“Sherlock Holmes” – Day 2

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008, 9:17 PM

It’s time to report on our second day of training. I first need to go back to last evening to describe a brief encounter between Africa and Sherlock the cat. While preparing to retire for the evening I showed Africa her bed which was on the floor next to my side of Karen’s and my bed. I have a tie-down chain which I attached to Africa’s collar to keep her from wandering off in the middle of the night.

Soon after tying down Africa,Sherlock jumped up on the bed and walked over to my side to look down from his “lofty position” to see the new family member. I’m not sure what Africa did but she must have moved in some way that made Sherlock realize she was tied down and couldn’t get to him. All I know is that Africa sat up to look at Sherlock. Sherlock, who is declawed, decided to repeatedly bop Africa on the nose. We have seen Sherlock play this game with dogs on tie-down before. Karen put a stop to it as I was out of the room at the time. Sherlock never seems to know when to leave well enough alone. I’ll be interested to see what happens tonight. If he keeps up this game Africa, when she is allowed to run free might just decide to chase him a bit. As fun as that would be to watch it isn’t a good idea to allow it to begin in the first place. I have no doubt that Sherlock will be of little help in Africa’s training even at home.

This morning we began our work at a little after 9 a.m. when Todd arrived at our house. The plan Todd outlined was to go into San Rafael and work downtown including visiting office buildings to do some work on stairs and elevators. With new students this kind of work isn’t done until late in the second week or the beginning of the third week. Todd made the decision to do this work so early because Africa and I worked extremely well together yesterday.

We drove to the Guide Dogs for the Blind downtown lounge where we parked and prepared to walk the route. We first walked to a nearby post office where I needed to mail a package. Coincidently, the post office had a nice entry way which included stairs.

After mailing the package we walked east on 4th St to a favorite GDB practice site, the Albert building. This building, which has been a mainstay for instructors and students alike as long as I have been training with guide dogs in San Rafael, is good for us because it is pretty quiet and it contains both an elevator and stairs. The elevator is old, bouncy, and today was out of order. What a bummer! It is always fun to see the dogs’ reactions when we take them on this particular elevator because of its jerky motion. I will miss the experience.

Plan B. was to continue east on 4th St, do a double crossing at A Street in order to get on the north side of fourth and then to continue on fourth to the Bank of America building. As a point of interest, this building is just before Barney’s burgers where we ate lunch yesterday. When we reach the building we climbed the entryway stairs and went into the building. The lobby included a nice lovely working elevator.

At this point Todd and I decided to begin teaching Africa to locate elevator buttons on command. This process involved using a clicker to tell Africa when she was doing what we expected. A clicker is a small handheld device which when pressed makes a clicking sound. Guidedogs was the first school to introduce the clicker now some 10 years ago. Every dog today who graduates from GDB is clicker trained.

Using the clicker is incredibly effective as long as it is done right. The trick is to click the clicker the instant the dog completes the proper behavior. Immediately after clicking a food reward is offered to heighten the sense of a “great job well done”.

We began our training process by having Africa touch my hand which was placed on the wall right below the elevator button. Every time she touched my hand I clicked the clicker and gave her a food reward. After a few successful efforts we moved Africa back away from the wall two or 3 feet and then continued the process, this time expecting her to walk up and touched my hand which was still placed on the wall right below the elevator button.

Again after a few successful times of doing this we backed across the lobby which put us about 10 feet away from the elevator button. I commanded Africa to go forward and as soon as she walked to the right spot so that I could reach out and touch the elevator button I clicked and she received a food reward. The second time we worked from across the lobby we introduced the word “elevator” which I spoke immediately after I commanded her to go forward. It wasn’t long before she understood that when I said “elevator” I expected her to take me to the button to call the machine.

The process of training took no more than five minutes. Of course, we will reinforce this behavior over the next few days. In addition, we’ll use the clicker to teach Africa to locate other items such as the control buttons for traffic lights at crosswalks. Because the clicker sound indicates a specific point in time, in the case today it was that Africa found the elevator button for me, it is very powerful because it tells Africa the exact moment she performs a new task. Once she performs the task consistently I can discontinue the use of the clicker and go back to simple praise and the occasional food reward until or unless we need to reinforce what I want her to do.

We rode up in the elevator to the third floor and then walked down the stairs after which we left the building. We walked back up 4th Street now going west to B Street and then turn north to go to 5th. After crossing 5th we turned west and traveled on to the City Hall building. We entered the City Hall by walking upstairs and entering the building through its main 5th St entrance. Again we use the stairs this time to go up to the second floor and then located the elevator using Africa’s newly learned command, “elevator”. We then returned to the first floor and exited the building. I was impressed at how quickly Africa caught onto a new command and integrated it into her routine. She did a great job!

We then returned to the downtown lounge which meant walking west on 5th St to E St. and then traveling south on E to 4th St. We then traveled west on fourth to the lounge which, as you may recall, is between E and F.

We then traveled back to GDB where we stayed only a few minutes and then we drove across the street to the Northgate Mall. We decided to have lunch at the mall but first we walked through Macy’s department store with its narrow aisles and great opportunities to practice close clearance work. After lunch at Applebee’s restaurant we decided to do some escalator work. Again, normally this isn’t done until the third week of training for new students. Escalator work has changed since I received Meryl last year. Now Guide Dogs provides and encourages the use of booties to protect the dogs’ paws from harm when stepping on or off moving escalators and sidewalks. Personally I have never had a problem taking a guide dog on an escalator but I heartily endorse anything which will help keep guides safer during travel.

As expected, Africa isn’t a great fan of the booties but she tolerated them with little complaint. She has worn them before but even so it is not her favorite thing to do. We walked to Mervyn’s department store where we took escalators to the third floor and then rode them back down to the first floor. We then walked to Macy’s department store where we again took escalators up two floors and back down again before returning to the van for the ride home.

In all we had another good day. There were a few times when Africa cut our clearance with obstacles a little close. Each time a simple correction resolve the problem and we went on our way. In total we walked between 2 1/2 and 3 miles today. I asked Todd if we were doing as much walking on a given day as he did when he was training Africa. He said that we were doing at least as much. I ask this because I wanted to make sure that Africa was getting as much exercise now as she was during training. Since her workouts now are at least as intensive as they were during training I am giving her the same amount of food each meal as she received while in the kennels.

Tomorrow it’s off to our first workout in San Francisco where we will ride buses and visit a few more crowded buildings. I am very pleased with the results Africa and I are getting so far. She is very smart. Clearly she takes after her mother, but far be it from me to be prejudiced.

During this journal entry I mentioned clicker training. Clickers are proving to be revolutionary in guide dog training as well as in other kinds of dog instruction. You can learn more about the subject as well as how to use clickers with your own dog or cat by visiting http://www.clickertraining.com/

Tune in tomorrow night for the next installment.

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