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Guide Dog Class Lecture: Why Does Your Guide Dog Work?

There’s a lot involved in an effective working partnership between a guide dog user and their guide dog. Handling techniques are numerous and the list of responsibilities, as the team leader, is a long one. It’s understandably common for first time users to be quite surprised over the volume of information and skills they must learn to travel with a guide dog.

All the verbal cues, hand gestures, footwork, hand grip, leash handling, and body positions are key components to successfully communicating with your guide dog. Each of those components affect the communication between handler and guide dog but there is another element that is critical to the success of a guide dog team; reinforcement or as it is commonly called, “rewards”. Without successful reinforcement, a guide dog has little motivation to perform such a difficult job as is guiding a visually impaired or blind person.

No one continues to work hard without receiving rewards for their efforts. Rewards come in many forms. Rewards can be in the form of the paycheck from your job, gratitude shown from someone you helped, satisfaction you get from donating to a worthy charity, or praise and recognition one receives for their performance. Affection from a person you have a close relationship with can be very rewarding, yet that same affection could be quite uncomfortable from an acquaintance or stranger.

Dogs are exceptionally giving creatures and humans have enjoyed their generous and forgiving nature for centuries. This is also true of guide dog work. Since the beginning of this extraordinary field, rewards to guide dogs have historically been confined to verbal praise, physical affection and the absence of correction. Methods of praising for good performance and corrections for bad conduct have worked successfully in guide dog work for decades, meaning that dogs continued to work for their handlers. So why change something that has proven to be successful?

When GDB adopted the use of food rewards, many experienced guide dog users questioned the need for this additional method of rewarding their guides. Let’s ask the question; “Does a guide dog require the use of food reward to work safely for the guide dog handler?” This is an easy question to answer, as guide dogs have been working for blind handlers for decades without receiving food rewards. No, guide dogs do not require food rewards to work for a blind handler that provides genuine and sufficient praise and affection during work sessions.

It has always been true that a guide dog receiving praise they truly enjoy works better for their handler than a guide receiving low quality praise. The quality in a guide dog’s work improves in direct relation to how much the dog values the rewards their handler provides. So around the year 2000, we asked ourselves another question; “Will the performance level and enthusiasm in a guide dogs work increase if the value of reinforcement increases? Over the past 10 years, GDB has experienced the answer to be a very big “Yes”.

Let’s review what science tells us about reinforcing behavior: Positive reinforcement is a scientific term that states a behavior followed by a pleasurable consequence will result in the frequency of that behavior increasing. This means that if something pleasurable is given to the guide dog after performing a task, the dog will want continue performing that behavior. “Positive reinforcement” does not mean specifically food reward but it does describe reward that has true value to the recipient. Dog training in general has historically taken canines for granted by assuming that praise and affection is very meaningful and rewarding to dogs.

As humans who love our dogs, it feels a bit insulting to even suggest our dogs don’t thoroughly love every word we utter and feel fully motivated to perform difficult tasks for us just because of the bond between dog and human. For over 25 years, I was a firm believer that good dog training did not require the use of food rewards. Around 1990, I wrote an article for a dog magazine about training for the sport of competition obedience. Food rewards were just beginning to become a popular new tool in the sport and I, along with many, took a firm opinion against the use food to train a dog. At the time I felt strongly that I wanted my dog to work just for me, to please me and me alone. I felt using food rewards somehow would lessen the relationship I had with my dogs and create a dog that didn’t care about me but only wanted the food. I could not have been more wrong. Since 2000, I have learned and experienced not only the power in using food rewards but also how they can actually deepen the relationship between dog and human. Food rewards certainly must be applied effectively to prevent problems, as they are very powerful motivators, but their effect on quality of a dog’s work is incredible.

Another moment of science: There are two types of positive reinforcers we are using at GDB, primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are things dogs are born enjoying. These satisfy basic biological needs such as food, shelter, water, sex, and sleep. Primary reinforcers are extremely powerful tools in teaching and maintaining desired behavior because they are immediately rewarding. Dogs do not have to learn to enjoy them.

Secondary reinforcers must be learned. They are not intrinsically satisfying by themselves, but have become enjoyable over time from experiences that were positive. They usually symbolize and have association with a more valuable primary reward and in turn can become very valuable themselves. Money is a good example of secondary reinforcer for people. It has value because it can buy things we want but the physical paper money has no real value. If tomorrow, all US currency no longer had any value, the current paper money would no longer be reinforcing for us.

For our guide dogs, the sight of a favorite toy, a stroke under the chin, kind words, the sound of a clicker– are all learned secondary reinforcers. Our puppies are lovingly reared by our campus puppy care staff and volunteers. These experiences are where they learn to enjoy words of praise and touch for affection. Sometimes it is hard to remember that our puppies are not born liking human interactions. The development of secondary reinforcers of praise and touch are very important in a young guide dog.

One should never assume that a dog will automatically feel rewarded by our verbal praise and affection. New relationships based on only secondary reinforcement can take months to develop into bonded working teams. Most of our long time graduates will remember GDBs old lecture about how “…it will take 6 months before you will have a good relationship and bond with your new guide dog”. The longer a new human/dog partnership has to develop, the stronger it can be. New relationships can be challenging if those secondary reinforcers are not valued by the dog.

The relationship between a handler and dog is an important element in determining whether praise and affection are actually reinforcing and motivating that dog. Think of a warm embrace from your spouse after he/she discovers you have emptied the dishwasher. How about if a co-worker suddenly gave you the same embrace when you empty the dishwasher in the employee lunchroom? The hug from one you love would reinforce your behavior, while the same embrace from your co-working might actually feel punishing to you.

A handler with a new dog that pairs food (primary reinforcement) with verbal or physical praise (secondary reinforcement) builds pleasurable responses in the dog to their praise; quickly motivating the dog to work at a high level for someone they don’t know. Instructors with years of experience have observed a dramatic change in the process of handing a guide dog over to their new handler. Historically, dogs tried for days to get to their instructor and relied heavily on the instructors’ praise during the new teams’ training routes. Since adding the use of food rewards, new guides immediately form a positive association to their new handler’s voice and manner of affection.

The logic and the benefits to use food rewards in the first months with a new guide dog are seen by most guide dog users. The common question that comes to many handlers is why they would need to continue to use food after they feel their relationship with their new guide dog is solid. Good question.

Lets’ talk about the concept of using food rewards in everyday work, throughout your partnership with your guide. Can praise and affection be pleasurable enough on its own, without requiring food? Yes, it can be sufficient to reward the guide dog for its work, as long as those rewards are truly pleasurable to the individual dog. Since the early 1900’s it has been proven that guide dogs can certainly work with secondary reinforcers alone.

The modern training techniques adopted by GDB have resulted in our young dogs learning the difficult skills of guiding faster than ever before. The speed of learning is only one aspect; dogs also truly enjoy learning and performing these challenging tasks. Never before have we experienced guide dogs being so enthusiastic over their difficult job, so eager to perform and so keen to be attentive to their handler.

GDB has learned that dogs continuing to receive food reward along with physical and verbal praise, perform much better that dogs worked with praise and affection alone. Without allowing our emotions to get in the way, one must acknowledge that food reward is of higher value than our loving praise. This is not meant to criticize or lessen the meaning of our affection we give our dogs. It is a simple fact that we can use to our advantage in maintaining the highest quality possible in a guide dogs responses for its handler. By continuing to apply food rewards in daily work with a guide dog, the handler is smartly using a powerful tool to maintain desired work responses while also motivating their guide to continue to enjoy their job and work relationship with their handler.

The next question that comes to someone’s mind is, “How much food reward does one use as a tool to maintain the highest level of performance and enthusiasm?” Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer. Every dog is different and each guide dog team’s work environment is different. For example, one guide dog team may work in a very stressful urban environment and the use of about 20 food rewards spread evenly over a 45 minute route works well for that dog and that situation. Another team may have a route that passes many difficult dog distractions and the majority of food rewards are applied for passing those areas. The best way to evaluate how much food reward to apply is by the dogs’ performance and level of distraction.

When a handler desires to lower the number of food rewards, it should be done gradually and at the same time that handler should focus on increasing the amount of praise and affection they provide the guide during the routes. As one lessens the number of applied food rewards during a route, is the quality of the dogs’ performance lowering? Is the guide showing more distraction than before? These may be signs that the dog requires more value in rewards from the handler to improve work performance. Firstly, the handler should focus on improving the quality of their praise and affection during work while at the same time considering applying food rewards on a variable schedule. Variable simply means not for every single curb. For instance, a handler can apply food reward for a down curb and wait until the next crossing (a block away) to apply food for the up curb. In some circumstances a handler may want to purposely use food reward every time their guide locates a challenging target, such as the up curb of a very difficult crossing or that pedestrian walk button that is challenging to locate. These are all decisions that the handler makes throughout their working partnership with their guide dog. A basic rule to keep in mind about the amount of food reward to apply is that it needs to be used enough for the dog to consider it is a possibility. To use the power in food reward, we want the dog to consider the “potential” is always present for the handler to bring out this high value reward. This may mean as little as a few food rewards on a 15 minute route or several food rewards on a very distracting 15 minute route.

If a handler has ceased using food rewards and wants to begin applying them again, the initial number of rewards on route should be fairly high to create that belief in the dog for the possibility of food as a reward. Once the dog demonstrates more enthusiasm in its work, the handler can lessen the number, always assessing if the dogs performance decreases.

GDB wants guide dog handlers to take advantage of this very powerful tool to get the highest level of work performance possible from their guide dog. We understand the reluctance of some handlers to continue to apply food rewards once their partnership with their new guide feels strong. Over the past few years we have observed a higher performance level in guides receiving an ongoing combination of food rewards with praise and affection than we have ever experienced in the history of our school. Food rewards are simply a powerful tool in the guide dog handler’s toolbox. Don’t be reluctant to use it.

Audio Streaming

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