I do not like to career change dogs.
That having been said, I also do not want to be the one who signs off on a dog being class-ready when it has some shortcoming as a guide dog that has the potential to make a person's life stressful or even possibly put the person in danger. I know that not all dogs are suited to be guides and that some of them out of almost every group will be career changed. It's never an easy decision to make.
When the dogs first come in for training, they do all kinds of things that, if they happened regularly, would point to the dog not being suitable as a guide. Things like lunging after other dogs, whining and being unable to settle down and relax when out of the kennel, growling at other dogs, being afraid of people or objects, the list goes on. I don't worry overly much about any of those things in the first two weeks (unless they are constant or severe, in which case I do worry about them). The first two weeks is a time of adjustment. It is very stressful to the dog to go from living with a family to living in a kennel, no matter how well they are taken care of in the kennel. Stress produces some weird behaviors. But if they're still happening into the third week and beyond, once the dog gets the routine and has bonded with the trainer, then I have to start figuring out the best plan of action to address the problem and see if I can get the problem behavior to go away or not.
The longer the behavior persists in training, the less likely it is to be fixable. (Side note: many or most behaviors are fixable IF you have unlimited time to work with the dog and IF you can minimize environmental stress and IF you always have control over the environment and IF you don't mind taking steps backward if the dog regresses in the future. These things might work if we're talking about a pet dog whose owner is fully committed to dealing with the problem behavior and the possibility that it might recur throughout the dog's life. But they are unreasonable when talking about a guide dog. A guide dog is a working dog with a purpose -- to guide a blind person safely -- and it is unfair to give a person a dog who we know is going to require lifestyle alterations just to keep it working safely. Also, a person who is blind does not always have control over what the dog has to deal with in the environment. I have a dog who is sometimes dog reactive. If I'm walking her down the block and I see another dog coming, I can change direction or cross the street and get her away from the dog to a point where she can control herself, and then praise her for her self-control, and if I do this enough times over the years and do it right, I end up with a dog who has very good self-control around other dogs. But I don't think that's fair to ask of someone who can't see.) I am almost halfway through training, and the dogs that have been career changed showed their problems on Day One. I career changed one two weeks ago and one this week.
The first one I career changed was fearful of many things. She was afraid of the elevator, the grooming table, open-sided stairs in the residence hall, and the gap when getting onto the training truck. (We back the trucks up to a sort of loading dock in the garage to load dogs, and there is a gap of maybe a foot or so between the dock and the truck that the dog has to jump over. Most dogs jump right over like it's not even there, but some of them see the gap and panic, brace their legs and flatten and have to be convinced to jump over it.) I worked on exposure to all of these things, and she made progress. All I was doing was creating a positive association by using high-value treats and praise. By the end of the second week she was convinced that all of those things were okay, although she still showed a tiny bit of discomfort (tight ears, lip licking, things that are generally not obvious except to other dog trainers). But she wasn't panicking and flattening anymore.
We started working in town and her street work was good. She was a very sweet and willing dog and I liked working with her. But then I took her inside the plaza building on Main Street. It has a few sets of stairs, some open-sided, and it also has a place on the second floor where you can look down onto the first floor. She didn't want anything to do with either of these two things. She was back to square one with obvious fear, total loss of responsibility, and inability to work past the scary thing. She was so scared she couldn't even take treats while walking past it.
I gave her a week to improve or not. We visited the plaza daily and my first goal was just to be able to get her to walk past the scary drop off on leash, with the drop-off on my side. She managed this though it was hard. As soon as we approached the drop-off on the second day, she bolted to my right side and pressed herself so close to the wall on the non-drop off side that the harness scraped along it. She raced past that drop-off as fast as she could, she was so afraid of it. It took three days of working before she was able to walk past on leash with the drop off on her side without bolting. She was still very nervous and visibly not happy about it, but she wasn't bolting. On the last day I tried to work her in harness. As we got close to the drop-off, she stopped and flattened to the ground and looked up at me wagging her tail and panting hard. I set down the harness and tried to get her to walk on leash past the drop off, and it was a total regression to the first day with bolting to my other side up against the wall and too stressed to take treats. That was it. That lying down and looking at me was her saying, "I can't do this, get me out of here." So I did. I career changed her and she got to go home.
The second dog was a big boy, another nice dog workwise. From the first day he had barked at both people and dogs when they showed up unexpectedly and surprised him. (He had also been doing this with Dog Care staff before I picked him up for training.) We call that suspicious or alert barking -- the dog sees something and thinks it's not right and his reaction is to bark at it. This is really common in the first couple weeks. But this dog's barking continued very intermittently all the way through Week Seven (which was this past week). He would go a week or two without any barking and then he'd see something that flipped his switch and bark at it. One day he saw a woman coming towards us in a street crossing wearing a fur jacket with a hood and he barked at her. I probably should have career changed him right there but because it was the first bark in a long time and because maybe he had never seen a fur-hooded person and because he was turning into such a nice worker with lower distraction and good social behavior, I couldn't quite bring myself to do it yet. There's not much trainers can do about suspicious barking; it is something a dog either gets over as it adjusts to training, or does not get over and continues doing. We usually can't predict exactly what will flip the switch to make them bark, so it's not like we can desensitize them to that one thing and have the problem fixed.
This week I took him with me to a staff-wide training day. He was perfectly behaved throughout the training. I took him up to my office afterwards and he was lying under my desk when one of the other trainers came in and he went off barking at her. She said something and walked closer and he barked again, not having decided yet that she was okay. That was it for me. Seven weeks in and still barking at something as innocuous and non-threatening as another trainer coming into a room full of trainers; that is no longer an adjustment thing but a part of his temperament that renders an otherwise nice dog unsuitable for this job. (This dog had also had a history of possible growling at other dogs. By "possible" I mean that the volunteer had told me she heard him once the first day he was on the dog truck [but she said he was growling at a dog that I had seen growl at him earlier, so hard to say if he was protecting himself or what], and that a few times I or another instructor had heard a low growl from his vicinity either on the truck or when he was lying under a table with other dogs, but it had never persisted and we were never 100% sure it was him [though I would go to 99% sure]. So that was another, potentially very serious shortcoming as a guide.)
I hope puppy raisers know that we never, ever career change a dog on a whim. These dogs already have a year invested in them and a lot of time and money, and believe me, we want to use every dog we possibly can. But we have to be sure that we're not putting out dogs that are unsafe or unable to handle the pressures of guide work, too. I know I made the right decision about these two dogs, and I know that they will go on to have happy lives and their owners will love them and those little temperament quirks will not affect their ability to be good pets at all.
Forward! The Guide Dog Training Blog
Why Another Blog? Don't You Already Have One?
Yes, I DO already have one blog! But I can't stop thinking or writing about the ways dogs' and humans' lives are connected. It seemed to be a good idea to keep all those thoughts and writings in one place. Also, for myself I want a journal of what happens in my career and in my head, so I can go back and read it later.