Guide Dog Class Lecture: Addressing Guidework Errors
Like people, dogs make mistakes.
Like people, dogs learn from their mistakes.
Guidework involves teamwork. Errors will happen, especially while a new team develops. This is not a reflection on you or your dog but rather an opportunity to become a better team. Sometimes an error will be the dog’s mistake, other times it will be the handler’s, and every so often the responsibility is shared. And of course, sometimes mishaps are no one’s fault and occur by accident. Addressing errors and offering an opportunity to fix them when appropriate (also called “re-working an error”), helps a dog and person learn and also build confidence as a team.. When the dog responds correctly, this allows you to reward for that correct response. Rewarded behaviors are more likely to be repeated.
Dogs are social creatures that thrive on routine, patterns and clear expectations. They want to be involved with us and generally aim to please. Because guide dogs have been raised with loving, focused and purposeful direction, they are especially people-oriented and willing partners. In order to provide a guide dog with clear feedback, we need to let the dog know when his behaviors are desirable or undesirable. If the handler does not address an error, the dog will assume that the error is acceptable and is likely to repeat it. Further, if the handler does not allow the dog to re-work an appropriate situation successfully and earn praise and reward, the dog may lose confidence in its ability and become less effective as a guide.
It is normal in any new team that errors happen. Errors are part of the learning process, and are opportunities to improve your communication and efficacy as a team.
Common Guidework Errors
- Contacting an object (to the side or overhead), another person, or a sidewalk edge
- Overstepping a curb, stair, or narrow doorway
- Going off the desired travel line, such as in a street crossing
For all types of errors, an immediate and abrupt stop is crucial to clearly communicate to the dog that an error was made. Dogs live in the moment and therefore need to be told the moment an error is made. Time is of essence. Your quick reaction is powerful communication to your dog. She has been trained to understand that if you stop abruptly without saying, “halt”, something is wrong.
Object, Edge or Pedestrian Errors – Avoiding Contact
Whether the dog needs to show you something or clear you of it, what remains the same is doing an abrupt stop at the point of error. The timing and location of the praise and reward differs depending on the type of error.
Immediate Response: Immediate handler reaction is critical. Stop! It is important to act quickly when your dog makes an error by stopping abruptly, and perhaps including a verbal alert such as ‘oh, ouch’, which lasts only a second.
Re-Position, Re-Orient and Re-Work: After the abrupt stop and verbal alert, set the harness handle down and use the leash to re-position your dog with the obstacle an arm’s length away in order to re-orient yourself and give the dog a chance to see the obstacle and successfully work away from the point of error.
From here, pick up your harness handle, cue forward, and allow your dog to clear you around the obstacle.
Once this is done, verbally praise your dog without stopping as she moves around and beyond the obstacle.
Note: As tempting as it may be, please refrain from pointing out the error to the dog after the fact. The abrupt stop and verbal alert when the error was made is what is most meaningful to your dog.
Targeting Error: Curb, Stair or Narrow Space Errors – Showing
Sometimes you want your dog to show you a situation that she cannot otherwise navigate safely through or around (e.g. a narrow space, curb or other change in elevation).
Immediate Response: Just like obstacles to avoid, an abrupt stop and verbal alert at the point of error remains the same for a targeting error.
Re-Position, Re-Orient and Re-Work: Once re-positioned and re-oriented, rather than immediately proceed, give quiet praise to your dog in order to make that location a desirable target.
- Give the dog a chance at success! Let’s re-work.
- Take 3 to 4 steps straight back and call your dog to “heel” position.
- With your dog in the proper position, pick up the harness handle and say "forward".
- Praise and food reward your dog when she successfully targets the obstacle or location.
When addressing curb targeting errors, consider the following:
Down Curb Errors: The suddenness of your stop when your dog passes over a down curb will alert him to the mistake and be a critical teaching opportunity. If the curb is at your heels, it is acceptable for you and your dog to move backwards a bit as you maintain your orientation. Give your dog quiet praise as you stand at the curb. Be sure that your dog is at a full stop. Don’t simply restrain a dog that is straining against the harness.
Note: Reworking a downcurb is indicated if a dog is showing a pattern of stepping over down curbs or if the team is mis-aligned at the downcurb.
Two Options for Re-working a Down Curb:
- If you think you are accurately aligned for a street crossing, backing up a few steps may work just fine. However, it can be risky to back up and re-approach a down curb. Because the corner area is very open, it is easy to face a new approach incorrectly. Consequently, if the new approach is askew, you may now be set up for a poor street entry and crossing. Listen closely to traffic cues for proper alignment.
- If you are still uncomfortable with your line and/or orientation, re-approaching the entire corner may be warranted. If so, set the harness handle down and "heel" your dog in a right about-turn. Pick up the harness handle and work your dog back down the block a minimum of 15 paces. This distance will give you and your dog a chance to pick up a normal pace and line. After these 15 paces, "halt", set the handle down and "heel" your dog in a right about-turn. Assume your guidework stance, pick up the handle and work toward the down curb again. At the curb, assess the result, praise and reward your dog, and proceed with the street crossing. Depending on the circumstances of the error and your abilities as a team, you may prefer one option over the other. You will have the opportunity to cover this with your instructor.
Up Curb Errors: If the error happens, stop (if safe to do so) and briefly praise your dog at the up curb before moving on to emphasize the correct position. When approaching your next up-curb, be very aware of your dog’s actions and be ready to stop again for an error or offer praise for an accurate target.
- Offering a food reward at accurate up curb checks will strengthen your dog’s desire to stop there.
- It is not safe to re-work an up curb because you would be backing into the street.
- Do not re-work an entire crossing if your dog runs an up curb. It won’t make sense to the dog.
- Rushing out of the street as a handler can deteriorate a dog’s stop response at an up curb.
Street Crossing Errors: The curb approach, position at the down curb and street entry all influence your street crossing. If you suspect that your down curb approach resulted in unsatisfactory alignment, you should consider re-working the approach itself. As just discussed previously, you have the option to do an about-turn and work your dog back down the block as you pick up normal pace and line. "Halt", turn around, and work toward the original down curb. At the curb assess the result, praise your dog, and proceed with the street crossing.
- Pace, line and traffic checks affect the crossing as well.
- The most common error during a street crossing involves line deviation.
Step 1- Immediate response: If your dog goes off line, stop and hold your position momentarily. The break in momentum tells your dog he is wrong, and will enable him to re-direct more easily.
Step 2- Regain your line of travel: After stopping your dog, give the verbal cue "curb".
Wait for your dog to move in the anticipated correct direction before moving. If you felt your dog veer to the right, expect your dog to move to the left to pick up the original line to the up curb. If you felt your dog veer to the left, allow your dog room to move in front of your body, to the right and towards the up curb.
Once you reach the up curb, praise your dog despite how you may feel about the crossing. To avoid reluctance to approach an up curb, keep the up curb a positive place for your dog.
Step 3 - Rework the Crossing: Decide whether or not to re-work the crossing. Re-work any crossing that had a significant error in it. Re-working is an opportunity to improve your dog’s responses and is worth the time and effort.
To re-work a crossing, you need to get back to your original curb approach (the curb you departed from to cross the street). In order to do so, you will need to cross back over the street you just crossed. After completing the poor crossing, work "forward" down the block at least 15 to 20 paces and “halt” your dog and “heel” in a right about turn. This will help you and your dog re-orient to your correct line of travel. (This is one of same techniques you use when reworking a down curb approach.)
- To re-approach the crossing, pick up your handle and say "forward" to the down curb.
- Praise at the down curb, read traffic, and cross back over the street to the original side.
- After rewarding at the up curb, say "forward" and continue those 15 -20 paces down the block. "Halt" after the 15-20 paces, "heel" your dog in a right about turn, pick up your handle and say "forward".
At this point you are NOW re-approaching your original curb approach, which will line you up for re-working the actual crossing that was incorrect. Be attentive to your line during the down curb approach. Praise at the down curb.
As you say "forward" to re-cross, be very attentive to your dog’s movements. It is possible your dog may try to repeat the same error and you want to be prepared to stop quickly if he does. It is important though, not to expect your dog to repeat the error, just be attentive in case he does.
When your dog stops at the up curb properly, praise enthusiastically and give a food reward. Then move into a 'halt' position on the sidewalk to give your dog an abundance of physical and verbal praise. As stated earlier, both praise and food reward tells the dog that he has done the right thing and motivates him to repeat that desired response.
In conclusion, taking the time to address errors, giving an opportunity to re-work when appropriate, and praising and rewarding for a good response is well worth the investment. Your dog will become a more accurate, efficient worker because he or she has received consistent feedback from you.
You can stream the audio of the class lecture here, via a Soundcloud widget. If using a screen reader, please select the "Play" option below.