Expectations and Dog Training

Recently a story on public radio explored the influence of expectations upon learning.  Not a new topic for a teacher like myself, but here the context was larger – has our expectations of blind people impacted how they perceive themselves and what they can achieve?  The answer clearly was yes, that the sighted majority views the blind as incapable of doing many everyday tasks, performing most jobs, or gaining much independence; and that this expectation is a serious limitation for the blind.  The National Federation of the Blind is an organization that is dedicated to raising expectations for the blind.

As a science teacher and dog trainer, I know that the expectations I have for my students does influence how I teach and how they perform.  It can change what and how I teach, and affect motivation of my students (human or canine) and the effort they expend for learning.

The bigger context, or bigger question, that the radio program raised for me was about how many people are held back by their low expectations for positive dog training.

Just as many sighted people have the expectation that “blind people can’t do that”, I have often heard the following (inaccurate) statements from “old school” dog handlers:

  • Clicker training doesn’t work unless I have a treat in my hand.
  • Clicker training doesn’t work with my dog.
  • Clicker training can’t be used to train a dog to _____________. (fill in the blank)

(Melissa Alexander did a great job of answering these and other inaccurate expectations here)

The parallels I found in both sets of low expectations include:

  • Sighted person can’t imagine what it is like to be blind
  • Old school handler hasn’t seen behaviors shaped and increased by positive reinforcement.

 

  • Sighted person doesn’t know how to train blind person to navigate
  • Old school handler doesn’t know how to use clicker technology

 

  • Sighted parents/teachers of blind people are afraid of injury to blind people
  • Old school handlers are afraid of not being able to control the dog

Everyone is more comfortable with what they know, with what they are used to.  Even with the best of intentions, low expectations can limit the achievements and experiences of ourselves and others.  The old school handlers and their dogs are missing out on the power and joy of positive reinforcement.  And it turns out that blind people can ride bicycles.

Since Guide Dogs for the Blind (training facilities in San Rafael, CA and Boring, OR) has employed clicker training for their guide dog program, they have increased the percentage of dogs graduated and cut the training time required in half.  Of course they did!

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