Sarah Dixon, CDBC

Michele Pouliot is widely credited with introducing positive reinforcement-based training to the guide dog world and promoting the expansion of Clicker Training internationally within the guide dog field. Before she started working with guide dogs in 1974, Michele was a professional in the field of horse training, mentoring under Linda Tellington-Jones and Wentworth Tellington. Michele retired from Guide Dogs for the Blind after 42 years of service. During her last 16 years, she held the position of Director of Research and Development for programs at Guide Dogs. That position focused on developing and researching new techniques to improve all areas of client instruction, dog training and puppy development. In this interview, we asked Michele about her career, her life, and her thoughts about service dog training today.

How did you get into service animal training?

After high school I enrolled at the Pacific Coast Equestrian Research Farm, a concentrated horsemanship school under Linda Tellington-Jones. I had a passion for training and riding horses as a teenager, and my ambition was to become a riding instructor. I excelled in the program, attaining the school’s highest riding level. After graduating, I was offered, and accepted, a position at an equestrian school in the Midwest. While there I acquired my first dog. One of my regular riding students was a professional dog trainer. After each of her lessons, she would coach me on training my young Labrador. I found training a dog to be quite different from horses and enjoyed how quickly my Lab progressed. I quickly became hooked on dog training and started showing in obedience competitions. Within a year I decided to swap my career and my hobby, changing my career goal to be a professional dog trainer. I continued to have horses as a hobby, and still do today.

In 1973, I was initiating my new career with dogs by gaining experience working at a kennel in Long Beach, California. I was training dogs with clients half the day and the rest of the time grooming dogs and cleaning kennels. My only experience with dogs at that point was successfully competing with my pet dog in AKC obedience and teaching pet obedience classes.

I read an article in a magazine about schools in the United States that train guide dogs for blind people. It sounded like the perfect career, combining my love of training dogs while helping others at the same time. The article provided addresses to three guide dog schools. I wrote to all three schools immediately, but only got responses from two. One response I still have framed on my wall. It states, “Women are not physically or mentally able to train guide dogs for the blind.” (Keep in mind that this was 1973.) I was surprised by that letter but figured they were the experts and must know best. A few days later the response came from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California. They invited me to interview, which I did as soon as I could fly up, and soon I was invited to join their staff of 12 guide dog trainers. What I didn’t know was how impeccable my timing was. The organization had recently decided to “try” women and had just hired their first woman a few months before hiring me. The two of us women had many challenges fitting into a culture that strongly believed women were not capable of being guide dog trainers.

I moved to northern California and began my three-year working apprenticeship at GDB. I became an official guide dog instructor after passing my California state licensing test in 1977. In 2016, I retired from my 42-year career with Guide Dogs for the Blind, although I continue to teach and consult with many guide dog programs around the world.

What do you think are the greatest challenges in producing reliable and consistent working service dogs?

The unpredictable environments that guide and service dogs must work in create ongoing challenges, even for the strongest of temperaments.

Also challenging can be the limited handling abilities of disabled clients. For example, with guide dog handlers, their absence of visual information makes it difficult to anticipate upcoming situations they are about to encounter.

Preparing dogs for dealing with unpredictable scenarios and inconsistent direction for their handler can be very challenging, too.

How do you think organizations could best improve their percentage of dogs completing the program?

  • Making practical choices of the breeds used, supported by knowledgeable management of a breeding focus on temperament and health.
  • Applying extensive resources towards effective puppy training and puppy socialization, specifically in the education of all individuals handling and raising puppies.

It is common for puppy raising programs to rely heavily upon unskilled, well-meaning volunteers due to the need for people to raise puppies. Many programs I have seen would benefit greatly from putting more resources into the teaching and encouragement of their volunteer population for more effective skills in puppy preparation raising (raising with the service dog goals in mind).

Are there one or two memorable moments that stand out where you have incorporated a new training strategy or technique that has made a big difference in your training?

I developed a method of the teaching of collar cue response to puppies and young adult dogs entering training, resulting in a powerful training and management tool. I also designed a food reward protocol that allowed the organization to move to positive reinforcement training without negative behaviors in guide dogs around environmental food.

What would you consider the most important moments in your career?

At the beginning of my career:

Within my first two weeks on the job, a senior trainer (in the presence of several senior trainers) approached me and asked how I was able to get my dogs holding the dumbbell so quickly. In the culture at that time, that was a brave move by that senior trainer. His acknowledgement of my training abilities was the beginning of the staff recognizing my value to the program.

Spending 10 days under blindfold, as a student in class. That was a significant experience that provided me with an appreciation of the challenges blind clients face. That experience made me a much better guide dog trainer.

Near the end of my career:

Receiving a lifetime achievement award from the International Guide Dog Federation for my work in bringing positive reinforcement to the guide dog industry around the globe.

In puppy raising programs, are there areas of development or exposure you wish would get more focus by the puppy raisers?

Yes. I would like to see more focus on developing desired goal behaviors around distractions from the moment they receive the puppy. Many raisers wait until the puppy is into adolescence, after habits have been established, to train the puppy to make the goal choices. Young puppies are physically easy to restrain, causing raisers to not recognize control problem behaviors until the puppy grows bigger and stronger.

Where do you see the biggest demand in service dog training 15 years from now?

I am not sure I have a confident response to this, but here is my reaction.

The growing demand for PTSD dogs is notable and is likely to continue growing.

I am concerned over the growing “fake service dog” problem that has become a serious issue for true service dog users. I am disgusted and concerned over how easy it is to purchase a “service dog” vest and so-called service dog ID online.

If there is one thing in the service dog world you could change, what would it be?

I would have clearer legal requirements about what determines a dog to be a service dog and requirements for service dogs to pass testing for safe public access.

What training advice should be given more often in the service dog industry?

Maximizing the use of positive reinforcement in the training of guide and service dogs. Many programs remain that rely upon punishment-based training methods.

The thorough education of guide and service dog clients in the effective handling of their dog through positive reinforcement, whenever possible.

The importance of establishing desirable responses to praise/touch in puppies and maintaining that as valued reinforcement to dogs in training. Positive reinforcement is so powerful and effective, handlers and trainers can easily forget the importance of maintaining the dogs’ desire to be with and work for the human, regardless of food.

What types of motivators and consequences do you use in your training?

Reinforcers: food reward, verbal and physical praise (styles the individual dog enjoys)

“Consequences” can mean both rewarding and punishing consequences. I am assuming this question was meant to ask what type of punishment consequences, for undesired behavior, I use in my training. Although uncommon, I will apply negative punishment and positive punishment consequences in some situations.

In my experience, the temperament of dog that is suited for guide or service dog work is the type of dog that rarely would require punishment consequences. I would estimate that in my training processes, I use around 92% positive reinforcement, approximately 5% negative punishment, and 2% positive punishment. I am committed to striving toward maximizing positive reinforcement and minimizing the need for punishment consequences.

How long do you think advanced training in a service dog program should take?

When puppies are well prepared for the work of a guide or service dog (e.g., socialization, emotional control around environmental distractions, mannerly house and relieving behaviors, physical conditioning, ease of care behaviors), training of the actual guide or service dog skills becomes quite easy.

A common reason so many guide and service dog programs require five to eight months of advanced training is the time they need to put into these foundation skills, not the actual guide or service skills. A guide dog puppy that has been well prepared in all those areas can easily be trained in under four months. Unfortunately, it is uncommon for young adult dogs to arrive for formal training with all the desirable foundation skills. Trainers are then required to spend much of their available training time on developing foundation behaviors that allow the dog to become a successful guide or service dog.

Commonly, guide dog programs spend a large amount of training time on emotional control around distractions and/or developing confidence in dogs sensitive to environmental conditions. The specific working guide dog skills can be trained quickly in individual dogs with excellent foundation behaviors.

How do you think kennel life could be improved for service dogs?

  • Ongoing kennel enrichment that varies throughout the day, including the use of remote feeders (e.g., Pet Tutor) that can variably dispense rewards.
  • Sufficient amounts of exercise and play time throughout their day (ideally with humans).
  • Additional staff and volunteers present in the kennel environment just to relate to dogs in kennels (people that are not doing chores but focused on spending time with dogs in their kennels). The actual presence of humans that have time to focus on the individual dogs while they are in their kennels has an immense effect on their emotional state in those kennels.

 

We thank Michele for her time and her detailed answers, and we invite you to look forward to future IAABC Journal interviews with important people in the working and service dog industry!