Level One: Two Paws Forward, One Paw Back

Hi. I know it’s been a long time. I also know I said in my previous post about canine Lyme, that my next two posts would be about Lyme disease. I do still plan to do those, but I have been writing various other posts (all half-finished, of course, with many waiting for pics), so I decided to go ahead with some new stuff in the meanwhile. I will definitely do the promised Lyme Awareness Parts II and III eventually.

Instead, how about a “Sharon-and-Barnum Update”?

I know those have been severely lacking at After Gadget. And, of course, I’ve written several half-posts about why they’re lacking. Sigh.

[Also note: All photos in this post are outdated. Barnum is now HUGE in comparison to these itty-bitty-puppy pics. Probably close to 60 pounds, and growing. He is six months old, and the most recent pics that have made it onto my computer are from early May. So, just imagine him now as tall as me (5’6″) if he stands on his hind legs, and his head is now about the size of his whole body when he arrived. Okay?]

Anynoodle, soon after I got Barnum and joined a training listserv, several people pointed me toward Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.

The Level Book is a system of clicker training every foundational skill a sports/performance dog (and therefore, a service dog), can use. Sue, herself, has trained herding, agility, obedience, and all sorts of other dog sports, as well as training her own service dogs after she acquired a disability. She also trains other species, especially her own llamas, to do some remarkable stuff. The Levels provides a systematic, detailed, and kind structure.

I thought I’d been “working the levels” pretty much since I discovered them, soon after I got Barnum, but I realized recently that I had mixed up the Introduction and Level One (L1), with L1 and Level Two (L2). So, I thought I’d looked ahead and seen the next steps on the next level, but I was wrong! (Or maybe I did, but I forgot it all, which is also possible.)

As it turns out, many of the next steps are not what I thought, so we have missed some things and gone farther ahead on others. The Levels don’t forbid doing some things out of order, but it was a surprise.

We also had not tested any of the levels. I did ask another trainer in town if she would judge me on the levels — there are few of us in my very small town who do advanced dog training, so I was thrilled to find a neighbor who used to work an SAR dog — but she never got back to me.

Finally, Sunday night, I decided to start using the training log I’d set up before Barnum arrived, but which I hadn’t written in since, except to put in his name. I thought it was high time we tested ourselves, one way or another, on L1, and officially moved on to the behaviors of L2.

Here’s my first log. I hope to post periodic logs (the interesting ones) on After Gadget.

6/20/10 – Barnum’s six month’s old, and I’m getting ready to test him on the L1 skills. In the course of our walk today, we did some recall and loose-leash walking practice, but that’s pretty much it, and neither of those are really tested in L1. I’m going to ask Betsy to judge us.

I’m nervous! Even though I think we should do fine, and have in general surpassed the requirements by quite a bit, you never know where your weak spots are. Rather, I do know where our weak spots are. Down (“Platz!”) is a big one. He is really dependent on a lot of body language for that one. There is also his low frustration threshold and nervousness — when he will get anxious and whiny about doing a behavior.

Part of L1 is that I have a homework assignment.

Handler lists, in writing, five things s/he hopes to accomplish by working the Levels.

1. Making sure each skill, especially foundational skills, are truly solid, without any gaps that could require remediation, retraining, or god-forbid-wash-out, later.

2. Having concrete goals. I’m a very concrete, goal-oriented person. I do very well with detailed instructions. The more detailed the lesson plan, the better.

3. On the flip side, it’s always necessary, and it’s my joy, to be creative — to adjust to the situation and the dog. There are a lot of interesting suggestions for “Advanced Education” at the end of each behavior for each level.

The specifics of the levels do concern me, though, and I have to make sure I don’t ignore the cardinal rule, “Know thy Dog,” at the expense of the instructions. Already it’s been clear to me that The Levels assume a level of sustained attention that is often not possible — or enjoyable — for Barnum.

3. Dividing behaviors up into their component parts so that I don’t either (a) overwhelm Barnum by raising criteria too quickly or in “lumps” (more than one criterion at a time) or (b) miss opportunities to raise criteria in ways I hadn’t thought of. (Novel splits.) [Note: For an explanation of what I mean by “splitting” and “lumping” in this post, please go to The Level Book Intro and scroll down to “The Levels.”]

4. Having a sense of accomplishment and community. I have been depressed, grieving, overwhelmed much of the past seven months (Gadget’s death, my own health problems, the loss of multiple friends to death or abandonment, etc.). I have been responding by either retreating/isolating or by being overly judgemental and harsh with myself whenever I make a mistake with Barnum, which can’t be good for his self-esteem, either. For the first couple of months, I was overly frustrated by, and critical of, Barnum, as a result of feeling so inadequate in puppy raising (and without an adequate guide for what it would really be like to have a baby dog). I’ve just joined The Levels listserv, hoping it will provide positive suggestions and information, without the patronizing or harsh attitude that can sometimes be present on training lists (even positive reinforcement lists!).

5. Becoming a better trainer! There are always new ways to train any given behavior, and I’m hoping this will add to my flexibility. More tools in the toolbox.

6. OK, one extra: A sense of accountability. Because, due to my disabilities, I can’t go to classes or be in training groups like others, having someone judge Barnum and me at each level will provide some form of outside validation that we are achieving what I think we are.

The Results Are In. . . .

I followed Sue’s advice and tested Barnum/myself on a day when we had not trained any of these behaviors. Also, it was late at night, and Barnum was hot and tired. He was lying on the floor, panting. He really is a snow dog, not a summer dog.

Tired Puppy Asleep across Betsy's legs

Oy! The heat! I'm shvitzing! I could platz!

So, we were definitely not operating with any unfair advantage. In fact, it was a challenge to get him interested in anything other than lying on the floor, feeling sorry for himself in the heat!

Betsy agreed to act as our judge. I read her the criteria for judging overall, as well as for each behavior as we got to it. Here’s how it went.

1. “Touch” (or Targeting)

We started with this one because Barnum normally loves it and knows it extremely well. He generally shows a lot of enjoyment and confidence in doing “touch.”

The other reason is that I couldn’t get him up off the floor any other way without practicing a behavior to be tested, and I’d need him to stand to ask for a “sit” and for a stand or sit to ask for a “down.” Can’t ask for a down when he’s already lying on the floor!

I put my hand out — far enough away so he’d have to stand — and said “Touch!” He looked at it and tried to reach it without getting up. Realizing that wouldn’t work, he grudgingly streeeeetched out and touched. It was lackluster, but it met the criteria. Then, since he was “in the game,” I asked him for two more touches, just so he’d feel some sense of accomplishment. And so he’d focus a bit. Those were more peppy.

One down!

2. Sit

The criterion here is that you can only give one cue — either an oral or a manual cue. I usually use both, and I think he’s stronger with the hand signal because it grew out of the lure. I decided to challenge us and go with just the spoken word.

“Barnum,” I said, with my hands behind my back, “Sit.”

He looked at me hesitantly — I think he realized something “big” was going on — and sat. Yay!

Later, I asked him for a sit with just the hand signal, and he sat for that, too. Good dog/trainer!

3. Down

Down is allowed to be cued from a stand or a sit, and any two cues are allowed, including one oral and one manual.

I actually don’t use the word, “Down,” as my cue, because a few weeks after I taught him “down,” he started displaying anxiety with the command. (I’d say “Down,” which he previously did quickly and eagerly, but — in certain locations — instead of lying down he’d wander away, start sniffing, sometimes scratch himself.) I’m still not 100 percent sure why this seemed to have turned into a poisoned cue, though I have a couple of strong suspicions, mostly relating to the area in the yard where I think the “poisoning” occurred. [Note: “Poisoned Cues: The Case of the Stubborn Dog” is my favorite article on poisoned cues, but you have to be signed up for the Karen Pryor Clicker Training newsletter to read it. However, if you have any interest in dog behavior or training, you really should be, in my not-so-humble-opinion, subscribed anyway.]

Regardless, I decided to start over from the beginning with a different oral and manual cue, and instead of luring with food, I used the hand targeting he’d already learned, shaping the down from a “touch.” The oral cue I chose was “Platz,” which is the standard command for “down” among Schutzhund trainers. I picked it because it didn’t sound like any of our other commands, and I knew it would come easily to me. Betsy found it hilarious every time I said, “Platz!” for the first month or so, because of its Yiddish associations, but she’s over that now.

Back to the judging: Barnum was already sitting — sit and stare is his default behavior during training — though he will down from a stand, as well. In fact, he downs from a stand with more zest than from a sit. Go figure.

I said, “Barnum, platz!” and lowered my arm (palm up), and he slid into a relaxed down.

Three for three!

4. Puppy Zen (AKA Zen, AKA “Leave It”)

The criterion is that Barnum must stay away from a treat in my closed hand for five seconds. This one I knew we would pass with our paws tied behind our backs. (I wouldn’t actually do that to him, of course. However, if there were a way I could remove his fangs, er, teeth, just for short periods, that would be tempting.)

Puppy Zen is the best thing since the invention of the clicker. If you have a dog, you must, must, must play Doggy Zen with him. You can read about it on The Levels site. (Hint, hint.) The idea is that the dog learns she will get what she wants by not trying to get it. Then you can apply this self-control awareness all over the place in other areas of training/life.

Barnum and I could have passed a L1 Zen test two days after I taught it to him, probably. We progressed pretty rapidly from him leaving the treat in my hand alone to him leaving alone pieces of meat on the coffee table a good distance from me (with the table closer to him than to me). [Yet, I have had much less success teaching him not to eat the coffee table, itself.] My preferred default for Zen is sustained eye contact. If that goes on too long he’ll add a sit, then backward scooches, for good measure.

Baby Barnum first week home

See? I even knew how to sit and make eye contact when I was a little, little, little guy.

I put a few treats in my hand, said “Leave it,” and shut my hand. I held it down to nose level.

He looked at me like, “Huh? Seriously?”

I think he was confused that I was using something so easy and non-tempting as homemade beef jerky in a closed fist, whereas lately I have been working very hard with him to “Leave It” shoelaces on moving people’s sneakers.  (Soooo much more enticing to get the shoelaces! They move! The more you bite, the more they jiggle and squeak and yell! Especially when you move up to the ankles!)

Anyway, he sat, looked at me, continued looking, scooched back against the wall, still looking, now getting concerned something was wrong. I looked at Betsy, and she said, “That was way more than five seconds.”

I had forgotten to look at my watch, so I hadn’t been sure. I’d wanted to be sure.

Passed that with flying colors! Whoo!

Last, we had to move out into the living room to get enough yardage for . . .

5. The Come Game.

Two people stand twenty feet apart, calling the pup back and forth. They start by using something that will not be the pup’s future/official recall command. (We use, “Puppypuppypuppypuppy.”) Then, when he is on his way, we switch to the future official recall, “Barnum, come!” We did this a few times just for fun. We have been playing variants on the Come Game for months. The photo below shows Barnum doing the Come Game between me and Betsy at The Pond.]

Puppy Barnum in Mid-Air at Pond

My favorite picture of us. Barnum flying high!

Definite pass, according to Betsy.

We passed Level One! Woohoo!

Goooooo Team Barnum! I gave him a hug, and an extra squirt of homemade “dog pâté,” and we did high-fives all around. (True confession: Barnum can’t do a real high-five yet. He is too exuberant. It starts out as a paw, then turns into him raking your arm with his claws, till he’s standing against you on his back legs. But it’s the thought that counts.)

We were very happy. We let him out to pee, then Betsy and I tick-checked each other. While we were tick-checking, Barnum started chewing a chair leg, after I thought he’d stopped chewing furniture a couple of weeks ago! Now he is doing it again — aarrgh!

I tried several toys to distract him until we settled on one that was the right hardness for his chewing needs. It was a chew stick he’d never shown interest in before, and I was so pleased to see him carrying it around in his mouth, wagging his behind as we got all our dog-grooming gear together to tick-check him.

“Look,” I said, pointing to the area where we were about to tick-check him. “He’s going to lie down and chew it over there!”

He did lie down. Then he stood up. And peed. I’d thought the accidents were over! AAARRRRGGGH!

Four Legs to Stand On

So, on one paw, Team Barnum did pass our first level, and we are proud of that. (Dammit!)

On the second paw, Team Barnum is still very much in puppyhood and has not 100 percent “got” the “only pee and poop outside” concept and is nowhere near getting the “don’t chew on people/furniture/shoes/books/everythingelseontheplanet concept.”

On the third paw, we have now officially started working on Level Two skills, and that has turned out to be fun (for both of us — yay!), enlightening (I was lumping some things I was unaware of before — oops!), and remedial (this deserves its own pawagraph — see below).

On the fourth and final paw — for tonight — I see that there were, indeed, “lumps” in the way I was teaching, which I now am sure is the reason for skills where Barnum is nervous or frustrated (whines, acts slowly, etc.). The chance to go back and fill in these gaps, by “re-splitting,” feels like such a gift to Barnum and to me. It will make the behaviors, themselves, much stronger, but that’s really the small picture. That’s just the trees.

The forest is that now that we are truly on this path in a focused way, the training will be so much more fun for both of us, and therefore rewarding (for both of us), which will make him faster, more enthusiastic, and more “operant” (not so hesitant and waiting for me to cue him, but willing to experiment and risk and think on his own). All of which will be vital to both his learning and his desire to train/work. It was desire/confidence that was becoming a concern for me as the only possible reason I can foresee, aside from unexpected health issues, that he could wash out.

If I had to write the homework now, after having worked on L2 for a few short days, I would change what I wrote for number 3. [Note: I mean the first number 3. After proofing this blog, I noticed I wrote two of them. But sometimes I think it’s good for you to see my cognitive impairment at work.] I’d say that by doing the levels and filling in the gaps where I should have started with lower criteria, I will make Barnum feel more in control and successful, and help him back to full confidence. This will probably, eventually (along with increasing maturity), allow us to do more reinforcements of each behavior.

I’d also say that what I hope to get out of the levels is renewed confidence and faith in myself as a trainer, which naturally leads to increased confidence and pride in Barnum. All of which leads to us enjoying each other a lot more.

A couple of nights later — Tuesday — we’d done a bit of bell ringing, some introduction to nail filing, L2 sits and downs, uncued leave-its, and default eye contact. I finished our training session by singing “We Are the Champions” to him and then playing a long, rousing game of “hedgehog tug.” I’d say that counts as enjoyment, wouldn’t you?

Puppy Air Barnum at the Pond

Barnum literally leaps to get to me!

We are the champions, my friends.
And we’ll keep on fighting — till the end.
We are the champions.
We are the champions.
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions — of the world.

As always, we welcome your comments.
Sharon, Barnum, and the muse of Gadget

2 Responses to “Level One: Two Paws Forward, One Paw Back”

  1. 1 Rebecca Lynch January 31, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I happened to notice that you have used a couple of my articles as reference here. I am honored! I wanted to let you know that one of my articles – The Case of the Stubborn Dog – is now available on my website. That will provide you with a direct link if people are not signed up through Clickertraining.com. Here is the link if you would like to use it.


    Thank you!
    Rebecca Lynch, KPA CTP

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler February 3, 2011 at 12:10 pm


    Thank you so much for your direct link and for getting in touch! I’m sorry for the delay — your comment ended up in my spam folder. It’s very unusual that a legit comment ends up there (has only happened once before in over a year), so I don’t check it that often.

    The honor goes both ways! I really like your articles and your approach, and I’m tickled you posted here. And now I will be able to scour your archives for future links. Yay!

    In fact, if I ever can get around to it, there’s a series I want to do on “stubborn dogs,” and how often this label is applied where it really does not tell the whole story, and does more harm than good to both handler/owner/trainer and dog. So, I will definitely want to re-post this link.

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