How Guide Dogs are Trained

When Future Leader Dogs are 12 to 15 months old, their volunteer puppy raisers return them to the Leader Dog campus to begin formal guide dog training. Puppy raisers have already worked with their Future Leader Dog on the fundamentals of good behavior and obedience. Now, it’s our guide dog mobility instructors’ turn to build on that foundation with the special skills needed for guide work.

Guide dog training has four phases, each of which introduces more challenging work and lasts about a month. Our guide dog mobility instructors work in teams. When the team begins with a new class of dogs, each instructor is assigned a “string” of about eight dogs. Each string will have a variety of sizes, breeds and temperaments. We need a variety of dogs for every class to ensure we’ll have the right match for each client.

Stages of Training

Foundations

During the foundations phase, the instructors begin to build and strengthen relationships with their dogs. The instructors work with the dogs on things that puppy raisers taught, including loose leash walking (walking in a heel position at the instructor’s side without pulling on the leash), settling calmly, and obedience (sit, down, stay, stand, etc.). This helps the dogs recognize that the skills they learned need to transfer to a new handler. It also gives the instructors a chance to evaluate the dogs’ skills and learn their personalities. Instructors use praise and treats (we like low-calorie Charlee Bear treats to help keep the dogs in good shape) to reinforce the skills they’re working on. The dogs get their first introduction to the guide harness and curb work (training them to stop at curbs before crossing a street).

The first two weeks of foundations are spent on the Leader Dog campus. The dogs then progress to working on quiet streets as they learn basic cues.

Basic

In basic training, the instructors build on guide skills like stopping at curbs, traveling in a straight line, avoiding obstacles, making turns, and stopping for traffic. They also start working on new skills, such as having the dog find an empty chair. Instructors and dogs load up in our training trucks and head to our auxiliary training building in downtown Rochester. This building serves as home base when they’re out training on local streets. Instructors take the dogs into quiet neighborhoods and the busier Main Street area.

The instructors and dogs start working in group obedience classes to make sure the dogs are responding to the instructors on an individual basis. To increase the complexity of the training, instructors add distractions to the group classes. During this phase, our veterinary team performs another health exam on the dogs. The instructors check the dogs’ training progress with a blindfold exam. For the exam, the instructor is blindfolded and the dog must take them on a route in Rochester while demonstrating the skills they’ve learned (a spotter follows each exam to make sure everyone stays safe).

Intermediate

This phase includes the addition of country travel and working in larger urban areas. The dogs have established basic skills and met standards up to this point. In country travel training, the dogs learn to walk along the left side of the road in areas where there are no sidewalks. Instructors work on complex guide skills, such as recognizing overhead obstacles, traffic responsibility, and intelligent disobedience.

Leader Dogs must recognize when they’re passing under an obstacle that their handler will run into, like a low-hanging tree branch. This way they can safely guide their handler out of the way. Traffic responsibility is teaching the dogs to slow down and stop when a vehicle pulls into their line of travel. The instructors work with the dogs to teach them intelligent disobedience: if the instructor commands the dog to move forward but there’s a hazard such as a vehicle in the way, the dog must deliberately disobey the command. Clients often talk about moments where their guide dog’s intelligent disobedience saved them from situations like stepping into a construction zone or being hit by a car.

Dogs being trained for clients in our Deaf-Blind program may learn additional skills like alerting to a sound (such as a doorbell or knock on the door).

Instructors and our client services team start “pre-matching” dogs to client applicants. Training may proceed differently for a dog that might go to a large city versus a dog that will be working in a country setting.

Advanced

This is the most difficult phase of training. The dogs must master complex situations, multiple moving cars, busy streets and difficult obstacles to be ready to be matched with a client. Instructors and dogs train in Detroit, which provides plenty of distractions, complex obstacles and unique environments.

During the last week of advanced training, things wind down for the dogs. They come back to quiet residential areas in preparation for where they will begin working with their new “forever person.” Part of the application that our clients submit includes a video of them traveling in their home environment. This helps instructors gather information like what the daily travel environment might include and the client’s walking pace. Instructors review videos of incoming clients to make the best client/dog matches possible. At this point, about 25–30 dogs are ready for clients. There are always more dogs than clients to ensure that we have options when making a match.

All the dogs receive another health exam and complete a second blindfold exam with their instructors. This exam uses a less familiar route with more complex obstacles. If the dogs score well on this assessment, they are now “class ready.”

Class

This is when the real work begins! Class begins in the Polk Residence Center on Leader Dog’s campus, where clients stay during their time here. Instructors meet their clients and spend the first two days working with them on what we call JUNO training. During JUNO training, the instructor plays the part of the “dog” by holding the harness and leading the client. This helps the client learn the commands and mechanics they’ll use with their Leader Dog. This also gives the instructors a chance to evaluate whether they’ve selected the best dog for each client.

After JUNO training is complete, the moment everyone has been waiting for arrives: dog issue day! All the dogs are groomed and ready to make a good first impression. Instructors bring the dogs in one at a time to introduce them to their new handlers. The introductions take place privately in each client’s room. Then, the clients and dogs have the rest of the morning to just meet and bond.

In the afternoon, the new handler and dog teams will take their first walk around the practice course on our campus. Instructors work closely with the teams in the beginning and slowly reduce the level of support until the handler and dog can walk comfortably without the instructor right beside them. Over the next few weeks, the instructors, clients and dogs will practice working in quiet residential areas and progress to busier, more distracting environments to solidify each team’s skills. They also work on skills like finding an object or location. Instructors talk to each client about individual goals to include during training. For example, if a client is about to go to college, the instructor and handler/dog team can head to a nearby campus to practice in that environment.

After three weeks of training together, the clients and Leader Dogs head home. Clients introduce their Leader Dogs to their new environment and begin practicing daily routines. The year and a half of growing, learning and practicing that each Leader Dog has just completed is now the foundation for a person’s independent travel.

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