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.