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The Panda Project

A Guide Horse for the Blind

Report 6: More Panda Reports

Written by Ann Edie


The following articles were reports to email guide dog lists written by Ann Edie, describing Panda’s early guide training. 

December 23, 2002


Hi, All,


Yesterday I went to Saratoga with a group of friends for our second annual Holiday stroll with Panda, my miniature guide horse in training. Last year when we went for our walk in the downtown shopping district of Saratoga, Panda was not yet one year old. She had been with us for only three months, and was very much in the "puppy walking" stage of her training. Alexandra Kurland, Panda's trainer, was teaching her to walk politely on a loose lead and exposing her to a variety of environments and situations that she would be likely to encounter as a guide. I was working Quarry, my German Shepherd guide who had come to me just a month earlier at Thanksgiving.Already we were struggling with the animal distraction issue which would lead to our parting waysin less than a year's time. How much things have changed in that year!


I feel a little sad when I think about last year's walk, because I was on edge while working Quarry,worried about meeting other dogs and concentrating on keeping his attention on his work. When we did encounter two small dogs coming out of a building with a man who was obviously wary of large German shepherds, Quarry did react with strong "interest" in the other dogs, and it took me several minutes of obedience work and correction to get him working tolerably well again. It was not a very relaxing or sociable event for me because of my preoccupation with working a new guide dog.


This year I was working Panda as my guide, and Alex walked a little behind us in the instructor's position to monitor our progress and give me feedback on our work. My other friends walked sometimes ahead and sometimes behind us, enjoying the festive atmosphere and the surprise and delight on the faces of our fellow shoppers at seeing a tiny horse walking among them.


Saratoga is a small city with a thriving downtown shopping district, and on this last Saturday before Christmas everyone seemed to be out taking advantage of the relatively mild weather and enjoying the holiday decorations, music, and, of course, the shopping. There were crowds of people everywhere, many children, and many dogs.


From the moment we got out of the mini van, Panda assumed her usual focused, confident, businesslike working manner. She found the way out of the parking lot and to the sidewalk, and we were on our way. Almost immediately, our ears were accosted by the blaring siren of a rapidly approaching ambulance. As the ambulance came abreast of us it let out two tremendous blasts of its air horn. I startled at the noise, and Panda gave a tiny start forward, then immediately resumed her steady pace without a hint of residual concern. If that's the extent of her "spook" reaction, I can certainly deal with it!


For the next several hours we strolled and shopped. Panda threaded her way through crowds of people, ignoring the many who reached out hands toward her to pet her or blocked her way to ask questions about her or to say how thrilled they were to see a little horse working as a guide. I don't know if people in other towns would react in the same enthusiastic way—Saratoga is, after all, a horse-loving town--but we certainly haven't had any trouble with access or acceptance wherever we've gone so far.


Panda stopped precisely at every up and down curb we came to. She did her best to take me around large puddles and patches of snow and ice. She was unflappable in the face of blowing plastic, a falling sign, bouncing helium balloons, barking and lunging dogs, baby strollers, and Salvation Army bell ringers. We went smoothly through doors into and out of stores, up and down flights of stairs, and across busy streets.


The sidewalks of Saratoga are dotted with low square planters with stone edges. Panda wove her way around these giving me good clearance every time except one, where I bumped harmlessly into the corner of the planter. I uttered the natural response of "Ouch", and simply brought her back a few steps and again asked her to go forward. This time she gave me good clearance, and there was no hint of fear or anxiety in her attitude. When she performed successfully, I clicked her and gave her a tiny piece of carrot as a reward. (Panda has been trained using a bridging signal, a clicking sound, which marks the precise moment when she has performed a desired behavior, and positive reinforcement, rewards, for these correct responses. Because of this, she is motivated to repeat the behaviors that brought her rewards, and she is happy and relaxed in her work.) Another time Panda took me around one of these planters and then between the planter and a bus shelter and a protruding sign. Alex was about to warn me of the situation, but Panda deftly guided me through without so much as a brush.


We took a break at the cafe in the Borders Bookstore. While we sipped our hot cocoa and ate sticky buns, Panda lay down and curled up on the floor beside my chair to take a nap. A Borders employee came over to our table and asked if she could take pictures. She remembered us from last year's visit, and said they like to take pictures of all the celebrities who stop in. She made a point of inviting us back any time. We resumed our stroll and stopped in at a gift shop and at Mrs.London's, a famous pastry shop, to admire the beautiful cakes and torts in the shapes of flowers,crowns, and logs, wrought in chocolate, fruit , and creams and to make the difficult decision as to which delicacy to buy for later consumption at the evening's festivities. Panda waited patiently while we considered our purchases.


On our return walk to the car, we met a woman who was testing the experimental, gyroscope-balanced, personal vehicle, the Segway, and we stopped and had a lovely chat with her. The Segway seemed to be operating safely in the very congested traffic of the holiday crowds. They really don't go very fast, much slower than a bicycle or skate board can. And while they are certainly silent, and therefore, difficult to detect, they are very maneuverable with just a shift in the rider's weight or focus of attention. It is certainly the operator of the Segway's responsibility to avoid pedestrians,but it doesn't look as if this is going to be a major problem. The woman who we spoke to said that the biggest problem that she had found with the Segway was that you don't get any exercise when using it. Naturally, Panda was unphased by the Segway.


I gave Panda a chance to relieve before we all piled into the car for the trip home. She had no difficulty relieving in an unfamiliar place. In the car on the way home, she dozed with her nose on my knee while the five "grown ups" chatted merrily. It had been a lovely, congenial afternoon spent with friends in the holiday spirit. Panda's pace is easy to follow, and allows me to converse with others as we walk along. Even at this early stage of her guide work, she seems to have a solid understanding of what her job is, and a sure focus and confidence in her ability to do that job. It is a most wonderful joyful experience to be guided by her, and it is the most exciting Christmas gift ever to have her walking by my side as my partner.


I wish you, your families, and your guides, all the happiest of Christmases, and great joy in the new year.





January 13, 2003


Hi, Friends,


Yesterday was Panda's 2nd birthday, so I thought I'd give you an update on her recent progressin training, and tell you how we spent the special day.


Panda is my miniature horse guide-in-training. She has been with us and in "puppy-raising"/guide training since September, 2001. She is being trained by Alexandra Kurland, and lives at Alex's house most of the time. Recently, since I am without a guide dog, I have been taking part in more of Panda's training sessions. We have been working outdoors in the heavy-snow conditions of the Upstate New York winter, and also indoors in areas congested with stationary and moving obstacles and people, such as shopping centers, malls, and stores.


After our second 2-foot snowfall a week ago, I jokingly remarked to Alex that I would expect to see Panda at 7:00 a.m. Monday morning to help me find my way through the snow to work at the high school. I knew that 7:00a.m. was a bit early for someone to be up and about who doesn't have to punch a time clock, so to speak, so I wasn't really serious about expecting to see them at that hour. But I was pleasantly surprised when I emerged from an after-school faculty meeting at 4:00p.m. to find Alex and Panda there waiting to do a training walk home with me.


Panda did a fine job of finding a path through the snow and of slowing down or going around slippery patches. She also did well staying over close to the left edge of the road where there are no sidewalks, despite the fact that the high snow banks made that difficult. Alex left us once we were in my home subdivision with instructions to check the shoreline frequently. She went back to the high school to get her car. We wanted to test whether Panda would continue to do her work accurately without the subtle cues that Alex might be inadvertantly providing while walking behind Panda and me. Panda continued to work well; the only mistake she made was to fail to turn into my driveway as we approached it. The snow plows had pushed quite a pile of snow into the mouth of the driveway during the day, so I had a hard time knowing exactly where the driveway was myself,and I guess Panda couldn't find a clear path to it. Anyway, we walked past it the first time, but when I realized that was the case, I asked her to turn back, and then to find right, and she found it successfully.


The next afternoon, Panda and Alex appeared at my office door once again. This time we worked for a while in the halls of the school avoiding janitor's carts, trash bins, audio-visual equipment carts,and sports teams. (The sports teams were sometimes sitting in the halls waiting for their coaches or practice times, sometimes standing around, and sometimes running down the corridors, as a substitute for jogging outdoors during the winter weather).


Panda thinks well ahead as we walk down a corridor, and begins to give me information that there is an obstacle or an obstruction ahead well in advance. Unfortunately, at least for Panda's training, it is often very difficult to work through these obstacles, because people see us coming and scatter,and Janitors hurry to get their carts out of our way. It must make Panda feel pretty powerful to be able to cause all those big people and things to move out of her path!


Sometimes I ask them to stay where they are just so we can have the practice working past the obstacles. And sometimes we have to set up obstacles ourselves, so that they stay there long enough for us to work past them.


One of the really nice things about Panda is that when she does work through and around groups of people, she does not sniff or seek attention from them, but stays focused on her work. Another nice thing is that when she comes to an intersection, she pauses and waits for me to indicate which direction I would like her to go, rather than assuming we will go the way we did the previous time or the way we usually go. I like this pause, so I will have to remember to keep reinforcing this behavior, rather than just giving the "find right" or "find left" command while walking toward the intersection, so that the pause remains part of the behavior chain.


While we were in the high school, we went to the special education classroom where I spend most of my teaching time this year. The classroom is actually made up of three small rooms; one we call the office, one the apartment, and one the classroom. All three are crowded with furniture, and there is little space for moving around, even after school when the nine high-school-sized class members,two wheelchairs, and three walkers, and swarms of teachers, therapists, and teaching assistants have gone home. We scratched our heads for a few minutes trying to think of a good place to put Panda in that setting, but came to no conclusions. When I had my guide dog,I used to have him lie under one of the tables; but the furniture has been rearranged since that time, and the space under that table has been appropriated for other uses. But that's a matter for another day.


We also did some stair work in the high school. Panda has gotten very good at handling outdoor stairs and steps. She has learned to walk up and down them carefully, stepping on each step in turn,and not jumping over the last couple, especially on the way down. But we haven't done a lot of work on indoor stairs, which may be narrower and more slippery than the outdoor ones. The last time we worked on the stairs in the high school, Panda was a bit reluctant to go up and down them,and when she did, she rushed a bit. But this time, she approached them with more confidence, and went up and down them without hesitation. She is still rushing a bit, especially at the bottom, but she has made very good progress.


After working inside the school for about half an hour, we went on our walk home. Again Alex left us to return to the high school to get her car once we were in the residential subdivision. Once again Panda continued to work well in the absence of her trainer. And this time she had no difficulty finding my driveway.


And so we arrive at Panda's birthday. Alex and I had planned a little combined training session/celebration for the occasion. We met a few friends at a local shopping center for some shopping, and then went to the coffee shop there for sandwiches and yummy desserts. Panda worked very well both in the outdoor sidewalk and parking lot environment, and inside the bookstore and toy store, where the aisles were very narrow and full of obstructions.


In the bookstore, we looked for books that would be suitable to read to a young horse--we settled on "The Carrot Seed". And in the toy store we searched for a busy box that could help her learn her shapes, colors and alphabet. We didn't find that perfect toy for Panda, but we did purchase an electronic piano for our big horses to play. Learning to ring bells, squeeze bicycle horns, bang on drums, and play keyboards with their lips helps horses to overcome their fear of strange and loud noises.


Back outside, as we were approaching a corner of the sidewalk, Panda started to go around a pillar on the left, or inside of the turn. Then she noticed that there was not enough clearance for the two of us between the pillar and the curb. She stopped, and then took us around the pillar to the right, or the outside of the turn. In the coffee shop we enjoyed an early supper of wonderful sandwiches and scrumptious chocolate desserts. Panda stood beside my chair for a while, then lay down and took a nap. She was very well-behaved and inconspicuous throughout the meal, which was the point of the exercise. Until now, we hadn't taken Panda into any restaurants where we would eat a full meal and stay for more than an hour. But we thought she was now ready for that,and she proved us right. The people in the coffee shop were very welcoming and appropriate in their behavior toward Panda. They offered us a bowl of water as they would have offered for a guide dog, and did not ask to pat her or feed her. They understood that she was working.


We were at the shopping center for about three and a half hours, and Panda had no difficulty going that long without a relief break. We gave her an opportunity to relieve before getting back into the car for the ride home. She relieved promptly on cue.


We spent the early evening at the barn caring for and riding our "big" horses. Panda spent part of this time standing on a tie and part of the time in one of the stalls. After tucking in the big horses, we went back to my house and continued to celebrate Panda's birthday. We sang "Happy Birthday" to her, and this time she actually got to share the goodies. I had made a carrot cake, and instead of cream cheese frosting on her piece I had heaped applesauce with shredded carrot. We stuck two baby carrots in the cake as candle substitutes. Panda enjoyed her piece of cake,especially the topping! While the grown ups enjoyed a nice cup of tea, I brought out a selection of my old dog toys to see if she would be interested in any of them. She picked out the canvas frisbee, and we had soon shaped the beginnings of a retrieve. It was well past her usual bedtime when we decided to call it a night.


Throughout the day, Panda showed a great deal of maturity and flexibility.She worked, ate, relieved, played, and rested on a human schedule, and seemed perfectly happy to do so. The point of the shopping trip was not to treat her like a human child, but rather to prepare her for the normal family activities that she will be part of in her life as my guide. She practiced navigating through the crowded and narrow aisles of the stores, and waited patiently while we looked at products and considered purchases. It was a fun and non-stressful day for us all, and a nice way to mark another milestone in Panda's training.


Happy travels in the snow to all of you, that is, if you are lucky enough to have snow.


Ann Edie


March 3, 2003


Hi, Friends,


Traffic Checks

I had the pleasure of having Panda, my miniature horse guide-in-training, stay with me over this past weekend. On Saturday, since the weather was sunny and relatively mild compared to what we have become accustomed to this winter, I decided to go out for a little walk with Panda as my guide.


We were still doing "country work" in my residential neighborhood, which has no sidewalks,when we encountered our first naturally occurring traffic check. (Up to this point, our traffic work has been carefully monitored and traffic checks have been as controlled or "set up" as possible.)


We were walking along the left edge of the road toward the main street, when a car turned from the main street onto the road we were walking along, and stopped with its motor running at the mouth of a driveway in front of us. The people in the car were apparently talking to some one standing on the driveway. Before the situation had even registered on my consciousness, Panda stopped abruptly and took a couple of steps backward, very deliberately stopping my forward motion along with her own. I asked Panda to go forward, and she looked toward the left, but the lawns were still covered by banks of plowed snow, so we couldn't get around the car by that route.


Since the street is very narrow, and going around the car to the right would have put us right in the middle of the street and in the path of cars approaching from either direction, Panda rightly judged that that was not a very safe choice either. She turned to the right in front of me, then stopped and pressed against me as if to bar my way. I agreed with her that it would not be safe to go around the stopped car as we would have gone around a trash bin or a leaf pile at the curb.


Instead I decided to cross the street and walk along the right edge of the road until we got past the car, then cross back to the left edge and proceed to the corner.


Panda followed my directions willingly and flawlessly. I was glad that I had chosen to cross the street rather than walk out and around the car, because as we walked along the right side of the street, a car passed us in either direction, and I would have felt distinctly uncomfortable being out in the middle of the street at that point. Panda's response to this incident gives strong evidence, in my opinion, of the ability of miniature horse guides to exercise the same level of intelligent disobedience that we expect of our guide dogs.


We crossed the main street at the traffic signal, and then walked on the asphalt sidewalk/bike path down a long block, about half a mile, broken only by driveways and very wide parking lot entrances. There are no curbs or ramps marking the transition from bike path to parking lot entrance, only the slightest change in the asphalt surface. My guide dogs frequently failed to stop at these non-existent curbs. Yet Panda stopped at every one,10 for 10! Is that due to the naturally high trainability of miniature horses, or to the power of Clicker Training and positive reinforcement?


Only once did she stray off course, and that was when I directed her to "find the curb", and she took me to a real curb at the end of a real sidewalk which leads to the high school. I love the way she tapped the curb with her little hoof to let me know exactly what she had found. I easily redirected her to the left and back to the bike path.


On the long straightaways I asked Panda to "hup up", and she picked up a delightful, perky trot that allowed us both to stretch our legs and get a little much-needed exercise. I felt the thrill of fluid forward-moving energy without feeling as if I were being pulled off my feet. The reactions of the fellow walkers and joggers we met along the way ranged from delighted surprise at seeing such a small horse to a matter-of-fact comment about the "seeing eye pony". But everyone commented on how lovely she is and how well she is doing her guide work. And she never became the slightest bit distracted or alarmed by the people. If I stopped to answer curious questions, Panda waited patiently. If I kept on walking, she did not object or seek attention from the people.


On our return home, I could tell that Panda was very pleased with our walk, as was I. We are learning to trust one another, and growing in confidence as a working team. And that is a very satisfying and happy outcome for both Panda and myself.


Thanks for opening this list and your minds to these reports of Panda's training and our progress as a working team.


Ann Edie

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