Posts Tagged 'dog training'

Setting a good example

Whitney and I squeezed in a school visit last week before we took off for New Orleans, and during my talks with kids at North Barrington Elementary School, I explained three rules

I took Whitney's harness off for part of the time at North Barrington School.

to keep in mind if you happen to see a guide dog with a harness on:

  • don’t pet the dog,
  • don’t feed the dog,
  • don’t call out the dog’s name.

Unlike other schools I’ve visited with Seeing Eye dogs, the students at North Barrington seem nonplussed by these rules. They’d already read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, and, more importantly, one of their teachers is raising a puppy for Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Cindy Hesselbein, the Reading Specialist at North Barrington, brings Labrador retriever puppy Rory to school with her every day. At home, she and her husband and their four children all volunteer their time, money and efforts to raise puppies, and once the pups are a year old they return them to Leader Dogs headquarters in Rochester, Mich., to begin intense training to become a guide. Cindy’s youngest son Daniel was in the car when she picked Whitney and me up at the train station, and he admitted he cried when he said goodbye to Mack, their first pup. “We all did,” his mom added. “But we know it’s all for a good cause.”

Those are the Hesselbein kids, returning Mack to school for further training.

More than a dozen schools scattered throughout North America train dogs to guide people who are blind or visually impaired. Most guide dog schools place their puppies with volunteers until the dogs are anywhere from 14 to 18 months old. While Leader Dog puppy raisers are not responsible for training dogs to guide, they do teach social skills, obedience and how to walk in a lead- out position (not like normal obedience training where the dog is behind you at your heel). Cindy got a kick out of watching Whitney turn her head left and right, scanning the environment as she led me through the school. “They don’t do that when they’re puppies,” she observed. “It’s so fun to see the finished product!”

Policies and practices vary in the different guide dog programs in North America. Leader Dogs, where the Hesselbeins volunteer, allows puppy raisers to name the dog they take home. (Mack was named for Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where the Hesselbein family first learned about Leader Dogs.) The Seeing Eye, where I train with my dogs, opts for naming puppies at birth to help keep track of them all.

Another difference: Seeing Eye grads don’t meet the families who raise our dogs as puppies. Leader Dogs has an “open adoption” policy, and it gets mixed reviews from the Hesselbein family. Cindy enjoys keeping up with the young man in Baltimore who is partnered with Mack now, but her youngest son Daniel lamented that attending the Leader Dog graduation to meet the pair meant “having to say goodbye to Mack all over again.”

Cindy asked if Whitney might want to meet Rory while we were at North Barrington School, and I’m sure Whitney would have loved that. She is so new to her job, though, that I thought it might be prudent to keep her on a, ahem, short leash. The two dogs did catch each other’s eye when Rory went out to “empty” during a lunch break. Rory barked out a greeting, but Whitney did not respond in kind. She sat up, and her ears perked, but she stayed quiet, setting an example. After all, Rory was still learning. He’s just a pup, not a professional. Not yet, at least.

Whitney has a smart bump, and she’s not afraid to use it

Sometimes she's a little too smart for her own good, not to mention mine.

Today Bark Magazine published a blog post I wrote about my first weeks at home in Chicago with Whitney. I start out the post describing how the Seeing Eye-dog thing is supposed to work. The blind person memorizes or finds the route, the pair gets themselves situated on the sidewalk, the blind person commands “Forward!” and the dog guides them safely to the curb. When the dog stops, the person stops. That’s how a blind person using a guide dog knows they have arrived at an intersection. If the person wants to turn right or left at that corner, the person commands the direction, and the dog turns. If the person wants to cross the street, the dog waits while the human being listens to traffic, and when it sounds safe to cross, the person says the dog’s name and commands, “Forward!” After confirming it is indeed safe to cross, the Seeing Eye dog leads the human to the other side of the street.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyways. Unfortunately, The near miss I had with my Seeing Eye dog Harper last year had left me more anxious than I wanted to admit. I wasn’t letting Whitney lead me right to the edge at intersections. She was already beginning to know our routes –- why make her go all the way to the curb, just to wait there before I told her which way to turn? From the Bark Magazine blog post:

Whitney’s decision to keep us away from the edge of the intersections, to just go ahead and make turns on her own, well, it meant I didn’t have to face the rush of traffic in front of us. I felt safe.

Until Whitney started crossing intersections diagonally, that is. Dang that smart bump! The girl is so clever that when she knew we’d be turning right or left once we crossed the street, she figured hey, why not save time? We’ll just go kitty-corner.

For those unenlightened ones out there, a “smart bump” is the occipital bone on the top of a dog’s head. All retrievers have this bump, and when it really sticks out the way Whitney’s does, we call them “smart bumps” and convince ourselves our dogs are smarter than others. And so, my two-year-old genius was not only crossing intersections diagonally, she was also anticipating a turn at every corner, veering as we approached intersections and leaving us all discombobulated. And if there is one place you especially don’t want to feel discombobulated with a Seeing Eye dog, it’s when you’re approaching a city intersection.

So are you wondering what Seeing Eye trainer Chris Mattoon suggested when he visited last week, and whether his advice is working for Whitney and me? Well, I guess you’ll have to link to my post on the Bark Magazine blog to find out!

Rolling, rolling, rolling

Hey, everybody — Beth found time to update her “day in the life of a Seeing Eye Trainee” post from last year. So I’m off the hook for today, will check in again in a couple days–Mike.


Had a visitor–Maria–last weekend. (Photo: Stephanie Bellucci)
  • 5:30 a.m. dog-related Music comes through intercoms to wake us up. Today it was “Rawhide.” You know, rolling, rolling, rolling, keep your doggies rolling…”
  • 5:35 Put bell on Whitney’s collar.
  • 5:40 Trainer comes to each door with a bowl of food; Whitney must stay in her assigned place by my bedpost as I answer the door. The bell on her collar gives her away if she moves off her place, and she has to go back if she ever wants me to place the bowl of food in front of her: she can’t have her food until she stays in her place.
  • 5:45 Whitney inhales her food, then I heel her to the bathroom (heal as in walk with leash, but no harness), measure out three cups of water, she drinks what she wants, and I empty out any water she didn’t drink into our bathroom sink.
  • 5:47 Buckle Whitney’s harness onto her, snap my raincoat onto me.
  • 6:50 am Give Whitney “forward,” left,” and “right” commands so she can guide me out to the courtyard for her “park time.” I unbuckle Whitney’s harness and join the other 18 blind people with our dogs circling around us, all of us urging our dog to empty. Trainers are with us and call out to let us know when we’ve had success: “#1 for Dilbert!” and Dilbert’s owner whoops it up to encourage him to always go on command. “Harry has a #2!” And his owner squeals with delight. Whitney usually does her #1 AND #2 fairly quickly, and once your dog does both you can buckle their harness back on and have your happy dog lead you back into the building, where it’s warm and dry. using the “inside!” command.
  • 6:00 a.m. Whitney guides me back to our room, I pick up her empty bowl and give her “right” and “left” commands so she can guide me to the nearest lounge to set her empty bowl in the sink there. I bring a “to go” cup of coffee I’d brought back from dinner the night before, too, and use the microwave (it has Braille on it) and push the buttons to warm the coffee.
  • 6:15 Back in room, unbuckle Whit’s harness again. She heels on leash when we’re in our room. I take Shower. Get dressed again.
  • 6:30 Buckle Whitney’s harness on again, she follows my commands to lead me to nurse’s office. Whit slinks under my chair while nurse checks my blood sugar level. I inject appropriate insulin
  • 6:45 Announcement over intercom “first floor ladies, head down to the dining room” or “men from upstairs, start heading to breakfast.” We all parade down to the dining room, our dogs leading the way.
  • 7:00 Each student has an assigned seat in the dining room, we give dogs a series of commands to go “left” “forward” or “right” to get to our seat and praise them when they achieve their goal.
  • 7:15 Breakfast. The dining room is lovely, white tablecloths and all. Waiters and waitresses come to get our orders so the dogs will know how to act in a restaurant. After breakfast, waiters and waitresses become housekeepers, they vacuum our rooms, make our beds, supply new towels in our rooms. People who are blind are capable of cooking and cleaning (shhhh! Don’t tell Mike), it’s just that while we’re here the Seeing Eye wants us to devote every second to our dogs.
  • 8:00 Off in vans to training center in downtown Morristown.
  • 8:15 Today we worked a route that includes T-intersections, four-way stoplights, a two-way stop sign, talking walk signals, left turns, two right turns. Our trainer walks behind Whitney and me, observing how she leads and how I follow her moves. He gives me verbal clues to let me know where we are or what might lie ahead: a barricade across the sidewalk that will force Whitney to lead me into the street, then back up a curb and onto the sidewalk again, a woman walking her dog and coming our way, and traffic checks provided by the Seeing Eye.
  • 9:30 Catch shuttle from the training center back to the Seeing Eye school
  • 9:50 Down to nurse’s office for blood sugar test. At home I don’t test my blood sugar this often, but the schedule here is so different than at home it’s good to have it checked to make sure.
  • 10:00 Tea time. This is optional, but I usually go. Another opportunity for Whitney to learn to sit quietly under a table, plus get to meet other Seeing Eye students and staff.
  • 10:35 Take walk alone with Whitney on the leisure path, this is a path on the grounds here with no intersections, no traffic. A chance for dogs to work in harness without much stress put on them.
  • 11:00 am Announcement over intercom tells us to give dogs three cups of water again, empty out any water they didn’t drink and then take them to park time.
  • 11:15 Down to nurse’s office for blood test
  • 11:30 Make my way with Whitney to the grand piano in the Eustis Lounge — it’s a Yamaha and sounds beautifully bright. Play the piano until they announce it’s time for lunch.
  • Noon Lunch
  • 12:45 Take Whitney for an additional park time, always a good idea to give the dogs an extra chance to park before we go out and work. Don’t want them to have to empty while en route.
  • 1:00 p.m. Van ride with fellow students and their dogs down to training center in downtown Morristown.
  • 1:15 We rework the route we did this morning,our trainer fine-tuning his suggestions for correcting, scolding, praising and following our dogs.
  • 2:30 Shuttle bus back to living quarters.
  • 2:45 Whitney follows my commands to guide me downstairs to the grooming room. “Good girl, Whitney!” , I groom her.
  • 3:00 Nurses office for blood test.
  • 3:15 Downstairs to do laundry, they have Braille labels on the washers and dryers so we know “small” or medium” loads, that sort of thing.
  • 4:15 go through our daily obedience ritual: heal, come, sit, down. Rest. “Good girl, Mizz Whit!”
  • 4:25 Unbuckle Whitney’s harness, put bell on her collar, throw a kong toy around for her to fetch, play with nyla bone.
  • 4:40 Announcement over intercom says to tell our dogs to “go to your place” and sit still there, Whitney’s place is a rug in the corner near the head of my bed. . Trainer comes to each door with a bowl of food. Same drill as the morning: Whitney has to stay in her place by our bedpost as I answer the door. The bell on her collar gives heraway if she moves off her place. Today the bell finked on her, she had moved away from her place , so she had to go back. Second time was the charm. She stayed at her place, and she was rewarded with her bowl of food.
  • 4:45 Whitney inhales her delicious dry dogfood dinner, I heal her to bathroom, measure out three cups of water, she drinks what she wants, I empty out any water she didn’t drink.
  • 4:47 Buckle Whitney’s harness on again, I don my raincoat, and out to courtyard for “park time.”
  • 5:15 Call for dinner.
  • 6:30 Upstairs to common lounge for class lecture. There’s a lecture on a different topic every night, topics include: handling traffic, appropriate corrections, clicker training, dealing with dog distractions, and one by a Seeing Eye veterinarian on keeping our dogs healthy. Having to go upstairs for these lectures teaches our dogs to negotiate stairways. We also go down a flight of stairs for park time, plus downstairs for grooming and laundry purposes.
  • 7:30 Free time: I usually play with Whitney during this free time, playtime is encouraged to keep up the bonding. Plus, it’s fun!
  • 8:00 Announcement over intercom: Give each dog one cup of water, dress warm and out for park time.
  • 8:15 See nurse for one last blood sugar and injection of overnight insulin.
  • 8:30 Put Whitney on chain near head of the bed. Whitney usually falls asleep right away, and I’m never far behind her. Tomorrow morning we’ll be doing that complicated route solo — our trainer will be watching, but far behind us, out of earshot. We’ll need a good night’s rest. Zzzzzzzzz…

Please keep those encouraging blog comments coming, they really do motivate us to keep working!

What it takes to be a Seeing Eye dog instructor

I figured that once I told the animal sciences department at University of Illinois that Harper wouldn’t be coming with me, they’d cancel my guest lecture to their animal sciences class tomorrow. But I was wrong. Professor Amy Fisher wants me to come anyway, and I think the talk will be interesting. My plan is to use Harper’s early retirement as an example of just how difficult it is to prepare Seeing Eye dogs for the hard, hard work required of them.

From the Seeing Eye Web site:

Staff instructors are full-time employees who hold college degrees from various fields of study and have successfully completed three years of specialized on-the-job training. They relate well to dogs and people and are physically fit, since their jobs are physically demanding and involve working outdoors in all weather. Some of our current instructors came from teaching, business consulting and rehabilitation fields. Some were in the military and worked with dogs before, and many started out as kennel assistants here at The Seeing Eye.

picture of Seeing Eye trainer, a dog, and an obstacle course

A Seeing Eye trainer demonstrates how dogs learn to negotiate obstacles.

When people express interest in pursuing a job training guide dogs, I always remind them that they won’t just be working with dogs. They’ll be working with people, too. We blind folks are all different ages, and we have all sorts of different backgrounds and experiences behind us. Some of us are newly blind and still adjusting, others have been blind our entire lives. Although some of us might be easy to work with, a lot of us are brats. We test our teacher’s patience.

The Puppy Place (a Web site created by a group of volunteers who raise puppies for guide dog schools) says it well:

Guide Dog trainers must work with a variety of dogs within a given size range. A great deal of walking and upper body strength is required to mold hyper young dogs into responsible workers. In the beginning, when working with dogs alone, this may not seem bad, but soon the apprentice must team dog training with people training. You can’t leash correct your blind student, or give him/her a dirty look and expect the undesired behavior or wrong actions to stop. You must verbally communicate while physically managing to keep up with the dog. Coming out of yourself to work with both dogs and people is a special skill and not one to be taken lightly.

Schools receive literally hundreds of applications a year from people who want to train guide dogs, so even opportunities to become an apprentice are rare. Most guide dog schools do require instructors to do an apprenticeship, and some apprenticeships last as long as four years. From my observation, apprentices work very hard. And from what I hear, salaries are not that high. Considering that guide dog schools are non-profit organizations, I would guess the pay is far below what a lot of today’s college educated people expect to earn.

If you’re looking for job satisfaction, though, this kind of work must be pretty dang rewarding! For general information about working for The Seeing Eye, contact:

Human Resources
The Seeing Eye
P.O. Box 375
Morristown, NJ 07963
or email jobs@seeingeye.org.

Harper is clicking right along

A lot of you have been asking about Harper’s progress after that home visit from a Seeing Eye instructor last month. How about I start with some details about that visit?

The refresher course is working--Harper's starting to work the corners just right.

Nicole flew in from Morristown on Monday, April 24 and spent that first afternoon observing my work with Harper. He did not hold back. In one short walk, Harper refused to go all the way to the corner at an intersection, he veered right when we crossed, and then wouldn’t follow my command to turn right so we could take a walk to the park. He did get me home, though and over a cup of tea Nicole assured me I hadn’t done anything wrong to cause Harper’s behavior. “We’ve just gotta work on how you react when he behaves like this,” she said.

I’d been talking sweetly to Harper when he cowered down on the sidewalk. “C’mon, Harper, it’s okay,” I’d coo, telling him he didn’t have to be scared, then urging him to get up and continue working. My sweet-talk rewarded Harper for his bad behavior. Not good. And when he veered during street crossings, I’d pull back on the harness, which only made him want to pull harder the wrong way. Nicole assured me that Harper wants to do the right thing. When he isn’t sure what the right thing is, though, he cowers. “You need to tell him what you want from him,” she said. “And you need to say it like you mean it!”

She pointed out another problem, too. Harper loves to retrace his steps. “I’ve never seen a dog with such a strong homing instinct!” Nicole told me. One of the many, many reasons dogs have been selected to guide people who are blind is that strong canine homing instinct. Harper’s determination to retrace his steps, however, is a bit extreme. Example: We’ve visited my doctor at his office on Michigan Avenue once. Just once. Now Harper drags me to that building any time we get near it.

I like my doctor and all, but there are other places I like to visit on Michigan Avenue. When Harper veered towards the building, I’d say a gentle “no” and command “forward.” Harper would cower, then plant himself on the sidewalk. We were going into that doctor’s office, or nowhere at all.

Some of Nicole’s suggestions to remedy Harper’s behavior were simple. When Harper veers left at the doctor’s office, I keep my arm at my side, drop the harness and keep my body facing forward. Harper’s leash is looped around my wrist. If I keep my arm stiff when he veers towards the building, he is naturally jerked back to my side. I pick up the harness again, command “forward!” He may test this a few times, but once Harper realizes I really do know where I want to go, he leads me forward. Good boy, Harper!

Other suggestions were a bit more complicated. Clicker training, for example. Award-winning Seeing Eye instructor Lukas Franck taught us clicker training while we were in Morristown last December, and I’ve used it at home to teach Harper to find the elevator button in our hallway. When Nicole was here she taught me how to use the clicker method out on the street, too.

For the past couple weeks I’ve been clicking the clicker every time Harper gets me to the end of a block. He understands that the click means “you got it!” and he knows that the sound of the click means he gets a small treat. Harper hardly ever cowers anymore, he’s in such a rush to get to the end of the block to collect his reward! He’s also learned that he doesn’t hear the click if he tries to turn left or right before we get to the end of the block. I don’t click the clicker until I can feel the curb or curb cut with my feet. The lack of a click tells Harper that he has to adjust position to hear his click. Then, and only then, does he get his food reward. From the clicker training web site:

Traditional guide dog training utilizes praise to inform the dog of what behavior we want them to continue to perform. It relies on using a verbal word or phrase (“Good dog!”, “Atta boy”) immediately when the dog performs in order to tell the dog it has done well. Although this clearly works, it is not nearly as precise as communicating with an audible event marker like a clicker. The clicker’s sound has meaning to the dog because the trainer first conditions the dog to expect high value reward following the sound of the click.

Giving Harper a treat to reward him for getting to the curb goes directly against what I’d learned when training with my previous Seeing Eye dogs Pandora and Hanni. Back then we were strongly discouraged from rewarding our dogs with food. Heap on the praise instead, they told us. Guide dogs are allowed in restaurants, amusement parks, receptions, food courts, you name it. They have to be able to keep on task without being distracted by food.

Lukas — and then Nicole — assured me that the Seeing Eye had tested the clicker training method extensively. I could use treats as rewards and still expect Harper to ignore food distractions in restaurants and the like.

And you know what? It’s working. Harper’s work is not perfect – well, not yet, at least — But it has really, really improved. This week I’ve started weaning him off the clicker; IOW, I don’t click at each and every curb anymore. So far he’s still getting me to the end of each block without cowering, and his tail wags with pride when he does. Atta boy, Harper. Good boy!

Another post from the sighted guide

Hey all–I’m sort of spent after this week–so Mike’s filling in for me on this one.

Intervention

I'm rooting for them both.

So when Beth has been in New Jersey to match up with her Seeing Eye dogs in the past, people ask me where she is. After I say, “What am I, chopped liver?”– I give them the story. And I usually say something like, “You know, really, the three weeks at The Seeing Eye is to train the people, not the dogs.” And I’m not joking.

By the time Beth parted with Hanni last November, they’d been together for ten years. And I’d been there for most of that time. And I can’t remember a single thing about what it was like when Beth and Hanni came home to Urbana. All I could remember was how well they worked  together the day before Beth headed to New Jersey. Hanni had developed an uncanny sense of Beth’s routine and our routine.

So when Harper started having problems, I literally couldn’t recall what it had been like with Hanni. I think that means Beth didn’t have any problems with her in the early months–otherwise I’d remember. Then again, Hanni had come home to Urbana–which presents its own challenges, to be sure. For one, sometimes the lack of traffic means an absence of audible cues for Beth to use to make crossing decisions. And Urbana, for all its quaintness, has–at least in our old neighborhood–horrible sidewalks. The old paving-block things are in horrible repair and pretty much impassable in spots–people routinely walk on the street instead. If you’re in a wheelchair, forget it. Drivers are erratic–students from the suburbs, just-licensed international students, farmers, parents of college students–not a good mix.

But all in all, Urbana ain’t nothin’ compared to coming home to the center of Chicago. So it’s hard to compare Harper’s performance to Hanni’s in the early months. And the important thing is, it doesn’t matter–Harper has to cut it or, eventually, cut out.

That’s not what anyone wants. Not The Seeing Eye, which spends tens of thousands of dollars breeding, raising, and training each dog. Not Beth, who’s already invested three weeks of her time in New Jersey and has worked hard to get her and Harper on the same page. And not me. I loved the guy the first time I laid eyes on him.

So The Seeing Eye sent one of their fine instructors to the rescue–we hope–last week. Nicole is a twenty-something with a presence that belies her age. She went for a walk with Beth on day one, and I sat in on the debriefing afterward. It was something of a relief to hear her thinking through what she guessed Harper was thinking when he clenched up and froze in his tracks on route. This anthropomorphizing is something Beth and I do routinely and then check ourselves. Who knows what Harper thinks? We just need him to work. But Nicole studied him–just as we had been doing–for clues.

In the end, she decided that he wants to do well so badly and wants not to screw up so badly that when it comes to decisions and ambiguity, he’d rather just fade away. Faced with ambiguity, all he sees is the opportunity to screw up. So he freezes. I wish I didn’t understand exactly what Nicole was talking about, but I did–and it made a lot of sense.

And, we learned, it doesn’t make a lick of difference unless Beth changes her behavior. The long and short of it is, Beth hadn’t been doing anything that explains Harper’s behavior. She didn’t cause these bad-dog days. But she had forgotten a lot–mostly, how to correct mistakes and to provide Harper clear cues about what was expected. After all, Beth hadn’t needed to for years.

So she and Harper are back to the basics. They’re doing really dreary things like this: At an intersection where they both know they always turn left, they still have to go to the curb as if they’re going straight. Harper needs to wait there until Beth commands “left.” She has to be the one in charge, the one deciding when and if they turn. Not Harper. So back to boot camp. It’s a total grind. But so far, it seems to be helping. And I hope that continues. Because Harper’s a really good guy, and I don’t want Beth to be gone another three weeks. Once every 10 years or so is OK, but that’s quite enough.

Home alone

In terms of separation anxiety, we've eased into it and so far so good with Harper.

A few days before we left the Seeing Eye School, my trainer came to our room and had me put a bell on Harper’s collar. “Tell Harper to go to his place,” he said. “Then leave the room for a minute.” I stood right outside the door so I could hear Harper if he whined. Or barked. If Harper got into any mischief at all, I was supposed to go back in and scold him. If he was good, I could go back and give him praise. “Good boy, Harper!”

The next day I put Harper’s bell on, told him to go to his place, then left the room for two minutes. “Good dog, Harper!” The next day, five minutes. The next? Ten. The Seeing Eye acknowledges there’ll be places I might want to go where a guide dog may not be very comfortable (Obama’s election night party in Grant Park, for example) or where I may not need a dog to guide me around., ”When you get home, ease into this gradually,” they told us. “Just like in class, begin by leaving your dog for a very brief time.”

I waited until Harper and I were comfortable together at home before starting all this. December 29 I put Harper’s bell on his collar and stood outside our apartment door for a minute. Not a peep. “Yay, Harper!” On December 31 Mike and I left Harper at home and headed downstairs to a friend’s apartment for a quick New Year’s toast. “Good boy, Harper!” Two days ago Harper stayed home while Mike and I walked to the grocery store. We returned to find Harper fast asleep on his favorite blankie. “Attaboy, Harper!”

A dozen or more schools in the United States train dogs to guide people who are blind, each school using slightly different methods. Earlier this week my friend Ira sent me a story from the Daily Herald about a man who is blind and uses a guide dog. Tim Spencer and his dog didn’t go to the Seeing Eye, they trained at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in new York.  The condo where Spencer lives in suburban Chicago doesn’t allow pets, but when he came home with his new guide dog in November, the condo board made concessions. Months later, the dog barks incessantly anytime Spencer leaves him alone in the condo, and residents are lodging complaints. From the story:

“I am getting harassed for a tool I use to function,” Spencer said. “For the first six months, guide dogs go through separation anxiety. And he’ll bark a bit because he’s scared and in a new environment.”

Spencer claims his dog is rarely left alone for more than two hours, usually during the day or early evening. A hearing has been set up to try to resolve the issue, but until then Spencer faces nearly $300 in fines for violating condo rules.

A follow-up story in Thursday’s Daily Herald reports that Spencer has been flooded with offers from outsiders with ideas to help quiet his dog. Suburban residents are sharing advice on how they’ve handled their own dogs’ barking, Neighbors have offered to dog-sit,and a board-certified veterinary behaviorist even offered his services at no cost.

Spencer said he welcomes the help and will use these new tools to discover if Iggie needs more training or if the complaints are, as he contends, unfounded.

The phrase “reasonable accommodation” got its start when the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973, and I like to think of it going both ways. Seems to me the condo association accommodated Spencer in a reasonable (and legal) way. They followed ADA guidelinesFair Housing Act guidelines and allowed a guide dog in a building where other pets are not allowed. Perhaps Tim Spencer can return the favor and accommodate his neighbors in a reasonable way as well: either take his guide dog out with him more often, or take up these offers to learn ways to help his dog stay calm when left alone at the condo.

So you want to train with a Seeing Eye Dog…

Photo taken during warm weather of an obstacle course that trainers use to teach dogs how to lead their eventual companions.

The dogs work hard even before they meet their human companions. Here, a trainer teaches a dog how to lead around common obstacles.

Every day I get dispatches from Beth that stress the highlights. But I asked her to outline a whole, typical day for me.

Whew. The dogs do wonderful things, but it ain’t magic. It’s tons of hard work that will continue back home. Here’s Beth’s account of her latest day of training:

  • 5:30 a.m.  Music comes through intercoms to wake us up. Today it was Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” One morning it was “Baby its Cold Outside.” Every day, a different song to wake us up.
  • 5:35  Put bell on Harper’s collar.
  • 5:40  Trainer came to each door with a bowl of food; Harper must stay in his assigned place by our bedpost as we answer the door. The bell on his collar gives him away if he moves off his place, and he has to go back. He can’t have his food until he stays in his place.
  • 5:45  Harper inhaled his food, then I healed him to the bathroom (heal as in walk with leash, but no harness), measured out two cups of water, he drinks what he wants, and I empty out any water he didn’t drink. He only gets water when I give it to him, part of the “bonding,” he better follow my commands and keep me safe so that he can have water!
  • 5:47  Dressed up warm then out to the courtyard for “park time” – 17 blind people with their dogs circling around them, all of us urging our dog to empty. Trainers are with us and call out to let us know when we’ve had success: “#1 for Dilbert!” and Dilbert’s owner whoops it up to encourage him to always go on command. “Harry has a #2!” And his owner squeals with delight. Today was a red letter day, Harper did his #1 AND #2 fairly quickly, and once they do both you can have them lead you back into the building (and warmth!) using the “inside!” command.
  • 6:00  Back to our room brought empty bowl to nearest lounge and set it in the sink for workers to pick up, made myself a cup of tea to bring back to the room (we’ve all been told to use lids).
  • 6:15  Shower.
  • 6:30 Harper led me to nurse’s office; he sat quietly under a chair while nurse checked my blood sugar level, I took appropriate insulin
  • 6:45 Announcement over intercom “first floor ladies, head down to the dining room” or “men from upstairs, start heading to breakfast.” We all parade down to the dining room, our dogs leading the way.
  • 7:00 Each student has an assigned seat in the dining room, we give dogs a series of commands to go “left” “forward” or “right” to get to our seat and praise them when they achieve their goal.
  • 7:15   Breakfast. The dining room is lovely, white tablecloths and all. Waiters and waitresses come to get our orders so the dogs will know how to act in restaurant
  • 8:00  Off in vans to training center in downtown Morristown.
  • 8:15  Today was our “solo” route. We’ve been practicing a route around Morristown for the past couple days. The route includes T-intersections, four-way stoplights, a two-way stop sign, talking walk signals, left turns, two right turns. During the solo the trainer is still behind us, but quite a distance behind us. He doesn’t give us any clues as to where we are at or what lies ahead; we do it on our own. Today’s route included a barricade across the sidewalk that forced us into the street, a dog distracting us and a traffic check, all provided by the Seeing Eye. In addition to the distractions the Seeing Eye “planted” there were natural distractions, too — ours included a fire truck and ambulance whizzing by us at an intersection. Harper did great. The walk was actually a lot of fun.
  • 9:30  Caught shuttle from the training center back to the Seeing Eye school
  • 9:50  Down to nurse’s office for blood sugar test. I don’t always test my blood sugar this often, but the schedule here is so different than at home it’sgood to have it checked to make sure.
  • 10:00  Tea time. This is optional, but I usually go. Another opportunity for Harper to learn to sit quietly under a table, plus get to meet other Seeing Eye staff.
  • 10:35  Announcement over intercom told us to give dogs two cups of water again, empty out any water they didn’t drink and then take them to park time.
  • 11:15  Down to nurse’s office for blood test
  • 11:30  Made my way with Harper to the grand piano in the Eustis Lounge — it’s a Yamaha and sounds beautifully bright. Played the piano until they called lunch.
  • Noon  Lunch
  • 12:45  Took Harper for an additional park time, always a good idea to give them an extra chance to park before you go out and work. Don’t want them to have to empty while en route.
  • 1:00 p.m.  Van ride with fellow student down to training center in downtown Morristown.
  • 1:15  Our trainer gave us directions to go to a drug store, very tight aisles, and any time dogs ran us into anything, we had to give them a correction. Harper ran me into a display of some sort, had to do it over. Second time was the charm, he avoided it.
  • 1:30  Our trainer directed us to department store, and we learned how to get off and on escalators.
  • 1:45  Our trainer directed us to local city park where we worked on squirrel and bird and rabbit distractions.
  • 2:30  Shuttle bus back to living quarters.
  • 2:45  Groomed Harper.
  • 3:00  Nurses office for blood test.
  • 3:15  Downstairs to do laundry, they have Braille labels on the washers and dryers so we know “small” or medium” loads, that sort of thing.
  • 4:15 Went through our daily obedience ritual: heal, come, sit, down. Rest. “Good dog, Harper!”
  • 4:35  Put bell on Harper’s collar.
  • 4:40  Trainer came to each door with a bowl of food. Same drill as the morning: Harper had to stay in his place by our bedpost as I answered the door. The bell on his collar gives him away if he moves off his place, and in face he did and he had to go back. Second time was the charm. He stayed at his place, and he got his food.
  • 4:45  Harper inhaled his food, then I healed him to bathroom, measured out two cups of water, he drinks what he wants, I empty out any water he didn’t drink.
  • 4:47  Dressed up warm and out to courtyard for “park time.”
  • 5:15  Call for dinner.
  • 6:30 Upstairs to common lounge for class lecture Tonight’s was by a Seeing Eye veterinarian on keeping our dogs healthy. There’s a lecture on a different topic every night. Having to go upstairs for these lectures teaches our dogs to negotiate stairways. We also go down a flight of stairs for park time, plus downstairs for grooming and laundry purposes.
  • 7:30  Free time: Played with Harper, playtime is encouraged to keep up the bonding. Plus, it’s fun!
  • 8:00  Announcement over intercom: Give each dog one cup of water, dress warm and out for park time.
  • 8:15  See nurse for one last blood sugar and for check of legs and feet (for diabetics only, can’t see our own feet and have to be careful we didn’t get blisters or anything like that with all the walking).
  • 8:30  Put Harper on chain near foot of the bed. Harper usually falls asleep right away, and I’m never far behind him.

Tomorrow, we head for Manhattan. You know, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I’m serious. All of us who live in big cities are encouraged to take this trip to learn how to go through turnstiles, ride a subway and work through crowds. So I guess if Harper and I can make it there, we can make it anywhere.

Harper and I better rest up.
Zzzzzz.

Mean streets

Well, Hanni and I have made it through a week. So have Harper and Beth. But it sure seems like it’s been longer.

Ain't no messin' around on the streets of Chicago.

Out in New Jersey, Beth’s learning more about Harper. He likes to chew on his Nylabone. A lot. For those who don’t know what a Nylabone is, it’s this synthetic bone-like toy that’s designed not to break off into pieces that could choke a dog. And they’re very tough. Apparently Harper’s already just about rounded off the big knuckle on the end of the bone. And I can hear him — while on the phone — gnawing on it.

The best news out of Morristown is that Harper is great at traffic checks. A traffic check goes like this: Beth and Harper go out to work on stuff for the day with their trainer. In addition to whatever they’re drilling on that day, other instructors are out and about in cars. They intentionally cut in front of Beth and Harper to simulate the very real and insane behavior of texting, distracted drivers.

And Harper has done exactly the right thing several times now. If there is one thing I’d want Harper to be good at, that’s it. Here in Chicago, it’s a must.

He stops for cars but apparently, he likes walking fast so much he sometimes doesn’t stop for curbs and crossings when there’s no cross traffic. Which requires a correction. Which brings me to Beth.

It’s been clear to us since Beth’s first time at the school that the time at the Seeing Eye is as much or more about training the humans as it is training the dogs. The dogs have had the bulk of their training. The humans are learning, in essence, how to be dog trainers, and to keep the dogs doing right. When Beth checks in with me, she usually mentions some basic technique that she’d forgotten or that had gone rusty since her last time there. Like how to hold the harness. There’s a natural tendency — which can be exacerbated by a dog walking slower as she ages — to want to guide the dog, and to push. But you have to hold the harness loosely and let the dog feel a sensation of pulling and leading. The dog has to count on that.

The whole thing — as people who have had dogs or kids well understand — is consistency. So, a warning for all of you who might run into Beth and Harper when they return: Beth’s going to be intensely focused, perhaps less friendly than she usually is for awhile, and she’s going to have to stay on top of her and Harper’s game for a good long while.

I hope you’ll remember it isn’t personal. It’s just necessary for Harper and Beth to be safe and sound.


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