September 17, 2011 in Features

Guides through modern life

Today’s service dogs trained for an array of distractions, situations
Sue Manning Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Morgan Watkins, acting president and chief executive officer of Guide Dogs for the Blind, poses with his guide dog Will.
(Full-size photo)

National Guide Dog Month

September is National Guide Dog Month, and several groups are working to raise money and awareness for the cause, including Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance pet food, Petco and Independent Pet Food Stores.

Guide dogs and their handlers have always undergone intense training on dealing with distractions from squirrels to skateboarders.

But today’s guide dogs have a whole new generation of things to worry about: quiet cars, button-activated walk signals, stroller traffic on handicapped curb-cuts, and a greater likelihood of interacting with other dogs.

“It used to be you encountered other dogs mostly on sidewalks while you were going down the street,” says Morgan Watkins, acting president and chief executive officer of Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has trained about 2,200 of the 10,000 guide dogs working in the U.S. and Canada today.

Nowadays, he says, a guide dog might encounter another dog in a supermarket aisle or at the mall or the dentist’s office. There are few places pets can’t be found these days.

“We work very hard with the assumption that your dog can be distracted anywhere,” says Watkins, who started losing his vision at age 11.

Anything or anyone that keeps a guide dog from focusing on its work is considered a distraction – and becomes something the dog is trained to ignore.

Everyone can help guide dogs and their handlers avoid some distractions. One basic rule: Don’t pet a guide dog without permission.

Because the dogs are so highly trained and well-behaved, people want to touch them, Watkins says. Many times, he says, he has reached down to learn which way his dog Will is looking, only to find someone else’s hand already on the dog.

Another simple way to minimize distractions for guide dogs is to keep your own dog leashed.

If another dog barks, Watkins says, Will would probably keep moving. “Odds are he won’t flinch,” he says.

Guide dogs are also not trained to fight. If one is attacked by another animal, handlers will drop the harness and call for help.

Another new distraction or hazard for guide dog teams is the electric car.

Watkins has excellent hearing and can usually make out the sound of an electric car, but it’s difficult at noisy intersections. That’s why guide dogs are taught intelligent disobedience – defying an order to keep a partner safe, Watkins explains.

If Watkins tells Will to go and there is an electric car going through an intersection, he will not go.

When the dog disobeys commands, Watkins says, “I follow my dog. It’s part of the trust.”

In addition to quiet cars, other environmental elements and distractions that have necessitated changes in guide-dog training include six-lane streets, traffic islands, roundabouts, cars turning right on red, wheelchair-accessible curbs, button-activated walk signals and even baby strollers using handicapped ramps and curb cuts, Watkins says.

He got his first guide dog at age 40 and became CEO of Guide Dogs for the Blind after a long career in computer technology. Walking with Will, he feels through the harness when the dog turns his body, changes pace or cranes his head.

“The dog isn’t making noise, the environment is making noise,” he says. “He sees and leads. I direct and praise.”

Most guide dogs work until they are 8 to 10 years old, Watkins says. When they retire, they can stay with their partner or Guide Dogs will place them in an adoptive home.

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