Expanding the Power of Positive at GDB By: Rebecca Hornick, Foster Care Coordinator

Since starting at Guide Dogs for the Blind in 1994, I have seen so many changes in how our Training Department handles the monumental task of turning adolescent dogs into competent working guide dogs for people who are blind and visually impaired. The Training staff at GDB always tries to stay current with new and innovative ways to better train dogs since there are so many new challenges our guide dogs and our clients have to face every year in the ever evolving changes in the world. We strive to create confident, happy dogs and then match them with a person who will continue to work with that guide dog as they both become even more competent traveling in their own world and beyond. 

In order to create safe and happy working teams, the Training staff adopted a model of positive reinforcement training back in 2007 and since then, the results have been remarkable! Staff immediately saw how much more willing and adaptable the dogs were when food was used during crucial parts of training. Consequently, the dogs met the training goals faster than ever before. The Training Department's success triggered a new surge of interest in these positive training techniques and soon other staff and volunteers wondered what ways they could implement some of these methods to improve the work they do with all of our dogs. Naturally, our own Michele Pouliot, Director of Research and Development, answered the call! Michele and other members of management created a committee of various dog-related staff to discuss some short and long term goals regarding how to implement more positive reinforcement tools in all areas of dog care and management. We named this group the “R+ committee” and it is comprised of staff from both campuses – combined they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience. 

Michele Pouliot gives a puppy a food reward for good behavior.

An enlightening first step in the process was a seminar we attended at the Oregon Campus in January 2013 where the R+ committee and the Community Field Reps from Puppy Raising Department had the opportunity to be part of a hands on workshop with positive reinforcement training guru, Kathy Sdao (http://www.kathysdao.com). Here’s what the R+ committee members had to say about the workshop:

Sharon Kret, Puppy Program Specialist for Canine Community Programs:

“The workshop conducted by Kathy Sdao and Michele Pouliot helped to demonstrate the powerful and positive impact that these training techniques can have when working with our dogs and puppies at GDB. I walked away from the workshop feeling energized and excited about all the possibilities. It is a little overwhelming to think about all that we need to do and what we have yet to learn, but I am truly looking forward to the challenge.” 

Jenna Bullis, Director of Breeding:

“Michele and Kathy were able to customize our training day to really address the things that were relevant in each of our departments. We all benefited from each other’s perspectives and it was awesome to see how excited and enthusiastic everyone is about using more positive reinforcement techniques in our program.” 

Jeannine May, Canine Welfare Kennel Manager:

“I really appreciated the opportunity to be part of the Kathy Sdao workshop and get a chance to work with fellow staff from other departments that I don’t normally get to interact with! It’s super exciting to be part of a group that is expanding and maximizing the use of positive reinforcement throughout the organization. Kathy is a great presenter and I really look forward to incorporating some new ideas in the kennels with both staff and volunteers, and in the OR Foster Care Program.”

Pat Cook, Canine Resources Manager:

“The Community Field Representatives (CFRs) really enjoyed the opportunity to learn from Michele and Kathy Sdao, and were also very appreciative of the opportunity to work with staff from other CCP departments.  It was a rare opportunity for field staff to work dogs alongside staff from Foster Care, Dog Placement, Breeding and Kennel department. The CFRs are very enthusiastic about the R+ project and excited at the direction Puppy Raising is taking! We were able to come up with lots of ideas for working with puppies in raiser homes. I look forward to the implementation over the next few years.”

Kathy Featherstone, Dog Placement Coordinator:

“I really enjoyed the combination of Kathy’s enthusiastic, insightful and scientific approach with positive training techniques, along with hands on practice throughout the two-day seminar. It allowed all participants to equally share in the experience and gain a better understanding of the methods that were discussed. It was very motivating and exciting to work alongside such a knowledgeable group of people!”

Kathleen Fischer, SR Kennel Supervisor:

“This was my first clicker workshop and it was fun and fascinating!  Kathy and Michele made it look all so effortless.  The hands on portions I found invaluable and it made me realize that the real challenge lies in training me!”

Rebecca Hornick, Foster Care Coordinator:

“This was a great educational opportunity for me since I love doing this type of training with personal dogs, but imagining the possibilities here with GDB dogs are limitless! The seminar and R+ committee discussions have helped me brainstorm about the many ways this type of training will benefit the huge variety of dogs that go in and out of Foster Care each year. I can’t wait to share some of these techniques with my pool of eager volunteers!”

Michele Pouliot, Director of Research and Development:

“I have had the pleasure of working closely with Kathy Sdao since 2006, when GDB’s Training Department began using her as a consultant for our change over to clicker training. In the past two years I have co-presented seminars with Kathy for the dog sport community and always learn something new from her wealth of knowledge.

GDB instructor rewards a guide dog for stopping at a curb.
Bringing Kathy back to GDB to help our Canine Community Programs (CCP) departments kick off their positive training project was not only a great idea (thanks Pat Cook!) but motivating for everyone present. This two-day seminar was extra special for GDB staff because it was tailored specifically for GDB’s R+ Project goals.

Now that you know the members and purpose of the R+ Committee, please don’t hesitate to ask us questions, make suggestions and generally celebrate with us as we take GDB staff and other dog care constituents to an even greater level of dog handling, training and management. The dogs are already thanking us!


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