It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a Labrador!

This entry is part 2 of 25 in the series Service Dog Training

We made it! We’re home! And it was an impressive trip. But first, a little background. 

What We’re Doing

Guide Dogs for the Blind has trained nearly 12,000 guide dogs since 1942. They had a system which worked. But apparently a guide dog’s work has been getting much harder in recent decades, due to social changes — from increased traffic to the broader and more active social roles of blind handlers with expanding careers and travel. (One of my Facebook friends commented on my puppy announcement that her uncle travels all over the country for work with his GDB guide dog. That’s a lot more generalization and fluency needed.) Training needed to adapt as well.

Guide Dogs for the Blind logoIn 2005, Guide Dogs for the Blind made a fantastic leap of faith and transitioned from their traditional methods to a clicker program. It was an experiment, and the results were amazing: the dogs’ pass rate increased from 50% to 80%. More dogs were meeting the same stringent criteria, and they were doing it faster, as the final training with the blind clients also was shortened from six weeks to two weeks.

In 2008, they decided to experiment with their puppy-raising program, and a batch of 32 (I am recalling this number from a lecture, but I think it’s right) puppies underwent a clicker raising program instead of the traditional experience. I don’t have statistics for the results, but apparently they were positive, because GDB decided they wanted more such puppies.

And that’s where we come in. Most puppy raisers are volunteer families, not training professionals, and many have been involved in the program for many years. GDB has begun a five-year research project to develop not only great clicker foundations for their puppy prospects, but practical protocols for non-professional puppy raisers and novice clicker trainers.

So now I get to raise a puppy in a clickerly fashion, documenting all the way our techniques and progress. This puppy and I are not only preparing a guide for a blind client, we’re contributing to a new program to more efficiently prepare many guides for many blind clients! And that’s pretty cool.

Our Trip Home

The first challenge, of course, was traveling for hours in a crowded plane with a puppy who barely knew me.

The Carrier

Mindy getting some tasty classical conditioning on her carrier mat

Mindy getting some tasty classical conditioning on her carrier mat

I don’t know if Mindy had been started with crate training or not — my guess is yes, but with a different type of crate — but she certainly didn’t perceive her new carrier as a comfortable place to relax. In fact, she was pretty sure it was probably some sort of puppy torture chamber and she did not want any part of it. That’s understandable from a newly transported and confused puppy, but we had only a few hours before we had to board a plane. She had to be crated and under a seat, and I had to face the eyes of a couple hundred fellow passengers who didn’t want puppy shrieks for the length of the journey.

Mindy enjoyed the comfortable mat which velcro’d into the carrier, but she wanted no part of the carrier itself. She was willing to step into it to retrieve and eat kibble, however, so we did that for a while. Then I started feeding fast enough that she didn’t have time between kibbles to back out of the carrier.

Gradually I got her eating at the back, so I could get her rear legs just inside the door, and I began to close and zip up the door. The Sturdibag (which I can quite recommend now, by the way) has a zipper in the top as well, allowing me to drop kibble in even with the door zipped shut.

"Maybe this isn't a puppy torture chamber, after all?"

“Maybe this isn’t quite so terrible, after all?”

After a generous kibble shower, I opened the door and shut off the kibble rain. The puppy left the carrier, but in no particular hurry, and then she wandered back to see if there was a chance of more food. /fist pump/ And of course there was.

When I called off the game, I had fed her way too generous a breakfast for traveling, but she was much more comfortable with the idea of the carrier.

IMAG0203The Ride

Our shuttle required Mindy to be in her carrier and to sit in the very back of the van, for some reason. She wasn’t really cool with this, but I opened the top and she stuck her head out like a giraffe on a circus train, and I petted her until she fell asleep.

The Flights

LAX must be specifically designed to suck out souls, human and canine, and the security line stretched to the end of the ropes, down the stairs, through a bunch more ropes, out the doors and down the sidewalk. It was a long and very hot wait for a puppy, and Mindy and I were both ready to be done long before we got to finally pass through the metal detector.

So the carrier, only freshly tolerated, was kind of a big deal again as we boarded the first plane. She cried and whined and pushed at the mesh windows I’d left open for air, pretty unhappy. I had to put her under the seat, but then I started a high rate of reinforcement for gaps between cries, then keeping a stream of kibble coming so that she had a hard time getting started again. It wasn’t perfect, but it kept her from screaming, and I combined it with reaching into the carrier and rubbing her ears soothingly. After ten minutes or so she started to settle.

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We had a short layover in Las Vegas, and when I’d called ahead they said the only dog relief area was outside security. (Seriously, if they can build a room for smokers, they can put in a tiny station for pet relief, right?) The security lines were fairly short at that time, so I left the terminal and took her out to pee. We hurried back in and rushed to get back to the gate. I had to carry her to make good time, since 1) she’s pretty slow at this early and tipsy age, rather like a human toddler, and 2) we couldn’t travel more than a few steps without some other traveler being sucked in by Puppy Face. We made it to the gate! only to learn the flight was delayed. Figures!

Mindy was friendly with the people in the airport and was interested in the activity around her, but she was getting pretty tired. It’s a lot of stimulation for a tiny puppy! So she curled up on my foot and slept.

When we boarded, she went back in the carrier, and this time she settled within a minute of treating and petting. And then she slept. Hard. So hard, in fact, that twice I put my hand in to make sure she was still breathing. I’d never expected her to sleep for the entirety of a flight of over four hours! but I guess the day had been pretty overwhelming.

Of course, that meant when she woke up in Indianapolis, she was full of energy! But that’s okay. Better an excited puppy with me than a panicked puppy on the plane!

And most importantly, I’m pretty sure she was tired, not panicked. It’ll be good to see how she handles the next outing to a travel desk or something similar.

That’s enough for today!

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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  1. Hi, I’m Erin, puppy raiser from CO. Can’t wait to hear more about your puppy journey with Mindy! Good luck!

  2. Great first day, lots of success, kudos to both of you. And it’s great to know that GDB is now fully committed to clicker training their dogs.

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