I love that moment of walking into the kennel for the first time and seeing my rows of new dogs. It's kind of like Christmas, finding out what I got. I always hope for a string that is nicely mixed as far as sex, breed, color, and temperament. This time I've got five Labs, one Lab-golden cross, one shepherd, and one golden. Four black Labs, one yellow (the cross is yellow too). Five females, three males. I'll take it! I always look at every single new dog and think of how much time, love, and hard work has been put into each of them. I never for a second forget where they came from and that lots of people put in a lot of effort to get them where they are now. Thank you, puppy raisers!
On my first day with new dogs, I don't ask them to do much besides hang out with me. I can't help but get an initial impression of them when I walk down the row of kennels and look at them. Some are barking, some are jumping, some are circling, some (not many) are sitting quietly and waiting for attention. I pick a dog to start with and let it out of its kennel. With our dogs, I expect them to be happy and excited to greet me. Every once in a while there is one that is standoffish and reserved, but not in this string. I take the dog into the run with a couple toys and see what it does. Staying near me and interacting with me, running around and sniffing the whole run, picking up the toys and running in circles with them are all normal reactions. I am also curious to see what the dog's energy level looks like. Some of them explode out of their kennels and race around for a while (these are teenage retrievers for the most part; I expect them to have a high energy level), while others stroll out sedately and don't seem to be in a hurry. Some of them love toys, some could care less, some will play with the toy if I hold it or throw it but don't want to play with it by themselves. The thing I like the most is when the dog tries to interact with me without being prompted -- shows me the toy, makes eye contact, rubs up against me, sits or lies down near me. I don't take it personally if they are more interested in exploring the run than in hanging out with me, but guide dogs are usually pretty people-oriented and want to be with people whenever they can, so wanting to be with me is a good sign.
Once the dog has gotten its initial energy burst over with, I try a few commands, "Sit" or "Down" or "Stay" if the dog looks responsive to me. I don't correct for lack of response to commands; I am more looking to see how willing the dog is to respond to commands from someone he or she doesn't know at all. I certainly never expect a dog to obey perfectly when he only met me five minutes ago, but it is surprising the number that do exactly that, like they're proud to show me what they know. I always have treats on me, and I give them a few for enthusiastic performance, just to begin to establish the fact that their behavior can cause me to turn into a treat-dispensing machine and also to show them I am a good person to be around.
Once I have tried a couple obedience commands, I sit down in a chair and take some notes, while watching to see what the dog will do. Most dogs will lie down next to my chair in less than five minutes. Some less typical reactions include persistent jumping on me or nudging me for attention, barking at me, or frantic circling or pacing accompanied by other stress signs like panting and whining. These aren't necessarily bad -- transition to kennel life can be very stressful and produce all kinds of weird behaviors during the adjustment stage that may very well go away once the dog has adjusted to the routine -- but they are worth noting. Once the dog has settled down and I am finished with my notes, I open the gate and we head back to the dog's kennel. I ask the dog to go in its kennel and sit on its bed, and then it gets a treat and I move on to the next one. I really, really like for the dogs to have good manners when entering and exiting their kennels.
The second day with the dogs I bring them out of the kennel and into the hallway of the kennel building, where I begin some loose leash walking practice and some very basic obedience. (Usually just Sit, sometimes Down if the dog seems comfortable with me.) I also practice a lot of name recognition. In the early days, the dogs are distracted every time another person or dog enters the hallway. Every time this happens, I say the dog's name and then give it a treat as soon as it returns its attention to me. By repeating this a dozen times or more per training session, the dog develops the habit of focusing on me no matter what else is happening in the environment.
I also sit in a chair in the hallway and wait to see how long it takes the dog to settle down lying under the chair. In the early days there is a lot of getting up and down. Also panting, whining, lunging towards other dogs and people, et cetera. These are all typical reactions associated with the stress of learning a new routine. Most dogs, though, can settle down relatively well after five to ten minutes.
We spend around three weeks on property with new dogs, developing a good working rapport with them, practicing and refining obedience, introducing them to the harness and to basic harness commands, and introducing the clicker. In my own head, there are three hurdles for every dog to clear in this first stage. First, they have to be able to settle eventually. It takes some longer than others, but a dog who can't settle at all even when out of its kennel with no pressure being placed on it for a long period of time may have difficulty adjusting to the pressure of being a working guide. Second, they have to be comfortable going up and down stairs. That means no avoidance of stairs and no bolting up them like a rocket. There are always one or two dogs in a string with stair issues, and this is where we identify them. (Usually, but not always, the stair issues are fixable.) Third, they have to accept wearing the harness. Some dogs have what we call body sensitivity, which means they avoid the harness and feel discomfort when it is put on their bodies. Sometimes these dogs get used to it and other times there are other sensitivities that go along with the body sensitivity that make them unusable as guides. But by the time our three weeks on property with new dogs are over, I have a pretty good idea of how the string will shape up overall and which dogs are going to have some extra issues to work on.
All of these dogs also have puppy reports in the computer, but I don't like to read them until after I've had my hands on the dogs a couple times. I like to get an unbiased first impression before I know anything about the dog's background. Usually the stuff in the puppy reports backs up my observations of the dogs when I do read it, although there have been a few that leave me scratching my head and wondering if we are talking about the same dog here. Puppy reports, dog observations... they are all a part of the big picture, and sometimes it changes over time.