Phase One: Formal Training Begins

Food Reward and Clicker Techniques

Food rewards are used in the GDB training program as a powerful motivation and reinforcement tool for learning and maintaining desired behavior.

Clicker training is the popular term to describe a training method that uses operant conditioning–the animal intentionally performs a behavior in order to gain a desired reward. GDB uses clicker training as a tool for teaching various aspects of guidework and obedience responses. The clicker serves as a “marker” for the exact behavior the trainer would like to see the dog perform and repeat (e.g. targeting a curb, stair, escalator, elevator, crosswalk button, seat, etc.). It is a positive reinforcement-based system that associates high value rewards (food) with desired behaviors. The use of the clicker in guidework training encourages the dog to be an active participant in the learning process.

Enjoyable consequences (“rewards”) and the entire reward process is called “reinforcement.” Clicker trained dogs will actively try to learn new behaviors and will remember those behaviors years later. Clicker trained behaviors are performed by the dog with confidence and enthusiasm because the dog plays an active role and has control over when it receives rewards. They are enthusiastic because they understand that their performance will be rewarded with something very pleasurable.

With these training techniques, dogs in training demonstrate higher levels of confidence in the work, and clients experience quick and encouraging results with food use as a supplement to praise.

NOTE: Unless otherwise indicated, puppy raisers do not use the clicker with their puppies. This allows dog to enter training with a ‘clean slate’ regarding clicker associations.

Obedience Responses and Teaching Focus around Distractions

In order to both successfully teach guidework and for the client to easily manage their guide, collar response is important. Collar response means that a dog readily follows or yields to even slight tension on the collar. For example, it is a useful tool that allows the instructor to physically cue the dog from its following position to move left or right in guidework. Alternatively, it discourages a guide from pulling in the collar on leash with a client.

Formal Obedience

The verbal cues “sit,” “down,” “heel” (both moving and stationary), and “stay” are introduced as precise positions in relation to the handler. Precision is important so the dog does not interfere with or disorient the client. The “come” recall is practiced on leash in a variety of areas and off leash in enclosed areas.

Focus is taught before and during basic obedience work. Distractions are used to teach focus and concentration
toward the job. Distractions may include other dogs, food, overly friendly people, scents, and balls. Any dog that demonstrates below average ability to progress around distractions may receive additional attention in the following areas: different types of play sessions; higher value food reward to increase the dog’s motivation to work for the handler; extra time relaxing with their instructor to develop a closer relationship; extra abbreviated obedience sessions without distractions to improve collar response.

Dogs in training wear one of three standard collars: Martingale, chain slip or nylon slip collar.

Food Refusal Protocol

All dogs learn how to politely accept food rewards and how to refuse food in all other situations. This specialized food protocol training is designed to handle the delicate balance of using food as a motivator while ensuring that no negative behaviors develop around food. In addition, the dogs are taught how to avoid and refuse food on the ground or offered by others.


Dogs are introduced to riding in the van crates prior to actual riding in the training vans. A configuration of crates, identical to those in the vans, is located in the kennel complex. All dogs are introduced to jumping in and out of this “mock” crate set before being put in an actual training van. Dogs then experience loading and unloading from crates in the van, riding comfortably and quietly, and waiting quietly in the van for their turn at a training route. If a dog makes a slow adjustment to the van crates, they are given additional or specialized socialization programs for either fear or distraction.

Body Handling Acceptance

Dogs are exposed to comprehensive, hands-on body handling, which includes grooming, pilling, bathing, ear cleaning, teeth cleaning, feeding, and play sessions that are conducive to interaction with a vision-impaired handler (e.g. no excessive vocalization, no jumping up or running into a person). Any issues with body handling are evaluated and programs developed to improve issues are implemented as needed.

Introduction to the Harness

Dogs are given a calm introduction to being harnessed. They initially stand, then walk around in harness as well as wear it in relaxed settings. Dogs with above average sensitivity to wearing the harness are put on a socialization program to improve their response and comfort level while wearing the harness.

Treadmill Training

Treadmill work introduces the dogs to the biomechanics of pulling into the harness and how to maintain a lead. Dogs are introduced to the verbal cues of “forward,” “halt,” and “hopp-up” as they learn to pull with a straight body position. A comfortable gait and speed are identified for each dog. Most dogs adjust quickly to the treadmill through a systematic and careful introduction, food reward use and lots of support and praise. Training staff ensures the dogs are not only safe, but also enjoy their time on the treadmill. The introduction techniques are so successful that it’s common to see dogs trying to get on the treadmill whenever they walk past one!

Dogs receive two treadmill sessions before beginning harness workouts (pattern training) downtown with their instructors.

NOTE: Puppy raisers should never put pups on treadmills or escalators.

Pattern Training

Pattern Training is a method of introducing guidework behaviors to the young dog in a very positive manner. The instructor cues the correct guiding behavior to the dog, allowing the dog to complete the exercise without any mistakes. In this way the instructor keeps all guidework related learning very upbeat for the dog. Obedience is used during guidework to regain attention on the work as needed. Once the dog is attentive, guidework pattern training resumes. Pattern training lasts for several sessions (approximately two weeks) and is gradually weaned off as the dog gains a better understanding of its responsibility. During pattern training, dogs are worked in a variety of environments, even challenging areas. However, advanced environments, such as heavy urban area with crowds, loud noise, etc., are avoided.

Dogs are introduced to the following guidework behaviors during patterning:

  • Stopping at streets, regardless of the type of curb or wheelchair ramp
  • Clearing for the handler on the right and left sides as well as above dog’s head
  • Crossing streets on a line that efficiently reaches the up curb on the other side
  • Maintaining consistent pace and drive with the verbal cue “forward”
  • How to respond to the various uses of the ‘hopp-up’ verbal cue–resuming or increasing pace; moving closer to a stopping point; or for re-focus
  • Stopping and standing calmly after the verbal cue “halt”
  • Leading the handler in a 90 degree turn to the right and picking up the new travel line on “right”
  • Leading the handler in a 90 degree turn to the left and picking up the new travel line on “left”

Up Curb Exercise # 1

Dogs are taught to target up curbs via clicker training and food reward by placing their front feet on the curb. The first up curb exercise is done on campus, and subsequent exercises are done on route.

Developing Physical Agility

Dog Agility Walk– Dogs are introduced to a low height agility obstacle in a controlled and measured way to promote confidence on unusual surfaces and develop coordination for stair and escalator work. This work teaches the dogs to carefully place their feet on the obstacles at slow speeds, which is very different from methods of teaching pet dog agility.

Back Up Chute– Dogs do not know how to naturally move backwards. Coordination training in how to physically back up is introduced at this time and continues for several weeks to prepare the dogs for future traffic avoidance training. In traffic avoidance, dogs are taught to speed up or stop, hold, and back up (if needed) in a straight line while facing the oncoming vehicle. The backup chute activity teaches dogs the mechanics of backing up in a very positive and fun way.

Obstacle Course– On campus obstacle courses are convenient opportunities for the dog to learn how to
safely navigate past objects. The instructor patterns the dog to move past the obstacles with caution. Dogs are encouraged to walk slightly ahead of the instructor Early on, the courses are designed so that new dogs do not need to stop on the course.

(from Guide Dogs for the Blind Phase Descriptions)


6 thoughts on “Phase One: Formal Training Begins

  1. Pingback: Pupdate – Zodiac | telling family tales

  2. This is an amazing description. As a guide dog handler I know kind of what happens but not nearly in as much detail. Love it!!

  3. Pingback: Dune: book & phase 1 | telling family tales

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