Traffic checks. Probably one of the most nerve-wracking tests done at Seeing Eye. Let me explain the purpose of them. The dog must learn to stop immediately if a car cuts in front of its owner. So, for these traffic checks, the guide dog and the new owner are walking passed a driveway or parking lot, and a car comes and cuts right in front of them. Usually, one of those cars with extremely silent engines, is the car that those traffic checkers use. I am posing the question: do guide dogs understand the danger of cars? The answer to this question is no. So, if not, how does a dog know to stop when a car is in front of the blind person?
A guide dog is trained to check for that. Again, I don’t know what exactly goes into the training of these dogs when they are training to be guide dogs, but I assume that instructor and dog practice this a lot. This is just my interpretation on how the training process for this traffic training might occur. An instructor will be walking with the dog in training when a person drives out in front of the instructor and dog. Well, the dog is most likely not going to stop on his own the first time, so the instructor has to jerk back on the leash and tell the dog to sit. After doing this countless times, the dog becomes conditioned to that stimulus. The dog is most likely thinking, my instructor always stops me when that thing on wheels gets close, so maybe I should just start stopping automatically. If a dog is unsuccessful at realizing that he needs to stop when that car cuts in front of him, most likely that dog will not pass training. At least, I hope not.
Sometimes people ask instructors if their dog will transfer this information when out of harness. For example, if a guide dog gets loose and escapes into the road, will he stop for the moving vehicles? Probably not. The dog associates that stopping in front of moving traffic as part of work because it always happens when the harness is on. To go along with the topic of traffic, do you know that guide dogs are actually supposed to disobey their owner in certain situations? It’s true. Let’s say it is a very windy day. Joba and I are standing at a street corner, and I say: “Joba, forward.” But he does not move. I say it again, but he stays put. I may even say it a third time. Still, Joba doesn’t move. If I was always on top of my game when working Joba I would remember to put my foot in front of me to see if there is anything out of the ordinary that Joba is unsure of how to get around. If not, I can ask him to go forward again, and maybe he will listen. This is called intelligent disobedience. When a guide dog knows that his or her owner is in danger if he or she listens to the owner’s command, it refuses to listen in order to keep the guide dog safe. Often times on those windy days, it is hard to hear cars drive by, and I am thankful, first of all, to never have experienced such a close call. However, I’m also glad that Joba has this training of intelligent disobedience to disobey me when I’m attempting to put us both at risk. What a good dog.
So, hopefully, when you see a guide dog team, you won’t just assume that guide dogs tell the owner when it is safe to cross. However, a guide dog will in fact do everything it can to keep the blind person safe. So no, guide dogs do not understand the danger of cars, but they understand that watching for cars is a part of protecting their master and keeping the teamwork going steady.