Migrating and learning a second language can be a daunting prospect, but for Britain’s first-ever bilingual guide dogs, it proved an easy task.
Pico, Pai, Terri, Uke and Reina, all two-year-old Labradors, moved to Britain from Finland in August to help solve a canine labor shortage in the UK exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19.
In three weeks they had learned all their English clues to complete their Finnish fluency and will soon be helping the blind in Britain.
Trainers and foster families first tried to help the dogs learn English by using the Finnish commands they had already learned and then repeating the English word, but the language proved difficult to master for humans.
“The dogs didn’t know any English at all. You could tell them to sit down and they would stare blankly at you,” said Becky Rex, a guide dog mobility specialist who brought three of the dogs from Finland and taught them English, at the Telegraph.
“I asked [the Finnish trainers] when I went in June for the words to move forward, sit down, sit down, etc. and these are the longest words of all time! I would need it written on my hand to know what I was saying.
“We were successful until they got to the UK and then I taught them English right away. That’s the first thing I did was teach them everything in English because I could have pronounced the Finnish words so badly that the dog would have been as clueless as if I had said an English word, so it made sense to teach them English.
Becky and her fellow trainers gave up using Finnish themselves and instead taught the dogs English instructions and corresponding actions from scratch.
The animals were born and bred in Scandinavia by the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired, but were surplus to requirements by the time they completed their training.
“We had too many dogs and not enough customers,” Minna Leppälä, breeding coordinator at the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired, told The Telegraph.
“In Finland, we have a very good situation with guide dogs at the moment. The waiting time for a client is only six months.
Guide Dogs UK had contacted training schools around the world amid a national puppy shortage and found all five dogs fully trained – four yellow Labradors and a black Retriever/Labrador mix.
“It was easy to decide to offer our help,” Ms Leppälä said. It was a great experience and I hope our cooperation will continue.
“The dogs were getting old but not working, so for Finland it made sense to send them,” Ms Rex added.
Now they’ve had a crash course in English, learned that cars drive on the other side of the road and have acclimated to the English landscape.
Britain has record waiting lists for guide dogs, with times swelling in the wake of the pandemic as the Guide Dogs UK system came to a complete halt for the first time in its 91-year history .
People who will get the brother and sister pair of Pico and Pai have been waiting for a dog for over three years, for example.
Three of the dogs – Pai, Pico and Terri – arrived first and after arriving in London on a commercial FinnAir flight in August, they spent a night at a Holiday Inn, each with a member of guide dog staff.
They were then taken to Shrewsbury for a 10-week course to assimilate to new conditions and learn a new language.
Reine and Uke arrived soon after, along with a sixth dog, Bertie, who will not be trained as a guide dog but will be used as a stud to expand the breeding gene pool.
The dogs underwent medical checks, vaccinations and obtained a pet passport before flying and reserved their own seat on an economy flight from Helsinki to Heathrow. Even if they were not accompanying a visually impaired owner, they were allowed to fly in the cabin.
The international dogs had never flown before but had no problems with the three-hour flight, Ms Rex said, as they curled up in the floorboards of their assigned seat next to their handlers.
It took the animals about three weeks to learn all of their English signals, of which there are about a dozen, making the fearless canines truly bilingual as they are now able to respond to “sit”, “stand” “, “forward” and other instructions in Finnish or English.
“The way they train there is slightly different; the environment is quite different,” Ms. Rex said.
“[Finland] has lots of very wide sidewalks, lots of gate systems, so dogs walk in a straight line on very wide sidewalks. The obstacle work they have to do is probably less than what they will have to do in the UK if they go to a small market town.
“They knew the basics, they knew how to stop at the edges and they knew how to work around things, but it was just about adapting the formation and adding elements that we needed them to know to match. a British environment, that’s why I’ve had in training. And obviously to teach them English too.