Guide Dog Class Lecture: Managing Your Guide Dog
Why Manage Your Working Guide?
Just as humans are constantly scanning their environment, so too do guide dogs keep track of what is around them. It is completely natural for a dog to notice things; the issue is whether your dog will respond to your verbal cues and remain responsible in his guidework duties.
An unfocused guide cannot be relied upon to make decisions in the best interest of the team. Further, even when he is off-duty, behavior problems can be annoying to you, hazardous for your dog, and an imposition on the people around you. A consistently well-behaved dog will be a dependable guide, welcome in your community and a companion of which you can be proud. If you maintain your dog’s behavior, it will be easier to communicate with him. Be proactive around distractions and reward your dog’s good choices. In turn, your dog can feel secure in having an attentive and competent handler.
Part of working a guide dog in the everyday world is dealing with distractions. Other animals, people, food, activities, sounds and smells are things that can capture your dog’s attention. When your dog’s preoccupation is enough to interfere with guidework or results in poor behavior, it is time to intervene. Regaining your dog's attention may simply require verbal input from you. If your dog is still distracted, however, you will need to pause and regain focus.
Knowing When Your Dog Is Distracted
- When a guide is distracted you may detect a distinct change in energy:
- A sudden stopping or turning;
- An abrupt lunge off the line of travel;
- A constant looking back or off to the side;
- Or surging pulls into the harness.
Recognizing your dog’s response to a mild distraction may be more challenging. The better you get to know your dog, the more adept you will become at recognizing when he becomes distracted. Sometimes it is easy to anticipate a distraction before your dog becomes excited. You notice a laughing child running towards you, or you hear clinking dog tags and someone anxiously calling a dog's name. In these cases, you can be more proactive in how you handle your dog.
Approaches to Management
Guide dogs have been trained using three basic handling techniques that are based on scientific learning theory.
One handling technique is “positive reinforcement”. This is when you add something desirable to encourage the dog to repeat a behavior. A primary reinforcer, such as food, is something that satisfies a biological need. A secondary reinforcer is learned; its value is dependent upon its association with primary reinforcement. Verbal or physical praise is a common secondary reinforcer, and usually accompanies food reward. During instruction, we will encourage both “food reward” and “verbal/physical praise” as positive reinforcement.
Another technique that helps manage your dog is called “negative punishment”. This is temporarily removing from the dog all possibilities for reinforcement (similar to a toddler’s time out). When a dog is accustomed to receiving and enjoying regular interaction and food reinforcement from its handler, briefly withholding these can be a very effective means of discouraging undesirable behaviors. During instruction you will learn to use a “time out” as negative punishment.
A third technique that helps manage your dog’s focus and behavior is “positive punishment”. This is adding something unpleasant to discourage the dog from repeating an undesirable behavior. When food reward, praise and timeouts are not effective (do not gain desired response or level of focus in your guide), positive punishment is an option. We will commonly call positive punishment, “correction”.
Which Handling Technique to Use?
Generally speaking, for mild interest, a verbal reminder, leash gesture and/or collar cue are effective. For committed interest, a time out or correction may be warranted. Your instructor will work with you to determine how and when to use the following techniques with your own guide dog.
The following interventions are listed in order of intensity. Choose the management option that suits your dog and the situation:
- Verbal Cue (‘hopp up’)
- Leash Gesture (no collar contact)
- Collar Cue (collar is engaged, but not corrective)
- Time Out (removing all reinforcement)
- Correction (interruption)
Generally speaking, for mild interest, attempt to re-engage your dog in the work while moving (hopp-up, leash gesture and/or collar cue). For committed distraction, stop work and re-focus your dog’s attention (time-out and/or correction).
Time out Technique - Step by Step
- Come to an abrupt stop when dog gets distracted.
- “Reach, Slide, & Hold” - Calmly reach over with your right hand to grasp leash, release the harness handle & slide your left hand along the leash toward the collar to get a close hold of the dog.
- Bring dog laterally to your left leg and hold the dog close (left hand touching left leg). Be sure to avoid any upward collar pressure. (If the distraction is very close to your dog, first step backwards from the distraction one to three paces).
- Remain silent and still for 10 full seconds. Do not interact with your dog. Dog may stand or sit at this time.
- After ten seconds, pick up the harness handle and proceed past distraction.
A verbal correction is the word “no”; a collar correction is sudden applied pressure on the collar that is immediately released. When used, a correction is applied abruptly and at the moment the dog is wrong. An effective correction (verbal or collar) immediately interrupts incorrect behavior. The handler then has an opening to request another behavior in exchange for the unwanted one. When the desired behavior is performed, reinforce that decision with food and praise.
Loss of Drive Passing a Distraction
Dogs may remain focused but lose drive when passing a distraction in anticipation of food reward for good behavior. If this happens, encourage your dog back into purposeful drive by using the ‘hopp up’ verbal cue, a leash gesture, and/or a collar cue. Offer calm verbal praise when desired lead is re-gained. After your dog has good lead again, cue “halt” and give food reward. Be aware that overly animated praise could excite the dog to a point where it loses focus on work again.
Past the Distraction
When you know you are beyond the distraction and your dog has purposeful lead and pace, halt and offer food reward to your dog. Only halt your dog if she has maintained and/or resumed purposeful, committed lead several paces past the distraction or has reached the down curb, whichever comes first. Offer your dog food reward and praise for good drive beyond the distraction, whether she maintained independent focus on the work or required active management to keep on task. Reinforcement for solid lead past the distraction strengthens the likelihood that your dog will maintain lead in the future.
If your dog persistently stops to engage a distraction with mild interest and consistently requires leash gestures and/or collar cues to pass, consider other handling options to break the pattern. You might try increasing the level of reinforcement beyond distractions (i.e. give more meaningful reward) or raising the level of handling when facing the distraction (e.g. use a time-out).
Additional Management Techniques
At times, your guide dog may become so interested in, or absorbed by, something or someone outside of work that standard handling is not adequate to overcome the distraction. At these times, additional management measures are required to maintain the safety of the team. This material covers techniques that are useful for successful management of your dog.
Distraction in General
If you feel that your dog is becoming progressively more distracted with each outing, you may need to become a more proactive and resolute handler in general. As soon as your dog starts to become distracted, you will need to react quickly and be a more effective handler. Continuing to handle your dog in a way that does not gain the response you want will only make distraction behaviors more habitual in your dog. In order to gain response from your dog, you need to be a consistent and effective handler. The more consistent and effective you become as a handler, the more attentive and well behaved your dog will be.
Accelerated Food Reward Technique
Intensifying the use of a highly valued reward can be a powerful way to avert unwanted behaviors. The key to being effective is in taking action at the very first sign of distraction, before your dog becomes highly involved and focused on it. Immediately stop and verbally cue a “sit”. When he sits and is attentive, reward him with food and praise. As soon as your dog sits, give food reward followed by another food reward and another, and another. This could be as many as 5 to 10 separate food rewards, each offered individually yet rapidly. Praise your dog while giving these “jackpot” rewards.
For a lack of ‘sit’ response, collar techniques later described in this lecture can be applied to gain the actual behavior. The increased rate of food reward is what ultimately motivates your dog to ignore the distraction.
Effectively used, food reward “jackpots” can eventually diminish a dog’s interest in distractions. Over time, you might notice your dog becoming more interested in you (in anticipation of a reward) rather than the distraction. To achieve long term benefits, when challenging distractions are present, continue using “jackpots” for several weeks while gradually lessening the number of food reward morsels per experience. The goal is to create a pattern in your dog of rejecting the distraction and looking to you for direction.
Food Reward Delivery
In order to avoid positioning flaws, or scavenging and begging behaviors in your dog, it is important that food rewards are offered in an appropriate way. The dog must wait in a stationary “heel” position (by your left side, facing forward, not curled in front of you) while you praise and bring the food to your dog’s mouth.
As mentioned in the equipment lecture, head collars offer an effective way to manage your dog; if you have control of the dog’s head, the body will follow. Many clients find the head collar useful to manage a dog’s heightened interest in scent during hikes or while working along a sidewalkless curb edge. It can also be helpful in dealing with the excitement of large group events, such as conventions. This standard issue piece of equipment can be used either on a regular or situational basis.
High Collar Technique
This technique is used with standard issue equipment. As the name implies, the collar is moved high on the dog’s neck (just behind the ears and lower jaw). Some of you may have observed how the high collar technique is the preferred method used by handlers in dog shows and competitions. In our own guidework training, we often use the high collar position in the early stages to show the dogs how and where we want them to move. In this position, the collar is at a more sensitive area around the dog’s neck and can more gently control the dog’s head to indicate our wishes. You can use this added sensitivity to more effectively communicate to your dog that you do have the ability to manage them. Further, with the collar in this position, standard leash technique becomes more effective.
“High Collar” position can be used in anticipation of a distraction or in the midst of one.
Anticipating a distraction: When you anticipate a challenging situation ahead, in order to optimally manage your guide, you may simply move the collar to a high position on the neck. As handler you are able to prevent an escalation of distraction with very light restraint on the collar and are well prepared to effectively use collar action if necessary.
During a distraction: Ultimately, you want your dog to respond to your voice alone. Until then, if your dog does not respond to low collar use, moving to high collar use clearly re-enforces your expectations. Give a verbal cue before collar action.
Some of you may never need to use the high collar technique in class, but understanding it will help you be prepared to use it should the need arise. If you have not practiced high collar techniques with your new guide dog, practice on “Wheeler” before you go home.
The strong rapport and healthy respect that develops within the team goes a long way in helping you deal with most environments and circumstances. But the truth is, at some point you will be faced with a situation that challenges your ability to manage your guide dog. The techniques discussed here are intended to enhance your abilities as a handler. They still require that you remain consistent and fair when communicating with your dog.
A handler that expects and insists upon appropriate behavior can find numerous reasons for reinforcing a well-behaved dog. That same handler will be ready to recognize and address lapses in good conduct as they occur. Some guide dog users are initially reluctant to manage or correct their dog because they think it will draw negative attention or cause their dog to like them less. In truth, a guide dog relationship in which a self-assured dog respects the leadership of his partner is an impressive sight; handling is fair, corrections are infrequent and praise is genuine.
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