When thinking about helping a Guide Dog team, it is important to understand how the team travels. A guide dog is trained to walk in a straight line, except when guiding around obstacles. The dog is trained to guide around obstacles, stop for changes in elevation such as curbs and stairs and use intelligent disobedience to protect itself and the blind handler.
Looking for a Good Route
Sometimes, the dog or handler may not travel routes that others would use easily. To find a good route, consider these questions. It might also be helpful to walk the route with the handler before teaching the team together. This gives the handler an opportunity to help decide if the route is appropriate, and understand the route better.
* Are there cues the handler can hear, feel or see, if the handler has low vision, to know when to tell the dog to turn?
* Are there clear landmarks the dog can use as cues to turn, if none are present for the handler?
* Does the route avoid crossing large open spaces like parking lots or patches of grass?
* What possible pitfalls are part of the route? How can they be avoided?
* What non-essential landmarks could help the handler be sure she or he is on the right track?
Seeking a good landmark
What constitutes a good landmark depends on the handler’s preferences and abilities. However, good landmarks usually have similar characteristics. If the handler has low vision, it might be helpful to look for landmarks that the handler can see, but keep in mind that vision can sometimes change from day to day and be ineffective at night. Look for landmarks based on sound, touch and even smell. Is there a bakery, an open area that echoes or a big hill that the handler can use as a landmark? Also, remember that street crossings and blocks can be counted as landmarks, but it is helpful to have something else to reassure that the handler is on track.
Dos and Don'ts for Teaching the Team
Do explain the route before setting out.
Do give directions to the handler.
Do walk behind the guide dog team to avoid distracting the dog. Off the right shoulder is best.
Do give advanced warning if a moving turn is required. A moving turn is generally one that comes mid-block or inside a building.
Do tell the handler if the dog has no choice but to turn.
Do allow the handler to practice obedience if the dog loses focus.
Do give guidance about when to make major turns.
Do use sighted guide for patterning challenging routes.
Don't give directions to the dog.
Don't signal the dog to make turns. This may give the handler a false sense of security that they understand the route well.
Don't tell the guide dog team how and when to avoid obstacles. Even if the dog makes a mistake, this can be an important learning experience for the dog and handler.
Don’t physically touch or handle the dog or handler, even if you don’t think the dog will guide around a specific obstacle. This distracts the team, and can send a confusing message to the dog. Remember, you won’t always be there to help the team, so hands off is best.
How the Team Crosses a Street
A guide dog team follows a certain protocol to cross the street safely. This procedure is how Guide Dogs for the Blind recommended crossing the street in 2004. Knowing this will help when choosing and explaining a route and aid you in crossing the street safely with the dog and handler.
When the dog comes to the end of the block, he will bring the handler to the curb, preferably, the curb cut. The handler, feeling that the dog has stopped, probes with a foot and feels that she has reached the end of the block. If crossing at this particular street, she waits to hear that it is safe to cross, then commands the dog "forward". If the handler needs to make a turn at the intersection, she makes the turn ONLY after reaching the curb at the end of the block.
A few definitions and Concepts
Here are some terms a guide dog team may use when using guidework.
Obedience: A practiced series of commands such as sit, down and stay that help the handler make sure the dog is focused.
Patterning: Showing a route to the dog multiple times with positive re-enforcement such as food or a toy at key landmarks and destinations. This can be done using the dog to guide, using a cane or using sighted guide. Either of these methods work, but guide dog schools generally recommend using a cane or sighted guide for tricky destinations.
Traffic check: The practice of allowing the dog to avoid traffic if the handler miss-judges the situation or when a car acts in an unexpected way.
Intelligent disobedience: The skill used by the dog to avoid obstacles and perform traffic checks if the dog judges the situation unsafe. One common example is refusing to obey the “forward” command if traffic is moving in front of the team.
Surge: The sound of traffic when drivers step on the gas pedal when the light is green. This allows the handler to make a decision about crossing the street.
Distraction: Anything that causes the dog to lose focus. Using the phrase "dog distraction", for example, allows the handler to know why the dog might become distracted.
Sighted Guide: A method of guiding a blind person safely, conveniently and with dignity. Allow the person with a visual impairment to hold onto your arm, just above the elbow. If the person uses a guide dog, offer them the left arm. The person can follow your body movements if you hold your arm naturally, or with a bend at the elbow, but keep your arm close to your body. Stop for changes in elevation such as stairs or curbs. Warn the person when the area is too narrow for the two of you to pass through it safely by moving your arm behind you, as if reaching into your back pocket. Warn of overhanging obstacles, and allow the person to protect himself or herself.
The handler should always be the first contact when questions arise relating to the safety or ability of a guide dog team. If the handler is unsure, or you feel the situation is unsafe and cannot be resolved without further assistance, allow the handler to call the guide dog school where the team was trained.
Many “Nickie’s Nook” readers contributed valuable feedback and suggestions for drafts of this information. Thanks also go to Guide Dogs for the Blind, where Nickie and Julio were trained.
For more information about Guide Dogs for The Blind, visit www.guidedogs.com or call 1-800-295-4050.