“Traffic” – Day 6

 In Human-Animal Bond, Training My New Guide Dog "Africa"

Tuesday , November 18, 2008, 7:54 PM

Today was one of the most extremely informative, if not most fun, times during the training and formation of a guide dog team. Today we did traffic checks.

One of the most important jobs a guide dog must perform is watching for traffic whether it is moving, standing still waiting for a light to change, or whether an individual car might be blocking our path. Any pedestrian should always be alert to the traffic around them. For those of us who choose to use a guide dog the dog can help us a great deal to address the issues regarding traffic. Here are a few scenarios.

1. Suppose you are walking down a sidewalk and suddenly encounter a car sitting in a driveway with the engine running. How do you determine what to do next?

2. As you’re walking down a sidewalk you come to a driveway or small side street. As you begin to cross suddenly a car races around a corner in front of you or shoots in front of you from the driveway or side street. Do you have time to react? What do you do?

3. You are crossing an intersection or driveway and hear a car coming toward you from one side or the other. You are walking appropriately, but the car doesn’t slow down. The driver is timing his or her street crossing to go just behind you. (Make no mistake drivers do that.) Again, do you have time to react? What do you do?

4. Now, how do you handle any of the above scenarios if the vehicle happens to be a quiet or hybrid car?

These are only a few of the situations that any pedestrian will encounter while walking anywhere around cars. Blind people whether they use dogs or canes have to answer these questions just like anyone else. We use our hearing and strive to be at least as aware as other pedestrians of what is around us.

The hybrid question is a very serious one for those of us who happen to be blind. It is our belief that hybrid vehicles should make a sound that will allow them to be monitored by blind pedestrians, cyclists, and others who may not be looking directly at a hybrid vehicle when it is near them.

No matter what the circumstances both dog and cane users are able to walk on our streets and sidewalks successfully and competently. Although I travel well with either a cane or a guide dog I prefer the guide dog especially when it comes to traffic issues. “Traffic checks” are the processes used by guide dog instructors to teach dogs how to handle any traffic scenario they might encounter including hybrid cars. Schools such as Guide Dogs for the Blind that have been using traffic checks extensively for years have found that hybrid cars, although a challenge, are not really harder for the dogs than standard vehicles. I’m sure instructors would agree that a little more vigilance is in order and so they work to make sure that their guide dog charges watch as best they can. It is still a team effort when dealing with traffic checks. The guide dog user must let the dog do its job, but it is still important for the user to be aware of what is going on around them. Read on and you’ll see how Africa and I handled a variety of different traffic scenarios today.

Guess what, Todd arrived at 9 a.m. sharp. It was off to San Rafael for our date with Adam Wasco and the GDB hybrid car. At 9:45 we were at the Guide Dogs lounge and ready to go. We turned right out of the lounge on 4th St heading toward F Street with E street behind us. We had walked no more than a few feet when we encountered a car sitting in the driveway blocking our path. Of course, it was that crazy driver Adam Wasco. Africa stopped a few feet away from the car just as she was supposed to do. I hopped her up to the car so that I could see in fact that it was a vehicle blocking our way. She got lots of praise for stopping a few feet before we reached the car. The reason for stopping early is that we would not know the intent of the driver if in fact a driver was in the car at all. If she went right up to the car before stopping and the vehicle began to move we might be clipped or worse.

After determining that the car was stationary and not planning to move in the next few moments I commanded Africa to go forward and we went around the car and on our merry way. After reaching F Street and crossing it, now headed toward G. We had walked no more than a few feet when suddenly out of a driveway shot a car right in front of us. Africa stopped and moved back quickly pulling me with her. This again is exactly as what she is supposed to do. Lots of praise and food rewards were the order of the day. It is important not only to tell Africa that she was doing a good job but to heighten her sense of desire to be especially vigilant concerning traffic. There’s nothing like a good food reward to help make this possible. Madman Wasco shot out of the driveway and turned right and went on his hopefully not so merry way. Where is a cop when you need one?

We reached G where we prepared to cross. Just as we started across, you guessed it, here came our ever vigilant Adam to race across in front of us forcing Africa and me to move back. We finally made it across G and went down toward H.

For the rest of the route which took us up to H, over to 5th, and then back down to and across F Street Adam performed every kind of scenario imaginable to cause Africa to react appropriately to keep us safe from his vehicle. Finally we turned right on F and headed back down to 4th St. where we turned left and returned to the lounge. What was most noticeable about Africa’s behavior was that she did a good job of looking around her for cars. On many occasions, she saw Adam his vehicle long before I heard it and began to react. Since Africa’s job is to react to conditions around her it is my responsibility to let her do her job and follow her if she feels that we are in danger or that there is a problem. The result during this walk was that we stayed well away from danger. Africa kept us safe.

I must stop and make one comment here about dogs versus canes. Could a cane traveler do the same things that I was able to do with Africa? The answer is yes. I am not sure that in some of the situations we faced, I, as a cane traveler would have been able to react quite as quickly or at least as far in advance as I was able to do with Africa. It is all a matter of me being aware as much as possible of what is happening around me. The problem is heightened, as I said earlier, by the concept of hybrid cars. If I can’t hear them I can’t react to them.

I don’t want to leave the subject of traffic checks without acknowledging Adam Wasco for his part in our training. Adam is a great guy with a wonderful sense of humor which brings out the best in us all. He is fun to kid since he gives is good as he gets. He is a longtime veteran of the Training Department at Guide Dogs for the Blind. He knows his job and does it well. He is one of the best trainers I know second only, of course, to Todd. The fact that he is able to drive a vehicle so well and in such a safe manner that he is able to perform the traffic checks we required is a testimony to his skill. I very much appreciate his efforts in helping me and all those who receive guidedogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind.

After we returned to the lounge and sent Adam off on his evil way, Todd and I decided to further Africa‚Äôs training by teaching her to target traffic light poles in general and the buttons on these poles in specific. It is very helpful if a guide dog can point out the location of the button to change the traffic signal so that the user doesn’t have to spend a long time hunting for the pole. This is best accomplished with the use of the clicker.

We left the lounge and went to the corner of C and 5th St. which is frequently used during guide dog class training to accomplish the training we had in mind. The process is very similar to that which we used in teaching Africa to find the elevator. First, I would click and reward Africa every time she found my hand which was resting on the pole right below the button. Over a short time we moved back longer distances and I rewarded Africa every time she found the pole first with a click than with food. Again, within about five minutes she was targeting the button on the pole like a pro. We will have to do this more than once, I’m sure. However, we laid the foundation and I’m sure Africa will pick up the new technique in no time.

We returned to the lounge and headed off to Novato for a wonderful Chinese lunch and a short walk around downtown before heading back home. We accomplished a lot today both with traffic checks and with the new light pole training. It was a busy day for Africa and I’m sure a somewhat stressful one although she handled it well. Africa and I spent the rest of the day playing ball, being silly and in general bonding. She’s doing well around the house both with Roselle and Sherlock, the strange cat. Africa and my wife, Karen, seem also to be bonding well. Africa has no fear of the wheelchair and I think if given the chance would love to take a ride on Karen’s lap. That isn’t going to happen, however.

Tomorrow we get to take an independent route where Todd will not be walking right behind us. This will be Africa’s first time of walking without Todd there as her security blanket. She is very used to Todd and I think relies on having him around. It’s time to start breaking that tether. Come back tomorrow to see what happens.

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  • Beth Nelson

    Dear Michael, Peggy and Bill Sproul, Africa’s raisers, forwarded your diary of in-home training. What an absolute delight!! I am a former GDB puppy raiser and followed every word you wrote about training. I really enjoy reading of your philosophy and attitude of guide dogs. I thrill at hearing how well Africa is doing – it is what all puppy raisers like to hear. Blessings on you and your family as you continue to work with Africa and “go out” on your own. Beth Nelson from Fort Collin, Colorado

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