This is the third in a series about facing the decision whether to wash out Barnum or not. For an explanation of the term, and common causes for washing out a working dog, please see this post.
The second in this series was this post about people asking if I’ll keep Barnum if I do wash him out.
Now, the crux of the matter: how did I arrive at this crossroads? Why, and how, am I making this decision (or set of decisions)?
Training with Barnum has been a challenge since the beginning. I’ve written a few blog posts about that. Some focused on struggles relating to Barnum being my first puppy, others on raising a pup in the wake of my grief — and reduced physical functioning — with the loss of Gadget. Several also described challenges unique to Barnum, and how I’ve worked to overcome them.
However, most of the “public record” of how hard I’ve had to work to train Barnum has not been on After Gadget, but on the training list-serv I belonged to. For over a year, I’ve asked questions, received advice, noted triumphs to celebrate, and groused at ongoing frustrations. I also developed an entire training strategy based around Barnum’s unique challenges, called “Building Enthusiasm,” which I’ve passed on to other trainers — either novices to dog or clicker training, or to those who had “difficult dogs” in ways similar to how Barnum has been tough. I’ll be honest — I’ve downplayed my struggles with Barnum on this blog for the following reasons:
- I’ve noticed that people respond much better to happy posts about successes than they do to sad or frustrated or grieving posts;
- It’s more fun for me to write posts about breakthroughs and successes than to write how, yet again, we are proceeding more slowly and with more problems than I could have ever anticipated;
- I’m less likely to receive comments that judge, offer unhelpful advice, or preach if the posts are celebratory.
It’s just made more sense, all-around, to post about training struggles on a list whose purpose is to provide information, feedback, support, and advice about training, and to post about other things on my blog. I could easily have gone on at After Gadget not revealing the struggles I’m having with Barnum. I could have — like most owner-trainers do who are considering a washout — kept the discussion to a small group of trusted friends (usually other partner-trainers), hoping that ultimately Barnum and I would prevail, and nobody would be the wiser. Certainly, there is already enough judgement, discrimination, and ignorance facing owner-trainers (e.g., this assistance-dog blog and comment that lumps in partner-trained SDs with fake SDs); admitting that we and our dogs are not perfect and that we have doubts can therefore feel dangerous. Thus, the “stealth” approach holds a lot of appeal, but I chose to be open, instead, for the following reasons:
- By nature, I’m an “open-book/tell-it-like-it-is” kind of gal. I don’t like keeping secrets. They make me uncomfortable, and I get stressed trying to keep track of who knows what.
- I hope others will learn from my transparency. I think it’s important for the public to realize what goes into training a service dog (SD), including why not all dogs can or should be SDs. Hopefully this will lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of the work involved in partnering and/or training with a SD.
- Another group I hope will benefit is other/future SD trainers. It’s crucial to know the potential pitfalls in order to guard against them. It’s also helpful to know that if you are considering washing out your dog, you are not alone, and you are not giving up on your dog — on the contrary, you are trying to do what is right (not what is easy), for you, your dog, and/or the public.
- Finally, I wish to educate friends and families of SD trainer-handlers. I believe that learning how many factors are involved, and how common it is, for SDs to wash out, or for partner-trainers to consider washing out their SD or SD-in-training (SDiT), will lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of why and how this decision is faced, how devastating it is even to contemplate, and how even the most well-intentioned person can increase the distress their loved one is suffering when facing this decision. (In fact, I’d say those who are the most well-intentioned are the most likely to inadvertently cause pain.)
Despite many possible red flags, I have persevered with the assumption of success, until three recent sets of events. All of these events were ordinary for us — they were even predictable, for the most part — and it was because they were so typical, that I had to stop and take stock.
- I’ve had a chance to work other dogs. In the course of doggy play dates and teaching a neighbor how to clicker train, I’ve recently worked very briefly with three different dogs — different ages, sexes, and breeds. The one thing they all had in common was that, while Barnum wandered around, sniffing and peeing on things, totally uninterested in what I was doing, these other dogs swarmed all over me, desperate to earn clicks and treats, giving me their complete focus, totally food-obsessed. Every time I have worked another dog since I’ve gotten Barnum, I’ve felt this wonderful sense of joy and relaxation, because I knew exactly what to do, and it felt so damn easy. It was such a relief to know I really did know what I was doing.
- I’ve been trying to take Barnum “on the road.” We are at the point in the Training Levels where he has mastered almost all of Level Three, including things like sitting or downing on one cue from a distance of 10 feet; longish sit-stays and down-stays, with distance; crate and mat work, with duration; sustained loose-leash walk and eye-contact, and other moderately advanced obedience work — as long as we do them in the house. As soon as we leave the yard, and in fact, often as soon as we cross the threshold from the house into the yard, Barnum loses all focus. For 14 months, I have worked to get him to eliminate on cue; not only is his elimination not on cue, he usually doesn’t “go” on leash at all; he’s so distracted when I take him out, that he will “hold it” for up to 26 hours. Recently, I thought he had a urinary tract infection because he went two days in a row, not peeing for over 24 hours each time, and his urine was brown. It turned out he was fine; his urine was so dark because it was incredibly concentrated. When we go to other locations to train, he’s so excited and distracted, he often cannot take a single treat or follow any cues at all.
- One night, we were working on how to shut a cupboard that works differently than all the others. This is the kind of task Barnum generally quite enjoys. He likes free shaping, and he likes shutting things with his nose. We’d worked on this cupboard before, so I expected it to be a relatively short, fun, easy session. Barnum seemed to be “in the game,” and then suddenly, he wandered off to look out the window. (He loves to look out the windows.) I managed to get him back in the game by increasing my rate of reinforcement to something ridiculously high, and he shut the cupboard, and we quit. But, the whole time, I felt like his mind was half on wondering what was out that window. I thought, “If I need him to do something for me once he is trained, will he come and do it, or will he just keep looking out the window?” In training, I can set up everything for Barnum to succeed: I can wait until he is really hungry and bored to initiate a training session and use a super-high rate-of-reinforcement, fantastically high-value treats, and really low criteria. However, what happens when he has “graduated”? Without all these inducements, will he be a reliable, eager, full-time SD?
Without further ado, here is Barnum’s Balance Sheet — the pros and cons of his suitability as my future service dog.
- Barnum is physically sound (as far as I know). Aside from a tendency toward urinary tract infections, which I believe I have solved with dietary changes, he doesn’t seem to be prone to any illnesses or physical conditions. In fact, on Tuesday his hip and elbow x-ray results came back good. (Before I can deem him entirely fit for service, he will need an eye exam, as well.)
- Barnum has a sound temperament — he is not unduly aggressive nor unduly fearful. We still have some tweaking to do in a couple of areas, but overall he is good about allowing himself to be examined, handled, and manipulated. He doesn’t exhibit any phobias of people, animals, or objects. He has a fast recovery from being startled or receiving minor ouches (such as having a paw stepped on, etc.).
- Barnum, overall, is a good lifestyle fit with me. He is willing to do a lot of napping and resting when I am napping and resting. He does not need or want constant attention or physical or mental exercise. (Although I am having a problem with him whining to wake me up when my PCAs arrive.)
- Barnum is very loving and sweet. So far, he has the most demonstrative nature of any of my bouvs (who are known to be reserved), while also not going to the excesses of jumping up, unwanted kissing, or seeking out attention from strangers. This works well for the psychiatric service work I’ve started with him. It’s also just a nice bonus.
- He is very tuned in to sound. He has learned the name of the people in the household, and also attends well to sounds of relevance, such as the telephone ringing, my infusion pump alarm, timers, etc.
- Barnum is well socialized. He behaves appropriately (for the most part) with other dogs, people, and other animals. He does not seem to be phased by costumes, strangely shaped objects, electronic doors, shopping carts, or other noisy or strangely moving or funny-shaped things.
- Barnum has shown some aptitude and enthusiasm for certain service skills, particularly alerting to sounds and shutting doors.
- Barnum is fun and likes to play. He is a master at tug and chase, and he’s learning a play retrieve.
- Barnum is not food motivated. It has been very difficult to get across to people just how little Barnum cares about food, even supposedly “high value” food like meat, liver, and cheese. He is more food-motivated now than he used to be, because of a lot of hard work on my part, but for intensive clicker training, low food-motivation is a serious problem.
- Barnum is extremely distractible. Even in the most familiar environments, the slightest sound, smell, or movement makes him lose focus completely. When we are in unfamiliar environments, he can’t focus at all.
- Barnum is not terribly work/play/training motivated. Even some dogs who don’t care that much about food learn to love clicker training because they like the problem solving. This is not Barnum. Likewise, while he enjoys play, he won’t work for a ball toss, a game of tug, or the like.
- Barnum is not that smart. What can I say? People don’t like to hear this, but it’s true. He’s not stupid, but he’s not the brightest bulb on the tree, either.
- Barnum is a “soft dog.” This is a combination of traits. He is sensitive, which has both positives and negatives. The negative is that he takes it very much to heart — is easily crushed — if things don’t go the way he thinks they should, e.g., he sometimes responds to the lack of a click as a punishment. The biggest challenge of a soft dog is that he has a very low threshold for frustration, which means he gives up easily.
A note about all these “cons”: Any one of these traits, on its own, is definitely workable. A combination of several is workable, too. In fact, I believe all dogs are “trainable” — it’s just a matter of how hard you have to work, how long it takes (how much patience you have), and how high you can fly.
The combination of all these particular traits together, however, is hugely challenging. What it comes down to, as Sue Ailsby puts it, is getting the dog “in the game.”
Being “in the game” is a way of describing the absolute FIRST thing you MUST have before you train or work your dog in ANY situation. It’s the bottom line. I offer, for instance, two people, each working a dog in agility. One dog isn’t sure how to do weave poles but is paying attention to the situation and trying hard to figure out what the trainer wants. The other dog knows how to do weave poles perfectly but keeps wandering off to visit the sidelines. Which dog do I want to be working?
*I* want to be working the one that’s in the game, even if he doesn’t know anything about what he’s supposed to be doing.
A dog who is in the game is engaged, eager, trying, learning. Maybe they are not the brightest pup, maybe they don’t have the pieces together yet, but they are focused, and they want to communicate with you. They want to know, “What happens next?”
If you have a dog who doesn’t want to work for food, who doesn’t want to work for the thrill of problem-solving, who is so distracted that he barely registers your existence, who is so easily crushed that one false moves makes him give up completely, how do you get him in the game and keep him in the game?
This is the puzzle I’ve been trying to solve for over a year. For a long time, I thought that I must have really overestimated my abilities as a trainer in the past. I thought I’d deluded myself about how well Jersey or Gadget were trained. Certainly, there were a lot of things I could have done better with them, however, what I’ve realized is that it’s mostly not me, it’s Barnum.
Let me qualify that. Could Barnum do better with a better trainer? Absolutely. Would some of our problems disappear if he were living with someone who was not limited by severe fatigue and pain? I’m sure.
However, the fact of the matter is that Barnum is not a “normal” dog. Because Barnum is not ordinary, I’ve had to be extraordinary. For the first few months, I wasted a lot of time and energy being angry and disappointed with myself and with Barnum. Eventually, I realized I had to change the way I approached almost all aspects of training. The Training Levels list helped me do that.
Barnum has forced me to be a much better trainer than I was. I have to do everything just right. I’ve had to improve every aspect of my timing, my treat delivery, my attachment of cues, my setup of training plans, my selection of criteria, and on and on. That Barnum has made me a better trainer is a gift I can take with me no matter whether he becomes my pet or my SD. I will work future dogs much better, I am positive.
However, training a SD goes well beyond honing one’s skills and having a dog achieve his highest potential. Training a SD means that, at the end of the process, you have a dog who is not just able to work, but who is willing and eager to work, at a huge number of skills. I cannot force Barnum to perform service skills, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to.
This means that he has to choose to work. Following a cue has to be his most compelling option. If the choices are (A) go help my person open a door; (B) continue with my nap; or (C) continue watching the birdies out the window, a SD needs to choose “A” every time, and with gusto. There are three factors I’ve been weighing– the questions that sit heavily on my heart — as to Barnum’s suitability to continue as my SDiT:
- Training-wise, can I get him in the game and keep him there? How much longer will I have to struggle for every little taste of progress? Will it be faster, in the long run, to start over with a dog who is in the game? Will I get so burned out by how difficult the training process is that I will lose the desire to train a SD at all?
- Assuming I can train Barnum to do all the obedience, public-access, and service tasks I need, will he be reliable? If he has the choice between watching the neighbor dog trot around her yard, or helping me in the kitchen, will he come when I call? What about if I need him for an alert, and I can’t call him? What about in an emergency situation? What about in public?
- Does Barnum want to be a SD? If he could talk, and I asked him, “Would you like to face interesting mental challenges and be with me all the time and be at my beck-and-call and choose focusing on me over anything else that’s going on, would you rather do that, or would you rather be a pet?” What would he say?
This last one is a hard one for a lot of people to get their minds around. It’s well-known in the AD world that the dog chooses the career. If they don’t want to be a working dog, they will try to let you know. A good trainer or handler will read the signs.
Some dogs let you know in no uncertain terms that they are done. They refuse to work. Other dogs make it clear that there’s nothing in the world they love more than working for you. In some cases, in fact — such as Gadget’s — without a job, they turn into “a problem dog.”
At this point, I can’t tell what Barnum’s wish is, which is perhaps the most difficult question of all to answer. I know what I want our future relationship to look like. Barnum can’t know what his future as a SD would be, and it’s my job to read him as best as I can and extrapolate. Right now, I’m not clear at all as to where his interests lie.
I do, however, have a plan. I decided two things.
One was that I wanted to give us a trial month, where I did everything I could to try to “make it work,” and recorded each day’s activities, so that I could have a concrete, objective log to read through after the month was over. I created a long list of strategies to incorporate during that month, which I will describe in a future post.
The second was that I wanted the opinion of a trainer whom I greatly respect, and who has been following Barnum’s and my progress since he was five months old, which is Sue Ailsby. She has trained (and titled) innumerable dogs, over decades, in almost every dog sport there is, as well as having trained her own SDs (and lots of people and other animals, too!). I emailed her that I was considering washing Barnum out, and why. I also outlined my one-month “make it work” strategy/evaluation. Here are a few excerpts from her very wise and kind email:
Poor Sharon. I can’t answer the question for you, but . . . I sent you [some] videos [of my SDiT] . . . to remind you what working an eager dog is like. . . . [You're always posting] about how hard you’re working and all the things you’ve done to try to get Barnum working with you as a partner. . . . The whole I-can’t-take-food-away-from-home thing speaks to me of huge stress. He’s not comfortable. And if he’s not comfortable yet, it’s highly unlikely that he’s ever going to BE comfortable. Which is not a working dog. . . .I assume he’s neutered.I think you know the answer, Sharon.
I got this email and cried a lot, because it just affirmed for me what I already believed. The one place I disagree is that I don’t think Barnum is “stressed” as in “unhappy,” when in public. I think he is just super excited and fascinated. Is he in a state of hyperarousal? Yes, but it’s possible that can be overcome. In fact, he will sometimes refuse to take food in the house or yard, when he is clearly not stressed, but just much more interested in something else, such as watching birds at the feeder. Also, sometimes he will take food in strange, new places. In fact, Jersey and Gadget displayed more stress about new places than Barnum ever has.
Still, it doesn’t matter what the reason is if we can’t train through it. The one ray of hope was the question of whether Barnum is neutered. I wrote back and said no, he wasn’t, that I was waiting until he was at least 18 to 24 months old, as this reduces the likelihood of bone cancer later in life. Did she really think it would make a big difference?
I received a very encouraging reply:
My friend has a Portie [Portuguese water dog] she adopted as a 14-month-old. He’s stunning, and she wanted to finish his Canadian championship and show him at the US specialty. She also wanted to do agility, obedience, rally, tracking, and drafting with him. He was awful. He wasn’t food motivated, he was distractable, he couldn’t seem to remember stuff. She was putting an enormous amount of effort into trying to inspire him. I TOLD her to neuter him but she didn’t think it would make a difference.
She finished his Canadian championship and shortly thereafter we went to the American specialty and she got to show him. The day after he got home, she neutered him. He’s not perfect, but his personality changed completely. He’s earned 2 water titles, an obedience title and 2 rally titles in the year since he was neutered.
I’d whack those suckers off and give him some time to see if it makes a difference.
Done and done! Barnum was neutered on Monday. He is recovering nicely. He has transitioned from being in pain and utterly freaked by the Cone of Shame (E-collar) to just being really itchy “back there,” and irritated as hell about the collar. His strategy for dealing with the collar is typical Barnum: he just slams into/through any obstacle, so it’s anyone’s guess how long the collar or house will last.
I don’t know how long it takes for the hormones to settle down. (Anyone?) I figure I’ll give him a month or two to recover, and then I’ll put my “make it work” plan into action.
After the Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) 2011 blogswarm is over, I’ll try to post some pictures of Mr. Bucket Head and get back to other issues.
- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she did that to me the first week I got home!), and Barnum (forever altered, SDiT?)