Daniel Jacob is a writer, guide-dog user and Montrealer. Recently, he shared some important guide-dog etiquette with our readers. Now, we dig a bit deeper: How do you develop trust? How do you cross a street corner? How do you pick up it’s poop? Thank you Daniel, for your kindness and openness – and giving us an education in a world few know little about!
How long have you had your guide-dog now?
For a little over 2 years, he officially became mine December 21st, 2008. The happiest, and the scariest day of my life.
Well, I think we can understand happiest, but why scariest?
Because I knew that the training was over, and I had little to no backup. You see, it’s easier to learn to train, than it is to learn to trust. When I was with the trainer, Jason would warn me when a dog
was approaching and/or whether it was off leash. When we were on public transport, he would ask curious people not to touch the dog at work, as they were extending a hand to touch it. Also, he would tell me when the dog was deviating from an assigned route, and tell me where to go to correct the problem. There was a lot of snow that year, and it was bitter cold, so I did not have the usual tactile methods of knowing where I was or was going.
Can you talk about why it’s difficult to develop trust?
Well, guide-dogs, as beautiful and wonderful as they are, are still pack animals. In order to be able to trust them, you first need to gain their respect. Service dogs are generally bred in such a way as to give them a lethargic temperament. This reduces their drive or energy and this reduces the likelihood of aggression. Though my dog showed little aggression, his level of energy always remains quite high- which requires me to give him lots of exercise and keep him active for hours a day.
Would your dog protect you, if you were to be attacked?
Hopefully, but not very likely – even if he is a German Shepherd. You see, the mission of any service animal is to help you in accomplishing most of your daily tasks. Firstly, guide-dogs are specially trained to help you with tasks specifically related to orientation and mobility; in other words, helping you get from one place to another, and helping you navigate around indoor buildings like subway stations or work places. Dogs with lethargic temperaments are routinely chosen for their submissive dispositions.
Secondly, personal protection dogs, guard dogs or police canines are trained in what’s known as: canine martial arts. They are taught how to place and hold a bite with the goal of subduing a subject by inflicting the maximum amount of pain, while limiting injury. While a guide-dog or service dog might be willing or even eager to engage a would-be attacker, their bites would most certainly cause more injury than pain as they are not trained to hold a bite. Letting go at the wrong time would also, certainly result in the dog being kicked, punched, stabbed or possibly even shot.
Thirdly, while a service dog can undergo protection training, it’s really not a good idea! Protection training requires a dog with high prey drive, and if they don’t have it, then this prey drive is encouraged through rough-housing games, tug of war games and other bite relating games, and rewarding the dog for getting over excited. Increasing a dog’s prey drive and creating the necessary fight drive makes the dog agitated, possibly more aggressive and will cause the dog to want to patrol an assigned area when the dog should be sitting still, like at work for example.
Lastly, as service dogs are legally entitled to accompany you everywhere you go, a service or guide-dog needs to be an animal that can be trusted. Aggression or even the hint therein obviously breaks that trust. Besides, as the science of breeding work animals is so exact, I would say that 99.9 percent of all guide-dogs aren’t aggressive enough to make it as a protection dog. In fact, I would say that it’s more the other way around. It’s much more difficult to find a real protection dog, because few dogs are actually aggressive enough to make it through the training.
What does your guide-dog training consist of?
It starts with something quite basic, finding the one place where the dog can relieve itself. Dogs are creatures of habit. While they are taught a command for relieving themselves, something like: get busy or go potty, dogs find it difficult to relieve themselves in unfamiliar places, so it’s usually best to find a place they will go to all the time.
This brings up a good point – and forgive our forwardness – but being visually-impaired, how do you know when your dog is going to the bathroom? And how do you pick up after your dog?
Well, I can’t speak for all guide-dog users and/or other school training methods, but the way I was taught was to have your dog walk in a circle around you, which stimulates the bowel release reflex, and you give the “get busy” or “go potty command”, and when they go, you praise them. When the dog’s urinating, you can hear it – which is kind of self-explanatory. But to the poop question, if we want to know, we wait till the dog stops moving and feel for an arch in the back. Once we’ve established this arch, we place our left foot at the dog’s back feet and our right foot at the dog’s shoulders, then wait for the dog to move away. Once the dog has moved away, we can then reach down with a bag and feel for what’s warm. I know, sounds simple, but it’s not that easy. Believe me! Especially not in the snow where the poop gets cold fast.
But, that’s obviously not the only thing you learn though, right? So, what’s next?
No, it’s not the only thing I learned on my first night, but as it turns out, it’s the thing I get the most practice at.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s easier to train than it is to trust, but the dog also has to bond and trust, so I was taught a trick my trainer called targeting. That’s when you have the dog in front of you and, you either have a bowl of food on the counter or in your pocket. You place a couple of food pebbles in your right hand then hold it in back of you. Then, you call the dog over by his name while showing your empty left hand in front of you. Once the dog nudges your empty left hand, you offer him the food as a reward. Then, you switch hands.
How does this improve bonding?
Well, contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t really do things to please us. They do things to either avoid pain or to make themselves feel better. Most dogs do exhibit high food drive, so the goal of the targeting game is for the dog to hear your voice while getting excited about getting food for nudging your hand. And you can play this game with any other dog! A guide-dog is a dog just like any other dog. It’s just that it’s trained to do a job and is quiet, well mannered and generally behaves well enough to go with us wherever we go.
What else do you do or learn with your dog?
Well, the day after getting the dog, we learn specialized obedience. Yes, the dog knows how to sit and lie down, but when it’s a service dog, these commands are very specialized. When the dog sits for example, the dog has to sit tight to your leg. The dog also has to lie down the same way. This is for its own safety because of the confined spaces a service dog is forced to endure from time to time. When we’re out on the road, we learn to follow the dog in its harness and, with our fingers on the leash, we learn to detect the dog’s subtle head movements. We have to learn how to figure out whether the dog’s trying to judge the route for possible dangers, or whether it’s letting its senses carry it away to distraction. We also learn that, when we tell it to find a door for example, we feel for the dog’s head and follow it up to and past its nose. If the dog’s doing its job right, the dog’s head should be pointing its nose right to, or very near a door handle.
How do you know when you reach a street corner?
Well, this question goes hand in hand with how do you cross a street. Knowing the answer to these questions is exactly why not just anybody can get a guide-dog. The criteria for getting a guide-dog is actually pretty strict. You have to know all these things by being subjected to a pretty intensive orientation and mobility course, whereby you learn where you are by listening to the sound of the traffic.
In a lot of ways, your ears will tell you the same things your eyes will. On most streets, if you’re walking along the sidewalk, the traffic will be travelling along side you parallel to you. When you get to the street corner, you will start to hear the traffic going perpendicular to you. Crossing streets apply the same principles. Very busy intersections may require sighted assistance.
When we’re with the dog and we’re approaching a street corner, we will feel by the dog’s head movements that the dog’s looking out into the street to make sure the corner’s free of traffic. Guide-dogs are taught intelligent disobedience. This is where the dog is taught to disobey the command to cross if it sees that danger is directly in front of us. Again, I hearken back to that whole thing about being a pack leader. How can you be the dog’s confident leader, if you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there? Unfortunately, both first-time guide-dog users as well as the public at large have somewhat unrealistic expectations as to what the dog can and can’t do.
After your day of work is done, what do you do with your dog?
Well, we treat our working dogs the same way we would or should treat any new dog in the home. It’s still just a dog as I keep saying. So working dog or not, we have to treat it as such. This means that the dog gets no private time on its own till it’s earned your respect. You have to bring the dog on leash with you wherever you go. If you go to the bathroom, you have to take the dog with you. When you’re in the kitchen, that dog is with you. If you can’t or don’t want to take the dog with you, you have to keep it either in a crate, or tied down on a tie-down chain, and you do this till you gain the dog’s respect. This can take anywhere from about 10 to 30 days. You do this, so that the dog won’t scout the garbage or defecate inside the house without your knowledge.
How do you know you can trust the dog or that you’ve earned its respect?
The dog will follow you everywhere you go without question or fail.
What is, for you, is the hardest thing you have to do with your guide-dog?
The answer to that question is twofold. There’s hard, then there’s gut wrenching. The hard part is learning the difference between working with a pet and working with a working dog. Working with a working dog like a guide-dog is hard, because you have to learn how to be a pack leader, while letting go of the reins enough to let the dog take some initiative. For instance, because the dog can see, the dog always goes through doors first. This flies in the face of traditional dog training which dictates that you go through the door first.
Also, dogs, like most carnivorous mammals are myopic so they often have to smell for things like cracks or potholes in sidewalks; so we have to try to allow for that to happen, and try as much as possible, to discern whether the dog is smelling for possible danger, or is trying to pick up left over food along the route. The gut wrenching part of course, is often correcting the dog for something it has actually done right and realizing it later. That’s why it’s important for the dog to be submissive enough to not hold a grudge, but strong enough to have nerves of steel. Appropriate corrections are okay, but you do have to have self discipline, or you could break your dog’s spirit at worst, or at least break your dog’s confidence in its work.