A Walk with Tom & Zora & the challenge of overhead obstacles

It’s been a while since I did a walk video so here’s some footage from today’s walk with friends at a state park.  It was chilly and a bit windy but a lovely day for a walk.  (ok now it’s freaking snowing, 2″ this afternoon they say.  You’ve got to be kidding me!)

Because I’ve not before, I added some starter clips about how we get ready for our walks.  The dog’s goofy antics once they know it’s walk time!  Tom is going to be 8.5yrs in just a couple of days and we’ll be a team 7 years May 1st.  It makes me so happy that he’s still so gung ho about our walks.

While on the walk my friend and I had a conversation about guide dogs and overhead obstacles.  This was after Tom didn’t notice some branches at my face height and thwack.  And I did my “What the hell?!” startle slight stinging that hurt as thin branches whipped my face response.  Tom is bad, consistently bad, at overhead clearances.  Ok I can amend that, he is bad at overhead clearances that are not consistent.  Obstructions that are always there, he remembers.  Ones that magically appear and randomly are there or not, like branches at certain times of year or after a storm, yea not his forte.

My friend had watched a PBS special recently about dogs and in it it was mentioned how challenging it can be to teach guide dogs to recognize overhead clearances.  James, my first, was pretty good at them.  Better than Tom is at least.  Tom doesn’t really look up.  So for him to reliably tell me about an overhead clearance he goes off of other environmental cues that are at his height.  For overhead obstacles that are always there, he remembers.  And for ones that go up at an angle he seems to reliably get even if they are new to the situation.  But overhead obstacles directly at my face height that show up out of the blue in spaces we’ve been, we usually have to rework.  After the rework, he’ll remember that spot.  Though he still isn’t cuing off the fact that there is something at my head height.  Because the next couple of times we hit that spot, even if the overhead is now gone (like someone trimmed back the branches) he will still stop despite that the obstacle that is now long gone.  After a few more trips on that route with the overhead gone, he’ll go back to not stopping.  That pattern of his clues me in that he’s not actually looking up and figuring out it’s about something at my head, as much as “last time something made her upset.  We stopped, then reworked this, and when I stopped at this spot, she reached up and touched something then I got praised and told I was right that time, so I guess it’s about stopping in this spot to let her reach up and she’ll be happy, praise me and I might get a treat or a good boy pet.”

So while Tom is still Mr Perfect, he does have his flaws 😉  Overhead clearances.  Not his cup of tea.

0 thoughts on “A Walk with Tom & Zora & the challenge of overhead obstacles

  1. Awww, great video! So many of the dogs that started working around the time Jack did are retired now. It makes me super happy to hear that Tom is still so eager to work and doing such a great job. (Also, Zora’s happy tail is the cutest!)
    Willow and Jack were very much like Tom when it came to overhead obstacles – not so good with random ones, but great with the ones we encountered regularly. So far, Violet has done surprisingly well with the few random low-hanging branches we have encountered while out training, but we don’t come across such things very often. One of these days I should probably try to set up some overhanging obstacles for her to get more practice.

    1. LOL on Zora’s happy tail, I agree it’s cute. Every day I think how relieved and grateful I am that Tom is still knock on wood doing as well as he is. Right now if I tried to retire him I think he’d flip. As it is when he knows we’re nearing the end of a route, he does everything he can short of refusing to go home/back to the car to tell me he wants to go longer. That’s great Violet is showing signs of high attentive to low hanging obstacles! the higher level of environmental alertness from the herding dog genetics probably helps a lot in that department for your border collie. In the past I worked with 4 different BCs from 4 different breeders/families that had airplane fixations, eyes in the sky and everywhere else for that matter. Glad Violet is putting those skills to good use 🙂

      1. LOL That’s great! Go, Tom, go! 🙂

        Thankfully, Violet doesn’t fixate on airplanes – at least, she hasn’t started doing that yet anyway. She will still occasionally have an outing (or entire day) during which she thinks she must look around at every single thing EVERYWHERE. But usually if she is distracted by something it’s one of a handful of sounds. We’re working on it though, and she’s showing improvement.

        1. That’s great! She’s still young and at least my experience with herding dogs with owners that are actually working and training them that they settle in relaxing the need to watch the entire world. Zora did around 18months in many situations, by 22 months in most all situations. But before then she was often a “must think about all the things!!” Nutter. Violet sounds like an awesome dog 🙂

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