One of the exciting things about training with a new guide dog is learning new techniques that the school has developed since you trained with the last dog. Guide Dogs for the Blind is committed to making sure that they produce the best guide dogs, which means embracing change as science continues to understand how to best work with dogs. Since it had been seven years since I trained with my last guide, I was prepared to be open minded to these new changes. One of the best changes that they’ve made, in my opinion, is the use of clicker training.
For those of you who are unaware of what clicker training is, it is a way of teaching your dog new commands quickly. Many people are familiar with Pavlov’s dog experiment. Pavlov wanted to understand how reinforcement influenced behavior. He set up an experiment that whenever he rang a bell the dogs would receive food. Eventually, the bell would lead to the dogs salivating because they associated the bell with receiving food. This is similar to what occurs when using the clicker, but instead of a bell, we use a device that makes a click sound.
In the first week of being home, I have successfully clicker trained Carleen a number of times. She now understands the commands, “Find the mailbox” and “Find the bus stop.” When blind handlers do clicker training it’s a little different. We must use our hand first as the target since we can’t see the dogs nose touching the desired object. We then slowly move away from the object until the dog actively moves toward the desired object. Every time the dog goes to the object we reward them. Once they pull toward the object consistently, we associate a word with the object. We can then use the word to ask them to go to the object. It may take multiple sessions before the dog consistently does what you’ve asked, but they learn very quickly.
What do other guide dog users think of clicker training? If your school uses it, do you find that your newer dogs are learning faster than the old ones?