By: Jane Neglia, GDB Outreach Manager
With a heavy heart, I said good-bye to my active guide Anja on Sunday September 22nd and checked into the new Student Residence at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael for my two week training experience. I had very mixed emotions about leaving Anja for these two weeks, but I knew she would be in good hands at home with my fiancé Wayne and our pet dog Belle.
If you haven’t visited our new Student Residence yet, you are in for a real treat. It just opened in May of this year, and it is a beautiful space. Each student has his/her own room with all the comforts of home: television, coffee pot, small refrigerator, recliner, a large private bathroom, and your own back door that leads to a small patio with table and chairs. You’re also connected directly to the relieving patio - we no longer have to gather at the lounge door and line up one at a time around the relieving circle, woop woop! Beyond the relieving patio are three private gated paddocks to the Student Residence for play time with your new guide dog! The residence also has a workout room, laundry facilities, a student lounge with a large TV, bean bag chairs and vending machines for those late night munchies! There is an indoor grooming room, two wet rooms for those rainy days, and a private student patio with a Jacuzzi tub! The dining room has floor to ceiling windows, and a wonderful kitchen staff, and of course very delicious meals and desserts, I am sure to gain a few pounds!
Sunday was just a settling in day, we were all oriented to our private rooms individually, and then to the Student Residence as a group. We also were able to get acquainted with one another – what a fun group of people! There are three people here for their first guide dog, and three for their successor dog. After dinner and a few more housekeeping items, it was off to bed early with excitement and anticipation in our hearts and minds, as we will all be getting our dogs tomorrow afternoon! What will it be? What is his/her name? There have been a lot of recent changes at GDB, but some things will always remain the same, such as the emotional impact dog day has on all of us! Even for myself who is getting a new dog only for these two weeks, knowing at the end I will have to say good-bye, I couldn’t wait to meet my new partner!
Monday morning we met our instructor team – we were each paired up with one other student and one instructor for the next two weeks. With the 2:1 instructor/student ratio, I was sure to receive a lot of one on one time! We also travel from location to location in mini vans, just the three of us, which allows for more time for discussions about our routes, trouble-shooting, handling techniques, etc. We spent the morning learning the basic guide dog work commands, foot and body positioning, left and right turns, hand gestures, healing position, leash gestures, leash cues, and leash corrections. I also learned a new technique called the “time-out” technique. You would pull your dog close to your side and hold the leash close to the collar. You stand still and quiet for 10 seconds. The dog does not receive any feedback from you during this time, and it also allows you to take a breath and re-focus.
I was paired up with a first time guide dog user, and it was wonderful to watch her learn and absorb all of this new information. This also helped reinforce everything for me, as I would be working with a brand new dog to me. I would also have to be careful not to fall into my old habits that I have with my current guide. Our instructor Carol was so patient and thorough in her instruction, and because she only had the two of us to work with, we had a lot of time, and weren’t rushed through the information. Finally, we explored the harness and practiced putting it on and taking it off of “Wheeler”, the pretend guide dog on wheels. Then we went for Juno walks around the campus (where the instructor acts as the guide dog) so Carol could get one last feel for our pace, to ensure that they made the right dog match for us. We practiced our turns, leash work, and the time-out technique. Dog time was quickly approaching, first lunch and then we get to hear about and meet our new partners!
After lunch we all gathered in one of the resource rooms and learned about our new dogs. There were some tears of joy, and a lot of “oohs” and “ahhs” when they read all the names. To protect the innocent, I am not able to share the name of the dog I received, but let’s just say he is an adorable black lab with really big paws! When Carol brought him to my room, he was excited and playful. She left us to get acquainted, and as I predicted, I fell in love! The rest of the day was spent getting to know our new partners, learning to walk and heel our dog, positioning them at the dining table, feeding, watering, and relieving them.
The next couple of days were spent learning a route designed by our instructor in downtown San Rafael. This was a purposeful route with a destination, ours being a coffee shop where we would sit for about 10 minutes after the route and talk about issues/challenges we encountered, what worked well, what needed to be improved, etc. Then we would work the second half of the route back to the downtown lounge. Working to learn this one particular route successfully with my guide dog in the beginning of training helped to establish trust and confidence in one another. This is why GDB requires three established routes in your home area, so that you have this time when you get home to work these routes and establish this bond and trust with your new partner.
The positive reinforcement of food rewards has been a part of GDB’s philosophy for quite some time, but they have upped the ante since I received my current guid Anja in 2009. Food is such a powerful tool in motivating your dog to work and work well. Food was used heavily this first week, rewarding all good obedience type behavior and successful guide work behaviors: stopping at elevation changes, avoiding obstacles, ignoring distractions, stopping at doorways, etc. Because my dog was rewarded so heavily with food, a primary reinforcer, I had his focus completely on me very early on in our training process. In fact, while sitting in our destination coffee shop the first day, a couple commented on how attentive he was to me, just staring up at me. If food is what will motivate my dog to do his job and do it well, I am going to continue to use food to keep him motivated. Another thing I found interesting is that when his primary trainers would come into the room, there was little reaction from him. He remained focused on me, and our bond was only certain to strengthen as time went on!
As part of GDB’s adult learning approach to training, all of the lecture material that pertains to class time and going home with your guide dog is provided prior to arriving on campus and is also available on our website www.guidedogs.com. This allows you to read and study the information ahead of time so that when you get to class, you are familiar with what you will be learning, and it will always be available for review once you get home. This will enhance the learning process and will allow for more time working with your new guide dog, and less time sitting in the classroom having a lecture about the various topics. Discussion questions are part of the information provided and group discussions are held daily around these questions, which I also found to be very helpful.
As the first week was wrapping up, we made our way into downtown San Francisco to work some busier intersections and more crowded sidewalks. Learning the set route in San Rafael first, gave me and my guide dog the confidence to work the busier streets in the city together – he was awesome! I also was able to watch the relationship grow between the student I was paired up with who was working with her first guide. It was amazing to watch their bond develop and her trust develop in her new partner.
In my final post I will discuss the second week of training where we worked more customized routes. Because I live here, I am a bit spoiled in that I get to practice a route that I will actually walk regularly! Stay tuned…