half-hour lunch, and we worked between six and nine days in a row before we had a day off. Daily tasks included administering medication, prepping, delivering and cleaning up the dogs’ food, groundwork maintenance (refilling holes, raking running circles near the kennels, making sure there were no tree roots to tangle the chains), heat checks for the females, cage repair, taking sled teams on practice runs, giving tours to tourists, data entry and a litany of other tasks that seemed to spring up daily. Because this work is so serious, Hetta Huskies has systems and trainings that rival those in any corporate setting.
As mentioned, we also spent time at Valimaa, which Hetta Huskies had been contracted to oversee for another company. The setup there was a bit more primitive and remote, and the dogs themselves needed a little extra love and attention, since they were a bit wilder and more likely to be afraid of humans than the Hetta dogs.
At Valimaa on one memorable evening in February, I spotted a pulsating green aura and my heart jumped into my throat—it was the aurora borealis, the northern lights, live and in otherworldly greens! As Steve and I lay on the frozen ground, inhaling the frigid night air and looking up at the amazing sight, a sonorous canine chorus rose up and enveloped us in the moment. It was pure magic. For more than a half hour, we were transfixed by the celestial show.
The night before we left Hetta, Steve and I took out the first sleds of the season. We flew across the frozen tundra under a fiery sorbet sunset behind exuberant teams of canine dynamos—dogs who love nothing more than the feel of snow under their feet. That single moment made the aching bones, stress, lack of sleep and paltry food all worth it. In fact, our time in Hetta so defined our world trip that we decided to go for the ultimate keepsake in the form of a three-year-old female named Theta. Her Dalmatian-spotted ears and black mask had charmed me at first sight. When we learned she was available for adoption, we did the research and discovered that it would be neither expensive nor complicated to bring her home.
After departing Hetta Huskies and making our way through the UK for a few more months, we finished our adventures back in Helsinki, where we collected Theta and boarded the first of three planes that would take all three of us back to Colorado. Theta adapted quickly to her new situation, which included everything from a name change (after seeing her run and pounce in the snow, we re-christened her Naali, which means “Arctic fox” in Finnish) to playing with toys for the first time. And during a road trip to San Diego, she took her first dip in the Pacific Ocean—a big step for a dog who had never seen open water in her life.
Nowadays, our little family indulges in a group howl before work in honor of the pack mentality, and we delight in taking Naali to the dog park (where she gravitates toward other Huskies) and giving her lots of belly rubs after long runs on a skijoring line to simulate her sled-pulling days. Though Naali has decided that laughter and the television aren’t threats, the jury’s still out on parked cars and the sound of compressed air. She’s also learned that cute behavior leads to more cuddles and treats. As we work on our own re-acclimatization to post-trip life, she’s proven to be a welcome distraction.
We’ve never had a moment’s regret about our decision to throw caution to the wind and embark upon the most epic adventure we’ve shared to date. I’m also reminded of our adventures by the best trip memento we could have asked for: Naali, our very own living slice of Arctic Scandinavia.
Dog's Life: DIY
Use up your yarn scraps or color coordinate with your dog
The interior is stuffed to about 1 1/2" thick, while the trim is about 2 1/2" thick. Made with a tight single crochet (sc) stitch, it’s built to last, and—depending on the yarn you use—is machine wash- and dryable (gentle cycle).
*Adjust amount of yarn to size desired
Continue crocheting in a continuous 20 stitches around until the tube measures about 80" inches long. Stuff it with the polyester fiberfill
Finished size: 18" x 20"
Wellness: Healthy Living
A snoring spouse, sirens and glowing electronic screens can all make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. Research from the Mayo Clinic finds that pets can be part of the problem, too.
Patients at the Mayo Center for Sleep Medicine were asked about causes of interrupted sleep in 2002, and only 1 percent mentioned their pets as an issue, though 22 percent had pets sharing their beds. When patients were asked similar questions in 2013, 10 percent reported that their pets disturbed their sleep.
Dr. Lois Krahn, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, says, “Dogs disturbed sleep by wanting to sleep in a particular place on the bed (where the sleeper would prefer to place their feet, under the covers, on the pillow), needing attention and creating sounds [such as] whimpering during dreaming.”
One benefit of having a dog is having a warm body to snuggle up with at the end of a long day. But sometimes, what you love gets in the way of what you need. In a 2009 survey done by Kansas State University, Dr. Kate Stenske found that more than half of dog owners allow their dogs to sleep in their beds.
How can you reconcile your need for solid sleep with the comfort of your canine companion?
First, take an honest look at how well you sleep. Do you fall asleep quickly, or do you spend a long time tossing and turning? Are you up in the night, for your own needs or to take care of something else? In the morning, are you energized or do you rely on coffee to get going?
If your dog is getting in the way of your falling or staying asleep, it’s time to make some changes. Try moving her from your bed to her own bed in the same room; create a comfortable space near you but on the floor. This is a hard habit to break, so plan to work on it. You’ll have to keep moving her back to her bed when she climbs up with you, but be patient and offer lots of praise.
What about doggie sleep sounds? If you don’t want to use earplugs, try white noise from a fan or other appliance with a constant humming sound.
Once you take back your sleeping space, you may realize that the dog wasn’t the problem. Dr. J. Todd Arnedt of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan has tips for what he calls good “sleep hygiene.”
• Avoid evening exercise.
If you make these changes and insomnia is still stalking you, it’s time to talk to a professional for more in-depth study.
Most dog owners can continue to enjoy the comfort and companionship of their furriest family member through the night. But if sleep is evasive, you may want to take a closer look at what’s keeping you up at night.
Today’s inbox brings us a special bit of eye-candy (also known as publicity pitches) that we think is worth sharing. It’s a video featuring NFL quarterback Tom Brady playing fetch with his dog Lua. This short contemplation on hard work, success and man’s best friend is a promotion for UGG, the Australian shoemaker who employs Brady as their official pitchman. We don’t know if it will make people run out and buy their shoes, but maybe a few will be inspired to adopt a Pit or Pit-mix ... like Tom.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
As late summer’s dog days drift into fall, it’s time to try something new.
Learn | Sign up for obedience, agility or another canine-centric activity, and crack open the Internet to expand your dog-cog information base. (Patricia McConnell is an excellent guide; visit patriciamcconnell.com for leads.)
Refresh | Toss the flattened stuffies and stock up on new chewables, DIY a toy storage box, or take the washable pooch bed to a commercial laundry and fluff it up.
Volunteer | Stop by your local shelter and offer yourself as a dog walker, or a dog talker; dogs benefit from having someone sit nearby and talk (or read) to them.
Foster | Partial to a particular breed? See if its local rescue group needs foster homes for dogs-in-waiting. Better yet, make the same offer to your shelter.
Unwind | Give doga a try; get out the yoga mat and do a few downwardfacing dogs with your in-house dogini.
Leaf Peep | Fall-color hot spots abound; google “fall foliage” for your region, then hit the road, co-pilot in the car and camera at hand.
Have Fun | Rake leaves into billowy piles for your dog to jump into … then rake them up again.
Light Up | Days are getting shorter; make sure you’re visible on late-afternoon or early-evening walks. Put new batteries in your flashlight and invest in reflective vests: one for you, one for the pup.
Look Up | Sirius, the Dog Star, is the night sky’s brightest, and easy to spot (plus, stargazing is a good way to pass the moments while your furry friend checks her p-mail).
Dress Up | Make your dog a costume and take part in a Halloween dog parade. NYC’s Tompkins Square Park hosts one of the most venerable, and other cities and groups also sponsor them. Or, try your hand at carving a dog-o-lantern.
Freeze Up | Fall is prime time for pumpkins, one of canine nutrition’s high-antioxidant, high-soluble-fiber wonder foods. Puree fresh cooked pumpkin and freeze it in silicone ice cube trays or muffin tins for future meals. (Organic produce seems to provide more good-guy antioxidants, so go organic when possible.) For recipes: thebark.com/pumpkin
Plan Ahead | Popular dog-friendly resorts and vacation venues fill up fast; make your holiday reservations now. Or, if you know you’ll be traveling sans dog, reserve time in your favorite pet sitter’s schedule.
Get Started | Winter and its seasonal celebrations are coming, so put on your DIY hat and make something special. Knit a sweater, felt a woolen ball, crochet a colorful dog bed, assemble a keepsake book.
PS | Stay safe. Along with summer heat’s last hurrah come potentially dangerous blue-green algae blooms, particularly in freshwater lakes and streams. Read up on their hazards at petpoisonhelpline.com.
Dog's Life: Travel
Leaf-Peeping with Pups
Fall is go time. Sunny, crisp days and aromatic leaf piles inspire dogs to leap into the season. Why not follow their lead on a leaf-peeping adventure built for two?
Black Hills, South Dakota
Eastern Upper Peninsula, Michigan
White Mountains, New Hampshire
Hocking Hills, Ohio
Taos, New Mexico
Cascade Mountains, Washington
News: Guest Posts
Surfers get furry
We were first introduced to Jedi through our Smiling Dog submissions, and we think Jedi Seja may be the next worldwide furry celebrity. Born on a puppy mill farm and surrendered to a rescue, Jedi had a rough start. Luckily he was then adopted by his parents Katie and Patrick Seja, and they’ve turned his life upside-down. His surfing career started in 2011, and has taken him across the nation for many surf competitions. Jedi’s interests include surfing, being an advocate for animals, working with charities, and smiling while having fun.
News: Guest Posts
Mascot of the El Paso Chihuahuas
He sports a side-of-the-mouth snarl, nicks in his right ear, fiery eyes and a menacing spiked collar.
The face of the El Paso Chihuahuas, the newest team in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, “Chico” is the creation of Brandiose, a San Diego design firm owned by longtime friends Jason Klein and Casey White.
“He’s been in a few alleys in his time, and sometimes he’s even come out on the positive side of a fight,” explains Klein. He and White got their inspiration for Chico by asking themselves, “What would the Oakland Raiders look like if they were a minor league baseball team and their name was the Chihuahuas?”
The product of a “Name the Team” contest, Chihuahuas was chosen to reflect the scrappy spirit and fierce loyalty for which El Pasoans are known, as well as the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. From these elements, Brandiose then created the team’s colors and a marketable family of logos to appeal to kids and families, including Chico swinging a bone bat, crossed (and gnawed on) dog bones below a chewed baseball, and Chico’s signature fierce face.
The team takes its “canine culture” seriously.
The four-level pavilion in right field is the Big Dog House, and the open-air top level is the Wooftop. The game program is called “The Paw Print,” fans park in the Barking Lot and among the concession items are nachos served in a dog bowl. Among their social media hashtags is #FearTheEars, which has also become a hand signal.
The first of two “Bark in the Park” nights, during which accompanied dogs were welcome in two reserved sections of Southwest University Park, attracted more than 300 pooches of all sizes.
Brandiose’s brainchild now is known worldwide. Before the season’s first pitch, orders for Chihuahua merchandise came in from all 50 states and eight countries, and sales have remained strong.
Chico now has many amigos.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Volunteers teach young dogs new tricks
Picture your dog in a high school cafeteria at lunchtime. A food fight breaks out. Muffins fly, meatballs roll. Would your dog watch with stoic composure? Silvia Lange, of Nicasio, Calif., tells the story of a teenage puppy raiser in her local Canine Companions for Independence group who found herself in this situation. “I doubt many other service dogs are socialized to food fights. It was a lucky break.” The puppy in question reportedly handled both the temptation and the bedlam with aplomb. And Lange, an eight-year veteran of puppy raising, knows that a wide range of experiences is key to preparing a puppy for life as a service dog.
The subject of service dogs—whom the ADA defines as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability”—triggers predictable reactions in dog lovers. Tribute is paid to the good-naturedness of the dogs. Admiration is expressed for the ingenuity of the trainers. All very true, of course. Service dogs often spring from marvelously mellow-tempered parents and have gone through intensive and complex training, carried out by gifted animal trainers. But if the first step on the journey to a great service dog is careful breeding, and if the last mile is training at the highest level, the considerable distance between the two is socialization.
According to Dr. Ian Dunbar, socialization is “the developmental process whereby puppies and adolescent dogs familiarize themselves with their infinitely varied and ever-changing social and physical environment.” In layman’s terms: Anything you want a dog to calmly accept as an adult, you must introduce him to repeatedly and in a positive manner during the first 18 months of his life.
Consider what that means for puppies in service dog programs: They have to ride in cars, buses and trains; perhaps do some sailing; and ideally, become familiar with an airplane cabin or two. They must visit restaurants and hotels as well as libraries, movie theaters, shops and supermarkets. They need to be utterly comfortable with crowds, escalators, fountains, skateboards, strollers, toddlers, and construction noise. They have to go to school, go to the office, go to the basketball game. And naturally, the home environment must be as mundane to them as their own noses. The vacuum cleaner? So what? The next-door neighbor’s cat? Couldn’t care less. But most service dogs are born on the campuses of the organizations that train and place them. They first open their eyes inside a kennel, not a living room.
That’s where puppy raisers enter the equation. They are volunteers—school-age children or retirees or anyone in between—who give puppies loving temporary homes. What’s more, they teach their young charges basic manners and arrange for a steady stream of educational experiences. When you see an adolescent dog wearing the telltale service dog jacket, there’s likely to be a puppy raiser at the other end of the leash.
A puppy raiser’s responsibilities differ from one program to another, but some requirements are practically universal. For example, most organizations ask their puppy raisers to feed a particular brand of food, use only an approved style of training, have the puppy sleep indoors and agree to provide daily exercise and socialization. Costs for food, transport to and from training classes, and veterinary checkups rest with the puppy raiser, too. The duration varies, but 12 to 18 months is common, and the work usually begins when the puppy is eight weeks old. In return for all this, the organization provides ongoing support, training and community.
Silvia Lange, who began raising puppies as a retirement project, was unsure at first about taking on such a big commitment. What if she wanted to travel, or even move? “That was before I realized what a great network of people Canine Companions have nationwide,” she said. “I could move anywhere in the U.S. and find fellow puppy raisers to connect with. And we all dog sit for one another.”
Smaller service dog organizations also tend vigorously to their volunteer flock. “We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,” says Jorjan Powers, communications director at the Assistance Dog Institute at the Bergin University of Canine Studies, whose program depends on a handful of dedicated puppy raisers. “We want them to feel supported.”
Unsurprisingly, the question most often asked of puppy raisers by the general public is, “How can you give up this gorgeous puppy?” According to Blancett Reynolds of San Francisco, Calif., a puppy group leader who has raised six puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind, it’s never easy. “How do I deal with it? I don’t. I cry. Actually, I can’t even say goodbye to the dog. Someone at the kennel has to take the leash from my hand because I don’t want the dog to see me lose it.”
But she adds that people often imagine the surrender of the dog to be much worse than it actually is because they don’t know how the program works. “It doesn’t involve someone handing you a puppy and then showing up at your house 15 months later to rip the dog from your arms. It’s a collaborative project with a lot of support.”
When asked for her advice to people thinking about becoming a puppy raiser, Reynolds doesn’t hesitate. “Do it!” she says. “Pick up the phone. Puppy raising isn’t always easy, but it’s fun and very rewarding. The experience is valuable for anyone. It’s all about doing something for someone else and having a great time while doing it.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
From puppy to partner, guide dogs are a special breed
Each year, guide dog schools—independent nonprofit organizations that provide guide dogs for blind and visually impaired individuals—breed close to 3,000 dogs. When so many intelligent, loving shelter dogs are in need of homes, why don’t guide dog schools rescue dogs like some of the other service-dog programs? The answer lies in the nature of the work guide dogs are required to do. Dog jobs, like people jobs, are task-specific and require specific temperaments, some of which can be selected for through breeding.
The term “service animal” was first used in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to describe an animal individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability. While at that time, guide dogs for the blind were the most familiar type of service animal, over the years, the variety of tasks service dogs carry out has increased to include dogs who perform some of the functions that an individual with a disability cannot perform for him- or herself, such as alerting people with hearing impairments, pulling wheelchairs, or carrying and picking up things for people with mobility issues.
Watching blind travelers confidently make their way through busy city traffic, you might think that the guide dog is doing the same thing—performing a task that the blind person cannot perform for him- or herself. In other words, it may appear that the dog is leading the blind person, but that’s not the case. Both of their lives depend on what the other one does, and neither is in total control at any given time. Neither dog nor person can cross the street alone without risk, but together, they do it efficiently and safely.
Terry Barrett, director of training operations at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael, Calif., says, “In our earliest days, the 1940s, most of our dogs came from animal shelters. It soon became evident that we were looking for something very specific: Dogs who not only had excellent health, intelligence and temperament, but also exhibited a willingness to work and thrived on praise.” GDB’s breeding program was started in an effort to ensure a consistent supply of dogs with those specific traits.
By the late 1970s, new socialization methods (raising puppies in home environments) were proving so successful that shelter dogs, most of whom came from disadvantaged or unknown backgrounds, became less likely candidates for the work. As guide dog work intensified and breeding programs were beefed up, opportunities for shelter dogs all but disappeared.
Labrador Retrievers, who constitute about 60 percent of these working dogs, have proven to be the most successful guide worldwide, mainly because there is enough variation within the breed to meet blind students’ myriad needs. “The vast majority of our dogs are bred from our own specially selected stock, but a percentage are donated from other schools, through international programs and other means,” Barrett notes.
Regardless of lineage, guide dogs have distinct counter-intuitive characteristics in common. Because they are, to great extent, bred for a specific temperament, they are more like one another than they are like others of their particular breed. If they were children, their report cards would read: “Follows instruction, participates in class, very creative, assumes responsibility when necessary, shows leadership and works well in a group.”
Breeders aren’t selecting for these traits as much as they are selecting against others. They want a German Shepherd who is tractable, a bird dog who is not prey-driven, a herding dog who won’t nip people to negotiate busy pedestrian traffic. Unlike traditional breeders who select for niche traits such as pointing, herding or wire-haired coats, schools select for temperament characteristics that are broadly adaptable.
For decades, guide dog schools have conducted and recorded detailed observations on many thousands of dogs. This volume of information and the length of time it’s been collected have allowed schools to reliably classify and quantify temperament traits. Their ultimate goal is to find measurements that will predict guide dog success and estimate heritability of temperament traits that are important to working guide dogs.
Generally speaking, many dog temperament tests have proven to be ineffective and controversial. In addition, few tests account for the dramatic behavioral differences seen from one breed to another; what’s acceptable in a German Shepherd might be abnormal behavior in a Golden Retriever.
According to an article by Taylor and Mills in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Clinical Applications and Research (2006), what’s needed are systematic scientific tests that focus on the five key measurements of the quality of a temperament: purpose, standardization, reliability, validity and practicality. It would take a large number of dogs in a consistent setting to devise such a test, and this is where guide dog schools are getting involved.
For example, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is working with trainer Suzanne Clothier on a novel temperament evaluation project that tracks the behavior of hundreds of dogs from puppyhood through maturity, investigating how best to identify, and then select for, a set of traits that reflects flexibility of behavior. As Jane Russenberger, senior director of the canine development center at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, observes, “Because we believe in it and, like other schools, need better temperament measures, Guiding Eyes is providing that opportunity by allocating large amounts of resources to conduct the temperament tests.”
Part of the drive to refine this process comes from the financial and emotional commitment made to each dog by both the school and the eventual handler. Although it varies from school to school based on geographic region, on average, it costs about $50,000 to graduate a person/dog team. This figure includes all costs divided by the number of teams the school graduates each year. (The 11 schools in the U.S. graduate about 1,500 to 2,000 teams annually.) The cost just to prepare a single dog for class is about $23,000.
Direct costs—breeding, feeding, vet care and puppy-raising expenses—consume about 25 percent of the budget. Another 20 percent goes into training dogs for class. About 35 percent goes into student selection, dormitory and class expenses, and follow-up services. Once the training is complete and the team returns home, it can be six months to a year before they are functioning optimally together. To assist in this process, schools continue to work with their graduates in their home locations. Some of the larger, better-funded schools provide follow-up services for the working life of the team, which can be eight years. (Everything is provided free of charge to qualified blind and visually impaired students.)
From Puppy to Partner
Careful control of what happens to a young dog during this critical phase of development is a crucial part of producing sound guide dogs. This is the time during which youngsters learn the canine equivalent of “please and thank you.” It’s also the best time to evaluate their health and identify risk factors that could lead to problems later in life. As Barrett notes, “From the earliest stages of their lives, GDB puppies and their moms are cared for by a team of experts, including full-time veterinarians and technicians supported by consulting specialists and volunteers. As the pups grow, our veterinarians continue to monitor their health and well-being.”
All dogs are born with default positions that they revert to when stressed. The reaction can be anything from anxious whining to more serious issues such as biting. The higher the stress, the more pressure on the trigger. Puppy socialization programs provide an opportunity to identify environmental stressors and modify the reaction, or failing that, release the dog from the program to a companion home.
As a handler explains, “Because we can’t see, we don’t know the particulars of what we’re commanding our dogs to do. The dog has to stand up to us, to get it through to us that something is there that we don’t know about, then find a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. A dog that isn’t comfortable holding his ground isn’t suited to the job.”
Guide dogs have to be able to generalize to new, complicated and sometimes abstract situations. It’s easy to train a dog to take someone to a chair. Training a dog to take a person to a place where no one else is sitting, whether it’s a college classroom or restaurant, is a more abstract concept.
Training cycles vary slightly, but generally, puppy raisers return 15-month-old dogs to the school, where they begin 18 to 20 weeks of formal training in the technical aspects of guide work. Using affection and positive reinforcement, the instructor trains the dog to respond to about 35 different commands such as forward, right, left, and find the door.
Weeks one through nine include obedience training, directional turns, negotiating obstacles, light city work, and street crossings. During week 10, dogs are introduced to traffic training. This is the point at which instructors determine whether or not the dog has the confidence and initiative to make the independent decisions needed to override many of the commands he’s learned in the previous nine weeks of training.
To traffic-train a dog, instructors capitalize on what comes naturally: Dogs will move away from an oncoming vehicle. By instinct, the dog will attempt to escape by running around, backing away from or bolting in front of the car. The trick is to control the dog’s movement with reinforcement, encouraging him to back up into the rigid harness handle even though he’s been instructed to go “forward.”
The dog doesn’t know he is signaling (indicating that it’s unsafe to go forward) but he “gets it” soon enough. The light bulb moment—when the dog realizes he is responsible for the person at the other end of the handle—is a deal-breaker for some dogs. They understand the dynamic of the partnership, but they don’t want to do it. It’s a moment puppy raisers anxiously await with mixed feelings. They want their dog to make it through training, but if he fails, they have an opportunity to keep him as a pet. Dogs who don’t want the responsibility go home to be companions. Dogs who meet the challenge move on to learning how to negotiate buildings, busy city traffic, larger street crossings, longer routes, escalators and elevator work.
After the dog is trained, the instructors teach students how to work with the dog during a four-week in-residence class. Person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class and deepens and broadens over time. Handlers are given surprising reminders of the trust they must have in their dogs, and those reminders usually show up the first time they override their dog’s decision to disregard a command. Tripping over a garden hose is minor compared to the consequences of stepping off a curb in front of an SUV making an illegal turn, but the lesson is the same.
Guide dog handler Sheila Styron, past president of Guide Dog Users, Inc., the largest organization of dog handlers in the world, explained what it’s like from the other end of the harness handle. “If a handler sits at a desk all day, his or her guide dog needs to be able to lie quietly for hours, and then be able to confidently guide the blind handler on to a noisy, crowded subway. It’s important to consider the wide array of other factors and interactions within the relationship between dog and handler that can contribute to the team’s success, difficulties or failure. The dance is extremely complex, and the magic extraordinary when all the elements fall into place.”
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