So I just made a short trip to Toronto with Mindy the Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy, and she was amazing. So if you don’t want to hear puppy bragging, you might want to move on — but if you want to hear about new challenges and how we met them (and how we used previous training to better handle these new situations), keep reading.
First off, we made a long drive north. Mindy is incredible in the car, very quiet and patient. Well, mostly quiet. She likes to tuck herself into the front corner of the crate and prop her nose on the wire mesh so that she makes this horrible rasping breathing sound. I’ve actually thought she was choking a couple of times! but it’s just how she likes to rest her head on the crate wall. It looks horribly uncomfortable, but obviously it’s not bothering her, as it’s her preferred position if she’s awake.
She was even good during the interminable border crossing. And good when the Canadian border guard questioned us for filling out her veterinary form too completely. (“You filled in a destination address on this form.” “Yes, the form says to fill completely.” “Why did you do that? You’re not supposed to fill it out.” “But the form says to fill completely…?”)
So then we got to Toronto, and while at first she was a bit confused about where to toilet — “I hear my cue, Mom, but this isn’t a usual place, are you sure?” — she got that sorted fairly quickly. And the next day, she had an adventure.
Mindy has been in public a lot, but mostly in the suburbs, in shopping areas, in hotels and malls and such buildings. She hadn’t seen the press of a typical urban street during crowded times. So many people, so close together, with so much traffic, was a lot!
When one criterion is raised, another drops! so I didn’t worry about leash manners. She pulled, a lot, because she was so busy looking around and taking things in. I wasn’t worried about this; leash manners will come back when she’s able to think about them again. Fussing at her would only have frustrated us both and both kept her from processing all this new scenario and established a bad association with it.
The puppy had never gone through turnstiles and then deep underground into a tunnel of pumped air, there to board a metal tube which rushes noisily into the dark. So we tried it.
She handled it all very well! The first train entering the station wasn’t ours, which gave her a chance to watch it and process the noise and rush of air which came with it. She just lay by my feet and looked, though her ears and nose were pretty busy. I treated for looking at it.
Then our train came, and she boarded without difficulty. We had a bit of a bad start because I was walking to the rear of the train (in heels) when it started with a jerk, and I tripped and stumbled over the puppy, which certainly wasn’t how I’d prefer to introduce her to a new vehicle! But she didn’t mind that much, and I treated pretty rapidly as the floor bounced and moved, as we were on a connection between cars where the movement is greatest.
Then we got a chance to move to a seat, and that was a bit easier, though there wasn’t much room for her to get out of the aisle. It was crowded, so I held her between my legs and petted her. She was a little more aware of the surroundings and movement then she would have been elsewhere, but she wasn’t distressed.
I was a bit worried about how she’d handle the station stairs with so many people, as we’ve been working on just walking with me without any response to solicitation, but I have to hand Toronto this — the citizens are really good about service dogs. Only a few tried to interact with Mindy, and even these generally asked me first. And no one in the station or on the stairs, and Mindy handled the crowded tunnels like she’d done them all her life.
(She owned the subway trip both outward and back, with just one “incident”: The very last station of the day, she balked hard at the very last turnstile. No clue why, as it seemed identical to the others, but for whatever reason that one was different to her. I loosened the leash and coaxed her through, and she did do it. Why was that one different? The world may never know.)
As if the subway weren’t enough, we also took a city bus. This was easy after the subway! Less crowded, and not so different for Mindy than riding in a car.
I was in Toronto primarily to do a photoshoot, and Mindy was accompanying me. We had an extra person assigned as “puppy-wrangler,” and Mindy was not at all distressed to learn that she had a whole person to walk her and give her belly-rubs. (Mindy is a bit of a belly-rub addict.)
We were out for hours, walking to different sites. Mindy snagged a nap during our snack break, but other than that she largely hung out and watched. At the end of the shoot, however, her hour came! and she got some photos of her own.
All photos by permission of Elemental Photography.
Why am I so proud of Mindy here? While she’s a little more focused upward at me than we’d normally prefer (guides should look forward!), she’s really focused at the end of a long and challenging day — and surrounding us are tourists taking photos, other dogs walking by, and children bouncing a couple of balls. So if she’s choosing to focus a little bit more on me instead of them, well, that’s just fine.
The Ride Home
Two short videos illustrating our trip home:
Boarding the Bus
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Exiting the Subway
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Day 2: The Butterfly Farm
But the next day was in some ways much harder — we went to a butterfly conservatory! With lots of flying things which swooped down over puppy heads and fluttered enticingly! And with BIRDS roaming freely and even fearlessly approaching puppies!
Not gonna lie, this was tough. I’d never been to a butterfly conservatory which included ground birds, and if I’d known how difficult this would be for Mindy I would have brought better treats than just her ordinary kibble. But we pulled through.
I want to show two videos. Keep in mind that it’s a greenhouse, so it’s quite warm, and Mindy is working very hard to on impulse control with so many little things begging to be chased. The targeting behavior is a sort of mental check, to see if she can process enough to do a simple, known behavior.
Watch this quail run directly beneath Mindy! and then see how she recovers.
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The gentle touch to the head is another conditioned reinforcer we’ve trained, allowing me to touch her silently instead of clicking in quiet public areas. I’m not nagging her, it’s just another variety of click.
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Her failure on simple behaviors at the end of the video show how much of a toll the concentration was taking on her, so we quit on a good note. And it’s important to note, Mindy got several “brain breaks,” where she went out to a cooler building and relaxed before coming back in to focus again in the butterfly area.
Needless to say, Mindy slept well and was quiet again on the way home. And she’s got the first day at home entirely for playtime!
Even though she encountered a lot of new things, her foundation training was solid enough to let her meet the new challenges. And Mindy thinks a lot of these activities — eating in restaurants, riding in vehicles, elevators, walking through crowds — are normal, everyday events, so they don’t add much additional stress to anything new like a turnstile or a subway train rushing by. Never underestimate the importance of a good foundation!