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Guide Dog Class Lecture: Special Travel Conditions

You have already learned most of the basics of working with your guide dog. This lecture addresses some of the issues associated with special travel conditions.

Nighttime and Darkness
When you are traveling in low light conditions, it is likely that your dog (and you, if you have some vision) will not see as well as during daylight hours. A decrease in visual information may result in the team needing to take extra time or caution when traveling, even in familiar areas. Further, if you are accustomed to using your remaining vision for mobility during the day, it can be unsettling not to have it available at night. When out at night, many pedestrians experience some apprehension that they normally do not feel during the day. If your demeanor and your handling style changes when traveling in the dark, your dog will probably pick up on this difference, and may adjust its working style as well.

The glare of headlights, unexpected reflections in store windows and deep shadows may cause your dog to feel more tentative than usual. Take your time and offer your dog plenty of support. On the other hand, some dogs may be invigorated by the cooler air and altered environment that comes with night travel. Your energized dog could even notch up their speed to the point that you have to “steady” a bit.

In the evening hours you will generally encounter lighter pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Traffic patterns will probably be less obvious too. When they are, it may be best to wait for an “all clear” before initiating crossings. Some businesses (restaurants, clubs, taverns, etc.) will only be open in the evening and others will close for the day. This change in activity could alter your perception of the area. New obstacles can appear in the form of bagged trash that day businesses put out for pickup. Conversely, sidewalk objects that you are accustomed to negotiating such as café tables and sandwich boards are often brought inside overnight.

It is also important to remember that you and your dog will be less visible to drivers and other pedestrians. Some alumni are tempted to put additional reflective material on their dog’s equipment, but since you are the tall one, it makes sense that you should be the one to get most “gussied up”. You may already own outerwear with reflective panels sewn onto the garment or other similarly conspicuous attire. Wearing simple reflective bands around the wrists and ankles is probably the cheapest and most effective method to increase your visibility. The motion of your arms and legs will be accentuated, alerting any observer that you are a person, not a stationary object. While here in class you can also borrow one of our orange mesh reflective vests (similar to the ones worn by road construction crews) and a blinking LCD light to fasten to your clothing. The more noticeable you are the better.

Snow and Ice
Winter weather presents some unique challenges for you and your dog. The environment can change so dramatically that the sounds and tactile landmarks you use under normal conditions are diminished or changed significantly. You may be so bundled up against the cold that your mobility is restricted, negatively influencing your following position. Clothing meant to protect your ears and head may interfere with your ability to hear.

For a guide dog traveler, the challenge begins the moment the door is opened after a heavy snowfall. The front sidewalk leading to the street can be gone; in fact, the whole street can be gone! All of the “norms” that person and dog have become accustomed to are either absent or changed. The definition between sidewalk and grass or street and curb can be buried under several inches of snow. Sounds can be muffled and distorted, absorbed and deflected by snow cover, snow banks and slush in the streets.

Ice can also pose a challenge for both you and your dog, as footing can be difficult. Salt and chemicals to melt the ice, and traction gravel spread on the roadways, can be irritating and even painful for your dog’s feet.

In many areas, especially urban environments, there are great efforts made by the county or municipality to keep the streets clear. Some areas are better than others at keeping the sidewalks shoveled. Private homeowners and merchants also accomplish this with varying degrees of success. One problem with snow removal is that there is usually nowhere to put the stuff except along the side of the road and often up onto the sidewalks, creating mounds that block the path for pedestrians.

Familiarity with the Route
Make sure your dog is familiar with your most important routes prior to snowfall. A dog’s knowledge and memory of a route, such as locations of curbs, line in street crossings, etc., will help a great deal once the area is covered with snow. It would be best to stick to one or two essential, well known routes during times of heavy snow cover

In severe weather conditions, you may decide that a particular route is not safe, and choose to seek alternative transportation.

Your Dog’s Behavior and Guidework Pace
Most dogs love snow and think it is loads of fun. Introduce your dog to the first snow out of harness, on a long leash. They may be reluctant to relieve in snow at first, and could prefer an area that has been cleared or trampled down to a hard pack.

You may have to make some adjustments to your dog’s pace for the new conditions. Some dogs are excited and energized, and will need to be steadied down. Others will walk more slowly and cautiously, and may need extra encouragement. Icy areas will, of course, require more caution – your dog will learn that ice is slippery and requires a slower pace.

Adjustments to Guidework Mechanics

Obstructed Sidewalks
While attempting to work a route along the sidewalk, you may find that your path is blocked by snow banks or the snow is just too deep to walk through comfortably. Depending upon the safety of the road, it may be necessary to direct your dog toward the street, using the sidewalkless technique for a route that is normally worked on the sidewalk. In this case, the snow bank along the side of the street would be the curb edge that you and your dog follow.

In deciding whether or not to use the sidewalkless technique, the most important consideration is the safety of the road. Remember that lanes may be narrowed by presence of snow and ice, reducing room on the shoulder for you to walk and possibly forcing you into the actual driving lanes. Traction is reduced for the cars as well as yourself.

Obstructed Curbs
Street corners and curbs can easily be blurred by piled snow. Observe environmental cues such as the proximity of an idling car or the sound of melting snow trickling into a sewer drain for example, for an idea of your location in relation to the curb. Knowing that you are close to the curb may be enough, as your dog will often seek an opening in a snow bank and guide you through it toward the crosswalk. Seeing that your dog is doing its best to adapt will inspire you to make sure he knows you are pleased, and consequently will help to build your dog’s confidence in conditions that are more challenging than normal.

A lightweight, compact cane can really come in handy for negotiating snow banks at street corners. For example, when your dog stops where the down curb should be and you probe with your left foot only to find a high snow bank, a cane can provide useful information on the height and length of the mound, and how far past the curb and into the street it extends. This will assist you in directing your dog around the bank, or enable you to heel your dog as you step over or through it. A cane can be equally helpful upon reaching the up curb after your street crossing, as well as in other areas that may be blocked by snow banks.

In some cases, street crossings can be confusing due to snow obscuring the curb area, your dog’s usual target point. Show your dog that approaching the snow bank on the other side is the best option, as it allows straight crossings to continue despite snow cover. You can do this by patterning your dog to the first couple of crossings, either with your cane or with a human guide.

Allow extra time for your routes when there is an accumulation of snow and/or ice on the ground. This will give you time to problem solve and provide any extra support your dog may need, helping to ensure that winter guide work is as trouble-free as possible.

Other Winter Obstacles
Prepare for winter by consistently reworking overhead clearance errors – even when the weather is nice and the leaves on a tree branch just lightly brush the top of your head! Remember that tree branches will hang much lower under the weight of snow.

Be cautious about standing at the side of a building when harnessing up your dog, praising your dog, etc. Icicles can fall from the eaves, and may cause injury.

Remember that snow boulders and mounds are clearances; rework them if your dog makes an error and you stumble into one. This is how he will learn to show the next one to you.

Equipment for Snow, Ice and Cold

Paw Protection
The salt and chemicals used to melt ice can be very irritating and even painful for your dog’s feet. These products prevent water from freezing, which means that a guide dog can step into puddles that are 2 or 3 degrees – or even colder! A good option for pad protection is using booties as a physical barrier to the cold and irritants.

An alternative to booties would be a paw toughening ointment such as Musher's Secret™. Though less effective than the physical barrier provided by booties, it is still useful in helping dogs to endure the hazards to their bare feet.

If you are working your dog during the winter without booties, you may notice some limping, hopping or other signs of discomfort. If this occurs, stop and hold your dog’s foot to warm it up, and massage the feet to remove salt, snow, and other debris.

After any work in snow or ice, your dog’s feet will need to be cleaned by dipping each foot in lukewarm water to dissolve foreign particles that might be clinging to the pads or between the toes. Cleaning and drying will remove salt and other chemicals which can be harmful if ingested, and helps prevent the dog from excessively licking his feet.

Trim your dog’s foot hair. This will prevent ice balls from forming on the bottoms of your dog’s feet and between his toes.

For your own home, you may choose to purchase ice-melting pellets from the pet store that are non-irritating and non-toxic.

Your Own Feet
When working a guide dog, you may come upon patches of ice with little warning. Good traction is essential during the winter months. Products such as Yaktrax™, that cover the bottom of your shoes, can help provide the best possible footing.

Protecting Your Dog’s Coat
Winter air, indoors and out, makes everyone’s skin dry out. Brushing your dog more often will help stimulate the natural oils in his coat and prevent itchiness.

Other Equipment Concerns
The breeds that we use are chosen partly for their double coat, allowing adaptability to all weather conditions. However, there are occasions where the extreme cold makes it difficult for even the hardiest dog to feel comfortable. An example would be a day of temperatures in the negative 20-30 degree range, and you still have to walk to the office from the train in downtown Chicago. In cases like this, you may decide to purchase a fleece coat for your dog from a pet store that will fit easily underneath the harness and will not interfere with it. Not all dogs will need this – you will get an idea for your dog’s tolerance of cold weather as the winter progresses.

Make sure your dog’s bed is situated away from drafts, and that it provides an adequate barrier between him and a cold floor.

Wipe down leather equipment with a warm, damp cloth after workouts, to prevent salt build-up.

Working a guide dog in hot weather requires serious consideration. This is especially true in areas such as the Southwest where the heat can begin hitting triple digits in May and not subside until mid-October. At times the temperatures can reach 120 degrees plus during the day and not drop below the 90’s or 100 at night. Fortunately many users in these areas can adjust their schedule to avoid having to be out in the hottest parts of the day. Walking outside is safer in the early mornings and after sunset because the sun is not beating down on “egg sizzling” hot sidewalks. When air temperature is 110 degrees the surface temperature may be over 150 degrees! In these temperatures metal surfaces are especially dangerous for a dog’s pads.

Guidelines for Hot Weather Travel

  • Walk on the shady side of the street if possible. The dark asphalt streets absorb the sun’s heat and are typically much hotter than the lighter colored sidewalk. Be on the lookout for your dog “dancing” in place or trying to sit unexpectedly, especially at up curbs where your dog’s hind feet are in the street. Standing on such hot surfaces could burn and blister your dog’s feet. If you cannot tolerate the heat while holding the palm of your hand on the ground, it signals trouble for your dog too.
  • When possible, avoid walking during the hottest part of the day. Some guide dog users leave their dogs home on very hot days or when they know traveling will be unsuitable for a dog. This is fine as long as the dog is safe, has water and can be monitored periodically.
  • If your schedule requires you to be at work or school despite the heat, try to arrange for alternative transportation. Never leave your dog unattended in a car; even on moderately warm days, temperatures can be deadly!
  • If you take public transportation such as a bus, become familiar with bus schedules so you can minimize the time waiting at a bus stop. Some bus stops are just a pole with no bench or shelter from the sun. Bring a portable mat for your dog to sit on while waiting.
  • If you must walk routes of significant distance in a hot environment, be sure to carry water for your dog and yourself. Collapsible water dishes are great! Many alumni choose to pack spray bottles for a periodic squirt down or mist.
  • For traveling in hot weather try to plan routes so you can stop along the way to give yourself and your guide a break. Restaurants and coffee shops are good as staff is usually willing to offer ice cubes or water if you need it. These are opportunities to get out of the sun and into air conditioning, or shade before continuing your route.
  • If the weather prevents you from working your dog outside and getting the exercise to which you have both become accustomed, don’t lose heart. An indoor shopping mall is an excellent alternative to an outdoor route, providing plenty of space and challenges for a productive workout. Try going in the morning before the stores open, so you can keep a consistent pace for as long as you like.
  • Some dogs will slow down or stop in shady areas during a very warm route, or may try to drift or leave the line of travel in an attempt to find protection from the sun. This is normal. Be patient and have realistic expectations considering the situation. Monitor your dog for signs of over-heating such as excessive panting. If your dog’s guide work is diminishing or there are signs of heat distress get to a safe rest area as soon as possible and cool your dog down. If the dog is over heated, a cool hose-down or sponging with water at the throat and armpits will cool major arteries. If the dog is panting a lot and seems over heated, do not allow him to drink great amounts of water quickly. Small amounts at a time will keep him from vomiting.
  • An overweight dog will suffer more in the hot weather than a dog at a healthy weight. Further, the fat dog is at much greater risk of serious reactions to heat than a dog in good physical condition. This is another good reason to keep your dog trim. Naturally, if ever you feel that your dog is in enough heat distress to warrant veterinary attention, get to the vet ASAP!
  • Paw Protection: Here is another situation where dog booties specifically made for warm weather can be used successfully. When putting booties on your dog, be sure to cinch them up snuggly so they will not flop around or come off. If your dog is not used to foot protection, it is a good idea to start exposing your dog to booties before summer heat arrives. Start by heeling him in safe and familiar areas before asking him to guide you.

We have already discovered that a pedestrian is the most unpredictable obstacle a guide dog has to deal with. Now multiply that pedestrian by a hundred, by a thousand. Welcome to your local farmers’ market, game day at the university, the New York subway, Disneyland, the day after Thanksgiving at the mall.

Asking your dog to work in large crowds can be very challenging. At times you may feel like a salmon traveling upstream. Your dog will need to slow, sometimes stop, adjust the travel line, ignore blatant solicitations, and stay focused in the constantly changing environment. Other times you will feel like you are caught in a current rushing downstream. Perhaps you are in the middle of a large group exiting a theatre. Your dog would need to work very hard to respond to a moving turn command if the majority of the flow is heading onward. Stopping and asking for a formal turn will probably get better results in this situation.

It is inevitable, whether you are sighted or not, to have glancing contact with some of the people going by. You will not rework everything – it is sometimes appropriate to simply pause briefly and acknowledge the contact with a neutral “careful” before encouraging forward movement.

When using public transit it will often be in your best interest to expedite boarding and exiting. Minimize the amount of time you spend in doorways as many doors shut automatically and could begin closing more quickly than you expect. Save the major praise and reward for when you and your dog are safely settled at your seat.

In crowds, some people will not notice your dog at your side and may accidentally bump or step on him. People may touch your dog without asking your permission. Check in with your dog more frequently at halts to gauge his demeanor, offer a relaxing touch, and help him remain comfortable. Speak extra calmly and clearly so your dog can understand you in loud or hectic situations.

Frequently a handler will choose to adjust guidework strategies when working in very crowded environments. In urban areas, you may find yourself in a group three or four deep, and well back from the down curb, while waiting for the chance to cross a street. When the light changes in your favor and everyone begins to move forward, you might scarcely pause at the curb to maximize the amount of time you have to make the crossing. Otherwise, a definite stop at that down curb would eat into the crossing time allowed by that light cycle and might leave you initiating the crossing just as a wall of on-coming pedestrians meets you. Alternately, a handler can choose to work their way to the actual down curb and wait there for a new light cycle before beginning the street crossing. When completing such a crossing, a team could consider barely acknowledging an up curb if they have a wave of pedestrians on their heels.

Fortunately you can usually decide in advance about whether you should bring your dog on an outing. Yet on occasion you and your dog will find yourselves at a venue where it is simply impractical and/or unpleasant to do guidework. Heeling your dog and using your cane or a sighted escort can be a sensible strategy in this case. You will avoid stress that you do not want, and can simply take pleasure in the companionship of your dog.

Hiking Trails
Some alumni enjoy getting outdoors and into the backcountry with their guide dogs. Though guide dogs have been trained for clearances, drop-offs, and overheads - hiking on rugged terrain has not been part of their formal training. Fortunately, if you are up to the challenge, most guide dogs will happily follow trails. Be aware that narrow paths may cause your dog to worry at first if they are concerned about making clearances for you.

Consider this before hitting the trails:

  • As a standard safety precaution, hike with a friend.
  • Gradually build your and your dog’s stamina before the hike. You’ll be picking your toes up more than usual – beware of shin splints.
  • Outfit yourself and your dog with proper foot wear. Day-after-day hiking on rough surfaces can beat up your dog’s feet and pads.
  • Carry water; drinking from streams can get you sick. Giardia is very common.
  • Don’t let your dog relieve where it could contaminate streams.
  • Protect against ticks and mosquitoes.
  • Educate yourself about potential hazards on the trail (e.g. foxtails, poison oak, snakes, etc.)
  • You’ll need to give your dog some latitude in guidework responses. Rocks, roots, and ruts are so common that your dog will probably need to desensitize within this environment – pick your feet up! Ask your companion to warn you about overheads.
  • A head collar can help to manage the dog that wants to overindulge in sniffing.
  • There may be sections of the hike where using human guide is the best option.
  • Gauge whether your dog enjoys this work. Is it fun or stressful? Would everyone be happier if your dog stayed home?

The solitude of a long hike is in stark contrast to working through crowds. With time, masses of people can become white noise your dog. On the other hand, while hiking you may go hours without seeing anyone else. A dog that is normally very comfortable when encountering strangers may alarm bark or growl when spotting a hiker or animal coming around a bend. A matter-of-fact cue to sit is a familiar task to give your dog. Follow the command with high value rewards while you call out a greeting and engage the oncoming hikers in conversation. This should help break the tension.

Practical, Flexible, and Reasonable
We have mentioned some situations where a guide dog handler will combine planning, flexibility and a realistic point of view to make the most out of traveling with their partner. You can anticipate that you will encounter your own “special travel conditions” that we have not discussed here, but your approach to dealing with them should be the same. As always, our Support Center is ready to offer assistance and advice when you need some help grappling with a challenge. In fact, if you develop a unique or innovative way to manage a travel difficulty, consider sharing your discovery with GDB so we can pass on good ideas to our students and alumni.

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