It’s All About the Dogs

Cally, guide dog in training 

Hello one and all.

I have mentioned many times just how much Commando loves his work. He only has to suspect that we are going out and his tale wags, and he generally acts like he’s on springs. This eagerness and love of his work is something that I am so very grateful for, as I know that he is truly enjoying what he is doing.

Now you may wonder, how do guide dogs become guide dogs? Well dear readers, it’s a lot of work, for the dogs and for the humans who train them. The process lasts for around 20 months, and starts at a young age.

Firstly we have our wonderful army of Puppy Walkers, who take in the dogs from around seven weeks of age. They keep the dogs until they are around one year old, and during that time they familiarise them with the world around them and begin the basic training that will lay the foundations for these puppies to become life changing guide dogs. Throughout this first stage the puppies are monitored closely, not only by the Puppy Walkers themselves but also by their Puppy Walking Supervisor. Even at this early stage, areas such as obedience and willingness are observed along with various other traits to determine whether the puppy can go on to the next stage of training.

Once the puppy returns to Guide Dogs after their first year the training continues. Guide Dogs staff will initially help the puppy settle into their new home back at Guide Dogs where they may even be reunited with their brothers and sisters for the next stage of training. The staff will help to put the dogs at ease while making the transition; often through all kinds of fuss and fun activities. Then there is more work on obedience and the foundations are laid for more tasks such as waiting at curbs. If the dogs are happy and progress through this stage then they are introduced to the harness and the walks continue. Things like body positioning are used to help the dogs to understand what is expected of them when certain commands are issued, such as “in” or “over” which are used to help direct the dogs when working. Again the dogs are closely monitored throughout this process to ensure that they are still happy and willing to undertake the work.

If all is well, the advanced training then begins. This is where the dogs really get a taste of what life as a guide dog will be like. It involves a great deal of walking and working both on the part of the dogs and their human trainers. At this point the trainers need to get a feel for how keen the dogs are to work, how fast they walk, and the kind of journeys the dogs enjoy making. Although Commando is happy to undertake any journey in harness some dogs like to have a destination in mind and are not too keen on simply walking and working for its own sake.

There are no set time limits for the training, and there is never any pressure placed on the dogs. Training is always carried out using positive reinforcement, through things like play or favourite journeys or even a nice food reward at the end of a journey. Like people, every dog is unique and is treated as such by Guide Dogs. Although the training needs to be standardised in so far as all Guide Dogs need to know certain things, the way they learn these things can be tailored to the individual dog to ensure that at all times the dogs enjoy what we are asking them to do.

Dogs are never forced to do the work. If they are reluctant then the first thing that happens is that staff try to find out why the dog is reluctant, do they prefer a journey with a destination, do they like to take alternate routes there and back, or are they simply having an off day.

In the final analysis a guide dog must be willing. They must want to do the job. If it is determined that the dog doesn’t want to be a guide dog then so be it. Efforts are made to try and find them a new career, or failing that they can become pets. Of course, this is after the home in question has been thoroughly vetted by Guide Dogs, that is.

Guide Dogs will never force a dog into the role. It would be counterproductive on every front. So when you see a working guide dog you can be sure that that dog is a guide dog because they have in their own way chosen to be a guide dog. Furthermore they have been matched to an owner whose lifestyle will best suit the dog and let them play to their strengths and do the kind of work they enjoy most. This is just one more reason why the matching process is so important. It is as much for the dogs as for the humans with whom they will be working.

In addition, this is why we have after-care visits. This is to ensure that our dogs are still happy, willing, and enjoying their work, and to take action if this is not found to be the case.

Comments

Alex, 1:27pm Tue 10 Feb 2015:


Hello Craig and Commando, thank you for writing your blog, as a new puppy walker it's very interesting to read your experiences as a guide dog owner. Our puppy has on,y been with us 6 days but she is learning so much and I have been telling her she will have a very special job when she grows up. I look forward to future blog posts. Kind regards

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Craig And Commando

Craig is in his early thirties and he is completely blind. His blog details the day-to-day adventures he experiences with his first guide dog, Commando.

Read Craig and Commando's most recent adventures.