International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners


by Brad Scott, Director of Training

Leader Dogs For the Blind

For the past several months I have been working with a graduate trying to resolve some serious problems that have developed in his dog. Shortly after he returned home the dog began to pull excessively. With closer observation it appeared the dog was "leaning" into the harness rather than "pulling" at a rapid pace, as if the dog was placing all of its weight against the chest strap of the harness. The dog didn't appear nervous but obviously felt stressed while working. There was a rigidity to the dog's gait rather than a relaxed appearance.

During those months the graduate received many suggestions and instructions to correct the problem, which meant some behavior modification. We examined such things as the dog's background, development while in training and the dog's attitude and reaction to guide work during class. We tried both positive and negative reinforcement blended with multiple doses of psychology. We encouraged, coaxed, praised and generally tried to out think the dog -- but he wouldn't budge. He simply refused to cooperate.

The handler and I have recently reached the conclusion that the dog should be retired from the work. Although the dog adjusted well to the new home and park schedule -- and was generally a pleasure to be around, when in harness he was inconsistent and therefore unreliable.

The graduate's first reaction was to blame himself and to comment that he felt frustrated he couldn't correct the problem. He questioned whether he had done enough. Subjectively he felt like he had failed -- objectively, he realized he had done everything possible. The scales tip when you realize the enormous emotional investment that both undertook when the relationship began.

It is difficult to know when it's not going to work and find the strength to move on. But the reality is that sometimes it doesn't work. Training a dog to lead a blind person is not a perfected science. Due to the fact that half of the equation is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, emotional four legged furry ball of potential -- there may be some facets of the dog's personality that won't surface until confronted with the real world. As instructors we stay alert for changes in a dog's approach to work, approach to the system or changes caused by new experiences. Since we can't sit with each dog and question them about their feeling of guiding you for the rest of their lives, we rely also on our intuition and gut-feeling throughout the training process.

If there's an "upside" to this often devastating and upsetting possibility, it's the reality that it doesn't happen often. If you find yourself in this situation please remember that we are here to help. Safe travel is the bottom line and we'll try to get you back on track as quickly as possible.

Reprinted with permission from Leader Dogs for the Blind's Newsletter, Spring 1995 Issue.

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