10. Bonding

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The next few days are going to be about honing skills and bonding.

I have referred to bonding several times in my previous posts. The bond is the foundation of our working relationship, and we are doing many things to forge that bond, and they all take time and energy. Establishing the bond means being together night and day. Every activity has some aspect of building the bond – heeling, grooming, playing, using TTouch®, our training walks, working the practice course, going to lunch, sleeping, etc. The dogs love their trainers, so we need to invest a lot of energy to win over their love and trust. It is all made harder by the fact that the trainers they love are also in the picture, hovering around and watching how well we are doing as a new team.

I think I mentioned earlier that we are using treats as reinforcers, so I thought I would elaborate on how that works. Pet owners give treats as “treats”. If you are like Jim, you give treats just because it’s treat time. Guide dog users, on the other hand, use treat rewards very strictly to establish and reinforce positive behaviours. This is why I can’t have my friends and neighbours giving my guide dog treats just because we happen to meet on the road or on the ferry – that would break the carefully developed idea that treats are a reward for success. Even how the treat is given is important. When we do have a success, the treat is delivered “to” the dog by the handler; if the dog anticipates or reaches for the treat, we are taught how to correct that behaviour.

We are using treats right now when we regain control after our trainer is out of sight, at curb stops and at specific locations such as a door we found at the end of our route, (or, today, for a well-done traffic check), etc. It is important that the dogs know when they have done well with us as their new handlers. We also use treats right now to reinforce behaviours that, once home, will be harder to recognize and reward with positive reinforcers. For example, right now the trainers are telling us when our dog ignores a distraction such as the cats we encountered on Wednesday, or perhaps a squirrel, or a dog across the street. In the real world, we are often unaware of those types of things unless our dog IS distracted; then we can only correct for the distraction. Of course, if we are aware of a distraction and our dog ignores it, we praise; but there are often many things we are unaware of as blind people.

While the trainers are training the dogs, they can consistently reinforce behaviours because they can also see the world around them. But now the dogs are working with real blind people for the first time. The dogs must be solid and confident in themselves to be able to accept that they will only get that reinforcement sometimes, when we know they have done well. Thus, the eventual weaning to intermittent treats. And, the importance of the bond between dog and handler – a dog is much happier to work for someone they are bonded with, even though the praise is intermittent and there are fewer treats.

From a skills perspective, we are working on simple things at first, setting the dog up for success, and then building on that success. We start with simple walks with very close one-on-one supervision. Over the course of class, the routes will become more demanding and complex, and the trainers will gradually back off as our bond develops and we begin to gel as a team.

I’ve reached a point in my journey where I need to lighten up on the writing and put full focus on “L” to help her (and me) succeed. It has been an exhausting few days, so to preserve my energy for the work I’m here to accomplish, I will post less often from here on in. In two or three days, I’ll check in again to let everyone know how “L” and I are making out.

Go To chapter 11: Unleashed from My Trainer

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