Guide dogs receive extensive training that includes many aspects and exposure to many situations. Ideally, these dogs are raised with people who consistently expose them to ‘stuff’ as pups: all types of walking surfaces such as gravel, pavement, grates, escalators, wood, grass…, all kinds of noises; example: traffic, bangs, shouting, music, clapping, machines…, all kinds of people (kids playing, people in wheel chairs, runners, people performing….), many different types of venues like restaurants, malls, churches, office buildings…., numerous modes of transportation such as cars, trains, subways, buses, airplanes, boats…, and other animals, including cats, dogs, cattle, birds…. and so on. Then they leave the puppy walker and go off to a guide dog training center to practice the skills they will need to help the blind person with whom they will eventually be matched. Trainers and apprentices harness them up and spend months teaching them to walk around obstacles, to stop at the top and bottom of staircases, to ignore other people and animals, to respond to verbal commands, arm signals, and foot positions. They learn to disobey or over ride a command in any situation that would put the handler in danger (Intelligent Disobedience). They practice and practice and are exposed increasingly to more types of routes (busy downtown streets, country roads, suburban areas…) and situations to which they must respond appropriately (stopping when cars back out of driveways, walking through construction zones, ignoring food on the ground, ducking around shopping carts, remaining calm when fire alarms are sounded, ignoring off leash dogs that come up to them….). Trainers try everything they can think of to season these dogs. Umbrellas are popped open, stacks of books are dropped, fans blown and more, all to prepare them for the numerous situations they will face as guide dogs. They train in hot and cold weather, in the pouring rain and driving snow. All training centers have a resident cat or two because it is likely that some of the dogs will go home with handlers who own a pussycat, or at the very least, will occasionally visit someone who has one. Once the guide dog school has selected or “matched” their blind client with a dog, they train the dogs some more with the client’s specific size, gait, walking speed, home environment, activity level and lifestyle in mind. The residential (and usually final) part of formal training involves multiple daily training ‘walks’ with the handler, the school trainer and the dog. This month-long period of mind and body-numbing activity concludes (hopefully, but not always) with ‘qualification’ and the blind handler returning home with their guide dog.
But there is ALWAYS stuff that Guide dog schools don’t teach you or your dog. It’s impossible to cover everything. For example, Opal and I once encountered a woman walking a pet rabbit on a long leash. A sighted observer explained to me why Opal was so eager to pause; she was watching a bunny going for a stroll. Then there were the beaded curtains in the hallway of a local restaurant (I thought those went out in the 70’s). It WAS an obstacle, albeit one that she could see through…we figured it out. There was a Halloween costume contest last year at the local supermarket that really grabbed her attention. In fact, she went nutty the first time I put on my balaclava (the woolly thing worn for heists, not the Greek pastry). Then, there was the time a kid vomited on the bus, and the OTHER kid who dumped a chocolate milkshake over her when we were on the ferry to Dartmouth, a horse on the sidewalk (don’t ask), and the time we wandered into the annual pride parade by mistake and were pelted with silly string. We nearly got pepper sprayed as we innocently tried to get to the library…where a political demonstration was in progress nearby. Opal knew something was wrong when a fist fight broke out between two kids as we walked by them (I yelled at them to stop, or I would command my dog to attack—grin). I discovered that Opal also has a tap dancing fascination (we saw ‘White Christmas’ on stage and I put on my own tap shoes now and then). One day, a couple of cars crashed as we walked by and left us showered in broken glass. I tore my quad muscle last year and had to walk at a snail’s pace WITH A SUPPORT CANE FOR THREE DAYS (and Opal), because I had no one to care for her. Fortunately, I managed to keep moving at least enough to get her outside to relieve. I’ve heard about one handler who was IN HOSPITAL WITH his guide dog for several days. Totally unfair to staff, the patients, and the dog. Other things? You discover how to cope with them as they come up. Guide dog schools don’t tell you how to work out the strategy required for intimate times at home with that new ‘significant other’ without one or the other (dog or partner) getting their nose put out of joint (physically, but more often, emotionally). Opal put herself to bed at 6 PM the first time my sweetie and I… There might be any number of unusual or unique situations that a handler will face and need to figure out during their guide dog’s working life. Life with a guide dog is ever-changing and a relationship with a working dog is an endless ‘work in progress’.hen t