It’s distressing to consider the thought of losing your sight, vision, or sense of balance – when I’ve got a mild ear or eye infection I’ll moan and groan – but for some people, living with visual and auditory impairments is a part of every day life.
Today is World Sight Day, a day that draws attention to and celebrates people who live with visual problems and blindness. There are plenty of services available to help people cope with sight loss, and guide dogs help to give freedom of movement and companionship to almost 5,000 people in the UK right now. I’ve always been intrigued by guide dogs when I see them about on the street, and so in aid of this special day, I caught up with former guide dog trainer Mark Richards from UK charity Guide Dogs, to ask him all about them, and what training involves.
Mark Richards, 50, worked as a trainer for 18 years, and is now an Events Demonstration Officer for the charity.
One of the questions we often get asked is ‘how does the dog know when to cross the road?’ It’s one of the common misconceptions that people have about guide dogs: the fact is, the guide dog doesn’t work alone – it works in partnership with its visually impaired owner. So a guide dog may walk the owner to the curb, but then it will stop. It’s up to the owner to say ‘forward’ when they think it’s acceptable to cross the road. The dog will be on watch to see if it’s safe to cross – if the dog sees a car, it will disobey the command and turn away from the curb, and proceed only when it is safe to do so.
As one of 17 trainers at the Leamington Guide Dogs site, I’ve got a pack of four dogs to teach (each trainer has four or five dedicated dogs), so my day is broken up into four ‘journeys’ as we like to call them – I spend a couple of hours with each dog individually, every day.
The dogs are about a year old when we start working with them. Before this, they’ve been working with volunteer puppy walkers who’ve introduced them to the sights, sounds and smells of the world in which they will soon play an important part. This could mean taking dogs on buses and trains and into shops and restaurants, so they slowly learn what’s expected of them.
To start the day, I have a training session from 9 to 10.45am. I’ll head over to the on-site kennels and collect the dog I’ll be working with. They’re cared for round-the-clock by dedicated carers who check them daily from nose to tail to ensure they are at optimum health – for example, to make sure they aren’t carrying too much weight. Some days a dog may be ill, so we won’t train.
The dogs typically spend 16 weeks in training with us, before they graduate to more advanced training with instructors, who will introduce the dogs to their new owners and get them used to their new environments. So, as trainers, we specifically focus on perfecting the dog’s behaviour. We’ve got a checklist of things we need to achieve with a dog before it graduates to that level, so each one has its own training schedule.
There are three main stages to the training: we start off by teaching obedience responses, for example, ‘sit’, ‘wait’, and ‘down’ etc. After these have been established, we’ll introduce the dogs to a harness walk, where the dog is put into its harness and taught basic guiding skills such as navigating a kerb and avoiding obstacles. A smaller dog will start off in a quiet environment where there are fewer distractions, but as it becomes more obedient and less distracted in its decision making, it will be taken to a more challenging environment. At this point you may discover that a dog is distracted by other dogs – he may keep pulling you toward them to say hello – so you may get a head collar for him to steer him away and break this habit. The final stage of training is blindfolded training – where the trainer wears a blindfold to test the dog’s guiding skills. It’s the ultimate test.
After training with the first dog, I’ll return it to its kennels before coming in for a warm up and a quick tea break before heading out with the next one.
Each dog has its own strengths and weaknesses; they’re a lot like us. So a dog could be fantastic at picking up the straight line principle – where it must follow a straight path, avoiding obstacles (both stationary and moving, such as trees and pedestrians), and pick up a straight line on a route indented with a kerb, perhaps – whereas when you attempt to teach it something else, it fails.
Teaching a dog the height obstacle is perhaps the most challenging part of training. This is when the dog is able to successfully judge the height and width of obstacles such as low-hanging trees or scaffolding so that its owner does not bump their head or shoulder. We have an obstacle course set up on site, and all the obstacles vary in height, to practice. For a dog to be able to take into account its own height as well as yours, it can be difficult.
We primarily use positive reinforcement during training – where you reward a dog for displaying the behaviour you want it to. Rewards can be in the form of treats and toys to start, but we quickly wean the dogs off this – instead using vocal praise, or perhaps a free run at the end of the day as a reward. Repetition is important too, as dogs are creatures of habit so the more you do something with them, and reward them for it, the more likely they are to remember and do it again.
Some dogs can be a real difficulty to work with – particularly those with a low concentration or low motivation. But it’s up to us to discourage these behaviours by building up a specific behaviour in steps with rewards.
It’s a real ask for a dog to go out and guide. In this role, they’re making decisions for a person: whereas everyone else’s dog is waiting for a command, this dog is in charge of commanding and negotiating a situation, so not all dogs make it through the guide dog training (about 20%). This could be because they are highly distracted, have health issues or confidence issues.
It’s always disappointing when a dog doesn’t make it through training. We put in so much effort. As a trainer, you often take it personally. You develop an attachment to a dog. But making a decision on whether a dog is not suited to this career path is important.
Dogs that do not progress through training go off on to other services such as hearing, dogs for the disabled, the police, army or prison services. We have a new scheme called Buddy Dogs where people who are interested in being guide dog owners can take in the dog and find out what it is like having it about the house.
At 1pm I’ll take an hour’s lunch before beginning training with the third dog in my pack. It’s non-stop, but a lot of fun.
A guide dog takes on a different demeanour when it’s got its harness on. It’s trained to think ‘I’m working now, no messing about’. We teach the dogs guiding tasks when in harness, and make sure there’s no silly behaviour – it’s time for the dog to be a decision maker. When the harness is off though, as a trainer you are more relaxed and so is the dog; you’re not asking anything of it – and that’s how it distinguishes between being on and off duty.
When on duty and in training, other dogs are the biggest distraction for our dogs. Dogs that are running around or playing with a ball are particularly interesting to our training dogs, who are encouraged to say hello but that’s it. Our dogs have little contact with balls from when they are young – they are purposefully not introduced to them, so those owners with ball launchers in the park are a big distraction. Our dogs think, ‘that looks fun, what’s he running after?’ when they see dogs playing with them. But we teach the dog to stay put (and not go after the ball) – and positively reinforce this behaviour.
Crowded places can be overwhelming for dogs too – they can make them stressed and result in errors, so the dogs are primed early by being introduced to busy in order to habituate them. As pups, dogs may also be taken into restaurants. When we later take them to these places for training, we ensure we are consistent – we ensure they are always obedient and quiet, and we don’t go into a restaurant encouraging bad behaviour one day, perhaps by saying ‘yes you can go and crawl and eat that chip someone’s left on the floor’, and the next day teaching the dog to sit quietly under the table.
We train in all weather, so we wear jeans and a Guide Dogs branded polo shirt as uniform. It’s particularly pleasant to train when the sun’s out in the summer, less so in the winter, but nothing deters us. We have to have the dogs prepared for all-weather conditions for when they go out with their owners. My day would usually finish at 5pm but sometimes I do night walks with the dogs, depending on whether or not they are ready for them.
I still get a buzz and bags of enjoyment when a dog performs something for its new owner that I taught it, and what I love most about working with dogs is that even when you’re having a bad day, they still treat you like you’re the best thing since sliced bread – they love you no matter what. I love being around dogs and have a good rapport with them. I fell into this job – I used train my collies for agility and flyball competitions as a hobby, when someone suggested I apply for the job. I got it, and I haven’t looked back since. I’m being paid to work with dogs – what could be better than that?