If It's Not Broke, Why Fix It? The State of our Guide Dog Training in the U.S.

by Dan Kysor

In 1977, I received my first guide dog from the Seeing Eye (SE) and am still using dogs at the spry age of 58.
Since 1929, the concept of "praise and touch" has been key in the success of the guide dog working team. Subsequently, in the 1990s, added equipment, such as special collars, was being introduced to help control poor behavior and distractions on the part of the guide dog. This seemed, in my view, to be directly related to a softening of the utilization of corrective measures such as leash corrections and high collar corrections as a nod to political correctness.
In 2000, food reward was gradually being introduced into not only the training of the guide dog but into the mechanics of the working team in varying degrees, depending upon which school one attended.  Like many baby boomers, I rebelled against using food reward and clicker training. 
In 2010, I retired Hilly, my Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) lab, after she contracted spleen cancer.  I became embroiled in a battle with GDB in trying to secure a three-week training class for my next dog.  You see, I really believe that when a guide dog rebels, which is usually the third week of training, I would rather have a sighted guide dog instructor behind me. A year prior, GDB introduced formal clicker training into their program.
I went back to SE and received a chocolate lab and for the next 7 months, worked a dog that was, according to their staff, suffering from counter pull. I returned the dog and went back to GDB, where I received a black lab who only lasted one day from a condition they called counter pull.
I then received a lab and for the first few months, things worked out quite nicely, but he developed a fear of stairs and train platforms and yes, suffered from a condition known as counter pull.
I then got to thinking about the dogs I had before this new type of training and how successful I was with them. I began looking around for guide dog training programs that relied upon the more traditional praise-based training.  I discovered Guide Dogs of America (GDA), which advertised the traditional training.  I will get back to GDA, but I was curious about a glaring similarity between what is going on at the two largest guide dog schools, SE and GDB.  Both institutions laid off several field reps and both embraced the new training. Both firmly deny any relation, citing fiscal matters for the layoffs.
While GDB admits to reducing the training of their guide dogs from 16 weeks to 8 weeks, SE has not gone to an 8-week training and utilizes some clicker and food reward voluntary training in their student classes.
Although both institutions have taken PR hits, they also are gaining PR value from being the pre-eminent authorities in the world when it comes to the new clicker training. Michele Pouliot (GDB) and Lukas Franck (SE) have been the pioneers who are leading the nation and world's guide dog schools in the use of this technique. The technique originated with Marian Bailey and Keller Breland, who are graduate students of psychologist and eminent behaviorist B.F. Skinner. According to their work, animal training was being needlessly hindered because traditional methods of praise and reward did not inform the animal of success with enough promptness and precision to create the required cognitive connections for speedy learning. Similar methods were later used in training at least 140 species including whales, bears, lions, chickens and domestic dogs and cats, and even humans.
In an article by Julie Gordon (published March 5, 2013), Michele Pouliot states: "Although we had a successful program that provided safe and effective guide dogs for blind individuals, several factors prompted Guide Dogs for the Blind's initial decision to adopt clicker training. The strong desire to be more successful with dogs with more sensitive temperaments was significant. We were serving an increasingly aging population of blind people who benefitted greatly from a type of dog that is more easily managed, more sensitive in nature. This type of dog was rarely successful in our traditional training program, as the techniques in that program did not develop confidence in performing guide dog work in that group of dogs. To serve our changing client population effectively, it became clear that there was a need for dogs with more sensitive temperament, which created a need for alternative training.
"In addition, the working environment for guide dogs had become progressively more difficult since the 1990s; this truth was often lamented in conversations among guide dog trainers worldwide.
"As the years passed, working environments became increasingly difficult for guide dogs to navigate. Examples of environmental challenges included an increased number of encounters with 'less than friendly' humans on the street, more free-running dogs (often aggressive), higher volume vehicle traffic, increased pedestrian traffic, and louder noise volume. It became essential to address the question of how to make the job of a guide dog in the modern world more positive and less stressful. A more positive way of developing guide dogs was viewed as a potential way to resolve some of these challenges that our guide dog program and others like it were experiencing."
So how does all of this nice-sounding scientific justification stack up to the traditional training which is used at GDA and some other facilities? Chuck Jorden, GDA Training Director, simply stated, "It doesn't. If it's not broke, why fix it? We stand by our dogs and the traditional praise touch method of training."
I personally believe that GDB has chosen clicker training and food reward to facilitate a speedier process to train dogs and people.  I am amazed that they can train a guide dog team in a mere two weeks and a guide dog in a mere eight weeks.
From my experience as a seasoned dog handler, the dogs post-new training were not up to snuff and the dog teams I personally know utilizing the traditional praise-based training are far more solid. All of this is particularly important for folks who are thinking about getting a new guide dog. Often, people's decisions are based on the time it takes to go through training.  Sure, it's great to be able to take two weeks off work and train as opposed to 3 or 4 weeks, but there is a huge price you may pay for that, so don't just look at the trade-offs and the techniques used at the school, but facilities and other considerations.
I am not driven to write this article out of any loyalty to school; there is too much of that, to the detriment of the quality of life one has with their guide.  As blind consumers, we all must try to be objective, and I write this from my personal experience.