Old Dogs Teach Young’uns New Tricks

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Written By Graeme Innes

Some people who drive cars know all about how they work. But for others opening the bonnet is a venture into the unknown.

It’s the same with people who travel with guide dogs. Some of us know all about the training, but for others – like me until recently – you know what the dog can do, but you don’t really understand how it got to learn.

I always assumed that some very dog savvy people at the training school taught my dogs all of their tricks – the stuff that helps me travel around the country.

I was disabused of this view recently when I listened to an interview with Kim Ryan. Her approach is different. Why have mere humans do the training when old dogs can play a role.

Kim is the co-ordinator of guide dog services with VisAbility Guide Dogs Tasmania, one of TCC’s favourite clients. In that role she oversees the training of guide dogs.

She won the Derek Freeman scholarship at the international guide dogs conference. Using this she visited Croatia to study guide dog training there. The scholarship was concerned with how older dogs could be utilised to model appropriate behaviours to younger pups. The older dogs would work with the pups on walks and training sessions to produce a less stressful learning environment for puppies. This, it was hoped, would result in quicker adaptation by the puppies, and a higher success rate in the training programme. The older dogs used were not working guide dogs, but rather older dogs in the training programme.

Kim says: “We have monthly training sessions with the puppies we have families raising. During these sessions we placed the noisy little puppies who were noisy and excited to be there next to older dogs who seemed to convey the message – calm down, what’s all the noise about.”

“We noticed a huge change in the behaviour and the calmness of the younger dogs.”

Kim also described situations where eight or 10-week-old puppies did not want to go on to a bus or escalator, something important for them to do in their later working lives. By having an older dog go on first the puppies would chase them on, de-stressing about the experience and keen to try something new.

“It’s a bit like having a mentor,” Kim says.

Kim detailed where this had been done in other working dog fields – older dogs are always at the front of a sled-dog crew, but it has not been the practice in guide dog training.

Kim spoke of her two-week stay in Croatia. They used the little school and big school techniques, and had really come to appreciate the value of having younger puppies around older dogs.

“You’ve sat down next to the food bowl waiting, maybe that is how I can get my dinner.”

“You came back when that whistle was blown, I might chase you and see what happens.”

So now in Croatia dual puppy raising is the norm – so the calmness, the quickness of learning and incidental learning comes from the time spent with the old dog.

Having visited in Croatia, Kim’s views that the Tasmanian school is getting great results, particularly given its small size and relative isolation, has been confirmed. So the old dogs will continue to teach those young’uns new tricks.

Graeme Innes AM is a former Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner and has worked with a guide dog since 1998.

His dog’s blog, and their work can be found here.