Learning the Path of ‘Leashed’ Resistance
December 11, 2017
From before the time they are born, guide dogs are expected to be human. These dogs serve the purpose of replacing human aids to the visually impaired, so they have to be able to lead their clients around outside spaces, protect them from moving objects, and be a supportive companion.
If you really think about it, these animals must be superhumans.
Guide Dogs for the Blind, located in San Rafael, has served the visually impaired since 1942. Their role in the service dog community is not only to train the perfect guide dog, but it’s also to share information with other organizations to enrich and foster knowledge.
Heather Powers, the Reproductive Coordinator at Guide Dogs for the Blind, explained the long planning process that is necessary to craft the perfect guide dog, starting with the breeding colony.
“When we have a girl that comes in the season and the colony, at that point that’s when we start trying to plan by choosing a stud that will compliment her,” she explains. From the moment the pups are brought into this world, the institution aims to create the perfect temperament for the litter. Some dogs will turn out too sweet, wanting too much attention and getting distracted by people. Others will grow up more aggressive, roughhousing with other dogs and kids with too much energy. Although it seems odd, trying to create the perfect temperament for dogs, it’s possible.
“We have some neonatal socialization and learning that we put into place to give them exposure while they are little babies, little infants,” Powers adds. Normally with human babies, they don’t start talking or interacting until they are two or three years old. However, these dogs immediately jump into action, whether walking on contrasting surfaces, adapting to real-world sounds, or interacting with different types of dogs and people.
“We try to give them windows, so there are time frames where they need to learn things, and if they don’t, they may not learn them ever,” explains Jim Powers, the Field Service Manager for Guide Dogs of the Blind and a guide dog mobility instructor.
Continuing on the topic of the guide dogs when they are still very young, Heather adds, “If you don’t socialize a puppy to a variety of things at that time, they are more likely to be fearful, not as confident, and they can have repercussions across their entire lifespan in terms of how successful they are going be.” Heather continues, “We try to do as much as we can before we even put them into the hands of the puppy raisers.”
The puppy raising program consists of highly selected individuals or families raising the dogs. When people think of raising a guide dog puppy, they think they get to experience the cute puppy phase, but little do they know this process is long and hard.
Heather and Jim explained the process of puppy raising. A family has to attend weekly classes and take the puppy everywhere with them, literally everywhere. Whether they go to the bathroom, to church, to a nice dinner, or a family member’s birthday lunch, that dog is glued to their side. This allows the dog to get as much exposure to the world and are expected to be well socialized and have a basic set of tools, commands, and tricks they can use at their future disposal. These beautiful labradors are still puppies, yet have the abilities of a 10-year-old family pet dog.
Ananda Twitty, a trainer for Guide Dogs for the Blind, raised puppies throughout high school and college, and after an unsuccessful attempt at a mortgage company, she realized working with dogs again remained the catalyst for her becoming a trainer.
When describing her role in crafting the perfect guide dog, she explained, “My job is about understanding the temperament and what motivates a dog to learn and train them to the necessary behaviors.” Twitty described the many different ways you can get a dog’s attention, whether that was using dog treats, kibble, or their favorite toy.
After only 18 months being alive, the dogs are trained during a 12 week period. Even though each trainer is assigned four dogs, the dogs get individualized attention and work times, whether that is walking around San Rafael working on traffic stops, or if that’s going to Berkeley or San Francisco to work on basic skills and socialization.
During training, these dogs need to learn everything there is in the book. They are not only responsible for taking care of their owner, but also need to be wary of “…things like changes in elevation, overhead obstacles, moving vehicles that are turning that them, that sort of thing,” Jim explains.
These dogs also need to learn how to prioritize the safety of their partner who is visually impaired.
“Do I avoid the car or do I hold my line? Sometimes there might be something that counteracts the path of least resistance,” said Jim. All of these concepts of space and where you belong in the world are instinctive to humans, but these dogs are supposed to be able to learn these things in a span of three months without being able to talk or communicate. If that does not sound like a super-human-dog, then I don’t know what would qualify.
One would think these dogs do everything they learn to the bone, but sometimes choosing the safer option is always the better one. “Despite what I say, if they perceive a threat, they are going to hold their ground and ignore me. That is where their disobedience comes in,” Twitty. Although it seems odd that disobedience plays a role in training, without knowing boundaries and how to take control when necessary, these companions would not be very trustworthy.
After learning A-Z of what being a guide dog means, the final group of smart, talented dogs are put to the test. And not some SAT standardized test or calculus final; these tests are hardcore and if the dog does not use its skills to perform perfectly, issues will arise.
“[They are] tested on stairs and through narrow clearances and through escalators. They are put on traffic route that assesses how their responses are,” said Twitty. This particular test aims to show their quick response, and ability to move their user around obstacles in everyday life. These dogs are put through the most strict scrutiny, and if unable to perform a task practice many times, they can be rejected quickly.
After testing, these dogs are “match” ready can be assigned a companion.
Because these dogs are expected to be human, it is forgotten they need to eat, sleep, and play.
The smells of wet dog fill my nostrils, and constant barks and happy whimpers from the wide range of old and young pups drown out Heather’s voice. I look at the six week old yellow puppies, and am truly amazed at who these dogs will become someday, because I can definitely say, at the age of 15, I would not have the maturity or capabilities to learn everything there is to know about a visually impaired person and be able to be their companion and guide 24/7.