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Paradigm Shift for Seeing Eye Dogs
Deploying a clicker and treats to help a hesitant guide dog
Beth and Harper at a corner.

Five months ago (has it been that long already?) I returned with my new dog from the Seeing Eye School in Morristown to piles of snow here in Chicago.

Poor Harper had never trained in snow. Was that why he was cowering on our walks to the Loop now? Does he miss the snow? Or maybe it’s a delayed reaction to the van that turned right in front of us. The driver didn’t see us crossing, she said. Her van brushed Harper’s face, and he pulled me back from harm so strongly that I fell. My head crashed on the concrete. Maybe that near-miss still has him scared.

Harper’s cowering started one day when I had a meeting downtown at Willis Tower. Halfway there, along a normal length of sidewalk, Harper crouched to the ground. Wouldn’t budge. Not forward, not backward. After trying everything I could come up with to get Harper to move, I finally accepted help from a stranger. The man walked Harper and me to Franklin Avenue, and when Harper caught sight of the Willis Tower he took off like old times.

On the way home, though, he cowered again. Four different times. Then he cowered on the way to and from the memoir-writing class I teach, on the way to and from the pool where I swim, on the way to and from the train station to visit my mom in the suburbs. We eventually got to all these places, but it was like driving a car that stalls all the time. It was miserable—both for Harper and for me.

“It really doesn’t matter why he’s acting this way,” the instructor from the Seeing Eye said when I called the training department for help. “He just can’t act like this.” They arranged to send an instructor out for a home visit.

Nicole spent her first afternoon with us just observing. Harper did not hold back. In one short walk, he refused to go all the way to the corner at an intersection, he veered right when we crossed, and then wouldn’t follow my command to turn right so we could take a walk to the park. He did get me home, though, and over a cup of tea Nicole assured me I hadn’t done anything wrong to cause Harper’s behavior. “We’ve just gotta work on how you react when he behaves like this,” she said.

Nicole suggested we try clicker training. Award-winning Seeing Eye instructor Lukas Franck had taught us clicker training while we were in Morristown last December, and I’d used it at home to teach Harper to find the elevator button in our hallway.

Clicking and giving Harper a treat to reward him for getting to the curb went counter to everything I’d learned when training with my previous Seeing Eye dogs Pandora and Hanni. Back then we were strongly discouraged from rewarding our dogs with food. Heap on the praise instead, they told us. Guide Dogs are allowed in restaurants, amusement parks, receptions, food courts, you name it. They have to be able to keep on task without being distracted by food.

Lukas—and then Nicole—assured me that the Seeing Eye had tested the clicker-training method extensively. I could use treats as rewards and still expect Harper to ignore food distractions in restaurants and the like. I was skeptical, but desperate. I decided to give it a try.

And you know what? It’s working! For the past couple weeks, I’ve been clicking the clicker every time Harper gets me to the end of a block. He understands that the click means “you got it!” and he knows that the sound of the click means he gets a small treat. Harper hardly ever cowers anymore; he’s in such a rush to get to the end of the block to collect his reward!

Harper’s work is not perfect—well, not yet, at least—but it has really, really improved. This week I’ve started weaning him off the clicker—in other words, I don’t click at each and every curb anymore. So far he’s still getting me to the end of each block without cowering, and his tail wags with pride when he does. Atta boy, Harper!

Beth Finke's book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound—about her bond with her Seeing Eye dog—won an ASPCA/Henry Bergh children's book award. Follow Hanni and Beth's travels on the Safe & Sound blog. bethfinke.wordpress.com

Photo by Mike Knezovich.

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