For the next couple of months, what I am doing with my dogs can be summarized as shifting more responsibility to them. In the early stages of training, it is acceptable to help them a little in order to make it obvious to them what they are expected to do, so that we can reinforce the behaviors that we want and make them strong. Now it's time to make sure that the dogs will do all of these things without any assistance from me. That is so much easier to say than to do! I can't even imagine how many clues I give my dogs without even knowing I'm doing it. I can't know how my body subconsciously tenses or relaxes when I'm approaching a situation; I can't even begin to understand how good the dogs are at reading those subtle cues; I can't ever really know -- until I test them under blindfold -- that the dogs have actually learned to respond to the situation in the environment rather than my response to the situation in the environment.
My blindfolds went okay. I consider it indicative of a flaw in my training if my dogs miss even one curb when I work them under blindfold -- and all of them missed at least one. Since the halfway blindfolds are done on routes the dogs are familiar with, and since they do not miss any curbs when I work them without a blindfold, I am obviously doing something different when I can see. On the other hand, if I wanted to excuse myself I could say that the curbs they missed were early in the route, and once they figured out "The same rules apply, even when she's walking all funny and not following me right," they stepped up and took all of the responsibility, which is true. It's really pretty understandable that they are a little bit confused when I am acting totally different than I usually do. Also on the good side: all of the dogs pulled -- no one folded up under the added pressure -- and all of them were focused on their work as opposed to being distracted. And, best of all, all of them were exactly as I expected they would be. I always say that the only bad blindfolds are the ones where the dog throws you for a loop and you're left scratching your head and saying, "What the…?" So, overall, mid-cycle blindfolds were pretty good.
Mid-cycle physicals, on the other hand…
This is the second point in training where dogs are given a thorough physical, the first being when they come in for training and the third being right before class starts. (Of course, any issues that arise at any time during a dog's stay here are treated as they arise.) I sympathize with the veterinarians -- it's a very difficult job trying to predict which medical issues are part of kennel life and won't cause any problems when the dogs aren't living in the kennel, and which ones will persist out of the kennel and cause financial or lifestyle hardships for clients. Ear infections, for example. Most dogs have an ear infection at some point. Every place I've worked, no matter what their ear cleaning protocols (ranging from weekly to none), has had about the same level of ear problems. Skin issues -- another big one, especially with goldens. When I feel underneath the dogs' metal training collars, I am always surprised when I feel how hot the skin is. That heat, combined with the fact that the kennel always has a certain, unavoidable level of dampness from regular cleaning, is a perfect recipe for hot spots. Sores on the feet, foot-licking, ongoing diarrhea -- all of those are things that COULD BE kennel life, or COULD BE part of the dog. Who knows? If guide dog schools career changed every dog that ever had any of those things, we could put out maybe 50 dogs a year. The great majority of dogs don't have significant health problems of any kind once out of the kennel.
Our team lost six dogs at mid-cycle physicals, all for recurrent ear infections. This is quite a bummer. I would always rather have it happen at mid-cycle, when our class isn't filled yet. It is much worse when it happens at the pre-class physical, especially when you have a bunch of dogs that are pre-matched and the loss of one of them can really affect the class. But still -- six dogs is a big loss, about 15-20% of our string. (I'm not good at math and too lazy for a calculator, hence the "about".)
As a puppy raiser, having a dog medically career changed elicited mixed feelings. On the one hand, BUMMER! All that work for nothing! On the other hand, all of the career changed dogs went on to be dearly loved, and some to other careers entirely, so I can't really say the work was for nothing. One more point: if my dog was medically career changed, I always had the excuse that it was not my fault! I had raised a perfect puppy who totally would've made it were it not for the medical. (Yes, I'm sure that was the case with all five of my medically career changed GDB puppies.)
As a trainer, it is very sad to see one of my dogs medically career changed -- sometimes. Other times -- I can't lie -- it is sort of a relief. Say the dog has some issue that you're making progress on but you're not sure the issue is ever going to resolve to the point that the dog is going to be useable. You worry that you're going to okay the dog for class and it's going to be issued to a client and while in class you will discover that, OOPS! you called it wrong and the issue actually wasn't fixed. If one of those dogs gets a medical career change, you get A) the relief of not having to call it, B) the knowledge that you didn't give up on the dog, C) the ability to tell yourself, if you want to, that your superior training skills totally would've fixed the problem if only the medical career change hadn't happened, D) the knowledge that the puppy raisers can now tell themselves the same thing you told yourself as a puppy raiser when your dog got a medical career change, and E) the relief that if your success numbers are tracked at work -- which they must be, by someone, I know it -- this one won't be counted as a failure. Even with the good dogs, a medical career change at mid-cycle is better than having that sword hanging over your head in the weeks leading up to class. (Will that dog get one more ear infection and be given the boot right before the client who was pre-matched with that dog, and for whom there is no other available dog, shows up from California or Mexico or somewhere else really far away? or will the dog squeak through the physicals and then blow up with medical problems at home with the client?)
Anyway, the dogs who did pass physicals are a solid group and, barring any surprises, should be ready to be matched in September. This next month is one of my favorite parts of the training cycle. Why? Because you get to see the dogs blossom in confidence as they apply the lessons you've (hopefully) taught them, and generalize those lessons to different places. It is a great feeling to take the dog that you trained to a new city and watch it work beautifully with minimal to no help from you needed. (FYI… my favorite part of the training cycle is Foundations, the first three weeks. Foundations training is so much work, but I find major satisfaction in building a solid foundation. That solid foundation is what makes this part of training -- the third month -- so much fun. If you've done your work right in the beginning, there's hardly any work now, other than just putting on the miles.)