Born That Way

Our guide dog hopeful’s training regimen has been increasing in complexity.  Spice is still working on “loose leash”, walking only at the speed her handler chooses to go.  However, over the past several weeks of puppy school we’ve been adding dog and human distractions, to reinforce the dogs to stay focused on guiding and not divert.  We walk the dogs around the room, passing close to each other.  If they stay focused on us, doing no more than looking at the others, they get fed a piece of kibble and are praised (“Good girl!”)  They like that.

She’s been learning more commands, and new routines that will approximate her life with a blind person.  We put down a pad in different places, and tell her to “go to bed”.  If she goes there and sits, she gets kibble and praise.  If she lies down entirely, she gets more kibble and praise.  Then we call her to “come”.  Same rewards.  We’ve also been working on “stay”, where she must sit still as we walk away and return, and “down”, so she will go flat on the floor.

Spice has improved in some of her problem areas. Because we ignored her and didn’t reinforce it earlier, she rarely barks now.  She objects less to going into her crate to sleep, though she still whines a bit.  She’s more of an audio learner, where the last dog was focused on vision.  She responds to subtle variations in the tone of human voices, and vocalizes herself, trying to approximate speech.  She has a variety of soft moans and grumble noises, which she will use to voice objection before complying.  She does that when she doesn’t want to go to bed, like a child repeating “I’m not sleepy”, as they fight to keep their eyes open.

I just realized that Spice has the same main gift I was born with.  I missed it before because most puppies, like babies, are extremely cute when they are small.  She’s been growing rapidly and isn’t small any more, but people and other animals still perceive her positively at first contact.  She and I have the gift of likability, a universally useful trait we did nothing to earn.  Despite not being the baby in the club any more, the handlers love cuddling with her.  And when other dogs have approached, they nuzzle her gently.

Mary and I sincerely hope our little girl graduates and can become a guide dog.  We’re doing everything we can to make sure that happens, but it’s really up to the dog.  She has a strong desire to please us by performing correctly.  That’s in her favor.  So is her preference for people over other animals.  She still becomes too excited at the approach of friendly strangers, but there’s months to work that out.  If she does happen to get dropped from the guide program, as six out of ten dogs are, we’ve decided to keep her.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Born That Way

  1. Oh God, I love this. She is just so delightfully cute and it sounds like your training is becoming more and more successful- I’m so pleased for you! And some kibble is always a good thing.

    • You asked for more, you’re gonna get more! Spice, that is :)
      I’ll post updates when significant things occur. I’m as excited as any of you to find out what’s next in this adventure, since I haven’t had a pup graduate yet.

  2. She is precious and you and she will benefit either way: whether she becomes a guide dog or not. Win/win! Gotta love that!

    • I concur. Even if she goes and is a guide, that’s not necessarily forever. Puppy raisers get next dibs if the blind owner does not want to keep them once they are past guiding age (7-9 years old). In the short term, if / when she goes, we’ll get another fabulous puppy to train.

      I forgot to mention there haven’t been any conflicts with the cats either, though they aren’t interested in fraternizing. Both species more or less ignore each other and focus on asking us human providers for food and attention.

  3. Likability: good gift to have. I don’t have it, but my wife and cat seem to have it. Great to know Spice has a nice future to look forward to regardless of the outcome of the program.

    • I’m sure you have gifts of your own that are just as useful, Anthony. I worked hard on things like my sense of humor, and overcoming shyness, but that intangible “thing” that makes people want to hug me and tell me secrets, it’s been there for as long as I can remember. If I wasn’t trustworthy (and I wasn’t at some ages), it would be an easy one to misuse too.

  4. Ovkxskvqup writes us today from Bizarro World (in the parallel universe).
    The message contains several links that go to no place visible by human senses, and also the exhortation to “R1k7bC”.
    Congratulations, alien visitor. You have won SPAM of the DAY!

  5. Good to hear the great progress AND that you’ll keep her if she is dropped. I hope she isn’t, she sounds delightful!

  6. I was intrigued by your identification of the quality of likability. No surprise that you have it, and what a great quality for Spice. I have thought about this a lot because of my two autistic sons, both now young adults.

    James is funny and has better verbal skills than Dan, but he doesn’t often evoke that positive response in others. He sometimes isn’t very sociable and can be rude. When he’s in sociable mode around people who know him, they enjoy his company, but people meeting him for the first time often don’t find a way to connect with him, and aren’t very motivated to try.

    In contrast, Dan, who is much more limited in his communication skills, is very friendly and people respond to him much more positively. He is quick with a smile and will immediately offer you something to eat. He is welcoming and people sense it right away. I can see in people’s faces how they are quickly open to communicating with Dan in whatever way he is able.

    What I’ve learned from watching them over the years is that verbal communication is highly overrated as a means of social connection. Dan, who has faced great challenges in his life, will always do fine because people are drawn to him and want to help him. No one knows what the heck he’s talking about but they don’t care. He always has the welcome mat out. It pains me to see James miss opportunities to bring people into his world because he basically has a no trespassing sign hanging on the gate.

    Always love your puppy stories!

    • Thanks, Galen. Relating this to each of your son’s qualities was fascinating. Everyone I know has some innate traits that serve them to advantage. That’s why I call them gifts. Everyone is gifted!

      I expect James will attract the interest of people who like a challenge and enjoy working to unlock mysteries. He might have fewer friends, but the relationships that qualify through his tests will tend to be deeper. It sounds as if you have one more vertical son, and one more horizontal son.

  7. Pie

    I’m glad to hear you’ll keep Spice if she doesn’t graduate from the program, though I’m sure she will. Likability? How can anyone not like her – just look at that face!

  8. Had to leave a second comment because I thought of you and Spice today! I often see guide dogs being trained in my neighborhood. Today, I saw two handlers crossing an intersection with two dogs, and a third person who was apparently in charge directing them. Always so fascinating to watch. And I was struck once again by the amount of hours and manpower (personpower?!) it takes to train these amazing dogs, beginning in puppyhood with folks like you.

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