“I Train Guide Dogs for the Blind”
Jamie Viezbicke didn't start out wanting to be a guide dog trainer.
"I have a degree in marine biology — I wanted to be a killer whale trainer," she says. "But it's hard to get your foot in the door in the marine mammal field."
Viezbicke was hired for an entry-level position at the Bronx Zoo, and figured she'd eventually use the animal experience to move to a job in an aquarium. That's not quite how it worked out.
"I started in the large mammal department and fell in love with the terrestrial animals," she says. Viezbicke worked with elephants, rhinos, giraffes and big cats, and learned how to clicker-train tigers in behaviors that helped keepers care for them.
"We trained them to come forward so we could inspect them daily, and sit at the bars and place their paws up on the front of the bars so we could check their pads," she says. "While I was there we were able to successfully train the first tiger for a voluntary blood sample through the tail without giving any sort of sedation."
With that experience, Viezbicke moved to a job at a theme park in New Jersey where she oversaw demonstrations of similar behaviors for an audience — this time with no bars between her and the tigers. After a couple of years, "I was done kind of putting my life in danger every day," she says. "I knew I wanted to keep training animals. I wanted to find an opportunity where I could train them for a better purpose."
About six years ago, Viezbicke found that opportunity at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, where she now works as a guide dog trainer.
From Wild Animals to Guide Dogs
Most guide dog trainers don't have a background working with wild animals, but Viezbicke's experience was more relevant than you might think. Guide dogs used to be trained with traditional methods. "The dog was modeled into the response by physically manipulating them into the different positions or the different behaviors, then correction was added in later on," says Graham Buck, assistant director of training at Guiding Eyes.
Now, instead, they basically use the same methods Viezbicke used with tigers — a clicker or verbal "yes" marker that tells the dog when it's going to be rewarded for the correct response. This kind of training results in a dog that is better at handling the unexpected.
"They're extrapolating from their training at all times, so that just because I tell the dog 'forward' doesn't mean the dog is going to jump into the Grand Canyon," says Buck. "If the dog sees a vehicle or a manhole cover or construction, it's going to say OK, I'm going to go forward because you asked me, but I'm going to find another way around."
Positive-reinforcement training with rewards encourages this kind of problem-solving ability, because the dogs are not afraid of making a mistake. The training process takes a little longer now, but it's worth it, says Buck. "You get a dog that still has its autonomy and a bigger knowledge base to pull from when it comes upon a complicated situation," he says. "The dog doesn't say, I only know one or two things, and if I do another I might get in trouble."
Trainers do still use negative reinforcement in training, says Buck, but only "in two areas which we call nonnegotiables: the dog going toward other animals, and eating food off the ground. Because we're never going to ask that dog to repeat that behavior — we're never going to say, go get me a bagel off the ground or go chase a squirrel up a tree."
Canine Career Counseling
Training guide dogs involves more than simply teaching commands — trainers also have to decide whether a dog is right for the job. "It's a very demanding and taxing job for the dogs, so we want to make sure it's the right decision for them and that they are suited for it," says Viezbicke.
The specially bred puppies can be tested early for some basic issues — like an extreme sensitivity to noise or to the feeling of the harness —that make them unsuitable for the job. They spend about a year and a half in a volunteer puppy-raiser's home before they start to be trained for guide work, and at several points in the program the dog is evaluated to see if it will continue or not. "Some dogs will shut down — like 'I can't handle all this,'" Viezbicke says. "Some dogs may handle the stress poorly and they get very excitable — we call them a driving worrier — they go really fast and out of control. A dog like that might not make it."
Dogs who aren't comfortable with guide work may be suited to another kind of service or working dog job. "We call it a career change," says Viezbicke. If not, they're first offered back to their puppy-raiser, and finally, they may be matched with someone on a long waiting list of people waiting to adopt.
Teaching and Matchmaking
Viezbicke's job involves a lot more than teaching commands to dogs. It's also her responsibility to match dogs to clients, and teach them how to work with their dog. "We're training about 10 dogs at a time, and out of those 10 dogs, no two have the same personality, and our clientele is varied as well," she says. "One of the biggest and most difficult parts of the job is making that match."
Considerations include what kind of pace a client is comfortable with and what their home environment is like, a busy city or someplace quieter. Then, she says, "We'll train them starting from the basics — some have never had a dog before — it's their first dog, let alone guide dog." They'll learn about health, feeding, and how to train the dog to its new routes when they get home.
It can be a challenge, but it's the most satisfying part of the job. "To see the bond take over between the client and the dog," she says, "and the independence that the client gets watching people moving fluidly on the sidewalk with their dog and a big smile on their face. That's what makes our job rewarding."