LTD: Roadwork! (Walkin’ and Talkin)’

I have a semi-working powerchair and semi-working walkie-talkies! Not since the clicker and the target stick have technologies played such an important role in dog training!

Obviously I’m exaggerating. Nonetheless, lately I’ve been on a roll.

In last week’s post, I described how I figured out what was wrong with my powerchair. I was waiting for the temperatures to climb a bit so I could finally take Barnum for a walk.

I’m pleased to report that Barnum and I have taken four walks since that post!

Walks are so important for so many reasons — exercise for Barnum, a source of bonding and a mental health boost for both of us, as well as practice for lots of behaviors such as eliminating on cue while on lead, loose-leash walking (LLW), attention and eye contact, socialization and desensitization, and the opportunity to train known behaviors (sit, down, stay, touch, etc.), in a more distracting environment (generalizing).

Vigorous exercise is also a key component of Sue Ailsby’s Leading the Dance protocol that we have been trying to follow. Previous posts focused on number five, “Possession,” and number seven, “Sing a Song.”

Here’s number 10 — “Working off Energy” (referred to as “roadwork” by many clicker trainers):

Work Off Energy – Roadwork adult dogs 4 days a week. Start small, but work up to a mile for small dogs, 2 miles for medium dogs, and 3 miles for large dogs. Many problems will disappear with no more effort than road-working. You can jog with the dog, or ride a bike, or longe him with a Flexi, or use an ATV, or lend him to a jogger who’s afraid of being mugged.

One of the behaviors that has suffered from not being able to walk Barnum has been eliminating on cue. If you’re a long-time follower of this blog, you know this is a skill I’m obsessed with concerned about. In fact, I not only blogged about it when we were housebreaking Barnum, but before Barnum even arrived.

On the Training Levels list, the consensus was that getting a dog to relieve on cue, on leash, reliably, is tremendously helped by “roadwork” — as is almost every other skill and behavioral problem. I was so frustrated! I felt like I was failing as a mom/handler and as an owner-trainer.

Now, all has changed! Callooh! Callay! Oh frabjous day! I chortle in my joy!

First of all, I was able to get Barnum to pee (and in one case, poo), in the yard, on leash, before we left for our walks. This is ideal, because then I can use the walk afterwards as a very strong reinforcer.

Tuesday, the temperature climbed from negative numbers to a balmy 22 degrees Fahrenheit. I bundled myself in layers and dressed Barnum in his Premier Easy Walk Harness and hunter-orange safety vest, and away we went.

Barnum in orange vest on ramp surrounded by snow

Barnum's suited up and ready for his walk. You can see how much snow has fallen on the patio table and next to the ramp, which is actually two to three feet off the ground!

[Photo description: Barnum, a furry black brindle bouvier des Flandres, stands on a black metal grate with black metal railings. He is dressed in a bright orange vest with reflective stripes and gazing into the distance. The snow on either side of the ramp reaches his elbows.]

In truth, before we left, I told my personal care assistant (PCA) that I planned to go for just a half-hour test drive, and which route we planned to take. I said if we weren’t back within 45 minutes, to get in the van and come look for us. The chair is working, yes, but those batteries are still not reliable and had not been tested in very cold weather, and I didn’t want to risk getting stranded in the cold and dark while temperatures dropped.

I hadn’t known if I could make it to the street at all, because my monster chair just fits down the ramp, with no room to spare. Yet once on the ramp, I turned the knob to “turtle,” and toddled safely down the walkway.

Half an hour went by much too quickly. Barnum really needs a lot of work on his loose-leash walking, and he also needs much more exercise — an hour, at the very least. Before the chair batteries went on the fritz, we were doing at least one-and-a-half to two-mile walks (at a fast clip). But you gotta turtle before you can rabbit, right?

We did manage to get some decent training in for the beginning part of the walk: I was able to click and treat Barnum many times for walking by my side. He even ate the cheese! However, when my cheese supply was gone, and I switched to kibble, he turned up his squishy, black nose at it. Still, it’s progress for Barnum to pay attention to me, at all, or accept treats, on a walk.

I was pleased with the powerchair’s performance, too. The roads were thick with two to three inches of snow muck. Yet the powerchair did excellently, overall. In fact, at one point, a car slowed down to pass us, and slipped and skidded a little as it tried to accelerate, whereas my chair motored right along. Woohoo!

We only had two problems.

I’d chosen the least hilly route I could, but since I live in the hills, there’s no way to avoid at least one major slope in any direction. The path I chose had just one serious hill. Leaving, it was downhill. Coming home, it was uphill — and at the end of the walk, near my house.

The thick sludgy snow, combined with the steep incline, made for difficult driving. I had to careen back and forth to keep my momentum and to try to find the least snowy path. My erratic movements were hard for Barnum to predict, and at one point, I accidentally hit him in the snout with my footrest. Poor guy!

But we made it up. I was ecstatic. We rolled into the driveway less than 40 minutes after we’d left, and as I was removing my leg rests to store in the van (because the chair is too big to navigate the ramp with them on), I saw my PCA’s face peek through my bedroom curtains. I was glad she knew we were home.

After I entered the yard and closed the gate behind us, I let Barnum off leash. He bounded around happily in the snow, as if he had never taken a walk at all. Then, I did something stupid. I flew down the ramp, pumping my fist and shouting, “We did it! We did it!”

I couldn’t help myself! I was having a Leonardo-DiCaprio -“I’m-king-of-the-world!” moment.

Of course, my right wheel went off the ramp. The axle came to rest on the ramp’s two-inch-high safety lip, and the wheel was buried deep into the snow that is piled several feet high on either side of the ramp. I attempted to rock the chair out of the rut, but it was well and truly stuck.

I tried getting some momentum with the wheels. At first, the one in the snow just spun in space. Then it stopped spinning. Oh dear. Neither of the wheels spun at all when I moved the joystick. I checked the controller display panel, and saw that the switch was off. I turned it back on, and the display panel simply blinked in distress.

Nooooooooo!

I bellowed to the house for help, but my home is super-insulated, and nobody heard me. I just had to hope that sooner (rather than later) my PCA would notice I was still outside.

I sat and watched Barnum playing. I tried to be patient, but I was getting a bit chilly. (Later, I discovered the temperature had dropped to 18 degrees Fahrenheit when I was waiting.) Eventually my helper poked her head out the door.

“I’m stuck!” I yelled.

She came out to help, and I tried to back the chair up to help, but it was pointless. We decided to put it in free-wheel mode so it could be pushed. (Powerchairs have a safety feature of locking the wheels unless they are released to roll. When it’s in “push” mode, the motor disengages, so you can’t drive and free-wheel at the same time.) There’s a lever on each wheel motor. Sitting in the chair, I pulled the lever on one side up, and pushed the lever on the other side down.

Then I realized what I’d just done. The levers should have both been either up or down. The lever on the side where the wheel was caught must have been pushed up by the ramp’s side when the chair went down. I pulled both levers up, which engaged both wheel motors, and wahla! The power was on again!

Left purple powerchair wheel and motor, with snow slush

A lot of the snow had melted off the treads by the time I took this. Notice the free-wheel lever, with the up arrow for "Drive," and down area for "Push," written in yellow.

[Photo description: Large, black knobbly tire on the bottom of a purple powerchair. The entire wheel well is coated in wet snow. The snow on the treads is partially melted off. Behind the tire is the drive motor -- a black canister, parallel to the ground, with a lever sticking out, and yellow writing indicating that when the lever is up, its in "drive" mode, and when down, is in "push" or "free-wheeling" mode.]

With human muscle power, as well as the chair’s engaged motors, we were able to return me to the center of the ramp, and I made it home. Barnum continued to play in the snow.

However, I really wanted to be able to communicate from a distance from now on, if I’m out — especially if the chair is not working optimally, the road and weather conditions aren’t great, and/or it’s nighttime. This is where the two-way radios come in.

In an early post, I talked about how my ability to communicate with other household members declined significantly when Gadget died. Betsy’s solution was a doorbell, which had its pluses and minuses. Betsy bought us an intercom set for my birthday, last year. I was very excited about this new bit of assistive tech. Unfortunately, over a year later, we still can’t use them because they are still outgassing horrible plastic fumes. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tolerate them.

This year, for my birthday (are you sensing a theme?), Betsy bought me walkie-talkies! Ever since I’d moved to the country in 1998, I’d thought it would be a good safety precaution to have a cell phone for an emergency. However, neither town where I’ve lived in Western Massachusetts has cell phone reception.

The two-way radios were our attempt to circumvent the cell phone issue. Betsy bought radios with a 24-mile range “under ideal conditions.” Hilly, tree-filled countryside is not “ideal conditions,” but I normally only go a couple of miles at the most for my walks (my ultimate goal is to be able to make it to the center of town, which is about five miles), so we thought these would be powerful enough. Betsy assembled them Tuesday night (I was burnt-out on figuring out technological gizmos), and left them to charge overnight.

Wednesday, my PCA — who is a firefighter — very enthusiastically showed me how to use the radios. We each put one in our pockets, I donned my layers for the cold, and Barnum and I set out.

I checked in periodically with my PCA to make sure I was still within range. All seemed to be going well. I’d brought extra-large bags of hot dog and cheese cubes, and Barnum was eager to be clicked and treated for loose-leash walking for the first few minutes. Then he lost interest completely as his stomach filled and the terrain got more enticing.

We had to do a lot of stopping and starting, because any time the leash got tight, I turned to the right (his leash is clipped to the left side of the chair), and stopped. Stopping without turning is too slow in terms of giving Barnum the information, “What you have just done is causing the fun to come to an end.” Apparently, the stopping and starting, as well as the thick, slow ground, discharges batteries severely.

At one point, I pulled to the side of the road for a passing car, causing my left wheel to get stuck in a couple of feet of snow. I couldn’t tell where the drop-off was between the road and the gully, because there was so much snow. I radioed based.

“We have a situation,” I told my firefighter PCA, in a joking tone.

“Understood. A situation. What’s your location?”

“Well, um, I’m on Jennison? And um, my tire is stuck in the snow? And . . . Oh, a UPS guy has stopped. I think he’s going to help me. Hang on.”

“Standing by. Over.”

Indeed, the UPS driver very quickly and neatly popped me back onto the road. I guess if you spend all day, every day, hauling around big packages, you get strong.

Another lesson learned: Don’t drive into a hidden snow bank.

The rest of the trip was uneventful until we got to the hill that leads to my house. With the temperature hovering around 30 degrees, the snow was not just thick, but extra sludgy and sloppy. I normally have to do a lot of starting and stopping to train LLW — once Barnum loses interest in treats — but going up that hill, if I stopped, I lost the tiny bit of momentum I had. The chair crapped out repeatedly (that’s a technical term, meaning it stopped and the power lights flashed), and I had to turn it off, wait a few seconds, and turn it back on. (According to Wheelchair Junkie, the way I’ve treated my batteries constitutes abuse. Yes, I guess that would be battery battery.)

I really could not afford to have Barnum pulling in any direction but the one I was going in, and I couldn’t take care not to clock him with erratic driving. So I gave him as much leash as I had and had to let him do as he pleased while I focused on getting home.

Trainers aren’t kidding when they talk about how reinforcing pulling is, in itself, for dogs! Just those few yards up the hill with the freedom to pull, and Barnum tried to pull the rest of the way home! (Two steps forward, one step back, anyone?)

But we made it. I even managed to go length of the ramp without careening off this time. I let Barnum off leash to play in the yard, as he tends to get the “zoomies” after a walk and likes to gambol in the yard, especially when it’s so comfortably freezing outside. Pictures to come.

On the third day, God didn’t rest, and neither did I. We went for an hour-long walk. Finally! We’re approaching real roadwork. This is when I discovered that the radio’s range sucks. Past about an eighth or a quarter of a mile from my house, they couldn’t hear me back home.

We had no untoward events, unless you count that I was kind of flattened the next two days as a result. I got to take a lot of goofy pictures of this heroic conquering of the winter landscape, as well. I’ll try to get that up as a photo essay shortly.

Love and other outdoor games,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (snow-dog)

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3 Responses to “LTD: Roadwork! (Walkin’ and Talkin)’”


  1. 1 MiMo January 31, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Hooray for getting out for walks! boohiss on crappy walkietalkie range (ever notice how stuff like that always says “up to xblah” which, of course could mean anything! Maybe someday the cellphone companies will decide to be very nice and bring some towers out your way? :) (last time I was out in your general area, even my GPS didn’t work sometimes! especially when I needed it most, of course, like when I accidentally turned down what turned out to be several miles of unpaved road with no turns or anything! heh. oops.)

    Do you think it would be helpful to put pulling on cue? Not because there’s any chance of him usefully pulling your powerchair (DUH) but more in a stimulus control, “you get to do this when I ask you to” sort of way . . . ? I was just thinking it might help him not get the idea that pulling is always or randomly sometimes okay, since clearly there will be times that you need to just let him pull, but maybe it would set him back less if you kinda did a little mind trick on him, make him think it was your idea? ;) (I guess kinda like the strategy of putting barking on cue to get quiet other times . . . )

  2. 2 Cait January 31, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Hooray for getting out!

    I second MiMo’s suggestion of putting pulling on cue- while you don’t want him pulling all the time, for dogs who like to pull, GETTING to pull can be really reinforcing- and the bouvs I’ve known (admittedly, a small sample) have all found it REALLY reinforcing (apparently they ahve read the breed history description with the milk carts….).

    • 3 Sharon Wachsler February 2, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      @Mimo, yes, when I tell people that there is no cell reception here, somehow they never believe me. People don’t seem to get what “rural” or “country” means. They think it means, “suburbs.”

      So, when they get to an area with unpaved, winding, hilly roads and no cell service, they can get very grouchy with me! As if it is my fault that their car bottomed out, or they didn’t listen to me when I told them not to rely on their GPS or mapquest. . . .

      Ah well.

      @Mimo and Cait,

      LOL, yeah, Gadget and Barnum read the breed history! Ironically, Jersey, who didn’t like to pull on leash, is the only one that I really used carting with in a big way. I have some great photos of her carting with me. I wish I had them on digital!

      I did try putting it on cue when Barnum was younger, and it was disastrous. ONE walk where I allowed him to pull, and said, “Pull,” when he did has basically created a year’s worth of trying to undo that. He actually did NOT pull on leash before that, because we’d been so careful not to teach him to.

      So, I am very leery of doing that again!

      On the other hand, I wasn’t really thinking it through at the time, in terms of the impact it would have, and it wasn’t a controlled training exercise.

      I suppose if I did a lot of training with him inside where he couldn’t really pull much, practicing going back and forth between LLW and pulling (much the same way I taught “bark” and “Shh” at the same time), might really help. I will ponder it. Thanks for the idea!


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