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The Panda Project

A Guide Horse for the Blind

Report 5: The Transition to Working Guide

Written by Alexandra Kurland

Catching Up

The last Panda report ended in April at the Ohio Equine Affaire. It is now late Nov. 2002. I won't try to fill in all the missing months. It would take much too long both to write and to read.


I will say in brief that Panda's training through the late spring and summer went at a leisurely pace. My focus was on other things. In the spring I produced Lesson 4 in "The Click That Teaches" lesson series. And my summer project was getting photos for my next book project: "Clicking with Your Horse, A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures". In addition, I was away several times a month giving clinics.


While I was traveling Panda stayed with her "Aunties", Dolores Arste and Julie Varley. Ann would have taken her, but Quarry was needing all her attention. His dog and cat distractions were creating problems in his guiding. Ann was focusing her energy on him which didn't leave her any extra time for "baby sitting" Panda on my weekends away.


So Panda's training progressed at a very low-key, leisurely pace. She got to hang out with us for two weeks at "summer camp" while we filmed the big horses for the "Step-By-Step" book. At home she grazed in the back yard or dozed by my side while I worked on the computer. Her training felt very informal and unstructured, but that's how summers should feel.


School is Back in Session: Walking Blind

In September I put her back into "school". At this point Panda seemed to be guiding. She kept to the edge of the road, she stopped at curbs and landmarks, she kept a steady even pace. She went around obstacles in her path. These were all good things. But was she really guiding, or was she still just taking her direction from me? Was I giving her subtle clues to the right choice because I could see what was ahead?


To find out I shut my eyes, and not just for a few steps either which is what I had done up to this point. I went back to my neighborhood, a route we were both familiar with, but now as we headed out the driveway I shut my eyes.


That alone was quite the learning experience. I found myself flinching as we passed from sun into shadow. Was I about to bump into something? It was hard not to peek. I had to keep telling myself to trust her.


Distance was another surprise. Without visual markers I found myself overestimating how far we had walked. I would get confused and disoriented because I was sure we were further along than we were. Why hadn't Panda stopped at her next landmark? Had she overshot it. Again I had to keep telling myself to trust her, though I have to admit, those first couple days, I did "cheat". I peeked a few times, I was so convinced we were way off course. Usually we had gone only about a third of the distance I thought we had, and my confusion was throwing Panda off course. Again I had to keep telling myself to trust her.


I appreciated more and more the importance of a stable working relationship with a guide. Trust is everythisng. Each time I said trust her, and Panda guided me safely our partnership grew. I ekp thinking about what that will mean to a blind handler, knowing that they can develop this rapport and understanding will their guide, and they won't loose it to old age after just a few years.


Cars were the third major hurdle I had to deal with. I had no one walking with me. No one to tell me if we were straying too far out into the middle of the road. I decided to play it safe. At the sound of a car I would ask Panda to stop and step lateral to the side. When my foot felt the edge of the road we would stop and wait for the car to pass. This meant we walked at a snail's pace. My road gets a lot of traffic, but I preferred this over-cautious safe approach. It meant I could truly walk with my eyes closed. I didn't have to do safety checks, and since Ann has much better orientation skills, if Panda could guide me, she ought to be able to guide Ann, as well. The major difference would be that Ann would need far less information, and might at first be impatient with Panda's frequent shoreline checks, but I knew this would smooth out over time, just as everything else she'd learned so far had.


So we headed out on that first day at a granny's pace. I took nothing for granted. Every few strides we were stopping, checking for the edge. Panda did great, tolerating this change in our routine. She found her first major landmark, a storm drain that's opposite the first turn down a side street.


Panda has been consistently reinforced with peppermints at this spot, so it was not a surprise that she would stop for her treat. We crossed the street with ease, and headed along the easiest stretch of our walk, a quarter mile of sidewalk.



Panda was doing so well. As we came back up my street, a long section without any sidewalks, I stretched out the number of strides between shoreline checks. I was feeling confident, enjoying the novelty of walking with my eyes closed, when all of a sudden I barked my shins up against something solid and crashed forward onto my knees.


My eyes popped open. Panda had walked me across the street, gone up a neighbor's driveway, and front walkway. I had barked my shins against their front stoop. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw where I was. I had no sense that I had ever deviated one inch away from the edge of the road. I felt completely disoriented. How could we have gone so far off course without my knowing it? And why had Panda taken me here of all places?


I scurried us back across the street and resumed our walk, eyes once again closed. I was feeling less confident, so we went back to our frequent shoreline checks. Each time I checked we were several feet out. Not horrendous, but certainly not good enough. It seemed as though she was consistently deviating off to the right, into the middle of the road. I was feeling discouraged. Had a year's worth of training produced only this?


We went another hundred yards or so at this "granny-slow" pace, when Panda abruptly stopped. My eyes popped open. Good thing. Panda had walked me right into a wooden stake someone had placed by the edge of the road to keep cars off the grass. Another inch and I'd have walked smack into it.


Now I was really puzzled. Why had Panda made that mistake? Why hadn't she just walked me around it? She had actually gone off course to collide us into the stake.


The mystery grew even deeper a few houses on when I got a face full of forsythia bush! My puzzlement turned to true concern at the next driveway. Panda veered up it. When I felt grass underfoot, I opened my eyes just in time to stop her from taking me over the edge of a sharp drop-off!


The "Clever Hans" Effect

By the time I got home I was puzzled, concerned, discouraged. This was hardly the result I was hoping for, but as I pondered our walk, a simple explanation emerged. I had indeed been giving Panda subtle signals. I couldn't help but use the visual information I had. I could see the edge of the road. I was tracking it, just as much as she was. But with my eyes closed, I was loosing my orientation. I was veering off course. Panda didn't know she wasn't supposed to follow me. she hadn't yet understood that tracking the shoreline took precedence over my body language. It wasn't reasonable to expect her to know this since I had been filling this piece in for her in the most subtle of ways. I apparently tended to drift right, and Panda was following me because that's what was normal for her.


"You can't ask for and expect to get something on a consistent basis unless you have gone through a teaching process to teach it to your horse."


That's been my most fundamental principle throughout Panda's training, and it applied here just as much as it did to the rest of her training. I had changed a major element in our relationship. I had to go through a dual teaching process. She had to learn that the environmental cues took precedence over my drift. And I had to learn how to keep my orientation, so that I was not making her job harder than it needed to be.


On our next walk I was more cautious and took less for granted. I counted steps. Every five to thirty steps I checked the shoreline. When my foot felt the edge, click, Panda got a treat. On that walk we seemed to stay within a step or two of the edge. By the following day, all I had to do was turn my foot to feel the edge. The drift out into the street seemed to be gone. Now we were consistently going thirty plus paces between shoreline checks and I was finding always Panda had us right where we should be.


Panda was processing this new stage in her training. She was somehow getting the idea that it was her job to keep us on the edge. And furthermore the edge meant just that. If we were passing a driveway when I checked for the shoreline, Panda would step over only as far as the edge of the driveway, then she would stop, and firm herself up. She's small enough. I could have pushed through her, but she was telling me that we were at the edge of the road. We shouldn't go any further. I could usually feel the change in the pavement to confirm her choice. And I was impressed that she had correctly generalized the edge to mean blacktop as well as grass. Smart horse.


On this second walk she impressed me even further when she came to a halt halfway down the sidewalk and veered sharply off to the right. My eyes popped open. I couldn't help it: the change in course was so unexpected. A line of construction tape was blocking the sidewalk. Panda could easily have walked underneath it, but it would caught me about chest height.


I've seen both of Ann's shepherds walk her directly into overheads like this. Even once they've been shown the obstacle, they've tried to go under it. Panda had no question. This tape was something you walked around. I closed my eyes again, eager to see how she would negotiate the complexity of this obstacle. Panda marched me to the right, out into the street, took us out around two parked cars and then brought us back one driveway down to the sidewalk. Perfect. Click and jackpot.


As Panda became more consistent about staying to the edge, I tested her. I would at times deliberately drift off too much to the right. Panda's response was to follow for about one stride, then she would veer sharply back and bring us to a halt at the edge. As an added emphasis she often pawed the ground as if to point out where we were. This and her response to driveways indicated to me that she was generalizing edges as a concept.



Landmarks were something else Panda seemed to be understanding. Landmarks are navigational tools. Not all of our turns come at street crossing that are marked by curbs. It's useful to have Panda stop at some distinctive feature in the environment to confirm my location. The storm drain at our first crossing is one such landmark.


The sidewalk on the cross street is not lined up not quite in a straight line with the storm drain. That's something I discovered on this second walk. I gave Panda her go forward cue, and we headed across the street. I thought we were right on course, but half way across I felt Panda toss her head. I've seen her do this before when knows the "right" answer, but for some reason can't respond correctly. She'll do this, for example, when I've asked her to relieve when she doesn't need to go. She understands the cue, but just can't oblige. Her head toss is a characteristic response in this situation.


When I felt her toss her head now, I read that as a sign that we were off course. I was so sure I knew where we were going I wasn't really following her. I made a change of direction towards her and let her truly take me. "Trust her," I said to myself. "Trust her." A few steps further on I felt the gentle slope of the sidewalk. Click and treat! Smart horse. She knew where we were supposed to be heading, even if I didn't!


At another crossing I use a man hole cover as the landmark. Panda not only stops very accurately on the cover, she even points it out to me with a tap tap of her foot. "Here we are," she announces. The manhole cover is usually good for a peppermint so she wants to be certain I know where we are!


Over that first week of eyes-closed walks Panda made the transition from polite walking companion to working guide. I could do our entire route with my eyes closed. I was still checking the shoreline more frequently than Ann does with her guide dog, but we'd gone from every five or six steps, creeping along at a cautious pace, to walking forty or fifty steps without stopping. And yes, I was counting at this stage. Since I didn't have anyone accompanying me to let me know if I was off-course, I didn't want to go more than a few steps without knowing where the edge was. But Panda was now keeping us so close I hear in the muffling of her footfalls that she was staying right on the soft change in the pavement from road to grass.


My rule was I never looked ahead to see what I would be dealing with on our walk, but at the end I could look back to see what she had taken us around. She handled barking dogs, trash cans, parked cars, leaf piles, even one day a construction crew fixing a storm drain. We were out on trash day when the garbage trucks were blocking the street. She had to take me past the town trucks collecting leaves with their huge shredders sucking up the piles of raked leaves around the neighborhood.


And I learned to loathe leaf blowers because of the white out they created in background noise. I had to truly depend upon Panda because I could not hear the approaching cars. Each time she tucked us in tight to the shoreline I felt a felt such a deep appreciation for the intelligence this little horse.


Questions Answered - Questions Raised

After that first eyes-closed day, Panda never ran me into anything, or took me off course. She seemed to be understanding that her job was to pay attention to the course and take us around obstacles. It was not to follow me. If I asked her to shoreline and there was an obstacle keeping her out from the edge, she would firm up in her body. That was my signal to check. This "firming up" answered a question I had. Would a blind handler push her into hazards they weren't aware of. The answer was no, not if they were listening to her.


These walks raised many questions. I've seen horses spook at all the things Panda routinely ignored. And I've seen horses become pushy and take over when their handlers yielded space to them. Why was Panda so rock solid? And why did she remain so polite and focused even when her job involved pushing me aside?


Are minis somehow inherently different from their larger counterparts? Panda is the only mini I have worked with. With a sample size of one, I can't answer this question, though I would say as an individual she is one of the most solid, easy-to-train, non-reactive horses I have ever met. If this represents minis in general, then they are the most unsung, under-utilized of equine resources.


Another way of looking at this would be say that, yes, Panda's basic good nature is a definite plus, but the real difference is not the breed but the training method. Again this isn't something that can be answered based on Panda alone, but the use of clicker training in every aspect of her training does raise interesting questions. The emphasis these days in much of the horse community is on manipulating herd dynamics. "Who moves whom" is the concern. To the horse the one who yields space first is showing submission. When you side step out of your horse's space you are sending messages to him you may not intend about your place in his dominance hierarchy.


I am certainly aware of this concept in my training when I incorporate pressure and release of pressure with the clicker. But how does this concept fit in with Panda. It is her job to block her handler's path, to refuse at times to move forward even when commanded to do so. It is her job to step sideways, but only to the edge, even if that edge is a change only in pavement texture. At that point it is her job to firm up her body and resist her handler. The result is not a disrespectful, pushy, ill-mannered horse. Panda is a focused little worker bee who seems to thrive on the challenges guide work creates.


This seems to suggest that while clicker training may borrow some of the mechanical skills and exercises of other types of horse training, it is fundamentally different. It is going beyond manipulating instinct to engage the horse's intelligence.


What exactly does that mean? That's a good question for some graduate student in search of a thesis to explore. The answers, I am sure, will expand our understanding of both horses and training.


The "Nature" in Guide Work

Guide work certainly makes use of Panda's equine nature, and we are finding many ways horses are much better suited for guide work than dogs. Think of a dog's natural tendency. A dog wants to traverse back and forth, looking for prey. Walking straight lines, following a set track, is not his nature. Watching out for and being mindful of changes of footing also is not a major concern. Dogs delight in scrambling through hedgerows and over rough footing. That's where rabbits and other small prey live.


Communication: A Two-Way Street Leading to Trust

Panda also was developing a complex system of telling me about the environment and the different types of obstacles she was encountering. If she stopped just to stop, she would happily go on again when asked. But if she stopped at something she thought was important, she would firm up, refuse to move, and then orient more towards whatever it was she wanted me to notice. If it was a change in footing, she would paw the ground, or tap the curb I wasn't acknowledging. If it was an obstacle in front of me, she would press up against me blocking me from running into it. And if the object was off to our left, she would swerve so that I would touch it as I reached out my hand. She did this to point out landmarks, such as mailboxes, and also to let me know about trappy situations where there was no clear, good choice.


I marveled at the richness of the communication we already had and thought about the depth of the relationship Panda will be developing with Ann as they grow together as a team. And the great strength of this partnership is that it potentially may last for decades. I thought of this on every walk as my trust in Panda grew. We would get to some tricky section where I would say to myself trust her, trust her, and Panda would get me through.


My trust and confidence in Panda grew with every walk. This was in stark contrast to the experience Ann was having with her new guide dog. Instead of settling into his work, Quarry was becoming increasingly distracted by cats and other dogs. Trust was not something Ann could give him, but it is a key element in a successful guide relationship. You have to trust that your animal is taking you around an obstacle and is staying focused on his job. You can't be second guessing: is he pulling to avoid a hazard or to get to another dog? Ann's first dog, Bailey had been a wonderful worker. Like Panda, other animals were not a distraction for him, but Quarry could not over-ride his basic nature and stay focused on his job. Ann was facing the very difficult decision to return him to the school that trained him.

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