Going to the Dogs
Jennifer Caley ’93 provides ticket to independence for the blind
by Matt Getty
July 1, 2011
Jennifer Caley’s 15 years as a guide-dog trainer have taught her the power of positive reinforcement, which she urges pet owners to try with their dogs. “If you want to teach your dog to stop doing something, change the way you look at it and ask, ‘What do you want them to do instead?’ ” she recommends. “Then teach them to do that alternative behavior and reward that.”
When an employment counselor asked Jennifer Caley ’93 what her dream job was 18 years ago, her initial response was too ridiculous to mention. “I thought, ‘Well, I’d really like to be a dolphin trainer,’ but what are the chances of that actually happening?” recalls the former French major who had just returned to New Hampshire after leaving an unfulfilling job with a wilderness camp. “So I thought, ‘OK, what else could I say?’ And then I said, ‘Maybe working with dogs for the blind.’ ”
Though Caley may have said it just to keep from sounding silly, something about the idea seemed right. After all, she’d always loved dogs. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something very soothing about their presence,” she says. “When I touch their heads, I can feel my blood pressure go down.”
So Caley applied to several guide-dog training facilities. Her lack of experience earned her many rejections, but the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation in Bloomfield, Conn., offered her an apprenticeship. For three years, she worked with other trainers and dozens of German shepherds to learn the Fidelco method for preparing dogs to act as eyes for the blind.
“We definitely don’t embrace punishment-based dog training,” she explains, contrasting her methods with those of many popular dog-training TV shows and books. “We’re training dogs for people who can’t see, so if we would train based on punishment and then give the dog to a blind person, that dog’s going to learn real quick that the same standards don’t apply, and then you’re going to have problems.”
Instead Caley, who became a certified trainer after her apprenticeship, shapes behavior with plenty of rewards for each “string” of five dogs that she works with for six to eight months. In addition to basic obedience training, the dogs are brought to urban and suburban settings to master a set of courses that prepare them to manage the complex obstacles that comprise daily life.
“We teach them how to move around an object and return to a straight line, go in and out of doors, revolving doors, escalators, elevators, buses, anything our clients may have to face,” Caley explains. “They have to learn how to respond if someone is backing out of a driveway or if someone runs a red light. Then there are the little things like stopping at the curb after crossing the street to signal that the client needs to step up so they don’t trip.”
After the dogs can perform all of this flawlessly, with Caley wearing a blindfold, Fidelco matches them with clients based on energy level and lifestyle, and Caley works with each dog and client for two to three weeks to ensure that the pair can work together.
When the training is complete, saying goodbye can be difficult—Caley admits to shedding some tears when one of her first students, Koko, was placed—but it’s also the best part of the process. “The most rewarding thing for me is at the end of a placement when you see a dog go off with a client,” she says. “When you stand back and see them do a route together alone, just watching from afar, you think, ‘Wow, they really can do it.’ ”
Now in her 15th year at Fidelco, Caley has advanced to become director of apprentice education. She enjoys managing the apprentice program and helping new employees learn the Fidelco method, but it’s the ability to marry her love for animals with helping people that makes the job even better than dolphin training.
“It’s really satisfying to do something you love and also feel like you’re contributing to the greater good,” says Caley. “It’s great to see the dogs go off and know that they’re making a real difference, that they’re going to be someone’s ticket to independence.”