In you got to follow along as students arrived on Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Palmetto campus, were matched with their new guides and began their training. Now that they have started to work together as teams, let’s pick up where they are this week.
After obedience, it’s time for the students’ first trip off campus. They and their dogs load into the class van. This loading and unloading is a teaching tool in itself because the class van mimics a public transportation bus so that the students will be familiar with the procedure when they are out in the real world.
A short bus ride later, they arrive at Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Downtown Training Center in Bradenton. This facility is nestled back in the residential part of downtown and provides a home base of sorts while the students work routes in the area. Each student is given an orientation of the building so they will know their way around then the routes begin.
The trainers each take an individual student out and start walking along the sidewalks. This area of Bradenton provides a number of distractions and obstacles for the students such as light pedestrian traffic, squirrels and cats. There are also a variety of different curb configurations and light traffic, so in working these routes, the teams gain confidence.
Southeastern has recently instituted a new “Student Enrichment Program” that sees hand-picked volunteers spending time with the students during downtime on campus. Being away from friends and family can be difficult, especially when you add in the stress of learning a whole new way to travel, so the new program looks to reduce some of that stress by making them feel more at home. On this evening, one of the volunteers even took a student to a Passover Seder.
As usual, the students start their day with a short obedience class. By doing obedience every morning, the students and their dogs get into the routine of practicing so that when they return home, they can keep sharp on their commands.
Again the class loaded up on the van and headed to the Downtown Training Center. Since they were already familiar with their surroundings, they were able to get right to work on routes. The teams focused on perfecting their curb work and ignoring distractions.
After the typical morning routine, the class loaded on the van and headed out for some real-world work — they were off to Target. There, they work on a couple key skills that will come in handy in their everyday lives. The “follow” command has the dog following along behind a sighted person while keeping the handler in proper alignment and avoiding obstacles. The teams also learn to push a cart while shopping with their guide dog.
The class gets a break in the afternoon because they have work to do in the evening. One of the requirements for receiving a guide dog from Southeastern is that the person must be legally blind, but they don’t necessarily have to be completely blind; in actuality many of the students have some vision. Typically though, that residual vision goes away at night. Therefore, night walks are one of the most important training sessions the students will have. The class work routes during the night walks that they have done previously, but for most, without the assistance of their remaining sight the degree of difficulty is increased. There is always a giant sigh of relief when night walks are done.
Confidence course day! If you happened to come onto Southeastern Guide Dogs’ campus on this day, you would probably wonder why someone left stuff all over the sidewalks — from bowls of dog food to what appears to be a limbo bar, it’s all over the place. The confidence course is important for the students because it puts obstacles in front of them, and they must rely on their dogs to take them safely around. Also, they have to learn to recover from the obstacle and continue on their path without losing their orientation.
Getting back to that limbo bar: Did you know that a guide dog is not only responsible for the area beside them where their handler is walking, but also for approximately 6 feet above them as well? One of the dangers of walking with a cane is that there is no way to check for overhangs, but a dog can be taught to recognize an overhang and stop their handler from walking into it. They get to practice this skill on the confidence course.
The shoppers in the class are in for a treat this day as they head to the mall. At the mall, the teams work on negotiating around other people, following the left side of the mall so they keep their orientation. And it is the first time the whole class dines in a restaurant or in the food court.
The weekend gives the students a break and allows them to go off campus with friends or family if they are local. It’s a good thing they get a break, because next week will be a big one with trips to Sarasota and Tampa! Stay tuned.