Flashback Friday: Packs, Prius, and Practice

Original Post Date:: 24 May, 2009

This month’s class consists of 24 students, which have been split into six 4-person teams and an instructor or apprentice/instructor team.  In my team I am one of two rookies, and the other two are both retrains.  This kind of split is done deliberately so that the retrains can share their experiences with the rookies, adding to the curriculum.  

Today the teams were doubled up, 8 people, for the hands-on learning exercises.  While one group of 8 practiced harnessing a stuffed dog reminiscent of Rowdy from Scrubs, the others played with a string of six two-year-old dogs in training, familiarizing themselves with the dogs’ energy, coats, and physiology.

I went on another Juno walk, practicing the commands I’ll deliver to my future dog while the trainer continued taking notes on my pace and pull. By this time the dog is already picked out, but it never hurts to be sure of the match. And, I need all the practice I can get.

“Juno” is the generic dog name used by multiple schools when referring to the Juno Walk exercise, or giving an example of how a working dog intersects with various situations. In future I will use Juno when describing service dog training theory.

These are the basic commands, accompanied by hand gestures, that every Seeing Eye dog comes “pre-programmed” with.

  • Forward: go forward
  • Left: turn left
  • Right: turn left
  • Basic obedience: sit, come, rest
  • Go to your place: see below
  • Leave it: a reminder to pay attention to the task at hand
  • “Pfui:” a correction (see below)

Pfui is a German word that roughly translates to “not good.” It’s a word the dog isn’t likely to hear in daily conversation, nowhere near as common as “no,’ or the homophone ‘know.” Pfui is meant to jerk a dog’s attention back to their job, or to the handler. It is not punishment. It should be delivered in a firm, even stern tone, but never in anger.

While not the greatest part of the day, the obligatory fire drill was certainly the most exciting!  TSE uses an alarm that sounds something like a battle klaxon from Star Wars or Halo, and blind students and employees can locate fire exits by listening for the constant hissing sound emitted by devices planted above the doors.

Once outside we all assembled on the front sidewalk for a demonstration of the hybrid “quiet car” that TSE purchased for safety training purposes.  While I could see the silver Prius approaching us with my limited vision, our Totals (totally blind students) only discovered the car’s presence by the softly crunching gravel underneath the tires as the car arrived directly in front of them—only detectable at a distance of roughly 5 feet! 

This is disturbing to the blind and visually impaired community as a whole, but should concern the children of aging parents who may experience age-related vision deterioration as well. I personally was amazed at how quiet these machines are, and am very thankful for all the effort TSE does in training our dogs to handle these dangerous vehicles.

Today’s lecture focused on two topics: Pack mentality and Intelligent Disobedience.

Pack Mentality

Let’s talk about boundaries and belonging.

Dogs thrive in environments that harmonize with their genetic predispositions. That is, they like things that feel natural to them, such as the feeling of belonging to, and having a special place in, a pack. My job as the handler is to create and maintain this environment, for the sake of both functionality of our pack, and everyone’s mental health – including that of the dog.

Like any group, packs need a leader in the sense that they need someone who represents to the outside and directs the inside. But dogs don’t think of pack structure as a top-down, or bottom-up hierarchy. For them, the pack’s all about function, not power. So to be told “this is your place, not that” is very comforting to a dog. Knowing what is and isn’t allowed means knowing how to gain and retain acceptance, which in turn means safety, companionship, and kibble.

The ideal Seeing Eye dog pack looks something like this:

  • Handler: pack leader, defines the dog’s job, and when to carry out that job.
  • All Other Humans: back-up pack leaders should the primary be unavailable.
  • Dog: guide, XO of pack leader, safely executing given commands.

As with humans, geography can play an important role in setting healthy boundaries. Giving a dog a special place such as a crate or pillow or blanket where the dog will never be scolded or sent away from gives them a guaranteed place of utter belonging. ‘This is my place, no matter what craziness is going on off the edge of this pillow.” Crates or pillows or other iterations of “place” ought never to be used as punishments, acts of separation from the pack. Rather, they represent the dog’s special niche within the pack. The command “go to your place” essentially means “take your station.” It’s a guaranteed means of gaining approval, and not getting stepped on.

Intelligent Disobedience

This is where all the dramatic stories of heroic service dog rescues come from. I spoke with many retrains, who told countless stories of their dogs refusing to obey commands that would, unwittingly, have placed handler and dog in danger.

Intelligent Disobedience: refusing a command that puts people in danger.

For example, a dog will refuse to obey the “forward” command if a car is about to cut you off in a crosswalk, or won’t turn left if there’s a brick wall or uncovered manhole in the way.  Teaching the dog self-preservation isn’t necessary, they have some basic instincts.  But a dog cannot be taught the concept of “death” or “not living”. 

American communication theorist Kenneth Burke referred to humans as “inventors of the negative,” in that we have the ability to comprehend what something is not, or nonexistence, whereas animals do not. Dogs understand they are living, they recognize death in others, but can’t relate it to themselves. They fear danger, not death. So, artificial dangers such as cars must be introduced as “pain causers”.

An instructor will walk up to a car, hit the car with their hand or pretend to trip into the car, and act as if the car has hurt them.  This is repeated regularly with more and more dramatic acting until the dog understands that moving vehicles are dangerous.  However, the balance here must be walked carefully because you don’t want to give the dog an unrealistic fear of stationery cars or car rides.

Since writing this post I’ve learned that the dog guide school in Nagoya, Japan, has a brilliant additional step to training dogs to respect moving cars. A trained instructor will drive a car slowly in front of another instructor working a dog. If the dog gets too close to the moving vehicle, the driver will gently bop the dog on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper covered in white tape. This creates a more immediate association between moving cars and unpleasant consequences.

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