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The Panda Project

A Guide Horse for the Blind

Report 5: The Transition to Working Guide Continued

Written by Alexandra Kurland

Panda as a Working Guide

That's where we were at the end of October. Panda was becoming increasingly steady and confident in her walks with me. It was time to test her further by pairing her up with Ann. Our first training walk was in Ann's neighborhood, a route Panda and I had walked only once, but Ann knew well. Panda did a good job. She kept to the shoreline, waited for Ann to tell her when to cross streets, stopped correctly at up curbs. With a little help from Ann she found the button for audible traffic light at the corner to the high school. She's been to the high school enough times now that she knew the route through the parking lot and up to the front door.


All in all it was a very successful walk, though I think she was probably overly "grandmotherly" for Ann's taste. She kept a slow pace because she was busy showing things to Ann. I reminded Ann that Panda was used to guiding me and I wasn't as experienced at being blind as she was. I needed lots of landmarks to stay oriented. Panda would learn to weed out the extra information over time, but for now I would rather see her giving too much information, rather than like Quarry, too little.


At one point Panda turned in and very deliberately showed Ann a bush growing at the corner of a neighbor's driveway. "I never knew that was there," Ann remarked. Ann was viewing her neighborhood from a horse's point of view instead of a dog's or a human's. Panda felt that particular bush was important to show to her, as were the cracks in the pavement, the manhole covers, the storm drains, and the mailboxes. These were all things she stopped at and made a special point of indicating to Ann before she would walk on.


Our second walk was in my neighborhood, a route Ann does not know at all, so she had to trust Panda and follow her. That for me was especially interesting because it gave me a chance to see how much of the route Panda could do on her own and which landmarks she would point out. She nailed them all, even the mailbox at the corner which I had add in just two days before.


Our third route was at the Equine Affaire where Panda did an outstanding job taking Ann through the congestion and confusion of the crowded parking lots. I returned from those walks beaming like a proud mother who has just watched her child in the starring role of the school play. That's my kid! That's my smart Panda!


And the best part for me was watching Ann work her, seeing how relaxed she was, seeing her smiling and telling Panda how good she was. At the end of one of the walks, she commented to me that walking with Panda was like riding her Icelandic. Now that's great praise indeed!


Panda is a long way from being ready to put into full work. Neither Ann nor I feel that she is yet ready to face the rigors of working on a daily basis in the high school where Ann teaches. But she is demonstrating to both of us that the basic job of guiding is well within her scope.


What Is It Like to Use Panda as a Guide? Ann's Perspective


Let me close this report by sharing what Ann has written in several recent emails to the Guide Dog Users List describing what it is like to use Panda as a guide.


"Recently I have had several opportunities to go for walks using Panda as my guide, and I have been delighted with her work and attitude. Although she is still a baby, not yet two years old, she is ready to work at the drop of a harness, without the need for blowing off excess energy first or doing obedience exercises to get her mind focused on her job. She comes out eager and businesslike, relaxed and confident. She picks up a nice comfortable pace, and guides without pulling.


When she encounters obstacles, she points them out by touching them with her foot if they are on the ground, like a curb or step, or with her nose, if they are at waistlevel, like a traffic barrier. She plans ahead to find the clearest path of travel, and she has a great memory for both routes and landmarks. I showed here the pedestrian crossing button at a particular corner in my neighborhood once, and the next time we came to that corner, she walked right up to the pole and touched the button with her little nose. She accepts my requests to deviate from a known route with willingness and grace, (something that was a problem for Quarry).


She chooses the footing carefully, and is great at noticing overhead obstacles, such as big truck mirrors, and avoiding them. I have worked her now in both areas that were familiar to her and unfamiliar to her, and in areas that were familiar to me and unfamiliar to me, and in all cases, she has made me smile with the sheer pleasure of walking beside her. We have even walked along a loading dock, where she clearly recognized the danger and responded perfectly to keep us both safe.


She gives me a lovely feel in the harness, and stops and waits patiently when I drop the harness handle. She heels politely when I use a sighted guide. And she never behaves aggressively toward or gets distracted by dogs, cats, or other animals, not even other horses.


Of course, there are some disadvantages to using a guide horse. One is that Panda is such a novelty that she inevitably draws people's attention. No harness sign is strong enough to fend off the crowds of admirers who want to pet her and engage in long conversations with me about her. Certainly, I enjoy educating the public about the techniques that I as a blind person use to carry on the everyday activities of living, but sometimes I just want to get to where I am going!"


Nov. 19 2002


"It is a really cool feeling to walk with Panda as my guide. She is more patient than the dogs I have known; she doesn't pull, and she's not in such a hurry. Of course, if I ask her to speed up on the straightaways, she picks up a lively trot. One of the wonderful things about working Panda is the sound of her little hooves. It makes you smile! And the sound is helpful in a mobility sense also; just like the tapping of the cane tip, it helps in the location of buildings and other landmarks, and it gives information about the walking surface ahead.


I'm not saying that guide horses are for everyone. I'm not sure it's even the way I will go finally. I do still love dogs, and I would have a dog right now if either of my dogs had worked out. Using a guide horse is complicated by the fact that the handler will have to fight the battle for acceptance in society and to be taken seriously by skeptical blind people and others. But when I walk with Panda as my guide, I feel so free and relaxed that I think it might just be worth the inevitable battles. 11/23/02


"Last Saturday, I again had the opportunity to take a training walk with Panda as my guide. Alex, Panda's trainer, followed along, but Panda did the complete guiding job. We walked from my home to the high school where I work. It's only a couple of blocks to the school, through a residential area without sidewalks; the route includes several street crossings, left and right turns, and lots of country shorelining, including a stretch where we walk on the right side of a driveway.


Panda got practice working around obstacles such as leaf piles and storm drains and coming promptly back to the edge of the road. She demonstrated that she really has "got" the idea of shorelining. At one point, she began to come off the shoreline to go around a pile of leaves, but then noticed an approaching car, and snugged right oer to the curb, stopped and waited until the car passed, and then took me out and around the leaf pile and back to the curb, just as neat as a pin! I was impressed!


We walked out to the main road, where Panda found the pedestrian signal button, and we crossed smartly. As we approached the school, I was thinking that the school would be a nice quiet place on this weekend day to practice indoor turns and finding doors and other landmarks. I was surprised by the number of people and vehicles that were coming and going from the parking lot. Then I remembered that this was the day of the annual Boy Scout winter sports equipment sale.


That meant that the place would be crowded with tables of skiing equipment, skates, boots, hockey sticks, snow shoes, etc., and lots of families with kids of all ages and very little awareness of proper protocol with respect to guide animals. In short it would be a very challenging environment, both physically and socially, in which to work a guide in training. Since Panda is always eager to explore new and interesting places, and she seems to thrive on challenges, we decided to go on in and see how she would deal with the situation.


Almost on cue, the first thing that happened when we walked through the door was that a toddler with parent in tow came running straight up to Panda's face and attempted to "pat the nice horsie". When Panda found her way blocked, she stopped and pressed herself up against my left leg while I explained to the parent that Panda was a working guide and that they could not pet her right now.


As we started to go forward into the wide foyer of the school, a man came toward us moving very fast and erratically in a way that might be alarming to a guide animal. Panda just made a quick little semi circle around him and continued on her chosen path.


The foyer had two lines of tables set up down its length. People were behind the tables doing the selling, and the center of the foyer was crowded with the prospective buyers, examining the equipment.


Panda sized up the situation, and confidently chose a path along the right wall of the foyer that took us behind the tables. She rightly judged that that was the least congested route. But it was not the route that either Alex or I would have chosen, being well-socialized humans and knowing the conventions of flea markets and fairs.. We would have worked our way through the crowds in the center of the space. It wouldn't have occurred to us to take the peripheral route. This is just one instance among many that provides evidence that Panda is making the guiding decisions, rather than depending upon subtle cues from either her handler or trainer.


We made our way through the foyer and into the narrower main hallway of the school. Panda deftly guided me around tables and through narrow passageways, made all the narrower by an assortment of children's bicycles for sale. When the path became too narrow for us to pass, she would stop, sometimes touching her nose to the corner of a protruding table to let me know that it was there. Then I could drop the harness handles and heel her through the constriction. At one of the tables we met one of our local horse vets who was there not as a vet, but as a Boy Scout mom. She had met Panda before at the barn where my riding horses live, but it was nice to be able to show her Panda in working mode.


Once we got beyond the congested front portion of the building, I had the opportunity to work with Panda on finding several classrooms and other landmarks that I frequent in my work. I also got her to "hup up" (trot)on the long straightaways and enjoy the feeling of freedom and the sound of her lively little trotting hooves.


On the way down the main hall I had Panda turn right at an intersection and go down the hall to a certain classroom. On the return trip back up the main hallway later, I was curious to see what she would do when she came to that intersection, whether she would assume that I would want to go down the side hallway again, or whether she would be so intent on getting back to the front door that she wouldn't even pause at that intersection at all. Instead of either of these, when she came to the intersection, she calmly halted, as if to say, "Here is the intersection. What would you like to do?" Wen I gave her the the "forward signal", she proceeded without any hint of having an opinion in the matter.


In short we had a lovely and very enjoyable training session, and a chance to do quite a bit of educating of the general public, as well. Without a doubt, my beautiful and confident little guide horse and the positive methods by which she is trained are two of the most wonderful things I have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving Day."


Ann Edie

Wed. Nov. 27, 2002


Where We Go From Here


The evolution of a guide is a fascinating process. The first phase of this process was teaching Panda a set of skills: lead at a steady pace, keep a set orientation to your handler, stop at changes in elevation, walk a straight path without pulling to the side. That's all just basic horse training. The interesting part has been turning over to her the opportunity to make choices. You can observe her sizing up the situation and well in advance of an obstacle selecting her course. So the first phase was the "puppy raising stage" where she learned the underlying skills of her future job. (Panda Project Report 1)


The second phase was giving her opportunities to make choices and use those skills. That process began last November at the Equine Affaire in the second month of her training. (Panda Project Report 2)


Each of those phases has continued into the present, but we have definitely entered a third and now a fourth phase of her training. The third phase is the eyes-closed walks which transfers more of the responsibility for keeping us both safe and on course to Panda. The fourth phase is the pairing her up with Ann. This will be a gradual process leading eventually to Panda living and working full time with Ann.


Alexandra Kurland

November 2002


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