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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Confidence Creates Heroes: Q&A With Seeing Eye Dog Trainer Todd Jurek

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Confidence Creates Heroes: Q&A With Seeing Eye Dog Trainer Todd Jurek

July 29th, 2014 by Megan Van Vlack

           Pet Perspective


Roselle and her owner, Michael Hingson. Image via Grand Fork Herald
On September 11th, 2001,
when the first plane struck the World Trade Center in New York City, one man and his guide dog Roselle sprang into action to lead around thirty of his coworkers down 78 flights of stairs to safety. How did they do it? According to Roselle’s trainer, Todd Jurek, training and class supervisor at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif., what Roselle accomplished was an amazing feat. We spoke with Jurek to find out how guide dogs are able to perform acts of heroism every day — even if it’s just getting their owner to and from work safely — and what it is that makes these canines so special:

How are dogs, like Roselle, able to act in emergency situations that test the boundaries of their training?

We never know how different dogs will react in dire emergency situations like Roselle did that day in the Twin Towers. Our dogs are trained to guide their blind companions everywhere that they need to go and keep them safe in an emergency, but for an event at the magnitude of 9/11 it takes a very special dog to do what Roselle did.

Dogs have different personalities; some are more confident while others are more sensitive and shy. When I was training Roselle we considered her one of the more confident and outgoing dogs which is why she was chosen for an owner that lived in New York City. Confident dogs are very resilient and can handle tough situations, but they can also be more easily distracted which is a challenge during training. There’s no special training that could have prepared Roselle to do what she did. However we could see during training that she was able to act confidently in environments with loud noises, construction work, jack hammers, crowds — all things that she would encounter in a city like New York.

What happened after that was just incredible. That she was to lead the way to safety for so many people, down 78 flights of stairs through darkness and smoke is pretty amazing. Most dogs would have probably tried to run as fast as they could to escape that situation, but Roselle led the way with great confidence.

What are some of the natural instincts and abilities that you look for when you’re selecting a dog for the guide dog program?

These dogs have to deal with a variety of environments, some more chaotic than others. The temperament of the dog is very important, they can’t be easily scared or distracted from their job. We look for dogs who can deal with crowds, loud traffic and other unpredictable situations. For example, if a car is heading toward a dog, we need a dog who can understand how to stop, assess the situation and back up to help the client avoid the car if it is getting too close. All of this comes down to confidence — dogs with a confident attitude won’t just turn around and run. Roselle was that type of dog, she could stand her ground and assess the situation for the safest route. Another important characteristic is their willingness to work. We choose dogs who are eager to please and willing to work all day with their owners.

What are the best dog training techniques for pet owners who are doing basic training with their dogs at home?

Our methodology is based on positive and reward based training. We use food and praise to reward the dogs. This is done through clicker-based training — a clicker makes a noise that acts like a marker that tells the dog they’re doing a good job and will receive food or praise as a reward. I recommend this methodology for training because it instills confidence in the dog. If you use a more traditional training method that involves punishment or scolding, you run the risk of squashing the dog’s confidence and it will be difficult to build it back up again. Our dogs are able to perform in uncertain environments because they know that they’ll be rewarded at the end for their hard work.

What is the process for matching guide dogs with the right client?

There is an extensive process to match guide dogs with clients. First, the client has to be legally blind to qualify for the program. We then talk to the clients and learn everything that we can about their daily environment, their routines and their lifestyle. We ask them about what kind of dog they would like to find the best match for them. With younger people who go to work every day, visit the gym and have active social lives, we match them with a brisk walking, higher energy dog. For older clients, we will work to find them a dog that is more mellow and fits a more relaxed lifestyle. Our matches are about 96 to 100 percent.

How does having a guide dog impact the owners’ lives?

Many of the clients that we have come in using canes to get around. We hold workshops to help them assess whether a guide dog will fit their lifestyle. Often we get shy clients who aren’t very outgoing, who are used to using canes and don’t get approached by people who are trying to avoid them or stay out of their way. Then they get a dog and everything changes. I hear so many stories from clients about how they have become more outgoing, they talk to people more, they feel more confident and able to move forward in their life. It’s incredible some of the changes I’ve seen happen in people’s lives, we have people come in who never used to get out and exercise and now they’re hiking miles outside with their dog.

Companionship is another big aspect of this. With the cane, our clients can get to and from where they need to go, but after work, they put the cane away. However, with a dog they have someone to talk to when they get home, to play with and be with. It’s very therapeutic.