Guide Dog Class Lecture: Customizing Your Guide Dog’s Vocabulary
Currently your guide dog has a set of cues she knows and understands. While the standard verbal cues of Forward, Right, Left, Hopp-Up, Steady, Curb and Halt are sufficient to travel with your guide dog, it is a natural tendency to want to increase your dog’s vocabulary. If done in moderation, relevant new words or phrases to prompt specific actions make sense to your dog. In this material we will discuss how to introduce new words to your guide dog.
Let’s Talk About How Your Guide Dog Learns
It took months of consistent repetition, reinforcement and reward in various environments for your dog to learn and reliably perform formal guidework commands. With any verbal cue, dogs first learn to respond to a new word or phrase in a specific setting. To really learn a verbal cue, however, dogs need to generalize it in multiple situations. This takes time and experience. For instance, not all stairs are exactly the same. A dog needs to learn that the verbal cue “stair” or “find the stairs” applies to any set of stairs she comes across. With exposure and practice, your dog will learn to recognize common characteristics of whatever your stated objective may be.
How to Increase Your Guide Dog’s Vocabulary
Adding a new word or phrase behind a known verbal cue can further define what you want. Initially, these additional words are not separate commands, but are often paired with a known cue or action. This way, you can customize your guide’s vocabulary to suit your preferences and travel habits.
For example, “forward, outside…” is a standard command paired with another word to indicate your intention to go outside. “Outside” by itself will mean little to a dog that has not heard and practiced it. However, “outside” to an experienced guide, whose handler has consistently used it, is meaningful. We advise pairing the standard verbal cue with the new word, whenever reasonable, until the dog understands the new word on its own.
Vocabulary During Formal Training
The focus of your dog’s formal training was to learn, understand and reliably perform the standard cues as well as intelligently refuse them when it was unsafe for the team.
Near the end of training, instructors introduce a new word when they observe the dog acknowledging an imminent target. For example, once a dog has consistently demonstrated an understanding of how to approach and board an escalator, the instructor begins introducing a new word. The moment the dog notices the escalator in her line of travel, the instructor then verbalizes, “find the escalator” along with adding any helpful body cues. As the dog gains more experience, the word “escalator” is then spoken the moment before the dog will see it. The dog will interpret the verbal cue “escalator” as “look for and seek out an escalator”.
Your dog has had limited exposure to extra vocabulary in training. Therefore, you will be the one who can customize your dog’s repertoire.
How to Use a New Word to Teach a New Task
Let’s say your objective is to locate an empty seat when you enter a room. To do so, choose a word to associate with that task, like “chair”. If you want your dog to associate the word “chair” with locating an empty seat, she can respond to the word “chair” reasonably well when taught using a specific seat in a specific room. We cannot yet assume, however, that the dog understands the concept of an open seat, rather only that she understands to go to a targeted spot in that room. The task becomes more complicated and requires much more repetition in different locations for the dog to generalize and understand what “chair” means in any setting.
Timing and Repetition
While your dog is learning a new word, she will understand best if the new word is spoken just prior to her locating the seat. If the word is spoken too early, too late, or sporadically, your dog may not make the association, and will either ignore you, or become concerned and confused. In another example, a few strides before your dog stops at a set of known stairs, say “find the stairs”. This timing ensures a “correct experience” that can be repeated in the same manner in similar situations.
For both examples, your dog should immediately receive positive reinforcement upon finding the target. This reinforces her desire to do it again. Once the dog has numerous, successful experiences, you can begin to say the words earlier, farther away from the intended target, as well as when approaching from different angles.
Try not to “Over-Talk” It!
Because humans are verbal, we tend to speak to our dogs conversationally. But dogs understand clear, concise words or phrases; they ignore excessive verbal “chatter”. Unnecessary words will dilute your communication.
Resist introducing too many new words at the same time. Once your dog has mastered one, introduce another. Too many new vocabulary words at one time may be confusing to your dog.
If you begin to use “Find the” for every possible destination (“find the bus, find the chair, find the dining room, find the hall, find the door”), your dog can become overwhelmed or choose to tune you out.
Examples of Where New Words or Phrases are Helpful:
- Locating doors
- Finding an empty chair
- Targeting specific poles with pedestrian cross walk buttons
- Locating escalators, elevators, and stairs
- Some examples of problematic verbal cues:
- “Go Home”
- “Find Sallie”
- “Find Main Street”
So, “customizing” your guide dog’s vocabulary involves making reasonable decisions to help your dog understand you and your preferences. As usual, if you are consistent, fair, and clear in your communication, you will find that your dog is a willing partner in the game.
You can stream the audio of the class lecture here, via a Soundcloud widget. If using a screen reader, please select the "Play" option below.