Our chat about guide dog training with Nikki Wentz of Guiding Eyes for the Blind wraps up.
What are some of the differences that come up between training a guide dog or another service animal and basic training for a pet dog?
That’s a good question. I’d say that in the beginning all of our guide dog training is pretty similar to any training you would do with a dog, especially if you’re doing clicker training. You’re just teaching them these skills that they’re learning and they’re getting practice with the skills, then guide work kind of shifts off into its own element.
We do ask the dogs to do what we call “intelligent disobedience,” which is certain times that we want the dog to refuse or ignore the commands that their handler has given them. So this especially pertains to if you’re out traveling and you thought it was safe to cross the street but then a car turned right on red. In theory you did everything right and you should have been able to cross, and you told your dog it was safe to cross, but the dog will actually stop or even back up without the handler prompting them to do those things.
Another example would be like a train platform, if the handler were to get too close to the edge of an elevated platform, the dog would actually stop or maybe even turn away in that situation.
So we do ask our dogs to develop that independent thinking as well. If you’re just doing clicker training with your dog, or agility training or something like that, you keep rehearsing the skills you taught them, and you’re wanting them to do exactly what you’ve been practicing with them. We do ask our guide dogs to kind of think outside of that at times.
Wow, that’s really amazing.
Yeah, they’re really incredible dogs.
With National Dog Day coming up, why would you say dogs are so great, in general? There’s so many different breeds and things that they can do.
I think, especially with our dogs, they’re just so adaptable, I really like that about them. Even if you just stop and think about other animals, like a cat or something like that, your average dog is just kind of along for the ride, they don’t get bothered by too much, especially the Labradors that we train. They’re really just joyful and willing to work with you, and that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy working with Guiding Eyes so much, they’re connected and willing to work with you throughout the whole training process.
Do you have any pet dogs of your own? What are their personalities like? It’s probably different than the dogs you work with all day long, obviously.
I do, yep. It is a little bit different. I do have one retired Guiding Eyes dog, he’s a black Labrador, he’s just very chill and relaxed. He’s really just a couch potato, honestly. I also have a Keeshond, and he is very unlike the dogs I work with at Guiding Eyes. He’s hyper, he’s always barking, he’s just a totally different dog, and it’s funny because I definitely probably train him less – just, having dogs and working with and training dogs all the time, it’s funny to see how he’ll catch onto things. Sometimes I might bring a dog home from work so we’ll be working on something in a home setting, and my Keeshond will be right there, he wants to do it! He wants to be part of the process., too. He’s definitely a little higher strung than the average Labrador that I work with, or even our German Shepherds.
It probably depends on the dog, of course, but what is the average working lifespan for a guide dog?
Usually by the time they’ve completed our formal guide dog training and done the training with their student, they’ll be about two years old. Our goal is to have the dog working around eight years, but it really does depend on the situation, the environment they’re working in, how demanding it is, that sort of thing. Some will retire sooner, some will retire later, but we aim for around eight years of working life, which is around 10 years old, and then they’ll get to enjoy their retirement.
Do retired dogs ever teach new current dogs how to do things?
I think so! I’ve worked with a few handlers, they’re allowed to keep their retired dog as a pet if they choose to once they reach that point where they need a new guide dog, and a lot of people will tell you that when they arrived back home with their new guide dog, their retired guide dog wants to still go with them, will try to get the harness on themselves, they’re not ready to give it up just yet. It is, I think, in a lot of people’s households, a good energy to have around, the experienced mellow guide dog to kind of teach the young one.
For more information on Guiding Eyes and their approach to guide dog training, be sure to check out their website (GuidingEyes.org) and follow their social media pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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