SD Training: “Bad Days” Provide Evaluation Opportunities

There’s a quote I like very much in Sue Ailsby’s books, Training Levels: Steps to Success*. It’s by Steve White:

“Failure” is just information. Thank your dog for revealing a gap in your training plan and get to work plugging it.

Taking this attitude makes me a better trainer, a happier and mellower person, and a more pleasant person for my dog and other humans to be around. Learning to actually adopt this philosophy has taken me many years. (Not that I am always able to have this perspective even now — sometimes I do get frustrated — but certainly I can see things this way much more often than I did in the past.)

This quote is in the explanation of testing. The Levels are a set of behaviors, divided into Steps, and each builds on the other. (Sort of like math, but much, much more fun.) So, before you can go to the next Step or Level, you test the one you’ve trained to make sure that you and dog are moving on with a firm foundation.

I have not been able to proceed quickly and efficiently through the Levels because I’ve been too sick, so we have done very little formal testing of Levels behavior. Instead, I have decided to focus on training these behaviors:

  • The behaviors I most need from Barnum on a day-to-day basis (service skills), and
  • The behaviors I can train most easily from bed or the toilet (or wherever I might be during the course of a day).

I’ll write more about how and why I’ve decided to focus on training like this in my upcoming post for the July Assistance Dog Blog Carnival which is being hosted by Brooke at ruled by paws. (And she will be giving a prize to one of the bloggers who submits an entry, which is another reason to go read the call for entries and write a post!)

Meanwhile, I thought I’d catch you up on how and what Barnum and I are doing by telling you about last Saturday (a week from yesterday). Saturday was a lousy day in some ways and a terrific day in others.

The lousy part was that I was in a very bad way, physically. It was probably one of the worst pain days I’ve had in a long time. It was the kind of day where I had to take several prescription painkillers in order to be able to sit up or move my limbs at all. Without pain medication I would have been reduced to lying in bed, crying, and unable to move all day. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t brush my teeth. I needed help to eat.

It was terrific in that it was a chance to “test” where Barnum and I are in his ability (and interest) in assisting me. Here’s what I learned.

  • Barnum was very eager to work. Every time I called (using my “kissy noise,” which is how I call him when I can’t speak), he rushed over in eager anticipation of working (and thus, earning treats). Even though it was 90 degrees out, and he has a thick, black coat and hates the heat.
  • He retrieved my slippers for me about a dozen times because I take them off when I get in bed and then want them on each time I get out (even just to transfer to my chair to go to the bathroom).
  • I also learned that he seems to have learned my hand signal for “Take,” which surprised me because cues are Barnum’s weak point, and this hand signal is one I only introduced recently.
  • He opened and shut my bedroom door many times. He responds with the same level of reliability to the hand signal as to the spoken cue. With opening the door, he knows both and is eager and efficient regardless of where I am or what else is going on. With shutting the door, either he absolutely knows what I want and runs and slams the door (always if I’m out of bed and sometimes if I’m in bed). If I’m in bed, sometimes he is confident and runs to slam the door, while other times he’s unsure and requires shaping to go around the chair, get behind the door, and shut it. We are continuing to practice this one so that he becomes more certain of this behavior and cue. I still haven’t figured out the variable that makes the difference to him.
  • He picked up several things I dropped — pens, an empty saline flush syringe (no needle), dog treat bags — satisfactorily, including sometimes needing to go around my chair to get it, and then jump on my bed with it in his mouth to hand it to me.
  • He turned on and off the bathroom lights for me several times. He is very solid on turning on the light when we enter the bathroom. Exiting the bathroom, he still sometimes turns off the light and then immediately turns it back on again. So, “off” needs work.
  • He can hear me blow the dog whistle in my room when he is in the kitchen even with the water running and the vent hood on, but he doesn’t yet know the whistle means “come.” Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. We need to continue to practice the whistle as part of the “Come Game,” reteaching it from Level One Come.
  • He is completely solid on stand-stay/brace; he assisted with transfers from chair to toilet many times and with toilet to chair and bed to chair a few times.
  • He carried messages to, and went to get, two PCAs at different times. He is solid on the cue to get them, opening the door, and finding them. With one of them, he is solid on the whole behavior of open door, find person, nudge them, sit, wait to be sent back to me. With the other, he needed to be cued to nudge her on the first find. I am discovering that not all my PCAs are consistent in their responses to him — sometimes forgetting to ask for the sit or to ask “Where’s Sharon?” at the end, so I have now written up a step-by-step “how to” that they can refer to for “cold” retrieves (when we are not in an official training situation and neither Barnum nor they are primed to expect it). During a training situation, everyone already knows their jobs, but randomly using or testing this skill when neither dog nor person were prepared has given me important information on tweaking behavior for both people and dog. (You can see a video of this skill in this earlier post.)
  • He removed my socks a couple of times while I was in bed, which is a different behavior chain than removing my socks when I’m in my chair. It requires several positioning cues that are different — a lot more communication is required than for sock-removal while I’m sitting.
  • He opened and shut the refrigerator and shut cabinets and drawers. This all went very smoothly. Both cues and behaviors are well established. It tells me it’s time to start hanging pull-cords on some of the cabinets and drawers I might want him to open so we can start working on that behavior, too.
  • I realized that while he has learned most of the behavior for pulling down my big, heavy comforters, we have never worked on him pulling down my lightweight summer blankets or sheets. It would also help a lot if he could learn to help me pull off long pants. These are new items on the “to do” list.

There are probably a few other things I’m forgetting because by now it’s been a week, and I can usually only retain this type of information for a few hours. But, my overall point is that now, on a day when I really need him, he is actually helping me. We really are a team now. There are some skills he doesn’t know yet, or some situations in which he is still inconsistent, and those are more obvious to me on my “bad days,” too.

Not only do I now want to thank my dog for the information when he “fails,” but I can also thank my body on the days it “fails.” Sometimes it feels like there are three of us doing this training process: Barnum, me, and my body. The challenge is to coordinate the needs and abilities of all at once.

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, home-style SD/public SDiT

*Should you want to buy the books, which I highly recommend, you can purchase the paper version here or the electronic version here.

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4 Responses to “SD Training: “Bad Days” Provide Evaluation Opportunities”


  1. 1 kmtreat July 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    I am in awe of all that Barnum does for you. What an amazing dog.

    • 2 Sharon Wachsler July 22, 2012 at 9:50 pm

      Kmtreat, thank you for commenting! The most amazing thing about Barnum is not so much what he does, but his personality. He’s the most expressive dog. A lot of my fun with him is his attitude about training. Gadget was so reserved, and Barnum just lets it all hang out. Even if they’re doing the same task, they do it so differently!

  2. 3 eileenanddogs July 22, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    I absolutely love reading about Barnum’s progress and what he is able to do for you. What a wonderful partnership. I always feel SO 1970s when I say this, but thank you for sharing!

    • 4 Sharon Wachsler July 22, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      Thank you, Eileen. I have learned a lot from you, directly, and also from your posts on training your own pack. And have no fear — I am a student of Nonviolent Communication, and we frequently say things like, “Thank you for sharing that,” completely sincerely.


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