The Test Walk - Partnering with a Guide Dog
December 20, 2012
By Kent and Jenine Stanley
This article first appeared in the December 2012 PXE International eNewsletter
See also "Four Paws Test Drive - Learning to See Guide Dogs Differently" by Linda Falconiero
When people are considering whether or not to partner with a guide dog to further their independent travel, they often wonder just what walking with a dog will feel like. What can the dog really do? Guide dog training programs often bring actual dogs along to conferences and agencies so that people can take a “test walk” to experience for themselves just how the dog works.
At the 2012 PXE International Biennial Conference in September, we, Kent and Jenine Stanley, offered the test walk experience for anyone who might want to know what it feels like to be guided by a dog. Swap, a five-year old Labrador/Golden Retriever cross, was trained at the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, NY and works as Jenine’s guide. Swap serves as the perfect test walk dog as he is calm, steady, and can work with unfamiliar people. Our role during these walks was to take the person on a route around the hotel, walking behind and beside Swap and pointing out ways that he worked.
During the test walk, the new person holds the U-shaped leather-covered handle and the dog walks slightly ahead with a gentle pull forward. Unless someone has damage to the left arm and hand, all guide dogs are trained to walk on the left side. The true key to any walk with a guide dog is trust. Understanding what a dog can do and what a dog can compensate for, especially if the person has some remaining vision, is very important in establishing that trust.
Swap, with handler Kent Stanley and President of the Board, Patrick Terry
The goal during the test walk is to show the new handler areas where a dog might help with his or her daily life. With the central vision loss that can accompany pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE), our test walk featured moving through crowds where obstacles change constantly, changes in lighting from indoor to outdoor and back, and stairs or other changes in elevation.
A guide dog will maneuver its handler around obstacles, even when they are moving. The Bethesda North Marriott provided us with a wonderful set of such obstacles including a large wedding party on the same floor as the PXE International Conference. Swap had to avoid food, children, serving carts and people, and he did this perfectly through the crowds.
Guide dogs also stop at doorways and changes in elevation. This is very helpful if a person’s remaining vision is compromised by drastic lighting changes. The dog can take over watching for obstacles or continuing a path of travel as the eyes adjust to outside sunshine or inside lighting. The guide dog will also stop at changes in elevation such as stairs, cracks in the sidewalk, slopes for curbs or driveways, and even those nasty metal edges that cover the seams between pieces of carpet in long hallways. Guide dogs quickly learn how aware their owners are of these obstacles and when it is necessary to alert them.
So how did the test walk go? Initially our test driver, Linda, held the handle while Kent held the leash. Swap knows many complex commands, but to start with, Kent explained some of the basic commands, such as ‘Forward’, ‘Right’, ‘Left’ and ‘Straight’.
To demonstrate Swap’s savvy, Kent chose to make the walk in an area neither he nor Swap had been in. The outdoor part was a large city block with many decision points. Swap took Linda around obstacles, informed her about driveways and other danger points by slowing down or stopping, and even went to the curb and waited until she told him what to do: ‘Right’, ‘Left’ or ‘Straight’. Guide dogs do not read traffic lights. The handler must know when it is safe to cross the street. This is why the schools that train guide dogs require that people have some training in orientation and mobility and using the white cane.
In a short time, the conversation had naturally moved from the dog to world issues and other regular conversation topics. Kent turned the leash over to Linda, and they proceeded to walk together like old friends. That included eye contact. The walk did not exhaust Linda, but Kent found it a little more taxing because he did not have the dog to watch out for obstacles.
Sometimes Jenine and Kent walk together and other times they are alone with their guides. Kent finds his guide dog helpful in malls, busy and crowded sidewalks and streets, or in the airport or train stations. Swap can even find ‘Security’ just from the noise.
Can you go into Manhattan alone, or can you imagine doing it alone with your guide? How about going to and traveling around Australia alone with just your passport and guide? Jenine has done both routinely and she is totally blind. That could be you! All you need is a well-trained and matched guide dog, confidence and a strong need to be independent and free!
The Guide Dog Foundation is proud to partner with PXE International toward the independence of people with PXE. We hope to offer our test walks at future PXE International Conferences and meet many of you who wish to learn more about safe, dignified, independent travel with a guide dog.