From a few comments I have received this last week, it is evident that I have some explaining to do. I don’t think I ever spoke about my intentions or philosophy in relation to claiming the label “owner-trainer." It has been implied that I am misrepresenting myself because I have clearly hired a professional trainer who does work with me, my husband, and Sagan. She comes once a week for 90 minutes. She has never trained a dog to be a guide and neither have I. Her job is to be a part of my support team which every owner-trainer must have to reach the ultimate goal of having a polished working team. It is my responsibility as the owner and handler of the dog to raise a dog that is able to perform his tasks skillfully. A skilled working guide must be able to guide with precision and to be quiet, clean, and polite while he is working. It takes time, devotion, money, patience, and skill to do this well. I am extremely invested in having a working guide who will be a credit to his breed and to me as his handler. I am by no means naive enough to think I can do this without a support team. I am not that smart.
The reasons I have chosen to go the route of owner-trainer are many. I have worked with four guide dogs from established guide dog schools. I have learned a huge amount about what it takes to take responsibility for such a highly skilled dog as well as the care and feeding to maintain a dog at optimal health. It is so much more than learning how to command a dog and keeping it groomed and healthy. There is a bond of trust that must be forged in order to be a good team. I thought long and hard about my decision to get an 8-week-old puppy because it is a huge undertaking to do what I have set out to do. I wanted to create a bond of trust with my dog from the very start. I also wanted a poodle, which are harder to get from established schools. Another reason is that I am committed to training my dog with force-free and fear-free methods as much as possible. I want my dog to be working for me because it is fun for him. This training method takes longer in some cases because behaviors are being shaped, not forced. They are being rewarded for making good choices, not being corrected until the dog absolutely knows what is being asked of him. Every dog is an individual as is every human. It takes time to learn their learning style and it takes time to figure out what motivates a dog to do what is asked of him. I wanted control of this process from start to finish. I take this responsibility very seriously.
The picture above shows Mel playing in the kitchen with Sagan.
The purpose of writing and posting this weekly progress report is to show what is truley involved in being an owner-trainer with all the challenges and celebrations along the way. I do not know how this story will end. Sagan, even though he is certainly a genius, may not be cut out for guide work. I won’t know for a long while yet. So far, he is doing very well and we are still enjoying the process at 9 months old. I study and consult with other owner-trainers almost daily so that I can keep us on track. I think that others need to know that this is not just a walk in the park even though that is some of what we do. I write this to get helpful feedback from experienced trainers and I have received much good advice from many. I take it in and weigh it carefully against my own judgment and my philosophy of training. I appreciate hearing all of it, so please keep it coming. My greatest desire is to end up with a guide dog that enjoys his work and proves to the world that people who are blind can take responsibility for creating a great support team and ultimately a working team that moves effectively and with pride through their environment. I believe that people who are blind are perfectly capable of choosing and training their own dog with guidance from experienced people. I believe that we can create a working team that rivals and even exceeds the expectations of those graduating from established schools. Owner training is serious business and the result reflects on all those who have working guides. We must hold ourselves to a very high standard so that guide dogs are always considered among the most highly skilled of working dogs. I am committed to training a dog that will make all of us proud.
The picture aboves shows Sagan after his grooming. He is wearing a red, white and green bandana. He looks very handsome.