Big Changes for Little Caleb

Neutering and operant conditioning training for future Guide Dog
By Megan Minkiewicz, March 2011

It’s hard to believe little Caleb is already six-months-old. He’s become such a fixture in our routines that we all feel a bit off when that routine is interrupted. But it’s something we have to do in order to prepare Caleb for his future as a well-socialized canine ambassador. This month that interruption will be a big one—at least for little Caleb—he’s getting neutered.


Not all Guide Dog for the Blind puppies-in-training are altered during their puppy-raising year. But, Caleb being a male Labrador/Golden Retriever cross is not a candidate for breeding. All working Guide Dogs are altered before they enter formal training, however there is a percentage of puppies who are watched throughout their puppy-raising year as potential breeder candidates and there are a number of puppies, such as Caleb, who are altered during that time too.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Guide Dogs for the Blind supports and maintains its own breeding department and dogs. There are about 180 dogs in the breeding program. These dogs live with people who have been selected as “breeder custodians” and spend the majority of their time doing what most pet dogs do—playing and being part of a family. They are a mix of yellow and black Labradors, as well as Golden Retrievers and also female Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses (Caleb’s mom being one of them).
Eighty percent of the breeders are females and 20 percent are males, and they are the epitome of the Guide Dog ideal. Guide Dogs for the Blind also participates in an exchange program with other International Guide Dog Federation schools that promotes the sharing of litters and dogs. Puppies-in-training and breeders have come from Guide Dog schools in Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and The Netherlands and in return these schools have received dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind. This helps the global Guide Dog community to continue to add new genes into the lineage while maintaining the most important Guide Dog traits, health and temperament.
Speaking of temperament, Caleb is a rock solid star. For the most part, he’s mature enough to go where we go. He can handle an afternoon of errands, an evening of dinner and a movie, a high school basketball game, even a trip to barn to check up on my horse. As long as he can find a pair of feet to curl up between, he’s happy to be wherever we are.
In addition to the fun stuff we do, twice a month we meet with our puppy-raising club to work on obedience and learn from our advisor new and improved way of working with our puppies. All of Caleb’s obedience commands and puppy-handling exercises are rewarded with praise, lots and lots or praise! There are very few instances where we use food rewards for puppies-in-training—in teaching recall and “go to bed” exercise using operant conditioning.
In operant conditioning, puppies are rewarded for offering a desired behavior instead of being physically manipulated to respond to a command. Essentially, it’s a game, a fun and rewarding game for the pups. Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy-raising department uses operant conditioning in the “go to bed” exercise. 
Using a mat or crate pad, I walk Caleb by the mat and if he offers the desired behavior of touching the mat I “mark” him with the word “nice” followed immediately with a piece of kibble. The timing is everything as the marker occurs immediately upon the behavior and the kibble reinforces the behavior. After a few rounds of touching the mat, I wait for Caleb to remain standing on the mat, where he again receives the verbal marker followed by kibble.
Next I wait for Caleb to offer a sit and eventually lay down on the mat, continuing to give him a verbal marker and kibble to reaffirm the behavior. I don’t name the behavior Caleb does this all on his own, knowing the verbal marker and food reward will follow. Once the behavior is consistent I add the “go to bed” name and from then on I cue him with the words to perform the behavior.
It’s amazing to see how quickly the puppies pick it up and how this technique becomes a cornerstone of training for dogs when puppies return to campus for formal Guide Dog training. Operant conditioning can be taught with a verbal marker or a clicker and was originally used in the lab and with marine mammals. It took me awhile to get in sync with the coordination of the marker and reward, but now that we have it Caleb rocks this training.
Another big training milestone is coming up next month, Caleb will take his first airplane ride as we head down to San Francisco for Caleb’s photo shoot with our dear friend and Bark photo contributor, Amanda Jones. Stay tuned.


Megan Minkiewicz has raised six puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Over the next year and a half, she'll write about her adventures as a volunteer puppy raiser for The Bark blog. She lives in Bend, Ore., with her husband Alex, a Quarter Horse named Chip, and a one-eyed goldfish named Flobie and Caleb.

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