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Working with Blind Students

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On the ClickerSolutions and Blind and Vision-Impaired Clicker Training mailing lists last week, a member presented a problem. She had a blind handler beginning one of her classes, and she wasn't sure how to help him succeed with clicker training. She gathered a fabulous list of tips, including:

  • Teach "touch," and let that be a replacement for eye contact.
  • The student will be able to tell through touch and through the leash what the dog is doing. To help him learn to recognize what different behaviors "feel like," tap his shoulder to cue him to click the dog.
  • Use a tether at home to keep the dog close. This will help set the trainer up to succeed, and it will help the dog be familiar with being close during class.
  • The student is your best source of information. Ask him his thoughts and plans and work with him. Ask him what he perceives when you're working, how behaviors feel and sound.
  • Blindfold yourself and practice with your own dog to get an idea of how different behaviors "feel."
  • Make sure all class handouts are accessible.
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More ideas from a guide dog handler

These tips are directed to a blind handler:


-- Be flexible. You might have to modify a technique you learned in class, because it's hard to execute without sight. My new, young guide is reactive sometimes to strange dogs when not in harness. If we just relax at Starbucks, a trainer suggested I click for calming signals. I've been shaping her to lie with her head on my foot, so I can feel her yawning, blinking, rolling over. Sighted trainers might shape the dog to go to a mat and relax; I want my guide to feel relaxed, off-harness with her head on my foot. It's basically the same behavior, modified so I can monitor it better.


-- Use a bell on the dog's collar; the kind that hunters attach to retrievers. They too need to monitor what their retriever is up to when it's out of sight.


-- Practice timing by listening to the news and clicking whenever the newscaster says a preposition like "the". Of course, do this when the dog is not present.


-- Use an i-click instead of a box clicker. Use a hair band or scrunchy to fasten to your hand so you can use the hand both to monitor the dog and to click.


-- Wear a treat pouch at all times, so you never need to go searching for treats. Sometimes the big ones trainers use aren't stylish or convenient; shop around until you can find a tiny one you can keep clipped to you at all times.


-- Shape the dog to touch with different parts of his body. it's fun!


-- Plant the "leave it" objects yourself. This way you will know where they are and can practice without messing up your timing. Don't let a "helper" do it for you because then you won't know exactly where the forbidden food is located.


-- Shape the dog to sit quietly between your legs, tail facing towards you, facing away. This makes it easy to monitor body language while petting and helps the dog relax because you can massage most of his body when you just want to hang out together.


-- Locate volunteers from the local college or high school. You often need a pair of eyes more than a professional trainer, for example, the volunteer can tell you when your dog is making a grab for something forbidden or refusing to sit at a distance. But if you never need your dog at a distance, for example you are training a guide or a pet, feel free to not participate in exercises you don't really need. If you hire a trainer, use that person's expertise and not just their eyes. Using a volunteer lets you have more quality time with a professional trainer. Your volunteer can also guide you while you focus on teaching loos leash walking.


-- Be sure to practice loose leash walking while using a cane, especially if your dog is new. You don't want him to become afraid of your "stick". Even if your dog is a guide, it's helpful to use a cane to explore your environment and have a dog heeling quietly at your side while you do so. The hands-free leash is particularly helpful here, because you often need a free hand to hold parcels, locate a walk sign or simply to click and treat. I use a rubber band to fasten the i-click to my cane, especially when heeling my retired guide. This way I can safely use my cane and click using the same hand. This technique is also valuable for someone with a physical limitation, since you wouldn't want to loos your balance trying to grab a clicker! 


-- If you anticipate having two dogs, say a working and retired guide, train your dog to heel on the opposite side as well.


-- Train tricks you can easily shape. My retired guide, who just loves to bark, needed an imcompatible behavior when he started work as a hospital therapy dog. I taught him to whisper. Kids get a kick out of it because he also knows Speak. We can now demonstrate that even this golden retriever has both an indoor and an outdoor voice. Best of all he has gradually found "whisper" as self-reinforcing as barking used to be!