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.
Whereas a seizure-alert dog is like an analyst who predicts a problem to reduce its impact, a guide dog is more like an air traffic controller who bears responsibility for the team’s safety as it moves from one place to another. The dog monitors the “air space” and gives feedback to the handler, who is the pilot. Errors can be life-threatening and near-misses can lead to early burnout. The cornerstone of the training work is to, through repetition and praise, teach the dog to learn to judge a barrier or dangerous situation—for instance, the speed and distance of moving vehicles—and if need be, to respectfully disobey the human partner’s command, an act known as “selective disobedience.” The handler not only directs the dog but also supports his decisions, even when he disobeys.
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.”