A guide dog in training: building trust

A young dog arrived next to me whilst I was waiting for a tube in central London. It was not just any dog but a youngish one being praised for good behaviour. This caught my attention and a glance out the corner of my eye indicated it was a guide dog – one in training. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t help but watch the special relationship be forged between trainer and trainee. The youngster was clearly being taught how to wait for trains and cope with the crowds getting on and off. I wasn’t around long enough to work out how and when specifically the pup was rewarded with a treat but I wondered at what point the treats would no longer be needed and how this would be achieved. And then there would be all the training for the newly qualified guide and its blind owner to get to know and trust one another.

Generally, this is a very similar process to what humans go through when learning new skills – we put our trust in the trainer but rather than being rewarded with treats, grades, praise and encouragement build confidence and trust in our abilities to perform the skill.

This was no different during World War 1. The issue of training was one of the arguments against Kitchener’s New Armies – the new recruits wouldn’t have time to master the skills required for combat before being sent to the front. In the Pal’s Battalions, the reduced training time was partially compensated for by the trust between friends who served in the same units. Trust was a significant factor in the Indian forces. The Indian rank and file would follow where their commanders went – which accounts for the higher death rate amongst Indian officers compared to British officers.

In East Africa, both these elements of training and trust were also evident and was a noticeable difference between the British Allied forces and the German. Mzee Ali, a German askari recalled:

Breathing deeply to control my nervousness I determined to put my faith and indeed my life in my training and in our officers.

My platoon consisted mostly of men with whom I had worked alongside for many years. There were a few new recruits but they seemed confident and capable. Our commanding officer was a man I respected and trusted. With this new resolve I was able to sleep more easily in the late afternoon sun.

(Bror MacDonell, Mzee Ali,2006)

The diversity of the British forces was, on occasion, to hinder co-operation until each group had proved itself to the other such as the Indians to the South Africans at Salaita Hill in February 1916. It was also acknowledged that the newly formed King’s African Rifle battalions were at a disadvantage against the seasoned German askari as they hadn’t had the time to forge relations of trust. The lack of training and short time together, with an element of arrogance, was also given as reason for the poor performance of the South Africans at the Battle of Salaita Hill.

 

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