Sometimes being a dog trainer helps create a really neat experience. I recently had the opportunity to work, fully blindfolded, with three different trained guide dogs.  It’s something that has been on my “dog trainer’s bucket list,” for some time (along with donning the protective sleeve and taking a hit from a working police dog, which I did in 2011, thanks to the Glendale Police Department).

It was, in a word, amazing. 

The first thing I noticed is that we seemed to be travelling extremely fast. I was certain we were practically running, and I couldn’t help but think, “Gosh, blind people must be in extraordinarily good shape to keep up with their dogs!” Turns out, after watching myself on video, we weren’t really going that fast. It just felt like it with the blindfold on.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The real first thing I noticed is that it’s extremely difficult to walk in a straight line under blindfold. As soon as I announced I was ready to go, and issued the “forward” cue to my dog, I promptly took a giant step forward on the diagonal, right into a wall. D’oh!

My dog definitely had his work cut out for him.

When being led by a guide dog, the handler walks parallel to the dog’s hips. This allows for the front half of the dog to encounter natural deviations in height – like a curb or stairs – first. When such a deviation presents itself, the dog automatically stops. This lets the handler know to step forward, even with the dog’s shoulders, and explore the area with his foot to discover what’s there.

I spent about 30 minutes working with the dogs. I never really got good at it, but did have a few seconds here and there where I managed to move in a somewhat straight line while remaining in proper position relative to the dog.

With the dog on my left, if I started to drift to the right, I’d feel him pull, ever so slightly, to the left. If I drifted left, toward the dog, he’d counter-push to the right to keep us centered. The dogs are trained to slow down when going up and down hills, and one dog naturally slowed down when the terrain changed from pristine concrete to gravel. Pretty amazing.

All things considered, it was an amazing experience that, while brief, completely opened my eyes (no pun intended) to just how challenging it can be to navigate life as a blind person. It’s easy take for granted how much simpler things are when you have the gift of sight. 

More on that next week. In the meantime, check out this Santa Monica restaurant that features blindfolded dining in a pitch-black room, with meals served by blind wait staff. The “pitch” is that removing the visual stimuli associated with eating will heighten other senses and provide a truly unique culinary experience.

 





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