Monday, February 19, 2018
This morning was general housekeeping and welcome-type information common for the start of any class. Leader Dogs for the Blind offers several international classes per year, this being one of them – meaning that there are several foreign language students attending with an interpreter. (Canadians aren’t considered foreign in this context!). Officially, there are 2 students from Costa Rica, 1 from Mexico, 2 from Canada, and 9 from the United States.
There are 5 trainers, plus 1 class lead instructor. Tina will be my GDMI (guide dog mobility instructor) trainer. She will be working with 3 of us.
The rest of the morning was equipment review. Being a retrain, there wasn’t much new for me. I’m already familiar with the leather harness, how to size it properly, and how to put it on and take it off the dog. I’m familiar with the leather leash and how to configure it long or short for different purposes. I know about tie-down cables. One change, however, is the dogs are now trained and issued with martingale collars instead of slip chain collars.
This afternoon, we started working Juno, an imaginary dog. The trainer holds the harness handle and pretends to be the dog. No, not on all fours! Juno walks give new students an opportunity to start to learn the basics before a real dog is in the mix. Returning students get a chance to brush up skills and unlearn bad habits!
During Juno walks, the trainers are gathering information about our preferred walking pace, the level of pull we prefer from the harness, our reaction times, and our general handling ability and style. Are we fast walkers, slow walkers, or something in-between? Would we be best suited with a calm quiet dog or one who is more energetic? They are also gathering information about us – What is OUR temperament – calm, confident, quiet, tentative, assertive, etc.? Do we have specific lifestyle considerations such as frequent travel, children in the home, other pets, etc.? Do we live in a busy city environment or in a quieter town or rural environment? Much of this information has already been gathered through the application process, but now the trainers get to assess us in person.
The trainers know the dogs they have available. There are always more dogs than students so that there are options for matching and for dog switches if a match isn’t clicking. The training team has dogs from their own string and dogs that were not matched “hold overs” from previous classes. If hold-over dogs aren’t matched after two classes, they are career changed out of the program so that they aren’t held in the kennels too long. The trainers may have an idea which dog will be matched to which student before class, but Juno gives them a chance to reassess our individual needs and abilities so that they can make the best match.
I have requested a fast-paced, confident, assertive worker with good problem-solving skills; any breed, any colour, either gender. They know how our community works with our roads and golf carts; they know my lifestyle and what dog traits might drive me crazy. Tomorrow is dog day; now it’s up to them to pick the best match!
This afternoon we did a simple route with only right turns and straight street crossings. we worked on the basic commands of “right” and “forward,” complete with proper voice inflection, hand signals, footwork, and body posture and positioning. We also worked on giving meaningful verbal and physical praise to our imaginary dog; praise is the paycheque, so it is vital to know how to communicate a job well done! In the beginning, we will also be using treat rewards at both down and up curbs, for finding the training center doors, and for finding our chair, etc. Did I say paycheque? Later, as our dogs gain confidence and our bond starts to develop, the treats will be used intermittently, and then phased out and used only for specific target training and on occasions as deemed necessary. (I kept forgetting the treat! – bad me!)
Here is an example of what Juno teaches for how to cross a street using proper commands, hand signals, footwork, and praise:
“As you approach the sound of perpendicular traffic with your dog, you should instruct your dog “Juno, find the curb.” You may feel your dog break stride on the approach to the curb, which should act as a clue or landmark for you. Slow down with the dog, but do not stop until the dog stops. Other clues that may indicate you are near the curb are the passing of a building line, the slant down leading to a ramp curb, the increasing sound of traffic, the dog turning his head or possibly attempting to turn at intersecting sidewalks and your basic knowledge of the working area.
Once your dog has come to a complete stop, slide your right foot forward where you will most likely locate the edge of the down curb. If you do not locate the curb, instruct your dog “hup-up,” and use footwork to move with your dog while maintaining a good Master’s Position. Footwork will help you to approach the curb with good alignment, thus allowing a safer street crossing. Once you have located the curb, keep your right foot out in front as a marker, praise your dog and begin to read your traffic. It’s advisable to praise your dog only verbally, rather than with your hands. Bending over may alter your body position and may place your head out over the curb. It is rarely a good idea to turn your head from side to side as you attempt to read traffic. While this may give you a clearer sound, it does not give you the best sound location.
One of the most common difficulties with street crossings is the angling of crossings that should be straight. Check your body position, particularly your head position, making sure it is up before crossing. Make sure you are not stepping into your dog as you step down and you are not raising the harness handle as you give your “forward” instruction. It is important to use auditory means to assess your environment. Various distractions could also cause a veered crossing. When you are making an intentional angle crossing, be sure you are facing the correct angle before instructing your dog “forward.”
Once you have determined the traffic is in your favor, make sure you have your dog’s attention, instruct your dog “Juno, forward” and prepare to move ahead. If your dog refuses, re-evaluate your traffic and repeat your instruction. Remember, “forward” is a REQUEST, not a command. If your dog moves ahead, do not attempt to pull him back because you think the dog is in error. If you doubt your dog, the dog will sense this and will become confused.
As you continue across the street, repeatedly remind your dog “straight, find the curb.” The number of times you direct your dog in this manner will depend on the width of the crossing. The instruction, “find the curb,” should be given when you are getting close to the up curb rather than immediately after leaving the down curb. Often streets will crown, meaning a slight incline will be felt as you begin your crossing, the street will level out in the middle and a slight decline will be felt as you finish your crossing. This should act as a clue to you regarding how close you are to the up curb.
If your dog should suddenly stop while you are crossing the street, you should stop with the dog. If the dog does not begin to move again on his own, you should instruct him, “Juno, hup-up, find the curb.”
Once your street crossing is complete and your dog has stopped, slide your right foot forward to locate the curb. Your right foot should go up onto the curb before praising your dog or giving the next instruction as this will give you an idea of the height of the up curb. Do not bend over and praise your dog at this point—it is safer to wait until you and your dog are out of the street. Unless you are going to walk along the curb line, instruct your dog “Juno, forward,” followed by a suggested “left” or “right” if you plan to turn or “straight” if you will not be turning.”
Phew!! That’s a lot to concentrate on and do just to cross the street! But those are the kinds of things we review during Juno. Left turns and right turns (and their variations) all have hand signals, footwork, and proper positioning to remember. It’s a brush-up for us “returns”, and a crash course for newbies. Not everything is mastered on day 1; it’s just the beginning of the dance!
Tomorrow is more Juno and final pre-match discussions. Juno is sometimes “good” and sometimes “bad”! Juno was good today, so I expect some bad Juno tactics tomorrow so that we can work on control, redirection, and correction techniques. We will also reverse today’s route to work on left turns.
Just as a side note, much of today was also spent helping everyone learn how to get around. For example, loading the buses for the first time to go to the downtown training location, required a much slower process as we learned the various doors and ramps to get to the loading area. When returning to the school, we learned how to navigate around the exterior of the building and locate our rooms and individual “park” areas. Sighted people can simply “look and know”, but it takes us extra time with detailed descriptions and hands-on exploration to develop a mental map and understanding of a new environment.
There are volunteers helping people orient to the downtown training lounge, explaining furniture positioning, locations of coffee and tea, where the washrooms are and how they are laid out, etc. There were volunteers doing the same thing at the residence last night, but I arrived too late to take advantage of that.
Returning students often fall into the trap of comparing their new dog to their old one, or have trouble accepting their new dog if they have not prepared themselves mentally and emotionally for the transition. This session typically involves a lot of tears and Kleenex as people share their stories and get transitional advice from the school grief counsellor. Attendance is optional, and I chose not to attend. I feel well prepared.