Fur, Blindfolds, Harnesses
Alan Brooks is committed to improving the mobility and opportunities of visually impaired people and is attempting to extend the guide dog movement to parts of the world not yet been touched by the life-changing phenomenon. At the time of our visit Alan was working with two international trainees, Karin Holmström Forster and Kübra Demirkaya.
Karin, an experienced and professional dog trainer and behaviourist from the Algave in Portugal, was training Abbe and Fred; both are rescue dogs. Kubra, a veterinary nurse and the newest recruit of Turkey’s recently formed guide dog school, was unable to bring her own dog Bobby and instead trained with Ivy, a young German Shepherd, who had been kindly loaned to her by a local guide dog organisation.
We wanted to appreciate the group dynamics and relationships ‘on-duty’ and ‘off duty’ and to communicate how training, working and companion relationships best flourished. This film reveals how each trainer must appreciate and embody the kind of affect valued by each dog and tried to capture the array of verbal and non-verbal commands, bodily gestures and motivational praise that choreograph this dynamic multispecies conversation.
Animal training is performed not written. As such, it is rarely recorded which makes it challenging to reconstruct it’s history. Filming guide dog training was no easy endeavour either, because training is never static, it is always on the move.
We used hand-held camera techniques to follow the group across and through streets busy with traffic and pedestrians. We made a conscious decision to try not to interfere with the training and to keep a respectful distance.
However, our presence inevitably altered the training dynamic and the dogs’ reactions to us revealed their contrasting personalities and priorities. For example, whenever we were separated too far behind the group Ivy looked back to try to find us. Alan explained that Ivy now identified us as part of the ‘pack’, so our absence caused her to wonder where we had gone.
Ivy - looking for the rest of the pack
In contrast, Abbe showed little interest in looking for us when we were filming behind the group. When we did get close to Abbe, he liked to engage with us and the camera. Alan explained that he might be anticipating additional cues from us.
Abbe - anticipating
We were in fact so struck by the differences between Ivy and Abbe at work that we decided to make this one of the main themes of the film. The chosen clips communicate how Ivy presented herself as energetic and fast-moving, constantly assessing the environment around her; on the other hand, Abbe presented himself as gentle and sensitive, taking his time to consider his options before deciding how best to advance.
Understanding differences in canine personalities is a vital for guide dog trainers, especially when it comes to matching trained dogs with their visually-impaired handlers and their specific personalities and needs.
A further captivating aspect of the training was blindfold tests. These tests are important obligatory points of passage for both the dogs and the trainers, preparing them for work with blind clients.
What was prominent in the footage for us was the centrality of the practices of care and touch to guide dog training and how the trainers worked together. The non-blindfolded trainer must learn to give instructions to the blindfolded trainer without overloading them with information, which could distract them from following their dog. We also get sense of how trainers physically interact through touch in the way that such interactions build up trust between each other and helps them to place trust in the navigational abilities of their dogs. These subtle exchanges of trust bring into being a web of interdependence that knots the triad together.
Filming such exercises reveals the intensive, co-species labour through the guide dog-human partnership is assembled, a labour based on mutual trust and efficient cross-species communication. It also demonstrates that it is only when the human and the dog learn to become affected by the other that the partnership can become a responsive, hybrid entity that can safely and responsibly navigate busy urban environments.
You can watch the film below