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.