One great source of food for thought is the fact that training and handling methods differ from school to school. That is one of the best things about having worked at three different guide dog schools (and puppy raised for a fourth) -- I have been exposed to a lot of different ways to do things. One lesson I have learned from this is that all the ways work, generally speaking. There is no method that produces lousy results but continues to be used despite the regular lousy results. The interesting thing to me is figuring out the pluses and minuses of each method. Here are just a few examples of what I'm talking about.
1) Foot Probe -- Left or Right?
For those people reading this blog who are not either instructors or handlers of guide dogs, let me explain. When a dog stops at a curb or for any other change in elevation, the handler is going to put his or her foot forward to locate the curb or whatever it is. Some schools teach a right foot probe, some a left foot probe. When I first started learning how to train guide dogs at Guiding Eyes, I learned a left foot probe, like this:
Anyway, I had slipped into using, and teaching, the right foot probe. I started thinking about it this training cycle and thinking about WHY I was using the right foot. It really only came down to one reason: I was afraid of stepping on my dog if I used a left foot probe, and if I stepped on my dog I was likely to push the dog away from me and set myself up for a veer in the street crossing.
This training cycle I have been working very hard on maintaining good body position with the dogs. In other words, they get to the curb and stay there, four paws planted, maintaining alignment to the line of travel, not moving around or curling to get to the treat bag on my right side or doing anything else that could cause the handler to get disoriented. One day I found myself discussing right vs. left foot probe with one of my teammates, who came from another school where they taught left foot probe. As I argued the merits of right foot and he argued the merits of left foot, I began to suspect that he might actually be right. I dimly recalled that when I first started at Seeing Eye and asked which foot they used, it seems like I was told it didn't matter, either one was okay. (I can't remember what Seeing Eye actually teaches -- I am pretty sure this was just the answer of the person who was training me, who had been doing that job so long that I am sure most things didn't matter and the right answer for him was "Whatever works better for this person and this dog; there's no textbook for this kind of thing." And that really is always the answer. But I digress.)
I could not or would not admit that I was wrong straight out. But I went home and thought about it, and the next day switched to left foot myself. It felt extremely awkward for a few hours, then it felt natural. And I concluded that I prefer left foot probe, for all of these reasons:
1) It acts as a reminder to the dog to stay where it is, and not curl. If your right foot is forward, then your left foot is back, and that creates a nice space for your dog to lean into in an attempt to get closer to the treat bag. If your left leg blocks it, there is no space and therefore the dog will stay where it is.
2) If your left foot is forward, then your first step into the street is taken with your right foot, which means you are less likely to step on the dog during street entry, which means you are less likely to create a left veer.
3) If you come to a down curb and are making a turn instead of crossing, then the motion of bringing your left leg back as you give the turn command (in order to give the dog room to move) acts as an additional visual cue to the dog to get its attention. Leg movement is more salient to the dog than hand movement (because it is closer to the dog). Since getting and keeping the dog's attention is one of the most important aspects of working with a dog, anything that makes it easier is worth considering.
Now, all that having been said, I can easily imagine situations where it makes more sense to use a right foot probe. If the handler has very bad balance and steps on the dog regularly when using a left foot probe, it absolutely might make more sense to teach a right foot probe. Or if the team is having difficulties at street crossings where the parallel street is on the left, it might make more sense to find the down curb with the right foot, then step up to it carefully with the left so that the first step is still with the right. Or if there are diagonal-facing curb cuts and the right is where the handler can feel the curb rising out of the curb cut. Or in any crossing where the handler might want to give the dog the feeling that it has room to take the first step to the right. (The handler can make the dog feel that way by putting the right foot forward and creating a space in front of his or her body for the dog to put itself in that space during the first step.) But for most people in most situations, I have now come full circle to believe that the left foot probe is probably better.
2) Leash Handling -- Over the Wrist or Under the Fingers?
When the handler is holding the harness handle and working the guide dog, the handler's four fingers go over the top of the handle and the thumb comes up underneath the handle. Almost every school except for Seeing Eye, I think (based on dozens of hours of watching all the U.S. guide dog schools' YouTube videos), teaches clients to hold the leash underneath the first two fingers, which leaves a portion of the leash hanging to the right of the harness handle so the handler can drop the handle and use the leash if needed. It looks like this:
1) It makes the mechanics of giving a good leash correction much more simple. As I learned it from Joan Markey, a Seeing Eye instructor who knows a lot and taught me a lot, to give a good correction you "paint a stripe down the dog's back". I had been training guide dogs for three years at Guiding Eyes, but I never felt like I could give a good leash correction until I got to Seeing Eye. All or almost all Seeing Eye leash corrections, at least at the time I was there, were left-handed. When you hold the leash under your fingers, corrections pretty much have to be given with the right hand. You have to get the leash out from under your fingers and grab it at the right place to give you enough momentum to get enough slack in the leash to get a good POP in there. If you grab it too close to the dog's collar, there's not enough slack. If you grab it too close to the non-collar end of the leash, there's too much slack and then you can't get a POP that has any effectiveness. With the shorter Seeing Eye leash, you didn't have to think about where to grab it because it was already in the right place.
2) The leash-over-the-wrist method pretty much requires you to stop when you need to give a leash correction. In my opinion, it is more effective to correct the dog before you are right on top of the thing that is distracting it. That gives the dog a chance to refocus on you and make a better decision about where to keep its attention. One thing I have always noticed with the right-handed correction is that clients try to fix things on the fly, i.e. they get the leash in their right hand while walking and start giving ineffective leash corrections while the dog gets more and more interested in the distraction it is approaching and less and less able to respond to the corrections. Rule #1 of working a dog safely is DO NOT FOLLOW A DOG THAT IS SERIOUSLY DISTRACTED! It is not looking out for your safety when it's highly distracted. Stop, get the dog's attention, then continue.
3) If the client drops the handle for whatever reason, the dog is still attached to them. If the leash is under the fingers and the client drops the handle, the leash will probably fall too.
4) When all corrections are left-handed and given in the direction straight back, you don't have to worry about which side the distraction is on. When leash corrections are given with the right hand, and the distraction is on the right side (a person trying to pet, a dog tied outside a coffee shop, a bush the dog wants to sniff), it is much easier, depending on the proximity of the distraction, for a client to give an ineffective correction that only brings the dog closer to the thing that has taken the dog's attention off of guide work.
But isn't the answer "Teach the client good mechanics for giving a leash correction with the right hand"? Well, maybe. But all I have to say about that is that I am a professional dog trainer, have been training dogs for almost 30 years if you count my 4-H dogs, was trained by some of the best people in the business... and still cannot give an effective right-handed leash correction in some situations, whereas I never had difficulty giving an effective left-handed correction.
Arguments for the leash-under-the-fingers method:
1) It allows the client to control the dog's head more easily when moving through crowded areas. Totally true. Left hand on the harness, leash in the right hand with just the tiniest bit of tension on it so you can feel the dog looking from side to side and know when it is considering leaving the line of travel. This is a valid point as long as holding the leash doesn't become STEERING with the leash.
2) It is less dangerous because the leash looped over the wrist can lead to broken wrists. I have actually heard this argument and think it is completely, totally baseless. I never heard of a broken wrist while I was at Seeing Eye or since, at least not one that can be traced to this method of leash holding while working the dog. I have heard of several broken wrists from clients who were not holding the leash looped over the wrist. But I think a broken wrist for any reason whatsoever is much more likely to be a training and/or matching problem than anything to do with the leash.
3) When the Dog Obeys the "Come" Command... Where Does it "Come" to?
The "Come" command either has a "finish" component, or it doesn't. By that I mean that "Come" can mean either "Get over here" or else, "Come to me, circle around behind me, and sit at my left side" or else. "Come to me, sit in front of me, and wait for me to tell you to get in heel position again."
At Guiding Eyes and Seeing Eye, the dogs had to finish. If I remember right (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong), at Guiding Eyes the dog was supposed to come to the handler, walk past the handler's left leg, turn around behind the handler, and end up sitting by the handler's left leg facing the same direction as the handler. And if I remember right, at Seeing Eye the dog had to come to the handler's right side, circle behind the handler, and then sit by the left leg. At Leader, "Come" means "come close enough for me to make sustained physical contact with you", which in practical terms means "close enough for me to grab the collar and get a hold of you".
I totally prefer Come-without-a-finish. Even though Come-with-a-finish requires us to do a better job training the dog (which I am always in favor of), and gets the dog in the habit of putting itself back in correct working position in relation to the handler, which is helpful when reworking errors, it was an exercise that often caused more problems than it solved in class. I remember it all too well. The dog would sit and stay patiently. The handler would call it. The dog would walk to the handler and stop. Then would begin the process of coaxing the dog back into position. Explanation of leash handling methods would ensue. Some clients were never able to fully master the leash handling at all. Just as the dog finally walked into something approximating the correct position on the handler's side, and the instructor said, "All right! He's there!" the dog would spin around and sit in front of the handler, instead of on the left where it was supposed to be. Handler and instructor would groan, instructor would say, "Again, he's got to know he has to do it right," and instructor's desire for a strong alcoholic drink would intensify even if it was only 7:00 a.m.
Most of the time, when a client calls a dog to come, all they really need the dog to do is get close enough to touch the dog... and stay there. (A run-by does not count.) Even though it looks sloppy, and the obedience trainer in me really, really wants a nice finish, it is just so much easier on everyone involved -- trainer, dog, and client -- to teach a more relaxed "Come". To me the easiest way to train it is with a hand target at crotch level. Dog has to touch your hand and then stand there while you take hold of the collar. In training you can build up the dog's patience by making it wait longer and longer before getting rewarded. Yes, it doesn't look as finished and professional as a Come with a finish, but I think most clients would happily trade the finish for a dog that enthusiastically makes contact when it's loose in the house and you call it to come.
Those are just three examples of things that can be done different ways and still be effective. The point of writing this was not to say "My way is the best, now accept my arguments or else you're dumb and wrong." It was just to point out something that should be obvious -- that we as trainers should always be mindful of why we're doing what we're doing, and that it is never wrong to look at methods and practices critically and ask if they are really the best possible ways to achieve the goals we want.