In talking with other guide dog handlers, I’ve been reminded of the many differences between “in-community” — home-based — and campus training. Personal preference is a big part of many aspects of working any type of assistance dog and training at home or at a school is no exception. Having experienced both forms of training, I have formed several opinions and as is probably obvious I find home training to be the route for me. That isn’t to say it is what works for everyone who wishes to obtain a guide dog. It’s a choice and there are a great many differences which may be incentives for some and cause a great deal of hardship for others. For my own purposes of discussion, I’ll go through my personal list of positives and negatives and compare each between the two forms of training.
Location, Location, Location
Obviously, by its very nature, home training occurs at home. This means that there is no need to travel to a campus and spend the duration of training there. For the most part, I had little interruption in my daily activities during my two weeks. I did some work; I went grocery shopping; I shoveled my front walk (a lot). On the other hand, during my time at GEB I actually felt cut off from my regular life. In fact, one of my classmates made a comment regarding this — and later that day I found out there had been a hurricane at my house the week before and I’d never known!
Being in my own community also meant far less travel to a route to work. The only time I spent more than 30 minutes en route to somewhere was when Jason and I got sort of lost and had to drive through a blizzard. However, nearly every day of training at GEB required at least a half hour trip to get places. Frankly, I felt like a sardine packed in a can when we traveled, and the transportation I experienced was apparently an improvement over previous modes used. (There have been further changes since I was there, though I don’t know exactly what.) This lack of long travel also meant a much later start to my training each day — potentially I would have been able to sleep in if I didn’t have insomniac GSDs — whereas whether I wanted to or not, I was forced awake at 6:30 sharp every day at school. And life from that moment was commanded by the regimented school’s schedule: meals at this time, lectures at that, etc. Fidelco’s training also had a schedule, but it was by comparison so much more laid back; for instance, even though I was still waking up, generally, just as early I did get to take a nap most days because we either had completed our daily routes early enough or there was a substantial break around lunchtime. With everything involved with traveling away from campus each day, I was never afforded such a luxury. Most days, when I wasn’t actively walking a route, I found myself in an exhausted and bored stupor.
Less Is More
Believe it or not, I actually am incredibly shy. Specifically in situations with many other people. I find it hard to single a person out to communicate with and I never feel comfortable trying to express things to an audience. Understandably this makes the 1:1 student/instructor ratio that home training affords much more enticing to me than the class of 16 with two instructors and a supervisor that I had at a training school. I had the misfortune of being in a class with almost no one I could relate to — I was the youngest by quite a margin and most of the students were veteran handlers. For a great many reasons, I also had a very hard time interacting with the staff. Truthfully, I felt very lonely during my month of training. So much so at first that I cried myself to sleep one night. Dolly helped ease this burden, but then when I’d found myself already bonded with her, I was forced to relinquish her to the school to mend from her feet injuries for nearly a month. (All of this is a story unto itself.) This undoubtedly contributed to my feeling that I was always competing for time and attention from the instructors. But with 15 other students, there was obviously a lot of “down time” where I waited for my turn. I knew this was the case beforehand, but I was unprepared for the extent of “sitting around” that actually took place. It made a lot of my training work seem nearly insubstantial.
My experience with Megan was so different that it’s nearly unrecognizable in comparison. I found Megan very easy to talk with and by the end of training we had truly “clicked.” With no one else around, I always had my instructor’s complete and undivided attention. Which meant I could focus completely on working with my dog and not neurotically ruminating on how I might be coming off as a nuisance. This one-on-one relationship also allowed the trainers to fully absorb themselves in me and the dogs, which gave them the ability to notice anything and give immediate feedback to me. This also meant that we had time to work together more; there was no rush to accomplish any day’s tasks. We could extend our time working a route for as long as we wished or rework on specific things without taking time from anyone else. I was able to have long conversations about all aspects of my dog from equipment to food. It was a very comfortable and enjoyable training. Of course, there is the chance that the instructor and student don’t mesh as well — a fear I certainly had and voiced to Megan, who admitted there certainly were times that such a thing happened and it was always a bit of a “strain” but I would have been well within my rights to ask for a different trainer if it were enough of an issue.
Working Like a Dog
[Note: As I have never attended an "accelerated" training program at a guide dog school, in which you are not required to attend for the full 3-4 weeks. This specific comparison ignores anything attributed to them.]
To anyone who’s never trained with a guide dog, it can be hard to explain how intensive it can be. Depending on how physically fit you are, it can be downright grueling. Especially if you have a rather exuberant dog! But more so it is very emotional draining. Home training can be even more exhausting because it is much more condensed than training at a school. The shorter length in time requires that more work is done and more information given in a quicker time frame. As an experienced handler, who is quite physically fit, I had to admit that at times I did experience a bit of information “overload” and I was utterly exhausted by lunch time. (It didn’t help that I was horribly sick during Uschi’s training.) I did find myself quite astonished at how much was accomplished so quickly at several points during my home training, but I was never overwhelmed. Whereas at a school there is much more time and all of this is far more gradual; sometimes I felt like nothing was happening at all. Though, it should be noted that in all types of training, the steps are such that the handler and dog are eased into the work.
The I in Team
Somewhat in contrast to the benefits of the ratio size, home training does require a bit more self-monitoring than training in a class. When you train at the school, you have your classmates and instructors (and sometimes other staff) to give you constant feedback, criticism and advice. For the inexperienced handler especially, this can be a goldmine of information and assistance.
Home training requires you to be your own teacher and student in a lot of ways. Depending on how experienced you and/or your instructor are, you may be at a disadvantage in terms of information you may not receive. There were a lot of nuiances of guidework that I gleamed during my month at GEB, other handlers, and my own years of working with my guides. This prior foundation was all quite beneficial while working with Megan and Jason. Fidelco instructors do not have any O&M training and, of course, have not had the experience of living amongst their students that school-based trainers get. These deficiencies didn’t seem to bring about anything that jumps out to me as lacking in my training, but I would have qualms if I were a more unsure independent traveler or the like.
It’s a Vacation, Of Sorts
When I was first researching guide dog schools, one of my handler friends said to me: “You’re going to love it! Seriously, it’s like going to Club Med — and you get a dog in the end!” Her tongue-in-cheek description basically was in references to how well cared for you are at a school; living quarters are comfortable, meals are delicious, and your roommate is this spiffy canine. Most schools will also at least partially cover your travel back and forth to the campus, though, you are always welcome to make your own plans. (I did.) Depending on your classmates, it can be an almost tranquil experience to be at a guide dog school and, as I hinted above, you basically are removed from your life — you can “get away from it all” as it were. Certainly an impossibility at home; and for some this could prove to be a major handicap depending on your lifestyle. Those with very important or busy careers (especially parents) may find it incredibly difficult to concentrate on training in such a distracting environment.
Easy Come, Easy Go
As I said, there is generally quite a lot that is included under the umbrella of going to a campus for training. Though, in my experience, I did find it rather impossible to avoid spending undue money while at the training school. I donated a rather large sum of money (especially for an unemployed college student) and then spent nearly that same amount via purchases through the equipment and gift stores. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t be faithful and grateful to their guide dog school; or that one shouldn’t feel the need to support them. But whether it was from inexperience or youth, I did feel consistently pressured to make purchases on several occasions by various staff. Since Fidelco came to my home, I never interacted with a staff or volunteer whose sole purpose seemed to be to fundraise. In fact, a good deal of additional (read: “optional”) things I’d bought at GEB were provided as standard by Fidelco.
Four + Two = One
Much of the bonding process begins — even occurs — during training. In my very humble opinion, this is one of the main reasons a first time handler should not utilize home training because this bonding process is a new concept and can then occur removed from one’s normal surroundings. In specific, when I was training with Dolly I spent a month with her away from my friends and family. Never once did I need to remind those close to me to not interfere — and frankly I doubt I would have realized the necessity or known how to adequately express this as a new handler. These are things I learned from being away and also from the shared experiences of my classmates who were training with successor guides. I feel quite strongly that this was a vital foundation in working with Yara and Uschi, even though ironically enough between the busy training regimen and horrendous weather I didn’t see much of anyone during either training at home. Though, that could very easily have not been the case. Still, this knowledge of how to isolate myself to bond with my new dog and how to tactfully get people to back off from my guide were absolutely not something I would have garnered without that school background and years of experience as a handler.
In conclusion, I am neither advocating for or against either method of training. As I have stated there are pros and cons to both. Personally, I have absolutely no desire to ever train at a campus again based solely on the 1:1 ratio. But in no way do I think home training is without any flaws, nor is it the ideal choice for everyone. When asked by those interested, I have been honest about my feelings on both forms of training. And have expressed my own qualms regarding first time training at home. Of course, I do know of a people who have gotten their first dogs from Fidelco and/or trained at home. I also know of a few people who have never been to a school to obtain their guides. To that, I will merely say that I do not feel there is really a right or wrong approach, but that an informed decision is the best course in choosing what works for you.