Archive for the 'Dog training' Category

Photo Essay: A Visit from Mina the Basenji

On Sunday we had a visit from a Basenji named Mina. I couldn’t resist the opportunity of working with a different dog — and an unusual breed of dog — which also afforded me the chance to work on Barnum’s self-control in a novel situation: focusing on me and holding stays when another dog was getting trained inside his house. Despite that I was really too sick — I have been paying the price since — it was an educational experience for all of us, I think. (Mostly for me!)

Mina very helpfully let me know our starting place should be Four-on-the-Floor.  (I’ve noticed that enthusiastic, food-driven dogs, especially small- or medium-sized dogs, tend to jump up with their paws on my lap because I’m sitting instead of standing.)

Sharon in her powerchair in front of glass doors with snowy wonderland behind. Mina, a small brown-and-white Basenji with prick ears and a curly tail, has her front paws on Sharons lap, nosing her hands that hold treats. Barnum is heading for his mat next to Sharons chair.

Beginning session: Barnum needs direction, Mina needs self control.

I started with ignoring her when she was on my lap and clicking/treating when her paws were all on the ground. A couple of times I lured her to get her paws off. I c/t Barnum for staying on his mat and not nosing into my session with Mina. He has a lifetime of clicker experience, whereas Mina was learning the clicker and everything else in a new environment — a big challenge. Barnum had a pretty clear idea of what was being asked of him or of behaviors to try to get treats, whereas Mina was really excited that she was getting all these treats without a clear idea of why at first. I bet she slept well that night!

But positive reinforcement works even before the learner has comprehended the “why,” so we were able to quickly move to having all her feet on the ground even before she’d figured out the clicker.

Mina is now standing on the floor in front of Sharon. Barnum sits next to Sharon on his mat. Sharon is feeding him a treat.

Mina now has four-on-the-floor and Barnum’s sitting on his mat.

Mina sits facing Sharon. Barnum lies on his mat. Both dogs are looking up at Sharons face.

We move on to “sit” for Mina and down-stay for Barnum.

Barnum lies on his mat, watching Sharons face. Mina stands on hind legs, one paw resting on Sharons seat, the other scratching at Sharons closed fist.

Hm, we’re back to paws-on-lap. Can you see what I’m doing wrong to cause this?

Hint: I’m not used to working with little dogs! I’m used to working with a dog for whom my lap is nose height!

Also, see how she’s pawing at my hand, above? That was interesting for me. I’ve taught a few dogs the beginning steps of Zen, and she was the first who tried lots of different strategies — biting, pawing, licking, etc., before finally backing off at all. Very smart and persistent. She’s a problem-solver. Using her paws like that reminded me of a cat.

Barnum lies on his mat, watching Sharon. Sharon is leaning over to hold her closed fist in front of Minas nose. Mina is sniffing Sharons hand intently.

Once I moved my fist down to nose level, Mina kept “four on the floor” to learn Zen.

But this position (above) was not sustainable for me, physically, so I adjusted. . . .

Sharon sits on the floor with her back to the glass door. Barnum on her right is lying on his mat with his chin resting between his paws. Mina stands in front of Sharon, gazing at her first.

I get on the floor to present my fist at nose height for Mina to learn Zen. Barnum chin targets the mat as his duration behavior.

Below is another behavior I’m not used to! Mina decided she’d had enough training and just hopped right onto my powerchair seat. I laughed really hard. A large, more cautious dog like Barnum learned to jump and sit in my powerchair after several shaping sessions. It took a lot of careful balancing for him. Meanwhile, Mina, the little, bold, curious, and nimble thing, just nipped up there herself as if she’d been doing it all her life. She wanted to see what she could see, I think. Or she was pretending to be a spaceship captain. Or both?

Barnum lying on his bed and Sharon sitting on the ground both look up at Mina sitting very erect and poised in Sharon's powerchair, staring out the window at the snowy landscape.

Call me Captain Mina! Full throttle, ready for blastoff!

What a way to start the new year!

- Sharon and Barnum, SD

P.S. Mina was gracious enough to let me back onto my chair once she’d finished training me to give her treats.

Dog Faming – Picture It!

My friend Eileen did a terrific blog post on Dog Faming — an alternative to the current trend of “Dog Shaming.”

What? You haven’t heard of dog shaming? Neither had I. Sadly, now I have. There are multiple “dog shaming” websites and Facebook pages devoted to people posting pics of their dogs doing (or having done) things the people Are Not At All Happy About, with a sign saying what misbehavior the dog has engaged in.

I understand that these pictures and comments are supposed to be funny (and every once in a while, I do find one genuinely funny), and I also don’t believe the dog knows their picture is on the internet. I’m glad that one of the most popular sites (over 100,000 “Likes” on its Facebook page!) now has an “Adoptable Friday” feature which shows a “shamed” rescue dog available for adoption every week. I’m certain the vast majority of people who post on these sites love their dogs.

Nevertheless, there’s a dark side to all this: This trend supports ideas about dogs and dog behavior that are inaccurate and that can cause a lot of misunderstanding and misery for those on both ends of the leash. When I read these sites, I feel sad — and frustrated.

One problem is that I see many dogs displaying unhappy body language, which leads me to believe that the person taking the picture has already made it clear to their dog that they are mad. The dogs are displaying appeasement signals. In other words, they know their person is upset and this is stressful to the dog, so the dog uses these signals to say, “Please calm down. Can’t we just get along?”

Unfortunately, people tend to misunderstand this dog body language. Here is a quote I lifted from one of the dog shaming Facebook pages that sums up the problem:

The funniest thing about some of these dogs is that they know they did wrong and their lil ears are back because they KNOW they messed up. I just love dogs so much.

Comments about dogs “looking guilty” or “acting guilty” are a common theme on these sites. In actuality, scientific studies show that dogs “look guilty” to humans whether or not they have actually done anything “wrong.”

A lot of the pictures show dogs who look blissfully unaware that their owners are “shaming” them. They are asleep or lounging around looking relaxed. The pictures that make me sad or concerned are like the two below. The white dog on the left (Miniature Poodle?) looks scared and miserable. The Husky on the right looks like it’s super pissed off and is about to attack if given any provocation.

A small, white, curly-haired dog (probably miniature poodle) hunched back, tuck-tailed, head down, ears down, eyes down. Sign says, "Days without rolling in poop: 0"A husky whose ears are pinned back, mouth/muzzle muscles pinched, eyes like slits.

Whatever happened before or during the taking of these pictures is probably pretty miserable for both human and canine.

Another problem is the number of posts of dogs who do something frequently — in many cases, apparently (like the poodle on the left) every day — and I have to ask myself, “Why are the owners continuing to support this behavior in their dog?” If they know the dog rolls in poop, destroys the sofa, eats socks, etc., why are they giving the dog unsupervised access to poop, sofas, and socks? In some photos, there are even dog crates in the background, and I have to wonder if those crates are ever USED?

I think the fact that people are posting these pictures about “dogs who need to be shamed” points to some of the answer. If you think the dog knows what they did was “wrong,” you might think that telling them off and/or shaming them is an effective way to change their behavior. So, management (use of crates or X-pens or tie-downs to prevent access to the poop or couch or socks) and training (teaching the dog to chew on a Kong or play with a toy or get a treat instead of the undesirable behavior), don’t enter into it. And the problem behavior continues.

Finally, the more you focus on mistakes (or accidents or “bad behavior”), the more you tend to encourage that kind of behavior. Here’s a rather amusing post on this phenomenon.

The flip side is also true: One of the most wonderful aspects of positive-reinforcement training (clicker training) is that by focusing on what your dog is doing right, you both tend to feel good because you are both “winning” over and over again. Both dog and human are generally very happy during and after a clicker session. In fact, if you find yourself becoming tense or angry, all the trainers I know advocate quitting the session ASAP and doing something else instead. Nobody learns (or teaches) well if they are stressed out.

So, one dog trainer started a Dog Faming contest on her Facebook page.

Still time to FAME your dog in November! Post a staged pic or your dogs w/ a sign telling us something you love/admire/are thankful for about them. It’s a photo op and a training op all rolled into one! Best pic wins a prize! Please share, and consider ‘liking’ Caninestein Dog Training’s page while you’re there.
More training/photo challenges coming soon! Let’s go ‘viral’ with positive messages about our dogs!

So, over the course of the last few days, Barnum and I have had some fun with my new camera, the signs I made, and of course, a bunch of treats. Something very interesting happened during the course of these photo shoots which I’ll tell you about at the end of this post. Meanwhile. . . . Let the show begin!

Bouviers require a lot of grooming while also not being the most touchy-feelly dogs, so I’ve put a lot of effort into Barnum being cooperative with grooming….

I couldn’t find a good place to put the sign, so I taped it to his collar.

Inside and out….

Close-up of Barnum's face with a blue plastic tooth brush with white bristles approaching his mouth. In the background, a sign taped to the wall says, "Holds still for tooth brushing."

I wanted to show the brush ON his actual teeth, but I’d need a third hand to lift his lips.

Certain themes did arise…

Pulling the bathroom door shut..

Nudging the bedroom door shut.



Fortunately, Barnum doesn’t seem bothered by the repetitive nature of some tasks.

Barnum in a narrow hallway pulling shut the bedroom door. Sign says (again),  "Helps conserve electricity by shutting doors. (Many doors.)"

Aaaaand this door, too….

 

Action shot of blurry Barnum nudging shut a heavy door to the outside. Sign again says, "Helps conserve electricity by shutting doors. (Many doors.)"

The whole house is made of doors.

Okay, but there is stuff to do besides closing doors. Well, except that this is technically still a door, I suppose. . . .

Barnum stands next to open refrigerator looking away from it. Sign says, "Opens the fridge... (without sampling the contents)."

It’s open. Now what?

He’s also good with retrieving skills, like this….

“Moo yoo wahn gees now?”

And this….

Barnum stands holding a wool slipper in his mouth. The sign on the bed next to him says, "Brings my slippers (instead of chewing them)."

He retrieves my slippers more often than anything else.

And this….

That’s a piece of hot dog and a piece of raw beef on the fork.

He had to hold this still for quite a while so I could get a picture where the sign wasn’t blurry from swinging around:

Barnum sits on a narrow black coffee table holding a red pen in his mouth that has a sign suspended from it that says, "Will Hup, Sit, Hold, and Stay -- combined!"

Tadah! I’m a trick dog, too!

What I noticed was this: After every photo session, I was so damn happy. I felt such warm, tender, joyous feelings toward Barnum. He was all waggy and bouncy, and I was all smiley and delighted. I’d invite him up on the bed and moosh on him and give him treats. It really did affect me to focus on all these things he does that make my life easier or that make it easier for me to care for him. Even the “trick” of sitting on the table holding the sign, while not a useful behavior in itself, showed me how solid some of the component behaviors are, which ARE useful and important. There’s nothing groovier than loving a Bouvier!

Go check out Eileen’s dog faming post and the other dog faming posts at Caninestein on Facebook and give them some “Likes” and comment love!

If you have a dog faming post to share, please provide links in the comments!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (famous without the signs), and Barnum, SD

P.S. Wasn’t this post enLIGHTening?

Side view of Barnum standing on his hind legs with his forepaws resting on the wall, his nose pressed to the wall between them. (The light switch is blocked from view by his paws.) Sign in the foreground says, "Is very enLIGHTening."

Barnum nudges the light switch with his nose.

Beginning Training the Simultaneous Pull-and-Push Door Opening

Barnum and I have started training on opening my bathroom door from the outside. This can later be applied to several other doors in the house.

The difference between this task and others I’ve written about is that in this case, instead of pulling down and back, Barnum has to pull the cord down and then, while continuing to keep the tension on the pull, push the door inward. This is the most difficult door-opening behavior in my opinion because it’s counterintuitive — due to the opposition reflex (which dogs, people, and other mammals have), the natural tendency is to pull back — and it’s also the opposite of his reinforcement history, which is to open and shut doors by pulling down and BACK.

So, here’s how we’re approaching this behavior:

1. I tested, myself, how far I’d need to pull down and where I’d need to push the door to get it open if my hand were a dog’s mouth. I then put a sticker on the pushing spot for Barnum to use as a target.

2. I shaped Barnum to nose-target the sticker and started selecting for harder nudges.

3. I decided Barnum wasn’t nudging hard enough, and I wanted to get a hard nudge on cue. He knows “nudge” for nudging a person, but I’ve never actually put nudging on cue. I just taught behaviors that involve nudging by shaping and then gave a cue for the whole behavior, like, “Shut the cupboard.” So, I got out the Poundin’ Bed Bugs toy* and had him practice pushing in the bugs.

Plastic toy with four different colored "bugs" sticking out of a plastic "bed." A red plastic mallet hovers above the bugs. When one bug is hit down, another pops farther out.

We don’t use the mallet. Barnum’s snout is the mallet.

4. When he was getting tired of that, I switched to having him hold a pen in his mouth (it’s one of his favorite things to hold or retrieve) and do different things while still holding onto the pen. This is because eventually he’s going to need to hold onto the door pull while also pushing the door inward, and I want to get him used to holding something in his mouth while also nudging the door. He also is just in need of remedial “holding onto things until the cue has been given to release them.” He’s so used to retrieving the thing and bringing it to me that if I don’t take it he starts trying to shove it into my hand or press it into my lap or bouncing his head like, “Here it is! Here it is! Take-it-take-it-take-it!”

So we practiced a few different behaviors while holding the pen: backup, sit, let’s go (working walk), and “touch.” The one I’ll eventually focus on is “touch,” and then I’ll stop giving that cue and just shape a firm nudge of my hand while holding the pen. I’ll also start sometimes giving him a door pull (not attached to a door) to hold while doing other things.

Once he is good at both holding and nudging at the same time, and once we have a firm nudge on cue, we’ll go back to working on the door and try to combine things. Right now he’s trained enough in the skills that are the most useful to me that I don’t feel a lot of urgency on this skill. It will be useful to have it, but we can just work it when we’re in the mood.

Back to writing and resting, guys!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who somehow figured out how to do this skill even with my lumping-style training), and Barnum, SD/SDiT

*I found out about this toy as a useful service dog training aid from Barbara Handelman‘s DVD set, Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog. You can watch a video of her training a pup with this toy at her page on clicker training an assistance puppy.

Retrieving a Fork with Food on It (Zen + Retrieve = Yippee!)

I’ve said all along that I wanted to train Barnum more and better than I did Gadget and Jersey. I wanted him to learn skills they didn’t know because I now need more types of assistance than I used to. And I wanted Barnum trained better because there were skills Gadget had that were good enough, but that were never really perfect. For example, Gadget was good at retrieves but lousy at combining the “hold” with other skills, like heeling or sitting or sometimes even waiting for the release (instead of just dropping the item in my lap).

One thing I never trained Gadget or Jersey to do is pick up silverware that had food on it without tasting the food. I just didn’t know how to communicate that part, because I didn’t know about doggy zen. Since dropped utensils often have food on them, this was a hole in our training.

Thanks primarily to all I’ve learned from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels and the Training Levels list, I am a much better trainer now. I also owe some credit to Barnum for being harder to train than Jersey or Gadget, which made it impossible for me to be sloppy and take shortcuts like I did with them.

One of the ways Barnum is much better trained is with his “leave it.” I used the “puppy zen” approach to teaching this, and it’s an awesome tool to have in your dog training toolkit. (I’ve posted about zen plenty in the past. If you want to read some zen-related posts, click on the relevant tag or search “Zen.”)

We have been working on a default zen, which means that I don’t have to cue “leave it” for Barnum to know that he should not eat/sniff/touch/grab that thing/person/animal unless I tell him to. I wrote this earlier post on zen which includes a video (a captioned version and a noncaptioned version and a transcript of the video at the end of the post).

Recently we’ve also been working on combining zen and retrieve.

In general, I’ve been trying to widen Barnum’s repertoire of things he understands how to pick up, like big (wide) things, long things, heavy things, bulky things, flat things (e.g., paper), etc., as well as circumstances in which he picks things up (different rooms, outside, with other people around, with background noise like a video playing, over longer distances, with me moving, etc.).
I’ve also started combining zen/distraction with retrieving. I started leaving a treat on the floor and asking him to retrieve something while ignoring the treat. Over time I’d add more treats and/or put them closer to the retrieve items. Eventually I could put several treats under and around the item and still have him pick it up. The challenge was not with him snorking up the treats but with him being afraid to pick up an item that was within “the zen field.” (You can see the zen field at work in the video referenced above. If a treat was next to another treat that was also “zenned,” he wouldn’t eat it unless specifically cued to do so.)
Last Saturday he was doing really well with something we were working (I don’t remember what anymore) and for his treats I was using leftover cooked fish and fish skin that was very smelly and exciting to him. I was delivering the treats on a fork. I thought, “Hmmm.”
I got a clean fork and had him retrieve it. Then I smeared some fish juice on it and repeated. Then put a piece of fish UNDER the fork. And finally I used the fork I’d been feeding him from with a piece of fish speared on the end, and he retrieved it! (Without touching the piece of fish, I mean.) We did it a few times, including the fork ending up in different positions and having fish flying off it, etc.
In the following days, I tried it with pork and hot dogs. Each time, if I didn’t begin with review, he’d start toward the food end of the fork and I’d tell him leave it. But once I reviewed and he realized we were working zen AND retrieve, he’d switch to carefully picking up the handle end of the implement and leaving the food on the fork.
Today I finally made a video of him doing this, and I tried to show some of the steps leading up to it. It’s kind of a clumsy video. My voice wasn’t working, so we did it all without voiced cues, and he was not the most “in the game” he’s ever been, but hopefully you can understand what’s happening. (For the record, when I say, “Oops,” it’s not because he’s eaten the food, it’s because of the sloppy way he retrieved the fork which resulted in a piece of hot dog falling onto my foot plate, which he then went to eat, so I had to cue him to leave it.)
I am “signing” in this video, not speaking. I use the term “signing” very, very loosely because I am so out-of-practice signing that a lot of it is kind of incomprehensible mumbling from an ASL perspective, so the captioned version is as much for hearing folk as it is for Deaf or hard of hearing people.
You can watch the video (uncaptioned) below. . . .

The captioned version is here.

There is a transcript of the video below which might be of interest even to those who can watch the video, because there are some things you don’t see very well in the video that I explain in the description, like where the meat is, and that in the last retrieve the fork is right next to a piece of hot dog on the floor, etc.

Comments, critiques, questions, etc., all welcomed!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she didn’t do this stuff with me! Boo!), and Barnum SD/SDiT

Video Description:

Sharon: I’ll show you how Barnum and I train zen (self-control) and retrieving.

Sharon picks up a fork.

Sharon: This is clean.

Sharon holds out the fork and Barnum takes and holds it in his mouth. Sharon grabs the fork in Barnum’s mouth and clicks and he lets go and gets a treat. Sharon tosses the clean fork on the floor and Barnum retrieves it for a click and treat again.

She spears a piece of hot dog onto the end of the fork and tosses the fork on the floor. Barnum moves around the fork warily. He picks it up but at the food end, so although he doesn’t eat the hot dog, when he hands it to Sharon, the hot dog piece falls onto her footrest. He moves to eat it. Sharon voices something that sounds like “Leave it,” and Barnum retreats from the hot dog piece.

Sharon: Oops. We’ll try again.

She holds up another fork that has a beef cube on it and throws it on the floor. This time Barnum picks it up by the handle. Sharon shows the fork to the camera so viewers can see that the meat is still on the fork.

Sharon takes two more hot dog slices and puts one on the fork that has the beef on it and tosses the other on the floor. Barnum doesn’t attempt to eat the one on the floor. When he turns and looks at Sharon instead, he gets a click and a piece of hot dog from her hand.

Sharon holds it for him to take, and then give back to her. She tries to hold it for him out to the side, but drops it instead. Barnum picks it up by the handle and gives it to her. Sharon shows the camera the pieces of meat still on the fork.

Sharon: Perfect!

Sharon throws the fork with the meat on it over next to where the hot dog is lying on the floor. Barnum retrieves it while ignoring the hot dog on the floor. Sharon clicks and treats him.

They’re “Assistance Dogs,” Not “Public Access Dogs”

Brooke at ruled by paws is hosting Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #8 on the theme of “Marchin’ to Your Own Drum.”

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

Marching to Our Own Drum!

Lately I’ve begun to realize just how much my current approach to training my service dog (SD) diverges from ideas, approaches, and perceptions of SDs in the larger US culture. Specifically, my main focus is on training my assistance dog to perform behaviors that assist me, due to my disabilities. This would seem to be not only sensible, but the very definition of an assistance dog, wouldn’t it? Indeed, it is. If you read the service animal section of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you will find this:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

Yet, more and more I am coming across individuals, organizations, and websites focused primarily, or in some cases, exclusively, on training dogs in obedience and manners so that the dog can accompany its person in public. (Here is an organizational example of a focus that is primarily on public access. Here is an organizational example of a non-task training approach to SD work.)

It’s understandable that public access training (which includes a dog being obedient, well-mannered, and unobtrusive in public as well as being able to perform necessary assistance tasks in public) is receiving so much attention. Public access is a legal issue, so it’s natural that organizations and individuals are concerned about complying with the law. Further, there are more assistance dogs working and being trained than ever before, which means more SDs are showing up in public. Into the mix add that more people are partner-training than ever before (with a great range of experience and skill) and that many partners have hidden disabilities that make them more vulnerable to access challenges. Finally, and sadly, there are an increasing number of people who wish to commit fraud by trying to pass off their pet dogs as SDs — both people with disabilities who have not done the necessary training and people without disabilities who simply want the companionship of their dog away from home. The pressure on the SD handler to make sure their dog behaves with perfect comportment at all times is thus a very big deal in the assistance dog world.

Meanwhile, here I am, training my dog to help me around the house — open and shut doors, turn on and off lights, pick up things I drop, carry messages to my human assistants, etc. We are barely doing any public access training simply because I spend almost all my time in bed and very rarely leave the house, so training in public is very difficult, and having a working dog in public is much less important than one who helps me at home. Barnum has to be “on call” at home at any time I might need him. Fortunately, his personality and the way we have trained mean that he is eager to jump into action.

Barnum stands back a few inches from the fridge door which is now open a few inches.

Barnum opens the fridge for me.

I realize our situation is not that of most teams. In some cases public access is always crucial to the dog’s work. Guide dogs often work exclusively outside the home and are off duty at home. Their work involves assisting their human partners to get to and from work, school, restaurants, hotels, conferences, and subways. Thus, public work is essential for a guide dog.

For people with other types of assistance dogs, too, there is usually an expectation of public work — alerting or guiding or providing mobility assistance in stores, on the street, at work, etc. Most people with assistance dogs bring their SD with them everywhere for two reasons:

  1. The dog’s work is necessary or important for the disabled person in public, and
  2. The working bond between the partners is strengthened by ongoing work and training in a variety of settings and/or on a daily basis

Still, the proliferation of both SD fraud and poorly trained SDs have led some assistance dog organizations to require passing a public access test as proof that a dog is a service dog. For example, to be a partner member of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), I have to sign a form saying that my SD has or would be able to pass their public access test/definition. So, even though I have had two previous SDs and have been an IAADP member for a dozen years, now I’m no longer a partner member because Barnum and I don’t go out. I feel very sad about this.

Yet, Barnum is a working service dog around the house. You can see how much we’ve accomplished in this regard in just a month by comparing this recent post from July to this one from June.

I feel frustrated by this, and the irony does not escape me: the more disabled I am, and the more I need my service dog, the less I fit neatly into the category of a SD team. In fact, I can trace the changes in my disabilities in part by what my service dogs have done for me at a given time.

My first service dog, Jersey, did help me around the house, but the biggest difference she made for me was that she enabled me to occasionally go out by myself. I trained her to cart my oxygen tanks to and from the car, and to carry groceries from the van to the front door and then to the fridge. At doctor’s appointments or other occasional outings, her carrying my water and other things in a pack left my hands free to push my oxygen cart if I was walking. I went grocery shopping once every month or two with her and my mobility scooter, which was something I had previously not been able to do since I got sick. Before Jersey, I always needed someone to take me shopping.

[Note: I have some great photographs of Jersey working, but they haven't been scanned into a computer yet. I hope to get the pics inserted by the time the Carnival goes up. Please come back in a week or two, and hopefully they'll be here!]

Even the things she helped me out with around the house are different from the tasks I need canine assistance with now. For example, Jersey helped me fold and put away the laundry. But now I have human assistants do that. She also carted gardening supplies, which enabled me to garden. Now I’m much too sick to garden. Once, when I walked into my backyard to pick apples, I was too sick to walk back unaided, and she helped me get back home. Now there’s no question of me wandering out on foot into a field.

Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen canula, leaning forward with her mouth open, as if reading or talking. Gadget lies on the ground next to her in a green pack, looking up at her. In the foreground are several first-graders, looking in many different directions, some of them obviously moving around.

Gadget in a calm down-stay and paying attention to me while surrounded by little kids.

Gadget, my second SD, learned the same things Jersey did — bracing, carrying a pack, retrieving, loading and unloading groceries — but I also added some additional skills so that he could help out with more stuff at home.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house.

He learned how to alert me to the kitchen timer, to let the cat and himself in and out, to open and shut doors, to bring me the phone. When I got Lyme disease and became much more disabled than before, those skills became much more crucial than the ones for going shopping or putting away laundry. And then I taught him new things that were much more important — getting Betsy or my PCA when I couldn’t speak, turning lights on and off and bringing me water from the refrigerator to take my pills when I couldn’t get out of bed, etc.

Meanwhile, Barnum has learned to do things that Gadget didn’t. Barnum has a much more refined “go get person/deliver message” than Gadget did. He is helping me with undressing, which Gadget never learned. He alerts to my various alarms and pumps. And I still have plans for him to learn additional skills that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Barnum with a red plaid flannel pouch about 3 inches by 3 inches velcroed to the back of his collar.

This is the pouch Barnum wears for transporting messages or small items to or from others in my home.

Some of you may remember that when Barnum was younger, I was concerned that he’d never make it as my service dog because he was such a distracted, hyper flake in public. The irony is that since he’s matured, on the occasions I have taken him into public to train, he’s done really well — especially considering his age and his bouncy nature. I could have passed Jersey off as a fully trained SD before she had finished her training because her manners were so perfect and calm in public. She could have been doing nothing to help me, and we wouldn’t have been challenged because we “looked like” a SD team.

I once read about a SD program which had a separate category for dogs who could assist their people in the home but not work in public (due to anxiety or distractibility); they called these dogs “companion dogs” and they were not considered service animals. That has always bothered me. A “companion animal” is a pet. Dogs, cats, birds are all referred to as “companion animals.” However, a dog that opens and shuts the fridge, turns lights on and off, helps with the laundry, and retrieves dropped items for her disabled handler is a service dog, not a pet. If that dog doesn’t do well in public, obviously the dog should be left home when the person goes out. But that doesn’t make the dog any less a service dog. Why not just call that type of dog an “in-home service dog”? It would be more accurate, and in my opinion, more respectful to both members of the team.

Barnum standing on hind legs, front paws planted on the wall, nudging switch down with his nose. He's over 5 feet tall this way.

Barnum turns off the lights.

Barnum is already, by legal definition, a service dog: he increases my independence and safety by performing assistance tasks, which is what assistance dogs are supposed to do. The fact that my level of function and my level of dependence on humans is more than most assistance dog partners (and more than my previous level) doesn’t change that. However, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say he’s a SD in the eyes of assistance dog organizations, because I don’t know if we’ll do enough training — if I, myself, will leave the house enough, let alone with him — for him to pass a public access test. I try not to let it get to me. In the scheme of things, what’s most important is that Barnum and I are happy and productive together. I do hope, though, to feel a greater sense of acceptance and respect from the assistance dog community one day.

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

The Little Things in Life (and Dog Training)…

…are not free, but sometimes they feel like “Amazing Free Gifts!!” when you forget how hard you worked to get to something “easy.” Lately, I’ve seen how the foundation training I’ve done with Barnum (via Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels) has increased our team repertoire, allowing me to communicate more easily with Barnum and request behaviors my previous SDs didn’t know.

Spending so much time training and longing for the day when I can definitively take the “iT” off of “SDiT” sometimes leads me to lose track of the point of it all: the end product. Yesterday was one of those days when I was able to marvel at my dog actually doing the shit I’d trained him to do! Not Big Impressive Service Skills (that’s a post for another time), but “little things.”

You see, yesterday was “Doggy Spa Day” here at Chez Wachsler. All those handling sessions — holding his paws, messing with his muzzle and tail, digging in his hears — certainly came in handy when I had to clip between his toes and when Betsy buzzed his tail and butthole and I debouverized him (removed his bouvier beard).

The positioning cues like stand and stay are gold when you need a duration stand for clipping. After all, there is a lot of dog to clip, and with my very limited stamina, time is of the essence.

A crucial skill for grooming is a targeting skilled I call “chin.” Chin means, “Rest your chin in my palm until you are released.” Or, “Rest your chin on the surface I’m pointing to until you are released.”

When I need Barnum to hold really still — such as when I am clipping his ears, which is anxiety-producing for me because I once nicked Gadget’s ear, and it bled profusely — I have him put his chin in Betsy’s palm. Then I lay his ear flat in my left hand or over the top of his head and carefully guide the clippers with my right hand.

It was also lovely today to be able to easily brush his teeth and to do some touch-ups with my curved, blunt-tipped scissors of the hair between his toes. Having him cooperate — not pull away or get antsy — uses less energy and is more pleasant for both of us.

But the most exciting moment was when we needed to do some cleaning and reorganizing mid-haircut yesterday. I have a large enough bathroom that I can easily turn my powerchair around in it, but it is still, after all, a bathroom. When it contains two large people, one large dog, a coffee table (which is what I use as a grooming table), and all the grooming paraphanelia (clippers, sheers, brushes, combs, broom, dustpan, bag to collect dog fur, hedge trimmers, etc.), it can feel rather small. Betsy usually does most of the clipping from the floor, and then to do the trickier parts (his feet and head, especially), I take over, with Barnum standing on the table.

So, we were moving the table out of the way and needed to sweep up the hair before repositioning the table (and dog). We slid the table to the side.

I said, “Hup!”

Barnum jumped onto the table.

I said, “Sit,” and he sat on the table. I decided I wanted him to stay right there, out of the way, while we swept up and got the blades ready for the next assault phase of the haircut, so I added a “stay.”

And he just sat there on the table while we did what we needed to do. I thought of the introduction to “Stay” from the Training Levels:

There’s a wonderful sense of freedom that comes when you can “park” your dog on the grass while you spread the picnic blanket, park her off the bike path while you dust off your kid, or park her on the front step while you carry in the groceries.

I would add that it is even more convenient to be able to park your dog on an elevated surface, if need be, which is also something I learned from the Levels list. When we had the “sit” contest, I taught Barnum to jump onto the coffee table and sit on it. (Here’s a post with some of our fun sit contest photos.) Now sitting on the table is one of his favorite behaviors.

You might not think that training your dog to sit on a coffee table is such a terrific idea, but you never know when it will come in very handy.

- Sharon and Barnum, (bald bouvier) SD/SDiT

Don’t Worry, I Don’t Starve My Dog

I sometimes comment in posts here or on my Facebook page that Barnum earns his food via training sessions. Thus, he doesn’t usually get “meals,” as such.

I’m also aware that some days I post or tweet that we haven’t been able to train that day because I was sick. Other days I say things like, “Barnum was really eager to work because we haven’t been doing much training, so he was bored and hungry.”

I have wondered if maybe I should include a note to reassure readers that I’m not starving Barnum, but then I thought, “No, nobody would think that, would they?” But recently someone asked me if I fast Barnum on days we train, so I thought I better explain the details and nuances of the situation better to put your minds at ease. I also wouldn’t want anyone to think that I am advocating starving an animal to make them hungrier to work. That would be cruel and counterproductive.

So, what I mean, usually, when I say that we did “no training today” is that we didn’t have a formal or lengthy training session or series of them. Nonetheless, every single day Barnum earns treats just for incidental things throughout the day. For example, almost every time I go to the bathroom (several times a day), Barnum follows me in and I reinforce behaviors like eye contact, cooperation with handling (holding still for petting, cleaning out eye boogers, tick-checking his ears or pulling out excess ear hair or wax), or other simple behaviors like targeting parts of my body with his chin or nose. He gets food (kibble, hot dogs, cheese, raw beef, or a trout-and-potato biscuit) for almost every repetition.

When I am too tired, sick, or in pain to train more actively, and I want him to learn to respect my need to rest, I put the MannersMinder on his mat or in his crate; I set it to dispense food on a variable schedule to reward him for staying put and getting out of my face. Depending on how often its set up to dispense, this can add up to a meal’s worth of food.

He’s also starting to do a lot of incidental service skills throughout the day — bracing when I transfer to and from the toilet, turning on and off the bathroom light, getting my slippers if they slide under the bed, opening and shutting my door, and things like that. Again, each of these behavior is rewarded.

Sometimes there are days, though, where I’m too sick to do even some of these behaviors, and then I usually do something that will both give him some nutrition and some mental activity. This is generally giving him a knuckle bone to chew in his crate, or his Buster Cube or IQ Treat Ball to nudge around the house. The Buster Cube, in particular, holds an entire day’s worth of food, so I try to only use it if I think we’re not going to be doing any substantial training for 24 hours.

Barnum does actually get something every night that he clearly thinks of as a “meal,” although I consider it a “snack” because it’s a very small quantity of food. He gets several squirts of salmon oil, and a dropper full of Lyme-prevention tincture, usually mixed with two scoops of canned dog food. Sometimes instead of the wet food, he gets a small amount of table scraps — a bit of leftover rice or veggies — or some cottage cheese or raw liver or kidney. I say that Barnum perceives it as a meal because it’s in his bowl, it happens at about the same time every night, he is absolutely thrilled about it (and looks forward to it all evening, once it’s set up on his crate), and he always needs to go out to eliminate after. So, it has the routine of a meal that dogs seem to love.

If Barnum were a total foodie, or if he did not eat primarily a raw meat diet, I would probably make sure to give him more meals. Raw food is digested much more slowly than cooked food, so a raw-fed dog can go a day or two on one large meal and not be overly hungry. Barnum is also a self-regulating dog. When he gets full, he stops eating, even if there is more food available. In the case of his MannersMinder, he’ll just walk away from it and lie down somewhere else. If he had a piece of raw meat that he doesn’t want, he will “bury” it by wrapping it inside the sheet on his dog bed! (I take it out and put it back in the freezer.)

Still, it’s true that if we go a few days with very little training, Barnum might start acting ravenous, and then I’ll give him an actual meal, which is a big hunk of raw meat, usually a partial chicken carcass, but sometimes raw fish or pork. He’s usually only hungry enough for a real meal once every one or two weeks.

Anyone who has seen Barnum in the flesh knows that there is plenty of it (flesh, I mean) on his bones. He’s not fat, but he’s definitely not skinny!

So, have no fear, dog lovers, Barnum is well fed!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t get all this gourmet food my whole life!), and Barnum, well-fed and pampered SD/SDiT

P.S. I still consider myself to be on blogging hiatus, but I am trying to do short posts as issues arise that I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.

Crowdsourcing: Which Vest Would Keep You Away? UPDATED

In a recent post, I commented on the problem that all assistance dog handlers face: distraction from the public. In my case, there’s a slightly different twist.

While Barnum’s work at home is zipping along beautifully, we have a long way to go with his public access skills. This is because I so rarely go anywhere. However, now that it’s summer, and I’m a little more functional, I’m more often able to take Barnum to public venues to train.

One issue we face which many other service-dog-in-training (SDiT) teams don’t face is that since I am so obviously disabled (I am in a wheelchair and use oxygen) and in a public space, people generally assume Barnum is my working service dog (SD) no matter how he’s behaving. (In fact, people generally assume he’s working even when he’s running around, off-leash in the woods, in his orange safety vest!)

When we’re training in public, I always put the “In Training” patches on his vest under the “Service Dog” patches, but I don’t think anyone sees them. I think even if they were ten times larger, the sight of a woman in a wheelchair with a dog with gear on would automatically translate to “service dog” in most people’s minds, and people would still not really “see” the “In Training” badges. The poor visibility of the “In Training” patches raises two concerns.

One of my concerns is that if we’re in a store, and Barnum’s comportment is far-from-perfect, I’m not comfortable with people believing he’s a SD because I worry that we will give other SDs a bad name, or that we will support the myth that partner-trained SDs are not as well-trained as program dogs. Even worse, because I know that some individuals try to pass off pets as SDs (which is illegal as well as unethical), I worry that people will become used to seeing a badly behaved dog as a “service dog,” and that will support the efforts of those who commit fraud.

The second problem is people wanting to talk with me. When I am working Barnum in public, I am unable to communicate with other people. I can’t split my focus. When I try to tell them that I can’t talk, I think I usually end up coming across as very rude because it’s just impossible for me to answer questions, chat, or anything else when I am trying to use my limited energy and focus on extremely demanding training. People who want to talk to me or who want to interact with Barnum are equally big problems in this stage of our training.

I recently came across two products that are designed to tell strangers not to interact with your dog. They are in the DINOS (dogs in need of space) resource section of Notes from a Dog Walker. They are both primarily intended for dogs who are reactive to people or other dogs. DINOS can include fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, or overexuberant dogs (which Barnum was sometimes in the past with other dogs). Barnum is not reactive to people or dogs, however I think this gear could be really useful to Barnum and me as an SDiT team in public.

I’m not sure which to get. I’d like your opinion.

Option A: The TACT Training Vest from Clean Run

Side view of a red corduria vest covering the dog's chest and shoulders. A rectangular black patch with white capital letters says Training Do Not Distract with a red Stop sign. On the back is a smaller round patch which says Training Stop Do Not Pet.

These colors are very eye-catching.

You can read a description of the materials and see additional views of this vest at Clean Run.

Pros

What I like about this vest is that it has the message very forcibly on both sides, and to a lesser degree, from the top. It also looks like it will last well, and it looks professional, so I could keep using it as we improve our public manners. Red and black help get across the “Keep Away” message, I think.

I’m also wondering if I’d be able to remove those patches and put them on his working gear when he’s no longer training. A very large “Do Not DISTRACT” patch is definitely preferable to the smaller “Please Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working,” patch that we have now.

Cons

I’d like something that I can fit over Barnum’s pack, if possible, because I’m using the pack as a cue to teach him that a certain standard of behavior is required. I’m not sure if that would be possible with this. But the tradeoff might be worth it. I also wish it covered more of the dog, because between my big self and my big chair and Barnum’s big self, I would want to make sure the message didn’t get lost.

The biggest drawback, in addition to the minimal size of the vest, is definitely the price: $100+. I could also pay extra for a badge for me to wear that says “In training, do not distract,” but I doubt that would be useful. Most people seem to have trouble seeing me inside all the assistive equipment anyway. Plus, being in a chair means I couldn’t put this badge anywhere close to eye level for a standing adult. For those who know me and want to be friendly and chat, my presence as a familiar face would probably override a little badge. Most people look at the dog, anyway.

Option B: Dog In Training Vest from The Pawsitive Dog

A tan vest that covers from shoulder to waist with very large purple capital letters that says Dog In Training and below that in smaller letters Give Me Space.

This covers more of the dog.

There are more pictures of this vest on different sizes and breeds of dog at The Pawsitive Dog, including the option for a harness hole in the back. It has the same text on both sides of the vest.

Pros

It covers more of the dog. There is just one message, and it’s pretty straightforward. The size of the lettering is huge; there’s not much to distract from the message. At $38, it’s also less than half the price of the other one. This seems most likely to fit over Barnum’s working pack.

Cons

It doesn’t look as professional. My biggest concern is that I’m not sure if medium purple on tan is bright enough and has enough contrast to get the message across.

UPDATE: Cricket Mara, the maker of this vest, replied to my questions with this very helpful information:

The Dog In Training vest is made of a poly/cotton blend fabric with cotton straps and “Soft Touch” Velcro.  It is durable and washable, but still not heavy or noisy.  To use it over his pack, I would measure his chest with his pack in place.  I do suggest air drying to preserve the screen printed lettering.

UPDATE: Option C: Design Your Own Vest

Therapy-dog-style vest in dark blue with large yellow embroidery that says YOUR TEXT GOES HERE on both sides.

This might be the winner, if I can contact them….

Notes From a Dog Walker — the creator of the term, DINOS — commented below and suggested this online store.

Pros

Much more reasonably priced than either of the other options. I can choose the color of the material. (Not sure if I can choose the color of the text.) This means I can choose colors AND a message that I think will be the clearest and the most obvious!

Cons

I think this is least likely to fit it over his pack. I’m emailing them with questions about sizing, colors, etc.

What do YOU think?

I’d particularly like to hear from members of the general public who do not have assistance dogs: Which vest do you think would more likely keep you from approaching a person and dog and trying to engage either the person or the dog? If you knew the person or dog? If they were strangers?

I’d also like to hear from other assistance dog handlers. Which do you think would be more effective, based on your own experiences? If you were going to buy one, which one would you get?

I look forward to everyone’s responses! Please feel free to cast your vote (and offer your reasoning, if you’re so inclined) in the comments to this post. You can also tweet me on Twitter at @aftergadget.

Thank you!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t like strangers), and Barnum (Strangers are fascinating!) SD/SDiT

Service Dogs & Friends: Familiarity Breeds … Confusion? BADD 2012

This post is in honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) and the spring issue of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC).

The graphic for BADD. Along the top, in yellow letters on a dark green background, it says, "Blogging Against Disablism. Below that is a multicolored square comprised of twenty smaller squares with one stick figure in each, mostly standing, some wheelchair symbols or with canes.

BADD 2012!

Every year on May 1, bloggers from around the world post about some aspect of disability oppression. This is what’s known as a blogswarm. Check out the huge number of excellent posts — entertaining, emotional, or educational — at this year’s BADD!

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

Effects on others

The topic for this quarter’s ADBC is, “How has a working dog in your life affected other people and/or the relationships in your life?”

Lately, I’ve been forced into the realization that, in many ways, raising, training, and handling my own service dogs (SDs) has a negative effect on my IRL (in real life) human relationships, and likewise, my human relationships make raising, training, and handling my SDs much harder. I have many rich, rewarding relationships with other assistance dog partners and trainers online, but when it comes to people I see in the flesh or talk to on the phone, I have no SD partner friends. Ironically, the biggest challenge comes not from those who dislike or are indifferent to dogs. No, the biggest challenge comes from those in my life who are fond of or have some sort of relationship with my dog(s) or who feel a connection to the SD world.

Here are some of the common problems, many of which overlap with each other:

  • Some perceive me as an extension of my service dog. They often prioritize their interactions with the dog over their interactions with me. They may or may not have any problem with me, but still may only want to be around me to interact with my dog.
  • Some see my SD as just a dog, a pet, and are either unwilling or unable to see that my SD’s role in my life is much more complex, and requires much more upkeep and care, than that of a pet dog. They want to do what they want to do with the dog because it’s fun, and it makes them feel good. The effect that their behavior has on me and my working dog is either unclear to them or less important to them than the pleasure they derive from doing what they enjoy with my SD.
  • Some misinterpret behavior that I allow or encourage with my own SD as giving them special privileges to interact with other people’s SDs in similar ways. They don’t seem to understand the difference in acceptable behavior with a dog who is at home, not working, and with whom they are interacting as a house guest, with acceptable behavior with a stranger’s dog or even my dog when he is working or training.
  • Some have their own relationship to my SD and feel hurt or angry if I put restrictions on their interactions because of choices I make for the good of my working partnership or training. They may or may not intellectually understand or agree with the behaviors I am requesting or enforcing, but they still find them emotionally difficult. They may also think I’m being “mean” (or capricious, or dictatorial) to the dog or to them by disallowing behavior that disrupts my dog’s manners, obedience, or ability to work but which they find pleasurable (or which they believe the dog enjoys).

Here are some recent examples of how these situations have played out. I have altered some details to preserve anonymity.

1. “I saw a service dog and thought of you.” The story I relate below has happened with other people, in similar circumstances, over the last 13 years.

A recent acquaintance who met Barnum, my service dog, at my house a couple of times mentioned in a phone call that she met a miniature poodle SD while at the grocery store. She then said, “I bent down — because I wasn’t allowed to pick her up — and she gave me many kisses. I thought of you and Barnum.”

I didn’t know the particulars of the situation, so I didn’t know the service dog handler’s policies, comfort level in asserting her needs, the dog’s job, or my acquaintance’s relationship to the handler, but hearing her say this, I felt very uncomfortable. It is a universal experience for assistance dog (AD) partners that wherever we go, our dogs attract attention. Some partners enjoy a certain amount of attention from the public as an opportunity to educate or to feel less isolated. However, almost every AD partner I know — and I know a lot of people with guide, hearing, and service dogs — hates the constant intrusions, interruptions, and distractions of members of the public asking them about their AD or talking to, petting, or otherwise distracting their AD from its job. We find the work involved with constantly interacting with people we have not chosen to interact with exhausting.

The overwhelming majority of the people who cause us so much distress do it unwittingly, with only good intentions. This is part of what can make it so hard to deal with. These kind-hearted, dog-loving people usually feel happy and excited to see a working dog and may feel a connection to that team because of their relationship with me or Barnum. They may want to connect with that person or their dog, thinking that they are offering support by way of understanding. What they often don’t realize is that the partner/handler’s experience is quite different. We deal with comments, questions, and distractions all day. We generally don’t care if your friend or niece has a SD, or if you puppy-raised once, or if you follow a hearing-dog blog.

Within an hour or two of being in public, I can have a dozen people stop me to ask, “What kind of dog is that?” “What’s his name?” “What does he do for you?” “Where did you get him?” “Can I pet him?” “How long have you had him?” “He’s so handsome!” “I have a dog, too, but he’s not nearly that smart!” “What a wonderful friend he must be to you!” “Aren’t you lucky to have him!” “I wish I could have a service dog,” and on and on.

The questions and comments are difficult enough, but at least we have some control over how we choose to answer (or ignore) the questions. What we cannot ignore, and what can often be dangerous to our safety and well-being, are people who interfere with our canine assistants. Any of the following constitutes interfering:

  • Talking to the dog (or talking “about” the dog to their handler using a high, squeaky, excitable, baby-talk voice)
  • Petting the dog
  • Extending their hand for the dog to sniff
  • Thumping the dog on the back as they walk by
  • Clapping
  • Whistling
  • Shouting or making other sudden or unexpected movements to “test” the dog
  • Stepping on, kicking, or running into the dog with a shopping cart (yes, people do these things)
  • Leaning down to get kisses

Part of the problem seems to be that some people, like my acquaintance, are trying to be respectful and “follow the rules” but they don’t get the overall concept of what good “assistance dog etiquette” is. They see the dog’s “Don’t Pet Me” patches, so they don’t pet the dog, but they talk to the dog instead. This can be even more distracting to many dogs. This is why many of us are switching from patches and signs that say, “Don’t Pet” to “Do Not DISTRACT.” For example, my guess as to what happened in the case of my acquaintance who got kisses from the miniature poodle is that they asked to pick the dog up (which shocked me in itself! Fortunately this is something nobody ever has asked me, since I have an 80-pound dog), and when the handler said, “Sorry, no,” they either asked if they could “say hi” or they just went ahead and did it.

Note: Just because an AD partner tells you it’s okay to pet their dog or talk to their dog doesn’t mean it actually is. They may be so worn out by saying “no” all day, or they may have received enough hostile reactions to their “no,” that they just give up and allow it, hoping it will make things faster and easier than trying to explain why it’s really not okay.

I was particularly concerned when I heard the miniature poodle SD story because small breed SDs are almost always used for some sort of health alert. They may alert or respond to seizures, changes in blood sugar, or psychological states, such as panic attacks, PTSD episodes, depersonalization, dissociation, or other states that require the dog to be completely tuned in to their partner at all times. They are likely on the watch for a change in their partner’s smell, gait, facial expressions, or other behavior. A dog that is busy kissing someone or being petted is not going to notice these things. You cannot necessarily tell by looking at an AD whether it is “on duty” or not. It is safest for the team if you assume the dog is on duty.

I have heard, over the years, from my friends, health care workers, family members, and others that they approached strangers with assistance dogs because they “thought of you and Jersey/Gadget/Barnum.” I’m always shocked, and I’m almost always tongue-tied. I know they are acting out of fond feelings for me or my SD, but I want to tell them, “The kindest and most supportive thing you can do for any working or training team you see in public — the best way you can honor me and my 13 years of training and partnering with service dogs — is to completely ignore the dog.” It goes against human nature, I know. But it’s really what the vast majority of us want. It is certainly what I want when I’m in public, training or working my dog.

I feel very uncomfortable not knowing how to educate people when I hear these kinds of comments. They pop up out of nowhere, and not usually in contexts where I can stop what I’m doing and go into gentle-assistance-dog-handler-education-mode. So I often say nothing. Then I feel guilty that I am contributing to the problems other handlers are facing with these people who likely think I approve and support their choices to interact with strangers with working dogs.

2. A person’s relationship to my dog — as a dog, not as my working dog — is more important to them than their relationship with me.

Someone recently ended a relationship with me because we had differing desires for how he would interact with my dog and what we saw his role as being. This was someone whom I perceived as “a friend who really likes my dogs.” I thought he was interested in helping me out with them in part because it was useful to me, and in part because he enjoyed his time with my dogs. I discovered, however, that his interest was entirely in having fun with my dogs, and that he did not consider me a friend. This has been a painful discovery for me.

I thought we were friends with a long history of a shared love of my dogs. I knew that there were sometimes conflicting desires about how he wanted to interact with my dogs versus how I wanted them to interact together, but I thought we had the same goal of me having healthy, happy, good working partners. In a recent interaction where this person explained his perception of our relationship, he said that his only sadness was that he would not be interacting with my dogs anymore. He did not feel sad that we had ended our relationship with conflict.

In this conversation, he referred to my service dogs as “your pets.” To me, this explained a lot.

Our disagreements always involved my requesting him to require certain standards of behavior from my dogs. Not to jump up to greet him was one. Not to pull on the leash was another. To sit before and after exiting the vehicle. These rules were for my own and the dogs’ safety, for the dogs’ sense of stability in knowing what was expected of them in all situations, and for their ability to retain the behaviors I needed in my canine assistants.

However, this person and I had different agendas, and it’s only now that I realize how big that difference was. When I saw him allowing, or encouraging, my SD to jump up on him in greeting, I thought that he just didn’t understand why that was a problem, that I hadn’t explained it fully enough. So, I would explain again. I learned, eventually, that he did know that I didn’t want this behavior, but he wanted it, so he “snuck it in” when I wasn’t looking. It was their little secret, between them. This worked alright with my previous SD, Gadget, who was able to distinguish what behavior was allowable with this person only, and what was required with everyone else. However, Barnum, whom I’ve raised from puppyhood, doesn’t make these distinctions as easily and generalizes more. Therefore, it’s very detrimental to his training to have jumping up allowed or encouraged, ever.

Similarly, for the past two years one of my helpers and I have spent hundreds of hours working on loose leash walking with Barnum. I have worked with everyone in my household who ever has Barnum on leash for a split second about how to preserve this training. I couldn’t understand why we could never maintain our progress. Then I discovered that this guy was allowing, or even encouraging, excited behavior which involved, or led to, pulling on leash. I explained again, as I had so many times, why it was important not to let Barnum pull. That was the end of our relationship. He let me know that his interest was in having fun with my dog. Having fun did not involve having to follow my rules for interacting with Barnum.

Of course, everyone has different needs and desires in a relationship. I can understand that some people just want to have fun with a “pet” and not worry about the impact their behavior has on that dog’s person. At the same time, none of the dogs this man knew were pets. They were all working dogs. Canine assistants. The equivalent, for legal purposes, of assistive technology. My SDs make my life safer, less physically painful or exhausting, assist with my communication with others, and provide me with more independence. I almost never leave my house. I am confined to bed almost fulltime. I don’t get to socialize with anyone IRL, except my PCAs and part of my family. In other words, my life is extremely confined, constrained, and limited. Any tiny drop of increased energy, decreased pain, or increased freedom is unbelievably precious to me. And anything that interferes with my dog’s ability to provide this assistance is very painful — sometimes unbearably and heartbreakingly so. I have been without a fully trained assistance dog for three years — since Gadget’s cancer went out of remission in 2009. Sometimes I just can’t stand how long it’s taking, and how unbelievably hard it’s been, to train Gadget’s successor. Knowing that someone I considered a friend doesn’t care about that at all really hurts.

To know that someone I thought of as a friend prioritized their unalloyed fun with my dog over my ability to finish training my dog to improve the quality of my very limited life is quite painful.

3. A person’s relationship to my dog is often intertwined with their feelings about, or relationships with, their parents, their children, their inner children, their own animals, etc., and when I don’t allow them to interact with my SD in ways they find emotionally comfortable, soothing, or pleasurable, they sometimes get very upset.

Sometimes these people are aware of the emotional triggers taking place and can talk to me about it. Then we can talk about what’s going on for them. I can try to empathize with them while also taking care of my own need for my dog’s behavior to be under my control. I hope they will be able to hear me when I explain the practical reasons why I’m asking them not to talk to or pet the dog, let him jump on my bed, beg for food, get treats, etc. Sometimes we can understand and support each other. Sometimes I end up feeling very lonely and exhausted by having to defend my methods. I worry that people in my life think I’m being “mean,” or that I’m just making up rules because that’s fun.

The bottom line in all these situations is that I wish people would understand that my service dog is not a pet. He is not a toy. He is not in their life for their entertainment. Yes, very often my dog and the people in my life share play, love, and affection. I really enjoy when people in my life love and respect my dogs. But, foremost, I want them to recognize — and act accordingly — that my dog is in my life to help me lead a safer, more independent, healthier, richer life. Lately, I look back with longing on the days when I trained my previous two dogs pretty much in isolation. When I lived alone and did not have assistants and carers in my home most of the time. The lines of communication were much clearer with my dogs.

However, back in those days, I was not nearly as sick and disabled as I am now. I no longer have the option of relying primarily on my service dog and my self to survive. For better and for worse, I have people in my life much more of the time, and for better and for worse, these people interact with my service dogs or dogs-in-training, and I have to do constant training and management not only in training my SD, but with these people in how they interact with my dog.

- Sharon, the muses of Jersey and Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT

The Power of “Sit” to Open — and Shut — Doors!

It seems like every day now, Barnum is making progress in one area and showing holes in training (or backsliding) in another. It’s a challenge for me to mentally keep track of what to focus on, as well as to physically put in the work involved. It’s as if Barnum read the bouvier des Flandres handbook and learned that at two years of age, he becomes more an adult, and less a puppy, and has started — for better and for worse — to grow into those traits for which the breed is known.

On one hand, he is learning faster, is thinking more independently, has more energy and drive to work. These are some of my favorite traits of the breed, and why I gravitated toward bouviers and have continued to stick with them as service dogs. Unfortunately, I have not been well enough to provide as much physical and mental stimulation as he needs. I’ve also felt frustrated that I cannot capitalize on his new-found drive and enthusiasm to train as much as I’d like.

On the other hand, when I am able to work him, we can work long sessions, and varied skills, and he is very much “in the game,” to quote Sue Ailsby (aka Sue Eh?). Not only is he in the game, but his “little grey cells”* seem to have multiplied or plumped up or something, so that the “light bulb moments” are coming more often. As a trainer, and especially as a partner-trainer of a successor SDiT slogging a long, hard road, these light bulb moments are what I live for! I feel indescribably elated when they occur.

We have had some literal light bulb moments, such as Barnum learning to nudge the light switch down (in addition to up) and beginning to learn to generalize this skill to other locations than the one with which he is most familiar (my bathroom). However, the most exciting new skills are our advances in opening and shutting doors. Barnum has been shutting my bathroom and bedroom door for quite some time. However, there was a period when we lost ground on the bedroom door because somehow — I still don’t know how it happened — the door bopped him in the butt right as I gave the cue to shut the door, and he developed a fear of shutting my bedroom door and particularly of the cue. (The cue was poisoned.)

We worked our way past that by removing obstacles, literally. I’d move my powerchair, oxygen tank, trash can, and other things away from the door during training sessions so he could regain his confidence. Then he was very confident and enthusiastic shutting the door if I was in my chair, but not in my bed. (The butt-bopping incident occurred when I was in bed.) Over the last several weeks, I’ve been reshaping him to shut the door when I’m in bed, and he is now about 80 to 90 percent solid on that.

Meanwhile, I have done occasional shaping sessions with him to teach him to grab the door pull on my bedroom door and pull it down and back, which — when done just right — opens the door.

A door with a metal door lever with a red nylon webbing pull attached. It has a knot in the bottom. Next to the door is a cupboard, with a cabinet door and three drawers. Thin, turquoise nylon pulls hang from the cabinet doorknob and the knob of one of the drawers.

My bathroom door pull and two cupboard pulls.

I have not been in a hurry to train this skill because, even though it’s an extremely useful skill for me, I was waiting on two things:

  1. I wanted Barnum to have a better grasp (no pun intended) on “take” and “hold,” which he was learning from our retrieve training. Cueing him to “take” the pull would make generalizing the skill to other doors easier — especially when he comes up against doors where the handle must be pulled down and then pushed in, a much more challenging combination than pull down and back.
  2. I wanted to have some sort of control in place for when Barnum realized he had The Power to Open Doors.

Now, I have been pretty frank in this blog about Barnum not being the smartest dog on the planet. However, he’s no dummy. If you teach a dog to open a door on their own, at some point, if there is a reason for them to want to be on the other side of that door, all but the meekest or slowest of pups is going to realize that they can let themselves out.** Gadget let himself out of the house a couple of times before I caught him in the act and communicated that that was not how things were to be done.

The first time that Barnum did open my bedroom door in a training session, he didn’t realize he’d opened it. He was turned away from the door, snorking up his treats. By the time he turned back to the door to discover it was ever-so-slowly swinging open, he was like, “Huh! The door’s open. Cool,” and he wandered out to see what was happening elsewhere in the house. During the same session, he opened the door again, and the same thing happened. I ended the session, deciding that I would have to think of a way to condition him to believe that whenever he opened that door, the really Excellent Stuff for Dogs was taking place inside my room.

We had plenty else to work on, so I just let the issue float down to the bottom of my consciousness to collect dust — gold dust, as it has turned out, I think. Apparently, after a month of severely poor functioning for me, including cognitive function, my little grey cells have come to life, too!

Along with our more advanced skills, which Barnum and I either had learned from doing Sue’s Original Levels or from service skill training I’d figured out on my own with Gadget, Barnum and I have been very slowly working our way through Sue’s new book, Training Levels: Steps to Success. The idea is for us to fill in any gaps in our foundation skills that I may not be aware of (and some that I am) and then progress to the higher levels that we have not yet achieved.

Well, it just so happens that one of the steps we have been working on is Sit, Level 1, Step 4, which is “The dog sits by an open door.” The idea is that the dog learns to sit any time before he goes through a door — the open door becomes a sit cue, and thus you have a default sit for any open doors. This can later help prevent dogs rushing outdoors. Barnum actually has excellent door manners, but there is always something to be learned from any clicker training exercise (especially a Sue Eh?) exercise, so we have been doing our door sits.

One day I was thinking about how I could get Barnum to stay in the room every time he opened the door, and it occurred to me that I could make the default behavior after opening a door to sit and look at me! Eureka! And we were already halfway there because Barnum was already learning to sit at open doors!

So, I was ready with this plan in place, but I hadn’t counted on how excited and enthusiastic Barnum would become about opening doors. Once he really understood the purpose of all this tugging on the strap, it was thrilling to him to open the door and win a click and treat, and then to run behind the door and slam it shut — and win another click and treat! Since I was now teaching him the cue for opening the door, which requires repetition — and since he was so excited it was hard to interrupt him — I let him carry on with opening and shutting the door in true bouvier style. (Very! Loud!!)

“At least,” I thought, “if he is obsessed with shutting the door after opening it, he is not running out the open door. So, we can bring control into the equation once he’s learned the cues a bit better.”

And that’s what we’ve done. I used a helper to toss treats because that allowed me to focus on timing my clicks and not exhaust myself with throwing. However, the bonus of this was that Barnum naturally oriented to the helper to get his reward after opening the door. Once I was able to reliably cue him to open the door, I took over the treats and he had to reorient himself to look at me. From there, I used whatever I had in my arsenal (zen, “Watch me,” and/or “sit”) to get him to face me, sit, and wait for his next cue (with clicks and treats for every behavior he completed, until I could go for twofers and use the second cue in the chain as a reinforcer for the previous behavior).

Thus, what we ended up with (when things went perfectly) was

  • Sharon (lying in bed) cues Barnum to open door;
  • Barnum opens door;
  • Barnum whirls toward Sharon;
  • Barnum sits and awaits further instructions;
  • Sharon cues Barnum to close door
  • Barnum closes door, turns to Sharon and sits again.

Then, it got even more exciting than that. Here’s a hint: We added elements from the Come Game and Retrieve! But I’ll leave that for another post when I might even have video of the behavior chain.

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT-well-on-his-way!

*Bouviers des Flandres are a Dutch/Belgian breed, so it seems appropriate to quote Hercule Poirot here, a brainy Belgian (though a fictional one).

**Interestingly, I know some people who worry about teaching their dog to open the refrigerator. This has not (yet) been a concern of mine. No matter how hungry Gadget was, it never occurred to him to want to open the fridge, and I doubt very much that Barnum will do it either. I think the thrill of freedom — the run of the house or the outdoors — and the lure of attention and society while I am boringly asleep is much more of an enticement to my bouvs than food. Also, so far Barnum is still startled any time he opens the refrigerator door. He finds the movement of the door aversive, so I am shaping that skill with very high rate of reinforcement and a very low-key emotional environment. Hopefully he will eventually get past this startle response, but for now, I don’t see him trotting off happily to open the fridge on his own.


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