Covid 19 for Dog Guide Handlers, Part one: Guiding skills outdoors

These are unprecedented times. While we can gain some reassurance that we are all in this together, that doesn’t fix the holes in our recent new lifestyle. I understand that many handlers are worried about their dog guides. Worries about how to maintain your dog’s guiding skills, how to exercise your dog and how to keep your dog relaxed during times that we might be feeling stressed. This is part one of a three-part blog post with tips and ideas for what you can do with your dog during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. Part two will discuss practising guiding skills and obedience indoors as well as enrichment. Part three will cover hygiene, health and training for vet procedures and handling.

Firstly, take a moment to reflect on what may have changed in your life. Are you at home a lot more now? You may have previously gotten to work or appointments via public transport, taxi, walking, all of which has been taken out of your routine. Many dogs can adapt well to changes. However, the change might unsettle your dog initially. If you can try to keep up some semblance of routine in your day, this may help you and your dog cope a little better.

Changes to what we are allowed to do outside happen frequently now, often with short notice. Currently we are allowed to leave our homes for exercise and I encourage you to do this with your dogs. The streets are likely to be less populated. Consider what time of day suits you, such as how many people are out – are the people great for obstacle work, or are they distractions? Do you feel safer when there are more people or less? Can you walk while keeping a safe distance from people? The time of day and the location of your walks might change accordingly.

If you are walking less with your dog, you might need to reinforce the behaviours you like, so that they aren’t deteriorating. Some dogs need more frequent work than others to maintain their work standards. For example, a younger dog or one that you have had for a short time may need more practice and reinforcement while a dog that’s been in your life for many years may have very strong skills that are resistant to breaking down.

Sometimes we take for granted all the guiding work that our dogs do, allowing us to relax a little and switch off from all aspects of the walking journey. You may need to return to basics and reward your dog more often (food, pats, praise). This might be done when you stop at the kerb or when you find something en route such as a chair or your destination. Timing is important for reinforcement – if you want it to strengthen behaviour it needs to occur immediately after the behaviour you like. If you waited until the end of the walk to reward, it likely won’t translate into elements of the walk you might be thinking of. To the dog, the moment at the end of the walk might be reinforced, rather than specific behaviours along the walk. When using lots of food rewards in training, make sure you take it out of your dog’s daily meals to prevent weight gain.

With less shops open you might have less people and less temporary street furniture on the path. If you’re looking for obstacles, bin day could be a good time to practice right shoulder work – head out early before all the work-from-homers get their bins in! You can visit the train station platform to experience the train passing or jump on and off a bus just for practice, if that is appropriate. Again, bear in mind you may need to be able to justify where you are going and why – if in doubt, check with the relevant authorities in your local community. Weigh up the risks – if you can do these activities without touching doors and handrails, this is ideal. However, if you need a hand rail for safety from falling, please use it and sanitise your hands immediately before and afterwards.

Perhaps you might like to set yourself a challenge and learn a new route. You could study the GPS maps prior to going out or drop a pin on your GPS to somewhere locally that you will find your way to on a walk. Ensure you are doing this safely and that you have some local knowledge, especially around road crossing safety. Some of you would be more adventurous travellers than others, some are rote learners, so bear in mind that this option is not for everyone. If you think your safety might be at risk please do not try this without extra support. Safety first!