Archive for the 'Service dog in training' Category

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.

The Ninth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (#ADBC) Is Up!

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.

Spent a Moment with Us!

ADBC #9 is up at Learning Baby Steps. Martha really scored with the topic she picked: Moments. I’m working my way through the posts and enjoying each one. From guide dogs to psychiatric service dogs, from puppies to retirees, wonderful stories have been contributed. Some celebratory, some poignant. Moments of both life and death or the split-second moment between those two.

Please check out the carnival, read the excellent posts, and leave some comment love for the contributors!

More info about the ADBC is here. Aaaaand guess who’s hosting Number 10 in January? Yours truly! Please tune in near the beginning of January for the theme and other details.

Also, if you would like to host an upcoming carnival, all the slots after mine (April, July, and October 2013) are empty and awaiting hosts. Please comment below or contact me.

Enjoy!

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

With a New Service Dog the “Moments” Are Many, Stark, and Blended

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.

These Are the Moments

It’s Assistance Dog Blog Carnival time again, and from the moment Martha posted her call for entries, I knew what I wanted to blog about. The problem was that I’d just written that post at the beginning of the month — before I knew that would be the #ADBC theme.

What I immediately thought of are the moments that occur now, sporadically but frequently, when I think some version of, “Hey, Barnum is actually acting like a service dog now. He is actually making my life easier.” So, yes, I have written about this before, especially lately, but that’s the thing about these moments — they occur frequently, and each one is a little bit different.

Because I have a new camera that’s easier for me to use than my old one — and which can take multiple images in one second, so I can get several pics of Barnum when he’s moving fast — I thought it would be fun to “capture these moments on film.” All the pics in this post were taken within about five minutes tonight.

Sometimes these moments are sit-up-and-take-notice moments, when I am surprised to discover that Barnum knows something I didn’t think he did. Usually that’s a moment when I realize, “He actually knows this cue!” For example, now he will turn on or off the hallway light pretty consistently on the single cue, “Light!” Even with my back to him and me moving away from him. This is noteworthy because he has trained and used this cue mostly in my bedroom and bathroom, so this shows that he’s beginning to generalize the idea and he will look up high on walls now when I say, “Light!” To figure out what I might be talking about.

Barnum standing on hind legs, left front paw planted on the wall, nose on switch plate. Because he has to fit between the powerchair and the wall, he is at an angle, coming to the switch from his right.

When I am done taking pics, I ask him to turn off the light.

Sometimes it’s when I’ve been taking a skill or achievement for granted because I’m used to our level of fluency but someone else sees it in action for the first time. Last week I asked Barnum to open my bedroom door when Betsy was in the room with me, and he ran over and opened it. Betsy said, “Hey! He did that on the first try!” I was surprised because he has been very fluent in that skill for a long time. He almost never needs to make more than one attempt; I didn’t realize she didn’t know. (Such as in the video below, posted four months ago. I decided against making videos tonight; they take too much time. I just wanted to focus on individual moments!)

Similarly, a few days ago Barnum removed my socks when one of my PCAs was here. She smiled and said it was the first time she’d seen him do that. Again, I was surprised. She said she knew he could do it and she’d seen us train it, but she hadn’t seen the whole behavior as a complete working skill before that. I tried to capture the sock removal process on film, but Barnum was so quick, I couldn’t keep him in the frame to take pictures fast enough.

With his front half on the bed, Barnum grabs the toe of the sock on Sharon's left foot.

Beginning with the left foot….

Now standing on the bed, Barnum pulls the toe of the sock on Sharon's right foot. (Her left foot is now bare.)

Moving on to the right foot…

Speaking of socks, another moment is when I realize Barnum is more helpful (easier, faster, more pleasant, whatever) with a task than a human would be. (Please note, humans reading this who sometimes assist me, that this is not any sort of slight against you.) When Barnum takes off my socks, he grabs the toe and pulls until it’s off and then hands it to me; it’s pretty fast and painless.

Barnum pulls the right sock by turning his head and body so the sock is now stretching as it's pulled off.

And twist and puuuuuulllll!

Barnum is now turned diagonal to finish pulling off the very long sock (about two feet long).

And puuuuuuullllll!

An extreme closeup of Barnum's snout -- just part of his nose and the front of his mouth visible with the sock -- tan, red, and blue wool stripes -- protruding from his mouth.

Here ya go!

People, on the other hand, often make quite a meal of sock removal because they are trying to be careful and gentle. I’m in pain a lot, so they are worried about hurting me. I have big, sweaty feet, so removing my socks can be quite a chore, as it’s hard to find socks big enough.

Human assistants often try to loosen the sock, roll it down from the top, ease over my ankle or heel, tug here and there — all out of a desire to be gentle and caring. Unfortunately the process takes too long, which causes me more pain and exhaustion than I want to deal with. Barnum is not thinking about my pain or exhaustion. To him, sock removal is a fun game that might earn him a treat, so it goes fast!

Likewise, I’ve started having Barnum help me off with my long-sleeved tops (something I do several times a day due to fluctuations in temperature and to get to my PICC line).

Barnum is lying on the bed near Sharon's bare feet and pulling on a white long sleeve.

It’s like a sock — for your arm!

I didn’t used to ask him to do this because I thought calling him, getting him in position, and polishing the skill would be more trouble than it’s worth. But I realized last night that actually he can do it quickly and easily, making it less painful than doing it myself or with human help.

I focus my training on the skills I need when I can’t do them alone. When no human assistant is here. When I’d be stuck without Barnum’s assistance. It often seems like overtraining and sometimes I question that choice — until one of those days happen when I really do need that help. But more often I find that I ask him to perform a skill just because he enjoys it, I enjoy it, and it’s easier and more fun than relying on a person. And sometimes because he actually does a better job.

Often it just comes down to attitude or communication. It’s not that people in my life have “an attitude” about helping me, but if Barnum’s in my room, and my PCA is in another part of the house, it’s just more enjoyable and less emotionally tiring to have Barnum help me, which he finds thrilling, than to — for example — pull my PCA away from making my food or doing my laundry — to come over and do something as simple as shut a door or turn off a light or pull down my covers.

Sometimes — usually on a day I’m doing badly — Barnum and I will work together without my really paying attention to how much he’s doing until the series of skills coalesce and I realize, “Hey! He’s making this day a lot more doable.” One realization usually starts that thought train going: “Huh, I only had to ask him that once. Hm, he will do this behavior in a chain with that one and I don’t have to reinforce them separately. . . .”

It took me a long time to get down to writing this post, and then it just flowed out of me, and I think the reason for both the procrastination and the ease is that the moments happen so often now, they are easy to miss. So, on one hand, it’s taken me a while to pick out what to write about, to remember, “What were our recent ‘moments’?” On the other hand, there are so many that once I call them forth I could write an endless post about this moment, then this moment, then this one.

But I don’t want to do that to you, readers. I might put you to sleep!

Barnum sleeping on the bed, Sharon's bare foot in the foreground.

Goodnight, everybody.

Besides, there are a lot of posts to read in this blog carnival, and I know you will want to get them all. I only wanted you to stop here for a moment.

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

P.S. Guess who’s hosting the next #ADBC? Get ready!

Barnum Is Now a Coupe

He is a two-door service dog. The latest model.

While I spend the vast majority of my time in bed, I also make frequent trips to the adjoining “master bathroom,” which has a difficult-to-open door. It’s actually not as bad as it used to be, but I can never fully shake off the fear of my first experiences with this door.

When I first used the bathroom in this house was when I was a potential home-buyer. I went into the bathroom, shut the door, and did my business. Then, I tried to open the door, and I couldn’t. It was stuck. It was summer, and the wooden door had expanded and become too tight. I’m not super strong. I yelled for help. Nobody heard me. I banged on the walls. I tried repeatedly to tug the door open with its obnoxiously unhelpful egg-shaped door knob.

I don’t remember how I got out. Either someone noticed I’d been gone a while and came to look for me, or — using that extra boost of adrenaline that comes with a combination of fear and humiliation — I finally managed to free myself. Forever after, I was nervous about getting locked into that bathroom.

I made changes: I changed all the egg-shaped knobs to levers and hung door pulls on them for Gadget to use to open and shut the doors. The levers were also easier for me to open. And most importantly, a locksmith friend of mine adjusted the door so that it fit better in the frame and didn’t stick in the summer.

Even with all this, that bathroom door is still the most difficult-to-open interior door in my house. It takes more torque to release the bolting mechanism than any other door does. And even though Barnum has become quite accomplished with the other doors in the house, I hadn’t yet taught him this one because it presents an additional challenge due to the size and configuration of the bathroom.

So, until I taught Barnum how to open this door, I have mainly been dealing with the problem by almost never shutting the bathroom door. This doesn’t allow me a lot of privacy when my PCAs or other people are around, but I’d rather lose some privacy than get trapped in the bathroom. It’s so undignified! (And the location of this bathroom, combined with the very thick, insulated walls mean that when I do have to yell or pound for someone’s attention in there, it’s very hard to be heard.)

The reason this door was the last bastion of dog-door-opening difficulty is that I couldn’t use the same training technique I used with others. The way to make the job of opening a door easiest on Barnum is to have him approach the handle from the side furthest from the lever’s end, as opposed to pulling straight on. This way, he uses maximum leverage with minimal force to release the bolt. (Physics is your friend.) You can see this technique in action in the video below, where it takes less than three seconds for Barnum to open and exit the door. (From 0:03 to 0:06.)

Transcript of the video is here.

However, the master bathroom has a built-in cabinet right next to the door, so Barnum’s only options are to pull from the front or to pull from the lever-end side, which is even worse.

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.

Here’s the bathroom door and the counter immediately on its left that prevents Barnum from getting good leverage.

So, I messed around with it for a while. I tried partially filling the latch hole on the theory that if the bolt had less distance to travel, it wouldn’t require as much torque to release. For whatever reason, that hasn’t worked.

Meanwhile, I started shaping* this behavior with a very high rate of reinforcement so that Barnum would be VERY EXCITED to open the door. I actually began with his favorite PCA sitting on my bed and only partially shutting the door, asking him to find her (as I previously discussed here and also here). This is Barnum’s Very Most Favorite Skill in the World. He LOVES to find people, get a treat from them, and then run back to find me. This also happens to be the most likely real-world application of this skill — if I’m in the bathroom and need Barnum to go get me help. So, I was tweaking the circumstances for maximum thrill.

Once Barnum was whining with excitement every time he flew at the door and tugged, I switched to just shaping a very enthusiastic approach to taking and pulling the cord. Then I shaped for longer holds and harder tugs. Occasionally, seemingly by complete chance, the door would fly open, but most of the time, Barnum was throwing his terrific enthusiasm (and considerable strength) into the job, without success.

I did notice, eventually, that the times that the door opened “out of the blue” did have something in common — Barnum was approaching from further away. So, I went back to my frenemy, physics, to try to figure out the problem. It seemed clear that Barnum needed to pull DOWN more BEFORE he pulled back. He also needed to approach as close as possible to, and parallel with, the cabinet. And there was something about approaching from farther away that helped. Shaping him to approach from the side was easy — I could manipulate each approach by where I threw the treat from the previous attempt. I realized eventually that the distance of the approach often simply meant a more enthusiastic, energetic pull. But why that was so crucial I still wasn’t sure.

I wanted to make the pulling easier on him. Someone on a training list I’m on once mentioned that a very long pull cord works better for her SD than a short one, so I switched to a long cord. That made things worse, which helped me realize that Barnum needed to choke up HIGHER on the cord to be able to pull down more easily. This wasn’t something I’d figured out with Gadget, who naturally had a tendency to grab high and who was also a bit shorter and more naturally wild/enthusiastic in his grabs. Eventually I realized that the two key ingredients were to shape Barnum to grab higher and to pull down hard at the beginning, versus a slow, steady pull that tended to be back as much as (or more than) down. That’s why the “running start” made a difference; he naturally tended to grab higher and pull down more when he was excited.

So, today I moved the knot higher up the pull cord (or tug strap, as some call them), and I tossed treats as far behind him as possible to get him coming at the door faster/further away and as close to the cabinet as possible. Success! Once he understood that grabbing up higher was the key, he was very excited about it. I jackpotted any time the door opened, not least because the door suddenly swinging open was a bit startling to Barnum the first few times.

Then, each time he opened the door, I had him run to find my PCA. Creating this behavior chain served two functions:

1. He loves this behavior, so it added value as a positive reinforcer for opening the door.

2. Most of the time when I really will need him to open the door, it will be to go find help, so it’s good to forge the links in this behavior chain now.

After a few rounds of this, Barnum was getting mentally fatigued (he was still extremely enthusiastic, but he was starting to get cues mixed up and just throwing behaviors at me), so I ended with BOTH the bathroom door and my bedroom door shut, which — again — most closely simulates what I will need in a real situation. He also has such a strong positive reinforcement history of opening my bedroom door to find a PCA that I thought it would be exciting to him.

Well, he did it! He opened the bathroom door. I said, “Where’s [person]?” And he raced into my room, whined with excitement in his hurry to get my bedroom door open faster than was caninely possible and found her. She praised and treated, asked him where I was, and he ran back to me! I was very proud and pleased.

I wanted to pet him or thump him on the chest in celebration, but he really does not like to be touched while in training mode, so I asked him for a “high nose,” which is the behavior I have settled on for when I want some celebratory physical contact at the end of a training session and he doesn’t want to be touched. I do a “high-five” position with my hand, and he bonks it with his nose (because even though I say, “High nose!” which means nothing to him, a palm facing him is our nonverbal cue for “touch”), and he gets a treat, and everyone feels good. (I have been giving a lot more thought to how and when Barnum wants to be touched and how we can both have our needs met and respected since I read this post by Eileen and Dogs.)

Of course, we will need to practice this and get the entire behavior chain on one cue (“Where’s [person]?” leading to opening both doors, finding and nudging the person, sitting down, waiting for the “Where’s Sharon?” cue and then returning) but I feel very confident that we are close to that now.

High nose!

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

P.S. I know I haven’t been posting much lately. I have a lot of posts that are mostly done, and I hope to get back to blogging and other writing soon, which I will be filling you in on. . . .

* For those of you who are new to my blog or to clicker-training lingo, a few explanations/definitions:

Shaping, sometimes referred to as “free shaping,” is, in my opinion, the most creative, advanced, and fun form of clicker training because there is no prompting by the trainer. Instead, we use a dog’s offered behaviors and reward those that resemble — in tiny ways, at first — the end result we want. The dog has to do more thinking than in any other form of training. It is a step-by-step way for dog and trainer to problem-solve their way to a solution. In my experience, behaviors that are shaped are the strongest behaviors when they’re finished than those achieved by luring or other methods, possibly because they tend to involve such a high rate of reinforcement (sometimes referred to as RR).

Rate of reinforcement (RR) means, quoting Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training Glossary: “The number of reinforcers given for desired responses in a specific period of time. A high rate of reinforcement is critical to training success.” Here is a much longer discussion of RR and its importance in dog training.

What Would YOU Like to Know about Assistance Dogs?

After I published this post for Blogging Against Disableism Day, I received a note from Sarah Levis inviting me to guest post on her blog, Girl with the Cane. I wasn’t sure what I should write about, other than “service dogs,” so we decided to put the question to you, dear reader.

What would you like to know from me about raising, training, or partnering with service dogs?

I’ll take any question, no matter how detailed or general, public or private. Why owner train instead of use a program? Differences between clicker training and previous methods I’ve used? If I have human helpers, why do I need a dog? What is my preference for how others behave around my dogs? Why bouviers and not Labradors? Why did I switch from adopting adults to raising a puppy? What’s the most embarrassing/exciting/shocking thing my service dog ever did? What do members of the public do that annoys me the most? How did I know I wanted a service dog? And all those questions I can’t even guess at. . . .

Barnum's head and shoulder's, very shaggy, his snout totally white with snow, his head cocked to the side in a very adorable, questioning way

So, you have a question?

Nothing is off-limits! If you have ever wanted to ask something but thought you shouldn’t because it was too personal or offensive or silly or “ignorant” or you “should” already know the answer, etc., be silent no more. This is your opportunity!

I’ll accept questions for the next two weeks. Please post them as comments to this post here (or, if you’d like your question to be anonymous, at today’s Girl with a Cane post on this topic). After Sarah and I collect all the questions from both blogs, I’ll attempt* to answer them all, and Sarah will post those answers at Girl with a Cane. (I’ll put a link up so you’ll find out when that post is up.)

I’m very curious to know what you’re curious about!

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

*I say “attempt” because I might receive a question that I can’t answer. For example, if I’m asked what it was like for me to have a guide dog or train at a service dog school, I won’t be able to answer those questions directly because I haven’t had those experiences. But I might ask one of my friends who has such experiences if they would be willing to answer. If I can’t give a complete answer to a question, to quote Albus Dumbledore, “I shall not, of course, lie.”

Service Dog “Find Person” Protocol for Human Helpers

Like virtually every dog trainer I know, I find training people much more difficult than training dogs. With a dog, I have a clear goal in mind, and I have learned how to break the desired behavior down, step by step, so that I communicate what I’m looking for very clearly. With people,  it’s too easy to rely too much on our shared language which often leads to assumptions that they understand what I’m asking (whether or not I’ve explained it adequately).

If you read this blog regularly, you’re probably aware that I’ve been sending Barnum to find my personal care assistants, either to deliver messages in a pouch attached by Velcro to Barnum’s collar, or to alert them that I need them ASAP. (As discussed recently in this post and shown on video in this post.) We are at the “proofing” stage of this behavior, meaning that it’s reliable enough that I am mostly actually using it and occasionally testing it to see if there are still any weaknesses in his reliable performance of the skill.

In the course of proofing, I discovered that I was communicating much more effectively with Barnum about what I want him to do than I was with the people involved about what I want them to do. So, I typed out this instruction sheet for my PCA (personal care assistants), and it’s posted in the kitchen. They have found it helpful, and I thought you might find it useful (if this is a behavior you want to teach) or simply of interest if you want to learn a bit more about the ins and outs of training this behavior.

Barnum’s “Where’s Person?” Protocol

If you KNOW I have sent Barnum to you (known training situation):

  • Wait for him to nudge you. If he DOESN’T nudge, point to your leg and say NUDGE.
  • When he nudges (whether you’ve cued him or not), say YES! And give him a treat.
  • Ask him to SIT.
  • Let him stay in the sit for a few moments (even if you’ve removed a pouch).
  • Say YES and give him a treat.
  • Say WHERE’S SHARON? It’s important to end with WHERE’S SHARON? Because I listen for that to know whether Barnum did the behavior, and because you saying that also tells HIM that he has earned treats from me.

If you DON’T Know If I’ve Sent Him (“Cold” Practice or REAL Situations) . . .

If he nudges you or he’s wearing a pouch, that tells you I definitely sent him.

If you’re not sure, try to be aware of Barnum’s body language/the situation.

Here are some clues I probably did NOT send him to you:

  • He wanders into the kitchen
  • He seems more interested in the food prep you’re doing (especially prepping dog treats) than anything else

In this case, please come check with me, and I will call him and keep him from hanging out and begging food from you, because this is not a behavior I want him to learn/practice.

These are CLUES I probably DID send him to you:

  • You heard him OPEN MY DOOR to get to you
  • He is RUNNING or trotting in to you with EXCITEMENT/purpose
  • He is STARING at you

If the above apply, please follow these steps:

  • If he nudges you, say YES and treat. If no treats are available, say Good boy!
  • Immediately, tell him to SIT!
  • Look for a pouch on his collar. If it’s there, take the pouch.
  • Find him a treat. Tell him YES! Then give him the treat.
  • ASK HIM WHERE’S SHARON? (And if there’s no pouch, follow him back to me.)

Happy (people and dog) training!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (this was one of my favorite jobs), and Barnum SD/SDiT (this IS my favorite job!)

The Service Dog Messenger Pouch

I’ve mentioned in several recent posts (such as this one) that I’m having Barnum deliver messages to my PCAs.  Originally the plan was just to train him to go get them, and that’s a very important skill if I’m somewhere I need help — usually the bathroom, occasionally in the yard. But a delivery system is convenient for those days I’m nonverbal, and I want to tell or ask my PCA something without having to ring for them. For instance, if I’m hungry and I really want my breakfast protein drink now, but I want to ask them to put a straw in it because it’s an “I can’t lift the mug” sort of day, I don’t want to go through this:

  • Ring my “doorbell
  • They come to my room
  • I tell them I want my breakfast drink
  • Before I can explain about the straw, they’ve already headed out the door to get me the drink
  • I try to make a noise they can hear or ring the bell so they’ll turn around and come back
  • Communicate “please put a straw in it”
  • And THEN they’d have to go back to the kitchen and get the drink (and straw)

However, with “the pouch method,” I can just write a little note that says, “Please bring brkfst drink w/straw,” and have Barnum deliver that.

Barnum with a red plaid flannel pouch velcroed to the back of his collar.

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

The one above is good for notes or other small things. It was a pocket from an old flannel nightgown. There is a (prickly) strip of Velcro sewn onto the back of the pouch:

Back of a red plaid flannel pouch with strip of white Velcro sewn across the top.

Back of a pouch.

 

And on the back of Barnum’s collar is a soft strip of Velcro. This makes it easy to attach and detach the pouch. It also allows me to have pouches of various sizes. We made a larger one with a closure at the top for sending bigger things.

If I send Barnum to someone with a pouch, and he returns to me without it, I know they’ve gotten my note or whatever other item was in the pouch.

Voila! Very simple service dog gear you can make yourself.

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she just tucked notes in my collar), and Barnum, messenger pigeon bouvier/SDiT

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

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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