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The final stages of guide training

by instructor Kate Peterson

Kate and Guiding Eyes dog Nashoba stop for a visit with the mounted police during a NYC training session.After approximately four months of hard work, our potential guide dogs enter the fourth and final phase of training.  By this point, each dog has the basic skills necessary for successful guide work.  The dogs have already learned how to target curbs, cross streets, navigate around obstacles and how to protect their handlers from a platform edge or oncoming traffic.

So what do we do with dogs during the final phase of training?  We work on the refining very specific skills.  For some dogs, this may include indoor work, like boarding and riding escalators and elevators, and working around the very tempting food courts and cafeterias of the local malls.  For other dogs, continued street work is the focus of the final months of training.  Most dogs spend time practicing settling with their trainers – lying down calmly while their trainers eat lunch or fill out paperwork.  Here we lay the finishing touches – ensuring our guide dogs work hard, settle nicely and have excellent leash manners.

The final phase also includes several important events for the dogs.  Every dog visits Manhattan at least once during the training cycle.  Some dogs enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city; they thrive off the activity and enjoy weaving through crowds of people, past tons of dog distractions and through the often gridlocked street crossings.  You never know what you might come across on a trip to the city.  From Great Danes to horses, subway cars to jackhammers, a dog bound for a large city should be comfortable with all of it.

However, this type of environment is not for every dog, just like it’s not for every person.  All of the dogs are expected to work safely in the city, but some dogs prefer more average sized cities, quiet towns or suburbia as a working environment.  Trainers use this information to match dogs with our students who come from different-sized towns all across America, big cities like Manhattan and Chicago, and international destinations such as Rome, Madrid and Hong Kong.

Another important milestone for the dogs is the final blindfold experience – somewhat like a final exam.  With their trainers under blindfold, the dogs work a route in White Plains that includes lots of street work and some indoor work including escalators.  This final evaluation is an excellent way to see how each dog will deal with the real-world pressures of guide work.

As a trainer, Final Blindfold always renews my respect for our incredible students who work similar routes in White Plains all through class.  White Plains can be a loud and intimidating city when you can’t see.  I have the benefit of working in the city sighted every day, and I still manage to get myself turned around and discombobulated under blindfold.  The experience always gives me a new respect for my dogs, many of whom use ingenuity and hard work to make up for my terrible orientation under blindfold.  It’s not easy for a dog to cross a street safely when his or her handler is moving in a completely different direction!

After the successful completion of final blindfold, the dogs are ready to be matched and begin class.  Then the real adventure begins!

Kate Petersen has worked at Guiding Eyes since March, 2010.  She was involved for many years prior – having raised numerous puppies with her family in our Southern CT region.  Kate lives in CT with her husband Eli and retired guide Emmylou. 

Photo of damaged fencing at Training Center following Hurricane Sandy