Stay…in… the moment. It’s early, and I’m sleep-lagged. Check the world. Yep, still out there. Check the supplies. Crates in place. Carriers, food, leashes, ties, towels. Check. (Thank God, coffee’s ready.) Bye, honey. Have a safe trip. *Mwah*
Mary just drove off to Sea-Tac with a friend to pick up our puppy, the one we will socialize in preparation for training as a guide dog for the blind. We don’t know her name yet, except that it begins with “L”. Though we had been told she would be a yellow lab, a different puppy, a female black lab, was observed and estimated to be calmer and smarter. So that one will be ours to train for a year.
The first two weeks are crucial. Rule One is START SLOW. This is an 8 week-old. Encourage her to sleep a lot. Sleep is best for this period of rapid physical growth. Do not over-stimulate or over-socialize her at first. Establish a calm world for her, so she will go to this peaceful place internally for the rest of her life. Reinforce her to be QUIET in the crate and on the tie-down. Very zen.
When she’s awake, we will do BORING HANDS. She has to get used to being touched in the mouth, between the toes, all over her body, by someone who won’t be able to see her. We will go over her several times a day using slow, unhurried movements.
By praise and the reinforcement of our affection, we will teach her to rely on some of her genetic strengths, and repress others. Labradors were bred for over a century specifically to be work and hunting dogs. We’ll encourage the part of her that is gratified to be working closely with us, and discourage the part that wants to run off after prey. Labs love routine. If they are secure in a routine, labs will remain calm and follow it despite all sorts of stressful distractions. That’s how a guide dog assists a blind person through a world of traffic, smells and changes in terrain. They follow the routine with amazing consistency.
Learning the relieving routine begins right away. We have to teach her to hold it indoors from day one, then to let go outside after getting permission. When she has the urge to go, she will move away or whine. That’s when we scoop her up and go outside, to cement, never to grass. We will let her down and say, “Okay”. She will move off by instinct. When she begins going, not before, we say, “Do your business”. Whenever she does the routine correctly, she gets lavish affection. When at first there are accidents, you just ignore her and clean it up. Believe it or not, if you are consistent from day one in this process of ignoring behaviors to discourage them and praising the ones you want to encourage, the puppy will quickly learn to relieve on command. It works because they want our approval just as much as they want to pee and poo. They look to the leader of the pack to know they are doing it right.
LOOSE LEASH is another skill we will teach her. She has to learn to walk at our speed, not hers, on the left side, without pulling. As with the relieving routine, she gets praise and affection for doing it right. She gets ignored if she doesn’t. There’s also a trick we use called COLLAR CORRECTION. It isn’t easy to do well. You want to give her collar a tiny, quick “pop”, not really hard enough to be called a yank. The goal is to provide just enough of a re-direct to get their attention, and interrupt their focus on performing an unwanted behavior. If you are doing it hard enough for the action to become a negative reinforcement, you are pulling too hard. Collar corrections are used to discourage mouthing, pulling away, barking, and any other no-no that goes off-course from calm, patient guiding behavior.
Of course I’m writing all this from an omniscient position, while Mary goes to get the dog. These are the ideals. I expect in reality the puppy will pee on the carpet right away, and she and the cats will have some sort of odd, uncomfortable confrontation. But it’s all like playing jazz. The more you practice and prepare ahead of time, the better you’re able to improvise in performance.