Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes of our students. They have been dealing with vision loss for anywhere from the past year to their entire lives; they have learned to take cautious steps and concentrate on the task of getting safely from one place to another; they are now taking the big step of getting a guide dog and have arrived for training.
They are away from all that is familiar, away from family and friends, and are anxious about what is coming in training.
Enter our confident guide dog trainers. They have studied each student’s gait, personality, learned about their lifestyle, and have determined the perfect dog for them.
The students and their dogs have had their bonding time and now its time to go to work. They go out with their trainer and new partner (their guide dog) to walk their first route. The trainer gives them instructions, explains the path in front of them and tells them to go ahead. As they take their first tentative steps, the next thing out of the trainers’ mouths is “follow your dog, trust your dog.” Sounds simple enough, right?
In theory, it is simple, but in real life, it’s actually very difficult. These students have had to depend on their skills to keep them safe since losing their sight, so letting go of control and trusting that a dog will keep them from harm is hard. But, it is the most important thing they will learn during their training.
These dogs have spent a year and a half learning basic commands and going on exposures with their puppy raisers, then they came back on campus and had six months of formal harness training to make them into the exceptional dogs they have become.
There are a couple of times during the training that usually are the tipping points for trusting their dogs – night walks and traffic checks.
Night walks are just that, walks at night with their guides. The first night walk is typically on campus (a controlled environment) and despite having walked this path before, the idea of walking at night can be a daunting one.
You may be thinking to yourself “why would it be hard, they are blind, why would walking at night be any harder than during the day?” Well, the majority of our students are legally blind but not totally blind. Some may even have a fair bit of vision, but at night, it all becomes black. Now they can’t rely on their residual vision, they have to trust their dog to keep them safe.
The next big tipping point is traffic checks. If you ever happen to see one of our trainers in a hybrid SUV cutting in front of a student and their dog, you are witnessing a traffic check. This is testing the dog’s grasp of intelligent disobedience (the reasoning that the dog will disobey a command that will put the team in danger) along with making sure the student will follow their dog, even when they do something that isn’t expected, like suddenly stop and block the student to keep them from getting run over.
If they haven’t fully trusted their dogs, night walks and traffic checks will definitely cement that trust and make the team a solid one. Time and time again when speaking with the students, they will credit one of those experiences as the point when they understood that they could let go and let dog lead the way.
The trainers of the most recent graduating class made a video parody of the infectious “Call Me Maybe” aptly titled “Trust Me Baby” – hope you enjoy it!