Day 9 – Training with Mr Banks, my new guide dog

Dog tired.

Poor Mr Banks. He’s really had a hard week. We’ve walked for miles around Cork city across so many different types of paths, parks, roads and shops that I don’t remember half of them. We have had some frights, victories, thrills, spills and geese. Yes. I said geese. Stupid things cause him all sorts of distractions. I actually wonder what he’d do if he caught one. I’d put money on it that he wouldn’t have a clue what to do next.

Today has been a bit too busy for play so unfortunately, if you don’t have an interest in guide dog work, you might want to skip this post. It’s full of descriptions of walks. Obedience sessions and his progress so far. So, probably of no entertainment value at all.

This morning we did the very same walk as yesterday morning. If you remember, this was a very long route that went on for just over two hours. Poor Mr Banks was starting to feel the strain of it all though so his work from my perspective only wasn’t at the same high standard it has been at consistently since the start of training. Now, as it has been pointed out, I am being too hard on him here. The rain poured down for a lot of the time, there were a lot of distractions on the path, we added some artificial distractions and obstacles and the previous day was very busy as well. That said, I know that this walk was not up to his usual standard. I didn’t correct him for it though. I filled him with praise and really focused on his emotional wellbeing. Coaxing him and really supporting his decisions when they took us along the right path. I would certainly have been right to correct his level of distraction but I decided that with the particular instructor who was on this morning’s walk it was best to do it his way. I have really enjoyed having two very different perspectives on managing dog distraction. One says to correct the distraction, one says to encourage the dog and support the dog’s emotional wellbeing. Both are equally valid points and I would really like to get to a stage of incorporating both into my working style. I am not being over confident here but I know that I am competent when it comes to the technical workings of handling a guide dog. However, my weak point is in assessing the dog’s psychological status. I find it easier to relate to Mr Banks on an emotional level than with my other dogs. Don’t read this as being clinical. I’m not talking about the bond here or the level of affection and attention he gets as an animal. I’m talking about understanding when he is distracted because he is a little tired, uncertain or just having a bad day. This kind of analysis imposes or associates human psychological characteristics on animals and this doesn’t necessarily work because the human capacity for cognition is far superior to that of an animal but the building blocks are certainly there so although the motive behind an emotional state may be very different the end result is basically the same. This is my limited understanding of it of course. I would love to learn more but at the moment, I base this conclusion on what I am slowly learning from different instructors. I would like to understand my guide dogs behaviour more because the deeper my understanding the more accurately I can implement solutions on the go.

One thing that really stands out about this morning’s walk is unfortunately negative. On the way back to the car Mr Banks was incredibly distracted and actually managed to pick up food in two places within a fifteen foot stretch of path. The main instructor supervising our training has said that this is nothing to be alarmed about and as this only started during this morning’s walk with a minor sign of it on yesterday afternoons walk it is most likely something that will dissipate quickly. However, it is definitely something I have noted and it is something that I will be more vigilant of for the next week. Mr Banks is showing signs of improved confidence to me as his handler which is amazing because I already thought he was very confident to start with. This scavenging is his way of pushing his luck. Or so it seems to the instructor anyway. This is something that’s very hard to handle. Fortunately, although my first dog Freddie showed some signs of it at the start he grew out of it. I can just hope that the same happens this time. I have no reason to think otherwise though.

One thing to add about this morning’s walk, the instructor tried a few things that were a bit strange but they served a purpose. The first thing he did was to raise awareness of moving obstacles. He would walk a bit ahead then stop suddenly. This gave the dog a fraction of a second to react. In most incidents the dog had no time to think of any solution so he just stopped. This was perfect and it allowed me to give a command to tell the dog to pick a safe route around. Of course, sometimes the dog didn’t stop at all so we walked into the instructor at speed. I’m surprised we didn’t cause an injury! Other times though Mr Banks reacted brilliantly and completely dodged the instructor. Although this was an unfair obstacle to expect the dog to work around, it was brilliant because it really helped the dog to raise his awareness of people coming toward us; people that we needed to walk around and even people stepping out of doorways. As if it was planned, near the end of the route someone wheeled a buggy out of a shop door. Instantly Mr Banks stopped and resumed when he had determined a safe way around. Of course it wasn’t planned but it may as well have been because it was a perfect example to me of how well the exercise used by the instructor worked. When the instructor explained the situation with the buggy to me I think I could detect a lot of satisfaction in his voice. I challenged him during yesterday morning’s walk because I felt that at the time it was placing an unfair burden on the dog because I thought there was no way that the dog could react in time. Plus, if truth be told, I don’t enjoy walking into people so I was a little frustrated as well. I am delighted to be proven wrong though and again, I’m really aware how lucky I am to have worked with two instructors with different approaches to guide dog training.

Another thing that the instructor from this morning’s walk did that was quite unfair was to pick up on things that were distracting the dog and make them even more distracting. For example, the instructor told me that Mr Banks was distracted by a plastic bag that was blowing around. So, then before I knew it, the instructor was dragging it around in front of the dog with his feet. ON top of this, at the time when I was finding it more difficult to handle the dog in an area full of food distractions on the ground, the instructor started kicking around an empty can to add even more distractions for the dog. It made my job incredibly difficult but it was a good learning process as well.

Although the instructor for this afternoons walk wasn’t aware that Mr Banks was quite tired, he picked a brilliant route for us. It was perfect actually. Just around a shopping centre. In and out of different shops, up and down stairs, in and out of lifts, through a super market and around counters with food at easy reach. It was challenging for Mr Banks but it wasn’t as mentally taxing. Also, it was in out of the rain so it meant we didn’t get wet again. Mr Banks showed some signs of distraction but this time I reinforced the correction and within moments he was back to his normal self again. See what I mean? In the rain, I understood that he needed support to understand that it was all right but in a shopping centre where the environment is reasonably normal to him, the distraction was nothing more than him pushing his luck in which case, firmly telling him to get on with it was the right course of action. Mr Banks really loves to please so as soon has he refocuses his attention on the task at hand it’s vital to immediately praise him for it. If the praise is delivered on queue he will completely lose interest in the distraction.

What impressed me about the second walk is his self-control when walking around the super market. I deliberately worked him around the fridges, the cooked meats and the butcher counters and he was absolutely fine at all times. He never broke his pace and he didn’t pull at all. I could feel him occasionally looking over but that’s completely understandable. The other thing that I was impressed with was his ability to find doors. Quick commands gave him the general direction and he took the initiative himself after this. When we exited the shop, he continued on his straight line again to our destination. This is a very valuable skill for a dog to have.

Without doubt though, the highlight of our day was going to an Irish traditional music session. Mr Banks was with me of course and he guided me around like a pro! Although when he was introduced to live music he was a bit giddy at the start he relaxed within moments when we got to the session and he showed absolutely no interest in any of it. IN fact, to make the night even better again, I asked a random musician that I had never met before to show me where the toilets were. Like always in these situations, I was on auto pilot and without thinking I instructed the dog to follow. This is a habit left over from my days of working with Freddie. He was so good at this I just expect all dogs to be able to do it. Mr Banks seems to do it just as effortlessly as Freddie. I hate taking peoples elbows so a dog who can take the initiative and follow this comfortably is really nice. We found the steps and although he was following someone he still used the right approach. Just spectacular. That’s all I can really say about him tonight.

That’s all there is for today folks. Thanks for all the comments. Keep them coming. I think I might be as tired as the dog now and staying up to write this post hasn’t really helped.

2 Responses to Day 9 – Training with Mr Banks, my new guide dog

  1. Darragh, extremely sorry that we couldn’t make the session!

  2. Knowing both instructers that you are referring to, well, not knowing the morning one very well but the afternoon one I do know, I can see where you are coming from with the different techniques. Like you, I can see the pros and cons of how they all do things. I think though that you have a great handle on the dogs personality and you are great at analysing situations and how they impact on the dog. Don’t worry about the scavenging. I personally think you are right. The confident type dogs like my first one do tend to try and push the boundaries just a little and become a bit cheeky. Unfortunately the type of dog you require has to be that kind of dog but I have no doubt that you will get all of that nonsense under control in no time.