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A new method of training guide dogs

Changes to the way in which guide dogs are trained and a blind organist shares his recollections of playing the Grand Orgue at Notre Dame.

Two guide dog trainers from the Liverpool Guide Dogs Centre, Nina Swindells and Jan Johnston, tell presenter Lee Kumutat about Positive Reinforcement Training, which the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is in the process of introducing across its twenty training schools.

Lee also speaks to David Grice, GDBA’s Head of Canine Behaviour and Training, about the rationale for the new methodology.

Finally, we hear from visually impaired organist, David Aprahamian Liddle. In 2002, David got the opportunity to play the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral. David tells us about how he made a braille chart to remember the organ’s layout, the rehearsal and how he felt when he had finished his recital.

Presenter: Lee Kumutat
Producer: Tom Walker

Photo description: Presenter Lee Kumutat stands in between Guide Dogs trainers Nina Swindells and Jan Johnston, and guide dogs Farley and Pepper. They are in front of the parcours outside the Guide Dogs training centre in Liverpool on a sunny day.

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19 minutes

David Aprahamian Liddle

Website of the English concert organist and composer David Aprahamian Liddle.

The Guide Dogs parcours in Liverpool

The Guide Dogs parcours in Liverpool
The parcours features a pedestrian crossing box, barriers, platforms and cones among other obstacles. 

Training Platforms

Training Platforms
These platforms are used to teach the dogs the correct behaviour when approaching a curb.

A Guide Dogs Harness

A Guide Dogs Harness
Picture of a Guide Dogs harness resting on a bench near the outdoor Guide Dogs parcours in Liverpool.

In Touch Transcript: 30-04-19

Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.


IN TOUCH – A New Method of Training Guide Dogs

TX:  30.04.2019  2040 -2100

PRESENTER:           LEE KUMUTAT

PRODUCER:             TOM WALKER

 

Lee Kumutat

Hello from the guide dogs UK Centre in Liverpool, where we'll be finding out how and why the charity is changing the way it trains its dogs and memories of this: The organ thankfully saved from the Notre Dame fire.

 

Now, developing trust between human and guide dog is the key to a successful partnership.  And one way of fostering that relationship is by praising the dog when they do something good stands to reason.  Well, when I trained with my first guide dog in Australia, way back in 1995, we were taught in a way that was very black and white.  For example, the dogs stops at the kerb as it should, give it lots of praise.  The dog doesn't stop at the kerb leading you into the road, we were taught to say "No" in a low firm voice and sometimes to give a sharp jerk on the harness handle to reinforce the message that behaviour was definitely not on; especially if you felt your safety had been at risk.  Since then, there's been a gentle shift away from the firm voice and the physical corrections and when I trained with my fourth dog Frankie in London in July last year.  It was very much centred on positive reinforcement training or PRT, where the dog is given virtually no negative feedback and instead of just lovely praise and appreciation, they are given lovely treats as well.  Quite a lot of lovely treats, which does worry some people given a dog's natural tendency to scavenge and put on weight!  And now this PRT is being rolled out across all guide dogs training centres, so how exactly does this training work.  Trainers Nina Swindells and Jan Johnson explain more.

 

Well we've come straight upstairs at the Liverpool Training Centre here at Guide Dogs.  And we're going into what is called a 'PRT' room 'Positive Reinforcement Training' room, which is a bit unusual.  I thought we'd be heading straight outside, but so let's go and see what's in here.  Open the door!

 

Nina Swindells

Hello.  Hello.

 

Lee Kumutat

Hi.  Hi I'm Lee.

 

Nina Swindells

Hiya Lee.  Good to meet you and I'm Nina.

 

Lee Kumutat

Hi Nina! 

 

Nina Swindells

I'm one of the guide dog trainers here at Liverpool.

 

Lee Kumutat

Nice to meet you!

 

Nina Swindells

Hi.  And I've got Pepper here with me!

 

Lee Kumutat

Is that the tail I can hear?

 

Nina Swindells

That's what he's a very happy boy yes!

 

Lee Kumutat

Yeah.  A very happy boy!  What is Pepper?

 

Nina Swindells

Pepper is a yellow Labrador male.

 

Lee Kumutat

Yeah.

 

Nina Swindells

Who is 16 months old.

 

Lee Kumutat

Aww.

 

Nina Swindells

He'll be 2 in August actually!

 

Jan Johnston

So Nina and I was two of the first guide dog trainers here at Liverpool to start the the step program.

 

Lee Kumutat

Right!

 

Jan Johnston

And this is our second.  We're just going up to our third cycle now on the step program, so yeah we're loving it!

 

Lee Kumutat

It is quite new isn't it!

 

Jan Johnston

We're loving it.  Yeah!

 

Lee Kumutat

It is quite new and and do you feel it still sort of bedding in?  People are still getting used to the idea?

 

Jan Johnston

Yeah people are getting used to it, but I think when they look at the outcome and the results of the dogs in training, you know people are really really impressed with the new program.  Nina and I have both been trainers for 13yrs guide dog trainers.  We've done different types of training throughout the years.  Both, Nina and I love the step program.  We think it's the best training that we've seen throughout the time we've been at Guide Dogs.

 

Lee Kumutat

And what is the general response and reaction from guide dog owners?

 

Jan Johnston

Dog owners like it!  We do get asked questions like "Do I have to feed the dog all the time?" "How long do I have to feed the dog".  And my answer to that is I think a good one, which someone said to me is "Well as long as their working, they get their wages which is food".

 

Lee Kumutat

Yeah.

 

Jan Johnston

When they retire, you...that you stop getting your wages you know, so I do like that little saying!  And this is Farley. 

 

Lee Kumutat

Farley!

 

Jan Johnston

Farley.

 


 

Lee Kumutat

Aww!

 

Jan Johnston

And if you just put your hand over, you can feel...

 

Lee Kumutat

Oop there's a...there's a fence here.

 

Jan Johnston

Yeah a little fence with a little pen.

 

Lee Kumutat

Oh you've got a pen Farley.

 

Jan Johnston

And he's a really big tall like.

 

Lee Kumutat

Oh my goodness you're a horse?

 

Jan Johnston

Because... He is a horse yeah you could hear his tail.

 

Lee Kumutat

Is part of the training then, training the guide dog owner to know when to employ these treats and when perhaps not too?  Or if your dog walks to a kerb and stops, is the dog to expect a treat each time it does that?

 

Jan Johnston

I'd say not every time, probably initially in those first early days you'd like the dog to realise that it's still getting its reward, but it won't need a treat on every kerb.  It will get treated intermittingly. 

 

Lee Kumutat

And then the treats are used to reinforce as you say targets' that you want the dog to learn?

 

Jan Johnston

Yes!

 

Lee Kumutat

Right!

 

Jan Johnston

So it would always keep that motivation going towards the crossing and getting a reward.  And we're only talking about one piece of the dogs kibble of its daily food allowance, we're not talking about you know heavily having to feed the dog.  Guide dog owners will have their own treat pouch and it will be once the dog gets to that destination, one piece of kibble is given to the dog as a reward. 

 

Lee Kumutat

The emphasis obviously is on the feeding and we'll, we'll get onto in in a moment, we'll look at how you're training the dogs with that!  But I guess some people worry that the tone of voice won't matter anymore, that it's all about feeding and that you...that bond that you have for your dog is based on food, rather than loyalty or love or connection.  You know is that actually a fair criticism?

 

Jan Johnston

Well we...we use the clicker, so when we start off the training we use the clicker.  Alongside the clicker, we do use our voice.  We use a marker word which is 'Yep' and and that's a nice easy word.  We've chosen 'Yep' because it can't be changed too much emotionally, it's very precise to the dogs.

 

Lee Kumutat

That's interesting!

 

Jan Johnston

Yeah!  And it's something what we can a tool we can give to the guide dog owner and they can use instead of the clicker.  Some guide dog owners wouldn't like to be fumbling about with a clicker.  What we've done, we've trained all the behaviours.  And when we get our dogs when they first come in for training, it's very important for us as handlers to get to know the dog to bond with the dog, to play with the dog.  So it is a very very important part of getting to know your dog and we still encourage guide dog owners and clients when they get the dogs to do the same as well.  Pepper is laid down on the piece of vet bedding here.  And this is where he lies down to relax before we start his training session.  With the bucket game, I'm going to place a bucket of food down.  And what I'm waiting for Pepper to do is to actually focus on the bucket of food.  Okay that was the PRT room.

 

Lee Kumutat

Yes.

 

Jan Johnston

So now we're going to head outside and have a look at some platform training okay!

 

Lee Kumutat

With the same dogs?

 

Jan Johnston

Yes, we'll use Pepper and Farley again!  Okay, we're outside now and we're going to go over to where we've got some platforms placed.  The platforms are a fairly new thing that we're using on the step program and there a very essential tool for teaching our dogs kerb work.

 

Lee Kumutat

Kerb work.  

 

Lee Kumutat

And this is a platform; it's its standing up at the moment.  And it sort of covered in what feels like almost fake grass in a way.

 


 

Jan Johnston

Yeah.

 

Lee Kumutat

And it's just a hard kind of covered bit of wood that's covered with some foam I guess so that it's comfortable.

 

Jan Johnston.

Okay, I'm here with Farley now.  I'm gonna ask him to put his head in the harness, I'm just gonna fasten my harness up.  Okay and now I'm going to ask him forward and he's gonna make his...he's gonna walk definitely towards the platform where I have click and I'll reinforce him and give him the treat.  Okay 'forward'.  'Good boy' and there comes your treats.  Good boy.

 

Lee Kumutat

Is it true to say then, there is no negative feedback that you give to the dog at all?

 

Jan Johnston

Yes it's true, yeah!  Obviously positive reinforcements, we heavily reinforce the desired behaviour and we ignore any undesirable behaviour's that the dog might present.  Then they repeat the more desirable behaviours because their getting fed for it.  I think with the 'PRT' what we don't want is heavy handed lead corrections, where you know in in the past has has been used and that's what we're trying to get away from.

 

Lee Kumutat

Thanks to the stars of the show, Farley and Pepper and of course thanks to Jan Johnston and Nina Swindells as well.  So why has the organisation adopted this new training philosophy and is it sustainable?  David Grice is the Charity's Head of Canine Behaviour and Training.

 

David Grice

What we've basically done is brought together all the best practice in the business as well as sort of combining it with up to date sort of current scientifically valid evidence.  And we've put together what we're calling our 'step program' the standardised training for excellent partnerships to hopefully standardised the work we do across the organisation and make sure that its best practice.

 

Lee Kumutat

What is the evidence that this is the way forward?

 

David Grice

Yeah lots and lots of academic research has been carried out in in this field in relation to proving that animals learn quicker this way, as well as those behaviours actually stay with the animal for  much longer.

 

Lee Kumutat

And what's the training time for a dog now and what will it be under this new scheme?

 

David Grice

What we've actually focused on is the cycle time, so this is actually the training from the dog coming in from our puppy walking period right through to being trained with a customer and actually out at home and qualified and settled.  And what we're doing is working on the premise that we can improve that cycle time and have done significantly to on average round now, around sort of 27 weeks as opposed to sort of eventually a 7 or 8 week longer period to our conventional approach.

 

Lee Kumutat

But one of the criticisms is that actually in some aspects of guide dog work that it isn't practical say for example, the dog wants to scrounge when it's on a road.  And your instinct is to get that dog and you off the road.  And obviously, that may mean that you become firm with your dog, I mean that's a natural instinct isn't it?

 

David Grice

How we actually handle that situation at the time, particularly as animals are learning from all of their experiences is really important to to try and shape their behaviour for the future.  And I'm not sure berating an animal or telling an animal off is is a good learning platform for its future behaviour.  What we actually want to do is focus on training that animal to do the behaviour that we wanted to do again, so is...if it's to cross a road and reach the up-kerb on the other side.  Then we need to make sure that those points are key for an animal to want to get too.  We have to be quite careful that we we don't respond in a way that prevents the dog from behaving as we would like to in the future.  You know it's a case of 'Okay, stop the dog from doing the behaviour that you don't want it to do at that particular point either through to sort of, of pulling the lead towards you or holding the dog through the collar. Get the dogs attention reaffirmed and then continue on your way!'  And then it's about thinking 'Okay, so he's been reacting you know in perhaps a a negative way towards food or he's been approaching other dogs in a much more overzealous way, what's my training plan now for moving forward and teaching my dog what I actually want him to do, which i.e. walk past the dog'.

 

Lee Kumutat

If dogs are being trained faster and more quickly, does that mean shorter waiting times for people?

 

David Grice

One of the positive consequences of this does happen to have been that that we seem to be training dogs in a shorter period of time, but that wasn't really the the the motivating factor for doing it.

 

Lee Kumutat

And does it contribute to a reduced cost of training a dog?

 

David Grice

Well at the end of the day, this is...if this is a more efficient process then you know potentially absolutely yes!  But I would say it's not without its challenges and it won't be with without our need to add some additional resources and the training and so on that's that's required to uphold it and to maintain it. 

 

Lee Kumutat

David Grice, thank you very much!

 

As the outpouring of grief washed over us after the fire at Notre Dame a couple of weeks ago, many people sighed with relief when it became clear that the ‘Grand orgue’  had been saved, if slightly damaged.

 

Blind organist David Aprahamian Liddle played the great instrument in 2002, and shares his memories of that experience along with this actual recording of his concert.

 

(Organ playing)

 

David Aprahamian Liddle

In London, I met Olivier Latry who was one of the four organists of Notre Dame at that time.  And one of the others actually was a blind man Jean-Pierre Legua, with whom I corresponded in brail for some time.  But I said when I met Latry that I would love to be considered to play at Notre Dame in Paris.  And he said; he'd be glad to add my name to the waiting list!  But he did warn me that the waiting list was up to 4yrs long, so I wasn't expecting another for quite a while, but in fact it was probably about 2yrs that I had to wait.

 

(Organ playing)

 

David Aprahamian Liddle

Every visiting recitalist gets the Saturday night, I think it's about 3 or 4hrs on the Saturday night locked in the Cathedral to practice for the Sunday recital.  I felt that having to get to know my way round the organ and practice my setup and practice my entire program from my concert was a bit ambitious to do in 3 or 4hrs.  So I wrote to the authorities and asked if there was any chance I could go over and have a preliminary practise.  They kindly granted me that and I went over in the November, 6 months earlier and had a whole evening on the Notre Dame organ getting to know it.  Then I went back to London and I I'd recorded on a memo machine my description of the organ when I was there.  And so when I got home, I brailed it up all in sort of chart forms.

 

(Organ playing)

 

David Aprahamian Liddle

And the organ there has a playback system.  An automatic playback system done digitally, which records every movement of the keys and the stops that you make.  And during your practise, you are required in the contract to play your entire recital program from beginning to end without any hesitation you know.  And then they play it back to make sure they've got it, so that takes a lot of the practice time.  And I think the reason for that is probably in case any of the recitalist throw a wobbly or taken ill or something happens, they can actually make your recital play on the Sunday without you even being there.

 

(Organ playing)

 

David Aprahamian Liddle

Well it's a very emotional experience for somebody who's been playing the organ for years and learning the music of many French composers, because as you climb that spiral staircase in the Southwest tower, you think of all the people who have gone up and down those stairs before you, like César Franck and Louie Vian who was himself organist of Notre Dame from 1900 until his death at the organ in 1937. He was partially sighted.  I think the Americans would describe him as legally blind and he learnt his music in Braille initially, although he could see if the music was written out very large.  And Jean Langlais, Gaston Litaize and then my own teacher André Marchal, all of them blind.  And you know that this organ, which is very loud, when you're playing it, is projecting its sound all the way down this vast building.

 

(Organ playing)

 

David Aprahamian Liddle

So it's very very thrilling, very exciting and extremely nerve-racking for somebody like me who was just a visitor getting to play there on one occasion and wanted to do your very best.  It was really like being in a trance that and that's the nearest I can describe it.  You are very caught up with the detail, you can't let yourself be carried away you've got an assistant who is pressing buttons at your command or at least that's what I did and I think that's what most people do, it's called a 'sequence' a button, which brings out the stops that you've set in your practice in the sequence that you want them to come in and out.  So you've got all those things to think of and the sound is just blowing your mind and as I say, putting you into a bit of a trance but afterwards I would say, I was mentally shattered!

 

(Clapping)

 

Lee Kumutat

David Aprahamian Liddle playing Veni Creator Spiritus by Maurice Duruflé at Notre Dame in 2002.

 

And that's it for today.  If you have any comments or thoughts on anything in today's programme, you can call a dedicated In Touch phone number 0161 836 1338 or email intouch@bbc.co.uk.  We welcome your thoughts.  You can also subscribe to the In Touch Podcast on your favourite podcast provide.

 

From me, Lee Kumutat, my Producer Tom Walker, the Team and the Dogs, goodbye.

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