Mobility Training at Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Deliberate
Shift to an Adult Learning Perspective
Stacey Ellison and Hilary Evart
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"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
William Butler Yeats
As an organization that has been providing specialized orientation and mobility training for over half a century, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), USA is now in a position to assess how its present approach to service has evolved from the school’s initial efforts, examine the efficacy of current programs, and
thoughtfully consider what course to take into the future. This paper serves as one attempt to survey GDB’s progress, specifically focusing on the evolution of student training and client services.
Guide Dogs for the Blind began sixty-six years ago in Northern California as an organization dedicated to providing enhanced mobility to blinded veterans. It was a time when preparing dogs to guide was an idea entertained by few professional trainers, and entrusting one’s own safety to an animal was an option
chosen by only the most daring individuals. In 1942 there were no established best practices for this type of mobility training; learning to work with a guide dog was often a “trial and error” proposition.
In those early years our organization’s leadership was influenced by military experience and procedures were shaped by long established dog training traditions dating from World Wars One and Two. Only a few dog guide schools
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existed in the United States and simply surviving as an organization was a prime objective. Yet as the strongest schools built upon their foundations and developed proficiency and reliability at their facilities, others grew interested in the concept of using dogs as guides and new schools began to appear across the country. In the 60’s and 70’s the field became more competitive and schools
were wary of sharing any information that might be used to advance a rival organization. Meanwhile, within the GDB training department an ethos of tight knit fraternity prevailed, where closely guarded training techniques emphasized effective dog training and relatively less focus was given to optimizing client instruction.
As time went on GDB remained determined to offer the best trained guide dogs possible and provide valuable instruction to those that requested our services. And though California was unique in licensing both its guide dog schools and instructors, providing some external oversight, the primary source of serious assessment and ideas for innovation came from within the insulated facility. This scenario worked well for many years; GDB gained a reputation as a high quality institution with well prepared dogs and a dedicated staff. In the mid-80’s, some guide dog training facilities signaled their intention to collaborate and
share ideas by establishing the United States Council of Guide Dog Schools. In the 90’s the International Guide Dog Federation was formed to further support the guide dog movement throughout the world. GDB’s involvement with both
these groups further motivated the organization to consider how to improve on their already successful system. More blind and visually impaired people were
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impressed by what the school offered and applied for training. To address increased demand and decrease applicants’ waiting time, in 1995 GDB opened a
second campus in the Pacific Northwest and began holding classes at both locations. We were shifting from a self-contained unit to a larger and more complicated organizational system.
The expansion to two campuses sharing one mission proved challenging in various respects. Intercampus communication, standardization of programming, allocation of resources – these issues and more were fresh considerations for the organization. As we moved ahead, the staff and leadership were constantly looking for ways to enhance our service delivery in this new era of guide dog instruction. GDB trialed new ways to improve the dogs’ training experience and
initiated changes to the class program as well. Some early examples of dog related changes include greater emphasis on kennel enrichment, the addition of instructor assistants to help ease the transition from puppy raiser home to kennel environment, and “pattern training”. Meanwhile, efforts to improve the client’s
learning environment advanced as well. Some relevant examples are the introduction of alternative equipment to accommodate the differences among handlers, holding tribute sessions to acknowledge relationships with former guides, and construction projects intended to provide more privacy. These
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changes were welcomed and appreciated, yet they were conceived of and applied in a random manner.
It was necessary to acknowledge that we were a large organization and that a more structured approach to development would be in our best interest. We were becoming more receptive to new ideas and staff was encouraged to think “outside the box”. We invited outside consultants to join our classes and interview the students. They gathered their observations, and offered some recommendations for a more robust learning experience. Stacey Ellison, training supervisor on the San Rafael campus, connected with Jan Elster, an organizational development consultant, at a seminar about the art of teaching people, brought back those ideas to GDB and began to inspire others in the organization to consider seriously how people learn and how teaching methods could adjust to meet the needs of different learners. At about that time, Marc Gillard presented his intriguing paper titled “Pre-Training Programs for Guide Dog
Clients” at the 2004 IGDF seminar in Switzerland which focused on client preparation. The executive director of GDB was leading a shift away from dog-centric messaging and speaking to the “partnership” between constituents as
well as between human and canine. GDB established the Research and Development Department led by Michele Pouliot, an individual long recognized as forward thinking and progressive in the field of guide dog training. It became evident that the time was ripe for an investment of time, thought and energy into evaluating our service delivery model. We were ready to formulate an
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overarching plan that would provide framework for the changes we were prepared to make and guidance for how we might move ahead.
Adult Learning Philosophy
A field of study particularly relevant to our situation was Adult Learning and Education promoted by educational theorist Malcolm Knowles. He described characteristics that were inherent to adult learners and suggested optimal approaches to teaching adults:
; Adults are autonomous and self-directed. Their teachers must actively
involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators
for them. Instructors should allow the participants to assume responsibility
for their own learning. They must show participants how the course will
help them reach their personal goals.
; Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge
that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and
previous education. Instructors should connect learning to this pre-
existing base. A teacher should draw out participants' experience and
knowledge which is relevant to the topic.
; Adults are goal-oriented. They appreciate an educational program that is
organized and has clearly defined elements. Instructors must show
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participants how this class will help them attain their goals. This
classification of goals and course objectives must be done early.
; Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning
something. Learning has to be applicable to their life to be of value to
them. Theories and concepts must be related to a situation familiar to
; Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to
them in their life. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own
sake. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be
useful to them.
; As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Instructors must
acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the
classroom. These adults should be treated as equals in experience and
knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions (Leib, 1991).
These statements were appropriate to describe the learning environment we wanted to provide for our clients. Whether Adult Learning was a theoretical assessment about how people absorbed information and skills or was more advocacy for a particular approach to teaching, many of the ideas that are central to Adult Learning are applicable to the new direction taken at GDB. Malcolm Knowles described a philosophy that was now more attractive than ever to our organization:
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A democratic philosophy is characterized by a concern for the development
of persons, a deep conviction as to the worth of every individual, and faith
that people will make the right decisions for themselves if given the
necessary information and support. It gives precedence to the growth of
people over the accomplishment of things when these two values are in
conflict. It emphasizes the release of human potential over the control of
human behavior. In a truly democratic organization there is a spirit of
mutual trust, an openness of communications, a general attitude of
helpfulness and cooperation, and a willingness to accept responsibility, in
contrast to paternalism, regimentation, restriction of information, suspicion,
and enforced dependency on authority (Knowles, 1980).
The statement advances a perspective that is keenly aware of the value of each person and respects the need for individuals to be self-directing. By applying the tenets of Adult Learning and viewing our services through a new lens, GDB was now taking on an over-arching framework for decision making about the program and exchanges with our constituents.
The shift to a new teaching philosophy did not occur just because it sounded appealing. Because our mission is dedicated to teaching and training both people and dogs, the organization has had a unique opportunity to observe two distinct
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learning progressions. We had long been experimenting with better ways to prepare our dogs. Whereas historically the relationship between handler and dog was one of dominance and submission with the dog seldom allowed to initiate positive learning experiences, training has clearly evolved to a process predicated on positive motivation and awards for appropriate experimentation. As a result of more engaging and enjoyable formal training experiences, the dogs have become more confident, cooperative, and willing to apply their learning to novel situations. The success of our new approaches to dog training had implications for class and client instruction as well. We were gaining insights into creating more fertile learning environments no matter whether the student was animal or human.
Now we had identified the philosophical scaffolding to support our comprehensive efforts in evaluating services. All areas of programming are considered for potential improvements. The following material will briefly describe some of the changes that GDB has put in place that reflect elements of the Adult Learning philosophy:
Application Process – A more streamlined application process makes it as easy as possible for individuals to apply for Guide Dog training. We begin at this level to provide clients with the kind of information that will allow them to ask relevant
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questions, make informed decisions, have realistic expectations, and develop meaningful, personal goals. The application packet includes GDB’s teaching
philosophy which incorporates adult learning. The applicant has the opportunity
to reflect and communicate about what educational conditions help them learn best. The documents also list requirements for acceptance so the applicant is able to self-assess their readiness to work with a dog. For those applicants who have potential to be guide dog users, but do not currently qualify, GDB offers referrals to relevant agencies and resources.
Home Interview - Clients now have a greater foundation of knowledge going into the interview, allowing the interviewer to focus on key information. In addition to a mobility walk through the applicant’s customary travel environment, and
addressing any special issues relevant to the applicant’s situation, time is spent
elaborating on the class program and educational options available to students such as Juno work (i.e. active lessons in handling and guide dog concepts using an artificial dog), lecture and discussion formats, visual occlusion, and supplemental workshops. The interviewer will inquire about the applicant’s
preferred learning style. Do they learn best by physical involvement? By analyzing and asking questions? By more passive observation? Or is a combination of all learning styles most appealing? This conversation can help future class instructors customize their instructional approach for the individual. The home interview allows for further discussion about what a client hopes to achieve from forming a partnership with a guide dog.
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