They never part. David Dupuis, ESILV Class of 2016 and PhD student at De Vinci Research Center in partnership with Kwanko, welcomed a young labrador meant to become guide dog for the visually impaired. During a year, he will raise him and must have him by his side at all times, including at work, at ESILV.
This is a premiere at Pôle Léonard de Vinci. The schools’ board and French department Hauts-de-Seines agreed for Oxley to come to campus with David Dupuis, as of July 2018. Here are Oxley’s master’s first impressions on this one-of-kind experience.
Host family for a future guide dog: a one-year commitment
A few months ago, I was considering getting a dog. I didn’t want to commit to a long-term adventure without getting a first glimpse of what was awaiting me, so I decided to start by raising a dog on a shorter period of time. This is how I found out about the Paris guide dog association.
After attending a short presentation by one of the educators, I asked for Pôle de Vinci, Hauts-de-Seine département and Kwanko’s authorisations. When they all gave me the green light, the association validated my application.
In July, I went back to the guide dog school to meet my first puppy: Oxley, a 3-month labrador.
Neural network and… keeping the premises clean
The beginnings with Oxley were far harder than what I had pictured! He wasn’t house trained and couldn’t hold it. He would do his business in the flat, in the office, at school, on the pavement, etc. Sometimes I had to wake up in the middle of the night to let him out and do it all over again in the early morning!
House-training is the first thing to teach a dog. When it is a guide dog, there’s something more: business must be done in the gutter and nowhere else.
He also had to learn to sleep on this own. This seemed to take ages and for a while I thought we would never get there! But over all, he is a fast learner.
The engineer/data scientist and AI enthusiast part of me has me see him like a neural network under a thick coat of hair and brown eyes that have you melt.
A guide dog learns through positive reinforcement
The teaching method is based on reinforcement through stimuli at the right time. If he does his business in the gutter: reward! If he does it inside: I stay indifferent or tell him off. He makes an association between positive reactions and what he needs to do, and negative reactions with what he mustn’t do.
It is obvious that time is needed for synaptic connections to be stronger. However, like any living creature, he seeks to maximise what is positive.
The nicest thing about a pet is to discover the side of the personality which has not been altered by teaching. Sometimes, Oxley takes my hand in his mouth to tell me he wants to go some place. Or, he rolls up into a ball to sleep at my feet. This is what I grew to love in him.
Oxley learns to sit, lie down, play fetch, stay quiet, sit by pedestrian crossing, go up and down the stairs. He learnt to use the escalators. This is how the security people at Pôle Léonard de Vinci saw that he was growing up!
A guide dog has a lot to learn. It is as difficult for the master to reinforce rules than it is for a dog to learn them.
Particularly, and it is a rule I find hard to establish, Oxley must not be petted nor play when he’s on the leash or when he’s wearing his guide dog body because to him, it’s a distraction and a treat.
He’s at work and must stay serious.
A puppy’s life
Oxley has become Pôle de Vinci’s mascot. A lot of coworkers and students know him. I never saw “anyone” being so enthusiastic about going to school or work. Everyday, he arrives on campus with a big smile. He’s over the moon whenever he sees my colleagues.
Sometimes, he runs around in our open-space before settling down. He has moments when he relaxes and we do feel relaxed too. He is so cute, quiet and affectionate, how not to love him?
Everyday, I meet new people who come to me to talk about Oxley and ask the same questions.
What is a guide dog?
It’s a dog trained to guide a visually-impaired person in their day-to-day commutes. The dog will guide them in the public transportation, in the street, etc. There are also guide dogs for disabled people, search and rescue dogs, security dogs, etc.
They are all trained with a specific method.
Is there a training for guide dog host families?
There are two types of families: host families and liaison families that will welcome the dog, if host families or visually-impaired masters are unable to take care for the dog for a short period of time. There is no degree needed to host a guide dog. One needs time, energy and the possibility to take the dog everywhere at all times, including at work.
The guide dog training lasts a bit more than a year, between 3 month and 15-month old. During this time, the host family must attend trainings with the dog, a half-day every month.
When they reach 6 months, the dogs will do a few full-time trainings at the school, with the trainer. At the very end of the programme, they will follow a training for a few months before taking a final exam, even though they are constantly assessed. If they pass the exam, they will be certified guide dogs. If not, they will be discharged and put to adoption, without a guide dog title.
Do you take him everywhere with you?
Yes. He follows me at work, at ESILV or at Kwanko. He comes with me to the restaurant, at the supermarket… He takes the metro with me and we go through the CNIT shopping centre, where the security people know us well! He even went to the theater with to see Ant Man 2! He’s a good dog, very quiet.
The only thing that bothers me if when people from the shops do not know what a guide dog in training is, let alone a guide dog and come to us to tell me we cannot enter. Sometimes I just want to tell them “but it’s a dog! He’s better behaved than some of your clients…”. Legally, they cannot refuse. Oxley has the same status as a fully trained guide dog, I always have his ID with me.
Won’t it be too hard for you to part eventually?
I don’t know yet. He’s my first dog and my first guide dog. The only thing I know is that I’m starting to get attached, and so does him. We understand each other. It will be hard, but whatever the final exam’s results, I know I’ll be proud of him.