In the last post I asked what you would like me to write about next. Elly asked a very interesting question. She wanted to know how I teach the dog new routes.

This is a bit different for everyone and in fact I have a few different ways of doing it depending on where I’m going or how fast I have to get there.

I’ll generalise for a moment first. Some people like to have a sighted person go with them the first time they do a route. This is especially the case when it’s a new dog. By having a sighted person with you you can get very comprehensive details about the area you’re in so in turn when you walk that route with the dog you can provide him or her with very specific and accurate instructions. This gives the impression to the dog that you’re very confident and in turn the dog will replicate this by being focused, comfortable and observant. This is actually crucial as I’ve said before. If you’re not confident when giving commands to the dog it won’t be confident when following them. It takes quite a lot of time before the dog will mature into having the skills necessary to pick up the slack when you can’t. I said in my six week review post that Ike had already started to demonstrate this ability but it’s not something I’d push just yet as to do so could actually have the opposite effect.

When I got Freddie I certainly used a sighted guide for areas where I wasn’t particularly confident in. I also used a few other tricks though. For example, there was a lecture room in college that was in a corridor with six other doors. Aside from counting each door by touching them on the way past I had no way of knowing when to get the dog to find the door. The solution I used that time was to ask one of the caretakers in the college to temporarily put a mat across the corridor a few feet away from the door that I had to find. Therefore when I hit that mat I could start giving the dog the command to “find the door”.

I lived in a house in Dundalk after finishing college. It was in a row of houses and again, without actually counting the drive ways by hand there was no way I could figure out where the house was. Luckily by this time I was confident that Freddie would learn where the house was after a few days but to make it easier I used a small amount of sand and sprinkled it on the path just in front of the house. It only lasted a few days but it gave me a clear indication as to when to give the dog the command to “find the way”.

When I moved to Drogheda I had gas installed in the house. While working they had to pull up a small section of the path across the road temporarily. This coincidently gave Freddie a specific marker that he had to stop at. I then gave him the command to “Find the curb” while sweeping my hand across to the left. By the time they had finished working on the path Freddie had known that the house was right across the road.

Now that I know that area very well I know what to expect before I get to that point. I pass a pole that always emits a low hum and directly after that there’s a really wide drive way that is properly sloped. Once we get over that drive way I stop at the next crack in the path. Specifically the cracks higher on one side. That will line me up exactly with the gate to my house. Knowing this was perfect when I got Ike because he tried to predict when I wanted to stop but he was coming up a bit short. By knowing that crack was directly in line with the gate I was able to tell him to “hop up to the curb” to signify that it was a little further. All of these commands had to be given in a very positive and encouraging tone so as to show him that he was still very good for finding the area that we wanted to cross at but he needed to go a little bit further.

Now, for routes that I don’t know anything about, this can be tricky. In fact, at this early stage, I probably wouldn’t do them with Ike on my own. When we were in Belfast Emma was with me so she was able to give me pointers when we needed to turn. It’s worth mentioning here that because Emma knows me so well she knows that giving me directions isn’t just as easy as saying left, right or straight because the dog listens to her. Ike hasn’t got to this stage yet. He will though eventually because if Freddie is anything to go by, he’ll hear someone saying left or right and he’ll try to pre-empt it by taking the direction before I say it to him. For that reason Emma will usually use some other way of relaying the next direction. This isn’t vital of course, it’s just a nice alternative because again, it allows me to be fully confident in the directions I’m giving him and he’s getting all the directions, encouragement and praise from me so it remains a very positive experience for him.

When in new areas it’s hugely important that you give definitive hand signals to follow up every verbal direction you give the dog. These hand signals are given with your right hand. The table below summarises these:

Straight on. With your arm reasonably straight and your hand outstretched by your side move your arm straight ahead of you pointing forward.
Find right. Tap your right leg with your right hand and point to your right using the same slightly over exaggerated motion of moving your arm to your right.
Find left. Tap your right leg with your right hand. This gets the dogs attention. Sweep your hand forward then around to the left.
Left. Used when standing at curbs. It’s safer in this instance to turn like this because the dog comes in front of you instead of you going in front of the dog. In other words, the dog is closer to the traffic than you are. Take one step back from the normal guiding position. Say left repeatedly to the dog while tapping your right leg with your right hand. Do this until the dog is facing to the left. Finish the command by using the straight on command in conjunction with the hand motion as explained above.
Back. Similar to the left command. Take a step back, tap your right leg and say back. When the dog is facing the right way, confidently follow up with a straight on command and give praise. Dogs usually hate going back the way they came. If they go back expect them to try to find something that you may be looking for. They start to learn over time that if they go back it’s because you’ve missed something. Or maybe that’s just me.
Find the door. Tap your right leg and point in the general direction of where you think the door is. Continue by saying find the door in an encouraging tone until the dog eventually finds it. Give plenty of praise when you get there.
Find the steps.
No real command here, point in the general direction of the steps and if the dog isn’t slowing down, give the steady command.

When walking using a GPS you have to show confidence even when you don’t feel it. If you get an instruction to turn left after twenty metres then you walk about twenty five steps and start to tell the dog to find left. When I was walking to Dublin castle a few weeks ago I had no idea where my destination was but I knew the general layout of that area. I at minimum knew that if I was completely lost I could use the sindero app on my iPhone to find the nearest street names and points of interest. That gave me enough to fall back on to allow me to remain confident.

A few key things you want the dog to find in new areas are crossings, curbs, doors, and turns. For example if taking directions from someone you try to determine what turns you need to take. By knowing that you know when to get the dog to find the crossings. If it’s not a city area then you may not have controlled crossings so in that situation I use curbs to differentiate to the dog that he is looking for something different.

Finding a specific door to a shop in a busy street can be difficult. There are a few tricks to it. Let’s take boots on Grafton Street as an example. By knowing that area now, I know that if I smell the coffee from McDonalds I know I’ve gone too far so I need to turn back. Unfortunately sometimes it’s just a matter of cancelling out the shops before finding the right one. There’s a photography shop that I go into sometimes on the top of Grafton Street near the shopping centre. It’s very hard to find. Up at that side of the street the shops have very narrow doors so it’s really hard to hear where the openings are. By that I mean, shops with big doors usually have fans blowing air into the shop. Or they have music playing. Sometimes you can just feel the heat or you can feel the lack of solid space on one side if you’re walking beside a shop with a big opening. For this photography shop I know that directly inside the door there are steps going up. The shop before it has a ramp. The doors feel similar though so I only know that I’ve gone into the wrong shop when I encounter the ramp. HMV isn’t too far away from that shop either so I know when to slow down to start feeling along the wall. When I say I feel the doors I try to do this as inconspicuously as possible. I won’t exaggerate though. It’s a really hard place to find so when all else fails and I’ve misjudged the distance away from it I grab a passerby and ask them where it is.

In Drogheda I could walk around there on my hands and still know where I am so shops that have small doors don’t pose as much of a challenge. It’s also quieter in Drogheda so it’s easier to use other noises as land marks. For example, an electrical shop is very near to a part of West Street that gets considerably narrower. When I start to try to find the door into that shop I know that the shop before it has a wide door or coming from the other side, the shop before it has round plaques on the wall outside it. I also know that on the other side of the road it’s between two crossings. There are a number of land marks that are easier to hear and because I’m originally from there I’ve kept up with the small changes that have been made over time.

Giving commands to a guide dog is kind of funny in a way. You have to be consistent and logical while remaining very positive and encouraging. For everything it does right you have to give loads of praise. On the other hand, Different dogs require different levels of interaction. I would consider Ike as a dog that requires more than the average level of interaction. Of course this will become less necessary as time goes on but I’m aware of dogs that started out that required much less praise and encouragement. As I always say to guide dog owners and even people interested in guide dogs. Every guide dog and handler is different. As well as this every partnership is also different. What works for one will unlikely work for another. Every command that I use works well with Ike but may be completely counter productive for another dog. Equally, my method of finding places may also be unsuitable for some and just completely silly for others. I know people who have fantastic awareness of obsticles in their environment. I have great spatial awareness. Different people use different strengths to their advantage.