The Panda Project
A Guide Horse for the Blind
Report 4: Climbing to New Heights! Continued
Written by Alexandra Kurland
Every time Panda went out on a training walk, the environment was different. Saturday morning we walked around while things were still pretty quiet. When we went out again a couple hours later, the grounds were packed. We started out on our normal route, going across to the Bricker Building and following the steps to the side wall, only now there were people sitting on them.
I wondered what Panda would do. I know what Ann's current guide dog would have done. He would have walked right up to the people and put his nose in their face to say hello. Panda's response was very different. Twenty feet from them, Panda stopped, turned me to the left and took me up onto the next step. She'd seen the people and plotted out what she needed to do to avoid them. Click and treat!
A friend walking with us asked if I'd ever had the opportunity to go ahead of Panda to watch her work. I hadn't. What I saw from my vantage point was a relaxed little horse calmly walking along with her head down. What this other person saw were Panda's eyes scanning back and forth. Panda takes in everything. She sizes up every situation and determines what needs to be done well in advance. Her focus is extraordinary, especially for a horse who is, after all, only fifteen months old.
What is more she seems to truly enjoy her work. Saturday evening I wanted a friend who had been helping out at the booth to meet her. I had already taken her out several times during the day so I wasn't planning on working her again. We were just hanging out with her while she chowed down on a late supper. But Panda was more interested in visiting than she was in eating. She left her food and planted herself at my side. She then hooked on to my friend and played a round of "Panda catch" with us. Her dinner remained untouched on the floor. I started to leave and Panda followed, so I held her harness out to her. Panda shoved her face right in. Instead of being tired and uninterested, she was eager to go for another walk. I let her choose the route. If she'd hung around the stall that would have been fine, but Panda was looking for adventures!
We started out on our normal route, but stopped at the Coliseum to watch the horses warming up for the evening exhibition. On our way back to the barn we headed straight towards the display of goose neck trailers. I don't remember what else was going on around us, but Panda wasn't making her normal course adjustment to avoid them. I followed, ever curious, to see how this would play out. Three strides out from my being clocked in the head by a trailer hitch, Panda did a double take, stared straight up at the hitch and steered me very deliberately off to the side. Not to sound too anthropomorphic, but her whole demeanor seemed to be saying: "Now where did that come from? How did I miss that!"
And that's how I know that it hasn't been by chance that we've avoided all these overhead obstacles. Panda looked straight at the hitch. She could have walked under it, but she stared right at it, and then she swerved to avoid it.
In a weekend filled with unusual challenges, that was our only close call. Pretty amazing.
Herd Instincts and Fish Schools
When you walk with Panda, you can see her making choices. She's wonderful in crowds. Her herd instincts serve her well. She's very good at reading body language and sizing up traffic flow. She knows how to zig and zag through clusters of people.
Ann's first guide dog had this same ability. I used to love walking with the two of them through crowds of people. It was like being in a fish school. He could weave through a crowd without ever bumping into anyone. People would part for him and we would slide through. Her new dog runs Ann into people. He has no crowd sense at all, but Panda is superb. Her dog has to learn how to do this, but Panda's herd instincts makes her a natural at this.
This has been one of the added bonuses of working with a horse. Ann's current dog has to be actively taught to avoid people. I've watched the teaching process for this. Somebody stands in his path. That person is treated just like an obstacle. If Ann bumps into the person, the dog is corrected just as he would have been if Ann had bumped into a lamp post. Quarry has needed this lesson repeated many times. He'd much rather greet the people than go around them, and he isn't good at reading their body language.
Panda knows how to zig and zag to avoid them. I love watching her adjust her path based on where she can see the person will be in a couple of strides. That's a huge advantage her equine nature gives her.
On our way back to the stabling area that evening Panda baulked. When I told her to go forward again, she pressed herself tightly against my side. The road in front of us was blocked with horse carriages. The big hitches were getting ready to go in. The Heinz Hitch with their eight magnificent Percherons was just up the street with a crowd of people surrounding it. There was the haflinger team, the donkey cart, a six hitch team of minis. Panda was right. She could not go forward safely. There was too much going on, and it was too unpredictable for her to be able to navigate us safely back to the barn. She needed help, and by pressing against my side she was telling me this was too much for her.
She wasn't afraid. If I had led her forward, she would have followed, but she couldn't do it on her own. Her response was exactly right. I had given her a command, and she had disobeyed it because it wasn't safe. So instead we found a seat on a cement traffic barrier and watched the show. A six horse Belgium hitch thundered up from the other side of the complex and stopped directly in front of us. Behind them was the Clydesdale Hitch. Magnificent! What a treat it is to see these horses. And what superb horseman there are in the world!
Over the weekend we had many other instances where Panda could not do as I asked. On our Saturday afternoon walk she was confronted by a long line at the food stands. It stretched from the front of the stand clear across the roadway. There was no way around. I told Panda to go forward, and she very correctly pressed against my side.
Now you may be thinking: "Big deal. Of course, she stopped. Her path was blocked." But by contrast I've seen Ann's current dog take her straight into lines like this. I told Panda to go forward again. She pressed even harder against me. Good girl. This is going to become an excellent signal to her blind handler that there is something beyond the ordinary obstacle in front of us.
When the crowd moved aside for us, I told her to go forward, and she immediately threaded her way through, only to be confronted by another line. She again stopped and waited for a gap to open up. Click and treat!
Intelligent disobedience is a great gift that Panda is bringing into the horse world. That's a wonderful phrase. Think about what it says: Intelligent disobedience.
This is not a concept that originates with Panda. It is the term guide dog trainers use to refer to the dog's ability to prioritize tasks. The handler tells the dog to go forward, a command the dog knows well and normally obeys, but a car is coming which the handler did not hear.
The dog has also learned to avoid moving obstacles. In the past he has learned that if he goes forward into the path of the car he will get corrected, so he disobeys the first command to avoid correction.
For Panda the consequence for running me into obstacles has been that I trip over my own two feet and fall down. I have never given her any direct correction. Instead I have clicked and reinforced her for moving around obstacles or stopping when something hazardous is in our path. At the Equine Affaire she showed me time and again that she can take responsibility for our safety.
Intelligent disobedience. Again, I want to emphasize that this is not something new. This is Black Beauty refusing to cross the bridge in the storm. This is your horse balking at the swampy ground because he can sense that there's quick sand just ahead. Anyone who has gone trail riding has experienced intelligent disobedience. Haven't you at some point asked your horse to go forward, punished him for refusing, and then found out later that there was a good reason for his refusal. Maybe it was after a heavy rain, and the trail you were on was about to wash out. Maybe there was a bear up ahead and your horse knew better than to go on.
We punish our horses for being good partners because we have been taught a model of horse training that says the horse must obey us at all times. We mustn't let him "get away" with saying "no" to us.
Panda is not saying "no" when she balks at my side. Instead she is doing her job. Think what a great trail partner a horse trained in this manner would make. I could indicate to my horse where I wanted to go, just as I do with Panda, but I could let him choose the best way. Tuned in trail riders do this already, but we could be so much more aware of this skill and teach it deliberately to our horses. Think what incredible partners we would have if we allowed them this gift of giving us what is their natural birth right. Horses are prey animals. What that means is that they are very clever at keeping themselves and their herd mates safe. We don't have to be afraid of our horse's nature. Instead of blocking their equine intelligence, we can be so much more deliberate in making it a part of our training.
This is Panda's gift. The deeper I get into this project the more I see how much she has to offer all horses. My little pioneer. As I write this, she is snoozing all curled up dreaming a happy dream. None of this matters to her. What matters is that I am nearby and in a little while we will go out together for another adventure.
Alexandra Kurland, 2002