Traffic in Trust: Guide Dog Training Part 3

In the second week of training, we are working routes in Bradenton. We board the bus at the main campus, watch our pups cuddle during the 20-minute bus ride, and disembark at the Downtown Training Center. Once inside, we find seats in the comfortable waiting area – a large square room with tables, chairs, and couches. Then our trainers tell us in what order we’ll go on routes.

My trainer informs me that I’ll be going first. I take York out for a busy break and some water before giving the command, “Harness on.” I exit the building and meet my trainer on the other side of the door, a few feet away from two stairs that lead to a sidewalk. Before we move forward, my trainer explains the first few features of the route: “You’ll go down the steps and take a left. Remember that he should stop at all curbs, including grass lines. This will be a pretty simple route.”

I nod and pick up York’s harness handle, resting in a now-familiar spot along his back. I give the command, “Forward!” and he takes a few steps before stopping. I search out with my right foot and find the top stair. I praise York and say, “Forward down.” He takes me down the two stairs and we make our left.

As we approach our first curb,  I feel myself easing into the pace York and I prefer – a brisk stroll. The morning is quiet and humid with minimal distractions: no people, cats, or lawn equipment. Once York has found the first curb, I praise him and say, “Forward.” Keeping my right foot on the curb, I wait for him to move.

He remains poised in the same spot, his body in a determined halt. I reach down to give a forward correction with the leash – and feel a sudden breeze as a car slides out in front of us. I see a faint glint of sunlight on paint and hear the pavement crunching beneath the almost silent wheels.

“That’s called a traffic check,” my trainer says. “And he aced it. Praise him.”

I heartily form the words,”Good boy” before turning to my trainer. “I didn’t even hear that car!”

She explains that the car is a Prius, used in training because of its deadly silence. I take a few deep breaths – I seem to be doing a lot of that in this training process – and give York a quick pat on the head. My cane would not have stopped me for that car.

When the street is clear, my trainer tells me to cross. I command, “Forward straight, find the curb,” and York obliges, leading me safely to the other side. Once on the sidewalk, we continue in a straight line. My trainer reminds me that I have quite a way to go before I reach the second street crossing.

I encourage York forward and we set off, passing grassy yards on either side. Stretches of the sidewalk offer obstacles like signs, posts, or soft overhanging plants. York expertly guides me around these. About halfway between the two streets, I feel a change in the swaying harness handle: York has come to another abrupt stop, his body alert. I halt mid-step, listening hard.

The Prius pulls into the driveway inches ahead of us. I can see its pale outline against the overcast morning. The trainer remarks, “Another perfect traffic check.”

Throughout our route, York completes several traffic checks – coming to an abrupt no-nonsense stop seconds before I can see or hear the Prius. This exercise demonstrates Intelligent Disobedience, the skill that allows York to disobey one of my commands when our safety is in question. Each time he disobeys my “forward” command by performing this firm stop, I am amazed by his ability to detect the car and disobey me.

After two weeks, I am beginning to recognize the differences in the handle that indicate York’s actions. When he’s sniffing, the handle tips forward. When he’s looking left and right, the handle dips left or right. And when he performs this abrupt, focused stop, the handle becomes totally motionless. I feel the stock-still handle and know that an alert pup is waiting beneath it, his body posture telling me to watch, listen, or feel for the cause of his disobedience. Whether it’s a defined curb, an abrupt drop in the sidewalk, or a nearly silent car cruising across our path, he knows something I don’t, and his sudden stillness commands me to pay attention.

8 thoughts on “Traffic in Trust: Guide Dog Training Part 3

  1. Em, this is so exciting and heartwarming to read! I’ve got chills (the good kind) imagining each Intelligent Disobedience.

    One question: Have you taught him to sing yet. I can’t wait to see him!

    1. Thanks, Sally! He already knows two songs. He sings the blues every time I leave, and he sings a hungry song 20-30 minutes before feeding time. He has an impressive range!

  2. Emily, I am quite enjoying your blogs about you & York’s adventure together. The way you and he are learning to “understand” each other is so sweet and necessary. I had to “binge” read your three episodes because i have been out of town the last week. But I think that helped because it made your progress and your perceptions more immediate to me. It seems that you and York are a definite “couple” and that he will enhance your daily life in many ways you may not even be able to imagine now. Please keep the blogs coming–your progress is inspiring. Lois

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I print your entries off for my parents to read, they really enjoy them. You see, this is a “it’s a small world” kind of moment. I am a puppy raiser in Michigan for Leader Dogs for the Blind. I came across your blog when another raiser posted it to FaceBook. My sister saw the post I shared and recognized York’s name. Our Mom had told us the week before that their friend from Florida, Paul, had sponsored a puppy that was recently issued to a client. That puppy’s name was York!

  4. Also, as a puppy raiser, thank your for sharing your experiences. It explains the most popular question we hear, “How do you give the back?”.

    1. Hi Linda, what a small world indeed! I so enjoyed reading your message and meeting Paul at graduation. Our school endorses a 90-day no contact period with puppy raisers and sponsors, but then I’ll be able to share all these experiences with the wonderful people who helped York on his way to me.

      Thank you for all the great work you do! How many puppies have you raised?

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