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Keeping Your Guide Dog Sharp During the Coronavirus

May 7, 2020 | 5 Comments

by Kathy Austin, CVA

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Kathy's guide dog, Rowen, patiently waiting on the front porch

Rowen is a go-go, very active guide dog. When our stay at home orders were imposed because of COVID 19, I was a little concerned that our walks around the neighborhood for exercise wouldn’t be quite enough for him. My neighborhood is quiet with little traffic, very different from downtown Chicago on a busy weekday before the coronavirus hit. So I think he thinks, why stop at a curb when there’s never any cars coming?

Rowen is trying his best to keep our walks more interesting for himself. He’s sniffing a little more than he should and aggressively checking out the rabbits we pass in someone’s yard. I know he is, like me, trying to fight the monotony of the same old walks. I have tried some new routes, given him lots of backyard time to blow off steam, but I was a little concerned that we were getting into some bad habits.

When the distractions continued to mount, I began to wonder what if this continues when we ever get back to taking the train and getting to work downtown.  Will Rowen forget to stop at Michigan Avenue and Lake Street and not pay attention to traffic? Will the sniffing become a habit and become a bigger problem? Will the pigeons congregating on the sidewalk on our way to the office become a new exciting game for him? What can I do to keep Rowen interested in guide work and feeling that life is fun?

So I was thankful that my guide dog school, Guide Dogs for the Blind, offered a town hall meeting for GDB alumni. The veterinary staff and trainers addressed many of the issues guide dog handlers are facing during the coronavirus. Here are some of the important take aways from the call.


Keeping Your Guide’s Skills Sharp

Field Service Manager, Michelle Cliborn, reassured us that guide dogs really don’t lose their training. They have a memory like an elephant. When we return to a more normal routine, they should pick up where they left off with little coaxing. But to reinforce good behavior and to keep it interesting, she offered these tips.

If your only walk for exercise is the same route, try to make the time more interesting for your guide by having him target a bench, light pole or other object where you can provide a reward to encourage the finding behavior. Even just using guide dog commands and moving around objects such as cars blocking the sidewalk, are keeping your dog’s skills intact.

If you want to explore a new route, you can use your cane and heel your dog while using regular guide work commands. Reinforce the good behavior with a treat or lots of love.

Do some fun obedience on a walk. Practicing recall (the “come” command), is one of the most important commands you’ll want your guide to respond to. And, don’t forget the treats!

Try to keep a routine. Head out at the same times you would normally travel — your morning and evening commute or a walk at lunchtime.


Relaxation, Stress Reduction and Fun Activities

Kim Samco, client support specialist, stressed the importance of monitoring your own stress level and taking time for yourself. Dogs sense when you are stressed and this increases their own stress level.

Groom, groom, groom! Grooming is relaxing for both you and your dog. Most dogs are blowing coats now so it’s a good way to keep the dog hair off you and out of the house. Try a little massage too–it will make them feel great and you can check for any bumps or injuries you were not aware of.

If you need some time to yourself, try a frozen peanut butter and kibble Kong. Soften some kibble with water, stuff into the Kong, top off with some peanut butter and freeze. Your guide will be occupied for at least a few minutes!

Play hide and seek. Put your guide on a sit-stay and go hide with a kibble in your hand. Call them and reward and love them up when they find you! I like to hide in the bathtub!

Try Clicker training – Using a clicker to teach your guide a new trick is fun for the dog and will reinforce good skills. Try teaching “shake” or, my favorite, “go to your bed.”  What a great way to teach your guide to stay out of the kitchen or out of your face when you’re doing some floor exercises!


Coronavirus Dilemmas

While we may be safe and staying at home, some unique situations might arise that aren’t your garden variety problems. Here’s some things to consider.

First, Dr. Kate Kuminski, director of veterinary medicine, told us the COVID19 virus does not seem to be transmitted by a dog, nor are they susceptible to this strain of the virus. There is also no evidence the virus is transmitted in feces. That being said, don’t let others touch your dog when out in public.

There is no need to wipe their feet, but if you are concerned, you can use soap and water and rinse thoroughly. Do not use baby wipes or hand sanitizers on your dog’s feet.

Some dog foods have been out of stock and you might not be able to purchase your regular brand.  Try purchasing a different size or be prepared to purchase a different brand. If you need to change foods, remember to do it gradually mixing in a little of the new food with the old and increasing the new brand daily. If you are really stuck with no food, boiled chicken and rice will do in an emergency.


Emergency Planning

Make sure your emergency plan is in place. Do you have someone you can trust to take care of your dog if you become sick? Ask a friend or family member to take on this responsibility.  If you don’t have anyone close you can trust, try contacting a Lions Club chapter or a reputable boarding kennel.

Make sure your emergency person has important information they will need. Prepare a document with the following information:

  • regular and emergency vet name and phone numbers
  • your guide dog school’s name and phone number
  • feeding and relieving schedule
  • key words your guide responds to

Gather these items for your emergency bag:

  • leash
  • toy
  • food bowl
  • vaccination records
  • 14 days of food and medication

Remember, the best place for your guide is with you. But if you become ill, having your emergency plan in place will ease your mind. You will know they will be taken care of responsibly until you are back on your feet.

Safe travels and be well!

Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense.

5 comments on “Keeping Your Guide Dog Sharp During the Coronavirus”

  1. Beth Finke says:

    I was just about to cover this topic for my personal Safe & Sound blog, but you’ve done such a beautiful — and thorough –job here I may not bother. Brava, Kathy! And brava to Guide Dogs for the Blind, too. You’ve covered just about all the worries and concerns guide dog handlers are feeling right now, with suggestions to boot. I may still compose a short post with more personal anecdotes about new Seeing Eye dog Luna’s life ssheltering-in-place with me. Okay if I link to this post when I do. Such a remarkable –and helpful –bit of writing. Thank you.

  2. Beth Finke says:

    PS: The Seeing Eye is hosting a conference call for graduates tomorrow afternoon, too. I’ll be tuning in to that, and if I hear any additional ideas on that call, I’ll let you know.

  3. Kathy says:

    Thanks, Beth! There’s so much more I could write about — antics galore, to be sure. Please feel free to link to us and please share your own post with us!

  4. Lucinda Norman says:

    Kathy ,

    What a great article and picture of Rowen . I wondered how this situation was playing out for the two of you , Great info which I shared with our Desert Paws Las Vegas Puppy Raisers Club ! Our club raised Rowen!

  5. Kathy says:

    Hi Lucinda, Hope you are doing well in these challenging times. I’m so glad you found the information helpful and shared it with your puppy club. GDB does a great job supporting our guide dog handlers and I’m sure the puppy clubs, too. Rowen is actually doing pretty well under the circumstances — bored like we all are but. no worse for the wear! Take care and will write soon!

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