Our introduction to the basics of guide dog training continues with Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Nikki Wentz.
What are some of the elements of the process that goes into formal guide dog training?
All of our dogs receive a test, we call it the In For Training (IFT) test, when they come to us, and it’s really just a behavioral and temperament assessment, just to make sure that they’re really suitable for guide work – they’re all great dogs, but some might have higher sensitivities, some might startle at noises or might be a little more uncomfortable with an unfamiliar person, so we really try to eliminate those dogs early on, so we are working with guide dogs who be more suited [to the task] that go into our training program.
We mostly focus on a lot of positive reinforcement, we do a ton of clicker training, and some of the things the dogs learn at first are just to indicate or show their handler a particular object, like things that are really important for a guide dog to show are door handles, stair railings, and especially changes of elevation – things that a visually impaired person may need a warning about when they’re walking about.
The changes of elevation are definitely something that warnings help with, for sure.
Definitely, yeah! You don’t want to accidentally find a set of stairs while you’re out walking.
Nope, that’s no fun. How are the dogs matched with their handlers?
It’s a whole process. All of our applicants go through a home interview process, where they just get a basic questionnaire and then a staff member goes out to their home and makes sure their home is safe and suitable for a dog, and that they actually have destinations and routes they can travel with the dog so that they’ll actually be using the dog once we match them with a dog, and during that interview we also take down their average comfortable walking pace. Tthat’s one of the most important things we look at because our dogs do tend to work at a specific pace or within a specific range, so we really want to match them so you’ll be comfortable with your dog.
Another big consideration that we look at is where they live, since some dogs are more comfortable in a big city environment like New York City or Chicago, while others may do better in quiet residential areas. So we look at that as a consideration, too, because our students have the same kind of wide range as our dogs, so we look at that too.
And another thing is just personality – some people might go out a lot with their dog, so they want a dog who’s just always kind of ready to go with more stamina and that kind of thing, other people are more couch potatoes, and we definitely have dogs like that, too! So we definitely do consider the personality as well in the matching process.
When the students come to the training center in Yorktown, what goes on during the orientation process when you match the dog with the handler?
Our main guide dog training program is our residential program, where we bring in students to live for three weeks at our campus in Yorktown Heights. They usually work with a team of three staff members; Guide Dog Mobility Instructors and then a Team Lead who just kind of oversees the whole process.
We already have an idea of which dog they are going to receive when they come to New York, but the first day or two we just let them get acclimated, cause they’re in a new environment, they have their own room, but since you’re coming into a place with a ton of strangers, we give them a chance to acclimate for the first day. We do an initial walk with the student to make sure they are what we thought they were based on the initial interview (since that usually happens months prior), and the third day that they’re with us they actually receive their guide dog.
They’ll work with that dog for the remaining two and a half weeks, one-on-one with an instructor, and we really just focus on bonding with the dog and then transferring over the guidework skills that we’ve been teaching the dogs in the months prior.
So at that point it’s more training the human, rather than training the dog?
Right, exactly! We always tell people that training your guide dog is never done, it’s never finished. They are dogs, and there’s always more than your can teach them. With class we’re really focusing on teaching the handler how to be able to work the guide dog, and then we give them the tools – like the clicker training – so they can teach their dogs when they go home the things that are specific to their home environment or extra skills they might want to teach their dog as well.