Four Paws for Keeps: Guide Dog Training Part 2

Exactly one week after our first route in harness, York and I are walking the aisles at Super Target. Practicing the “follow” command, York guides me a few paces behind my trainer as she turns down aisles, stops abruptly, and veers left or right. On our outside walks, York encounters many distractions: cats, people, and the ever-alluring grass. In Target, however, he proves to be a focused shopping companion – undeterred by the food smells or the small children crying “Doggie doggie!” from their carts. He earns praise for executing precise turns and avoiding the pile of crumbled Cheez-its in the grocery section. Even on the dog food aisle, York doesn’t stop to sniff a single bag!

This day of shopping marks the midpoint in our second week of training – and the firs time we’ve taken our guide dogs on an indoor errand in public. So far, York and I have learned several routes on Southeastern’s main campus in Palmetto, FL, and we’ve traveled intersections at the Downtown Training Center in Bradenton. York has demonstrated his ability to find curbs, posts, chairs, gates, and doors. In addition to the basics of obedience, like “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “heel,” and “no,” he knows the “right-about” command, a 180-degree turn used to rework areas where we made a mistake. At doorways that open on the right, he knows to “switch,” moving from my left to my right so I can open the door. On walks, I’ve learned that too much “Good boy, good York” works like a gas pedal, so I use the “easy” command to slow his pace. If York doesn’t listen when I command him the first time, I give a low-pitched bark-like “No,” use a leash correction, and repeat the command.

We return from shopping to a lavish Cuban lunch, a selection of foods our chef calls the “Taste of Tampa.” We are each served a pressed Cuban sandwich, a bowl of blackbeans and yellow rice, and a 1905 salad of mixed greens, olives, ham, swiss, and olive oil dressing. To our surprise and delight, we have the afternoon off, so we can rest up for a late-night obedience class and a night walk.

If it’s not too hot, the classes take place on an outdoor patio called Obedience Alley. If the pavement is already too hot for our pups, we practice obedience in the Day Room. In obedience class, we normally practice the basics while our trainers add levels of distraction. Some trainers walk by with yo-yos, tennis balls, or small toys, and others pretend to be nosy or intrusive strangers. One trainer demonstrates her acting skills by using an especially high-pitched voice, the “puppy talk” our dogs love: “Ooh what a beautiful puppy! Can I pet him? I have a dog just like him at home! Hi puppy puppy!”

Tonight we all meet in the Day Room at 8PM, and our three trainers reveal that we’ll be doing something called a “long recall.” One trainer explains: “We’ll take you and your dog to the hallway off the dining room, you’ll remove your dog’s leash and leave him in a sit-stay with another trainer, and the third trainer will lead you down another hallway. While the rest of us wait in the Day Room, you will call your dog.” She pauses, then adds, “If you’re seated, please have a firm grip of your dog’s leash. The loose dog is going to come tearing through here.”

My hands clench around York’s leather leash, and I ask, “What if the dog doesn’t come?”

One trainer answers with his usual ambiguous optimism: “Wait and see. I promise you’re gonna like this.”

An older student offers to go first. He leads his dog to the designated hallway around the corner and leaves him there. Then he walks off with a trainer. We can no longer hear his footsteps, and his dog cannot see the turns he has made. We grip our leashes and give our dogs a hushed “Stay!”

The trainer reiterates that we need to be quiet so the dog can hear its call. The student calls his dog, his voice lengthening and echoing along the tiled hallways. Instantly the dog bounds down the hall, a black blur tearing past without any consideration for the other dogs and people in the Day Room. We hear the sounds of a happy reunion, and the team returns to the room.

Next up is a female student who, like me, is working with her first guide dog. She leaves him with an emphatic “Stay!” and disappears from view. When she calls her pup, her girlish voice sounds even more childlike – the little girl who has lost her puppy in every heartwarming family movie. As she repeats the call using cutesy nicknames, her boy tears off down the hallway, first checking the place where she sat and then finding her at the end of the corridor.

When they join the group, my trainer looks at me: “Emily, you’re next.”

I stand up, and York stands with me, eager to get moving. We walk to the hallway, and I unclip his leash. I tell him to sit and stay and take the other trainer’s arm. He leads me down the hall, around a sharp left, and toward the end of another hallway. When everyone in the Day Room is quiet, he says, “Alright, call your dog.”

Remembering how the hallway alters voices, I sing out “Yo-ork!” I wait, nervous that I’m not loud enough, that he won’t come to me. As I call again,I  hear a burst of sound – paws skidding and sliding on tile, quiet joyful noises from the Day Room, and the jingle of York’s training collar. I barely distinguish a black blur trailing down the hallway as York runs past our corridor to my bedroom. Realizing his mistake, he changes direction, and my trainer murmurs, “Here he comes.”

Barreling toward me, York transforms into a huge incongruous black shape. He is panting and running, and I can see a paw, an ear, a tail as he hurtles toward me. The trainer catches him before he leaps on top of me, and I tell him to sit so I can clip my leash to his collar. He dances in front of me, his tail wagging, his tongue licking my hands.

When we return to the Day Room, everyone informs me that York began to whine the moment I was out of sight. I reclaim my seat, and York flops on top of my feet. I reach down to stroke his soft black head and feathery ears.

At the end of our first week, my trainer asked me, “How do you feel about working with York? Do you want to keep him?” After that week of firsts – our first meeting, our first walk in harness, our first street crossing – I knew I wanted to keep working with this boy. Now, as I write and he lies beside me, singing his hungry song, I remember him turning the corner of the long hallway and galloping toward me. I can’t believe how this week has changed us.

6 thoughts on “Four Paws for Keeps: Guide Dog Training Part 2

  1. This is thoughtful, clear, engaging writing. I wish you a steadily increasing readership so that others may learn about the important work that guide dogs do! I will share this blog with others, and I look forward to reading more. (Disclosure: Jennifer Kilmurray is my partner; she shared your blog site with me.)

  2. I can do that child like voice very well. I practiced for years working with kids now I get to use it with my 4 legged one.

  3. hello m8 the information on this site is just incredible it keeps me coming back time and time again ,personally i met my wife using this site so i couldnt love it any more i have done my best to promote this site as i feel that others need to see this thang ,thankyou for all the time spent in making this fabulous site ! ok,nice one Billy

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