There are three little letters that will bring even the strongest and most seasoned Puppy Raiser to tears…IFT. IFT stands for In-For-Training and is the time when volunteer Puppy Raisers bring their charges back on campus so they can start their formal harness training.
After caring for, loving and training these dogs for the past year to 16 months, the Puppy Raisers now must hand them over to Southeastern Guide Dogs so they can be molded into the confident guides they’re destined to be.
Like dropping a kid off for their first year away at college, the Puppy Raisers watch as their pup is walked away by one of the trainers to be taken back to their kennel during Guide Dog U Freshman Orientation (the day-long program Southeastern holds to welcome the pups back on campus).
While this time may be very sad for the Puppy Raiser, it has to be exciting for the dog. There is a plethora of new smells and lots of people to meet, dogs to greet and areas to be explored.
The kennel they use was the original kennel when Southeastern got started in 1982. It’s a smaller kennel that houses approximately 30 dogs and is located on a quiet part of the campus. The new dogs are housed there so they can acclimate to kennel life more easily.
Just like going away to college, one of the first things the new dog does is to be introduced to his roommate. The dogs are all paired up with at least one other dog who will be their buddy throughout the training process.
The Canine Care Technicians have been charged with the intake and care of the newbies in the kennel and spend much of their day getting the dogs comfortable with their new environment. They take them on walks around campus, brush them and play with them in the yard. They also carefully check to make sure none of the dogs are experiencing too much stress. If they start to show any signs of distress, they will take them aside and do whatever it takes to make them feel at home.
During this time the trainers start to study the dogs, but don’t interact too much because they don’t want to influence the outcome of the temperament tests that are the first hurdle to becoming a guide dog. The temperament test is done in downtown Bradenton and gives the trainers their first glimpse into the abilities of each dog.
The dogs are first introduced to the harness — the trainers look for any reaction such as stiffening or tail tucking when the harness is put on. After a minute or so in harness, the harness is removed and they move onto the next big test…traffic.
The trainer walks each dog along Manatee Avenue, carefully watching for any signs of stress from the whizzing traffic in downtown. Then it is on to stairs. Both open back, (especially unnerving for dogs and people alike) and regular stairs are tested. The trainers are checking to be sure that the dogs don’t rush or pull up or down the stairs.
Along the way, the trainers will also mimic loud noises by slamming the post office drop box or newspaper stands all the while making sure the dog is not bothered or stressed. Now the next time you come upon one of the trainers and notice them slamming a mailbox, you’ll know they aren’t disgruntled, they’re just testing their dogs!
The final challenge in temperament testing is at the bus stop. Here the trainers want to be sure the dogs are comfortable around the big buses and the usual bustling crowd of people.
The next step for the Freshmen dogs is working their first route in harness and an introduction to the clicker. Southeastern’s dogs are expected to work for nothing more than praise for a job well done, but the early stages of training now incorporate clicker training.
In clicker training, the dog is expected to do a certain task and if done correctly, a click sound is made followed immediately by a treat reward. While this method of training is highly effective in the beginning stages of training, it is quickly phased out as the dogs progress. The reason is simple — you wouldn’t want a working guide dog expecting a treat every time it successfully completed a task. This would be distracting to both dog and handler and could put the team in danger.
Before the trainers head out on the first route, they introduce the dog to the clicker by checking name recognition. They will say the dog’s name and if the dog responds, they will click and give them a treat. After they get the hang of the clicker, the trainer heads out the door and off on their first route.
The dogs wear the harness, but the trainer allows the guiding handle to rest on the dog’s back as opposed to expecting the dog to guide them. For the first route the trainers are only working on having the dogs notify for “down curbs” (these are curbs that you step down from to cross the street). The dogs are expected to stop at each down curb they encounter on their route.
Training for the first week continues in this manner until the dogs are all consistently meeting their trainers’ expectations. From there, the training will progress onto bigger and more challenging tasks for these fresh new dogs on their way to becoming solid, confident guide dogs.