Orientation and Learning Routes | Guide Dogs for the Blind Skip to main content

Guide Dog Class Lecture: Orientation and Learning Routes

Before you can work with your guide dog effectively you must know where you are and where you want to go. Though your dog guides you safely, it is you who must direct your dog where you want to go and make certain that your dog goes the way you have directed.

The majority of this lecture addresses orientation issues for the totally blind guide dog user. Though a significant number of our students have some usable travel vision, these concepts are worth considering no matter what degree of vision you might have. Many guide dog users find that the usefulness of their vision fluctuates depending on lighting conditions or other variables. Further, one’s vision may change over time so an awareness of basic non-visual orientation strategies could be of benefit for your future travel with a dog.

Orientation Skills
The shift to working with a guide dog means moving from seeking physical contact with objects in your environment as one does when using a cane, to negotiating around and through obstacles without touching them. Nonetheless, guide dog travel draws on many of the same tools you use as a cane traveler, in particular, alignment skills, echolocation/auditory ability, time-distance estimation, and general proprioception.

Maintaining an awareness of your travel line is an ongoing focus. Minor deviations are expected, but right angle turns should only be made deliberately. It is especially important before attempting a street crossing to assess your alignment relative to the appropriate line of travel and the flow of traffic.

Echolocation/Auditory Skills
Audible cues can be extremely helpful for orientation. Sound waves bouncing off buildings, cars and other objects can help you determine where building lines end, if a parked vehicle is blocking your path, and when to begin cueing for a turn. The sound of children shouting and laughing will support your belief that you are passing the neighborhood playground. A new surge of traffic will help you to decide the best time to cross a street.

Time-Distance Estimation
Time-distance estimates are informed guesses about how far you have traveled relative to an initial location. Having a sense of how much ground you have covered lets you gauge the location of destinations along the block and anticipate when you will be approaching the next intersection. As a guide dog traveler you may need to modify this estimate to take into consideration the speed you are now traveling with your guide. This is done through repetition and increased familiarity with guide dog travel.

This is a person’s ability to sense the position, location, orientation and movement of his body through space. Unlike the human senses of sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing, that advise us of the outside world, proprioception is an awareness of our body that comes to us internally. Without the appropriate integration of proprioceptive input, an artist would not be able to brush paint onto a canvas without looking at her hand; it would be impossible to drive an automobile because a motorist would not be able to steer or use the foot pedals while looking at the road ahead; a person could not touch type; you wouldn’t know where to put your finger to scratch that nagging itch on your shoulder and people would not be able to walk without watching where they put their feet. When traveling with restricted vision or no vision, proprioception helps the individual react properly to input gathered from the white cane and/or maintain good following position with their dog.

Generally speaking, you walk with your guide dog on an imaginary straight line. Your dog will need to leave this line at times to go around minor obstacles. When you notice these moves, be attentive that your dog returns you to that straight line within a few strides, resuming your original direction. Of course, there will be times when you want to make a turn “off-line.” Your dog should turn 90° right or left and commit to a new line only when you give the verbal cue to do so.

Some travel environments will require different strategies to maintain orientation. In an area with no sidewalks guide dog teams will shoreline the left edge, rounding the corners of intersecting streets before crossing and moving back to the original direction of travel. On routes across meandering campus paths or through industrial parks, most teams would benefit from going human guide for the first trip or two while they get acquainted with the environment. Subsequent returns to those routes have a good chance of being smooth and enjoyable. In some circumstances the goal may simply be smooth travel, without the need for route learning or retention on the dog’s part – imagine getting from the airport gate to baggage claim, or getting to the theater’s concession counter during intermission. In these cases you may simply ask your dog to “follow” someone else.

Learning Routes
You will be working a specific route for the first part of class training. We want you to become familiar with this route, remembering where there are high or flat curbs, if the intersections have light signals and anticipating some of the challenges along the way. Your instructor will be accompanying you on your early outings, describing your surroundings, interpreting the dog’s behavior, and coaching you. As you become more intimate with your travel environment and begin traveling independently, you will grow confident in directing, managing, and praising your dog for desired work behavior. As a result you will learn to rely on yourself, not your instructor, to direct your dog where you wish to go. You will find it much easier to work assertively with your dog when you know where you are and where you want to go, rather than just following instructions. And by learning a route, it will be easier for us to describe places where you might like to visit or go shopping, either on or near this route.

Knowing where you want to go and directing your dog to that destination may be two different things. You need to know not only where you want to go, but also how to get there. Some people memorize the number of blocks, street crossings and turns to be made, while others need the cardinal direction in which they must travel (North, South, East or West). Many people use a combination of the two strategies and know the names of streets and their general arrangement. Most towns have some street-naming systems to assist people in learning the area. Some examples include the use of U.S. President’s names, types of trees, or series of letters and numbers.

Orientation Strategies for New Areas
There will be times when you want additional information about a travel environment in lieu of working an area “cold” with your guide. There are several strategies you may choose from to gain useful information.

Human guide or cane use without dog – Sometimes more complex environments require trial, error, and repetition to figure out the best route. In this case, it is preferable that your dog is secured safely at home or at work, as you explore the environment with your cane or with a sighted companion. This technique allows you to examine anything you care to since you will not be patterning unwanted destinations with your dog.

Human guide with dog - Your sighted assistant has previously assessed the route and spoken with you about the best options available. While heeling your dog and going human guide, you are then able to pattern your dog to the best way to work the area. Patterning reinforces destinations that might not have been immediately obvious to a guide dog.

Guidework - Assistant previews the route with the handler before beginning. During the route the assistant follows the team one step behind and to the right, while verbalizing directions, turns and landmarks. The assistant gives immediate feedback when the team has done something correctly or when the team needs to stop because they’ve just missed a mark. Timely feedback allows you to communicate most effectively with your dog.

Dogs will typically learn a route quickly, and anticipate or initiate moves if they have had a positive experience and clear introduction to the area. If the dogs are allowed to make an error, they will remember that as part of the route; therefore, challenging sections should be taught to the dog without errors.

If your dog is still learning a destination or route, you can use intentional landmarks such as a radio playing on the porch, a friend waiting at an appointed time or a temporary tactile surface on the ground (sand works great for this). Work the route in its entirety or break it into parts and work one segment at a time. Only practice as long as your dog shows interest and a positive attitude about the task.

A way to teach your dog a particularly challenging destination (or target) is to break the task into shorter sections using a technique called “back-chaining”. As the name implies, this strategy links together short segments of learning – the dog masters the final approach first, then builds on that success. With each subsequent re-approach, the initial distance from the objective is increased incrementally until your dog is able to confidently guide from the starting point to the final destination. Back-chaining reinforced with high-value food rewards can cement the dog’s understanding of a task.

Secondary Aids
Guide dogs and long canes are primary mobility aids. Secondary aids such as mini guides that use ultrasonic echo-location, ID canes used for certain scenarios (an elusive audible pedestrian signal or intersecting sidewalk), GPS devices and talking signs (which requires a receiver) can all be used in conjunction with a guide dog to supplement one’s orientation and mobility.

No matter where you go, you and your dog are working as a team. Stick to the basics. Handle your dog in the way she is accustomed to being handled. Insist on focus; reward your dog’s efforts. Even if lost temporarily, concentrate on working effectively as you re-orient yourself. Traveling with a guide dog can be an adventure. Remember that you are not in this alone; your dog has the ability to use her own initiative and memory as you work out orientation challenges together.

Audio Streaming

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.