Training Seeing Eye Dogs

Man with seeing eye dog starting to cross the road

The full time advanced training of Seeing Eye Dogs after they progress from the Puppy Caring program takes about twenty six weeks. It embodies all the training that will enable the dog to act as a guide, providing safe and independent travel, for a person who is blind or has low vision.

The advanced training takes place from our national training facility in Melbourne and at training centres in Western Australia and Queensland. Training of Seeing Eye Dogs can be undertaken by specialist staff; either trainers or instructors (see careers section).

The early stages of advanced training are important for a number of reasons. The dog may feel anxious after moving from a puppy carer’s home where it has spent most of its life to date. The first few weeks are a time when we allow the dog to settle, but also for us to assess the potential of the dog to undertake the intensive and advanced tasks we require. The trainer also needs to establish a strong bond with the dog, this is important as we work with dogs using positive reinforcement to develop willingness by the dog to please the handler.

All through the advanced training we continue with sessions of what we call basic obedience. This reinforces early learning by the dog in puppy development and includes many of the things that pet dogs would be taught. Things like responding to “sit” and being calm and relaxed in social situations. This is also a useful exercise for developing the relationship between the dog and the handler (Instructor or Trainer). The main part of advanced training takes place on the streets in real life conditions as this is where our dogs are destined to do most of their work. We do work in all-weather except when it gets too hot.

Young woman walking with a seeing eye dogThe dog is also encouraged to keep a position in the centre of the pavement and to stop and wait at each kerb it comes to. These early walks are likely to be just on a collar and lead, and it’s not until the dog has settled that we introduce the harness that will enable a person who is blind to feel the movements of the dog. The first training session on the streets is about getting the dog to pay attention to the handler when there are lots of other distractions around. We have to find positive ways to encourage the dog to keep its focus and not be concerned about things like other dogs, cats, loud noises or crowds. We need the dog to walk at a consistent pace and in a consistent position, it doesn't matter too much what the pace is as long as it’s consistent, we do have clients that walk fast and clients that walk slow, so we need dogs to match these.

The dog also has to develop an understanding of the space that needs to be allowed around and above themselves and the handler so that the person being guided doesn’t get bumped into things. The dogs also need to learn to move around things in a way that is easy and safe for the handler to follow.

Seeing Eye Dogs also need to become very comfortable travelling in all different forms of transport, especially cars, buses, trams and trains, as well as all the different environments that our clients may want to visit.

Our Seeing Eye Dogs are very clever animals and they develop an understanding of what we want from a number of commands and signals that we do. It’s sometimes difficult for us to understand what it is that the dog actually responds to and we can give clues to them without even realising it, which is why at different stages the handler under blindfold will do walks as a way of assessing the success of the teaching and to determine the dogs readiness to either move onto the next stage of training or to go to a client.

Our training uses positive reinforcement, where we encourage the dog to get things right and then let them know with some sort of positive reward that this is what we want, in the early stages of training we may use food as a reward, but this will always be faded out and praise is the main thing that we use.

The pace of progress does vary from dog to dog, some dogs take a bit longer to mature and settle into the work, and we will allow them the time they need. Each dog has individual needs and potential and we try to identify this and work with the needs and the abilities of the dog to get the best out of them. We aim for a dog that is relaxed and confident and concentrating on its task.