Retreat! Click, treat, repeat.

Due to my disabilities I’ve only gone away three times in the last fifteen years, and never in the last seven. I was doing “staycations” long before the media coined the term. I love going on vacations and retreats, even when I never leave home.

Others — friends or writers (often one-and-the-same) — join me to talk, eat, write, watch movies, and read our work aloud at my home. Inevitably, connecting to others I care about leads me to connecting more deeply to myself, which in turn strengthens my connection to my writing. Since writing, for me, grows out of self-connection, when I am adrift from who I am, I cannot write well. In fact, I usually cannot write at all.

In the past three years, I haven’t had a writing retreat. I’ve been too sick, among other reasons. However, Betsy and I have had wonderful vacations; she takes time off from work, and we do what mood, weather, and disability allow. Even though I’m always at home, and Betsy often is, and our vacation activities might seem mundane to others — playing cards, watching movies, talking — there’s something different about setting aside a chunk of time and marking it as special. Time together is intended, however ordinary the activity, to be a source of connection with each other.

We also devote some individual time to personal projects. Last year, Betsy focused on gardening. I dedicated myself to taking Gadget for daily walks at the pond.

In 2008 and 2009, picking blackberries was one of our most enjoyable activities.

Sharon picks berries.

A berry nice summer staycation.

Gadget loved berries and picked them, too. One of his all-time favorite treats was blueberries, which he picked off the bush with gusto. However, he was fond of raspberries and blackberries, too, and would brave the thorny brambles to get at the fruit. Last year at this time, Gadget was in remission from lymphoma; he looked and acted particularly robust and happy. He joined us in the berry picking (though nothing he picked ever made it into a pie).

Gadget searches for raspberries

Gadget searches for end-of-the-season raspberries.

When Betsy or I found a particularly bountiful spot, Gadget would wade in, knocking off the ripest berries with his big frame, and indiscriminately devouring large clusters, both black and green. I couldn’t begrudge him the berries — neither those ready to eat nor those that would have been good to pick in a few days’ time. Who couldn’t laugh and rejoice in his being with us, so very Gadget — out for all he could grab from life? I also deeply enjoyed the three of us being able to take part in this activity together as a family.

Gadget eats ground blackberries

These ground-vine blackberries are so much easier to get one's muzzle around!

This week I’m enjoying a retreat of a different kind. Betsy is away, visiting family. Before she left, she planted two organic blueberry bushes, in honor of Gadget (and because we like blueberries). It felt like just the right time to plant something beautiful and practical that will be with us forever, we hope — just like Gadget and our memories of him. Also, appropriately, Barnum helped to dig the holes for the bushes, and then partly dug one of the bushes back up.

Along with Betsy’s absence, I’ve had less time with my PCAs around due to illness and car trouble. As a result, a lot of the time, it’s just Barnum and me. I’m really enjoying it.

I’ve written about how hard his first couple of months were for me. I floundered with the newness of puppy raising. My grief over missing Gadget was so overwhelming, I didn’t even see it; it simply engulfed me. I felt guilty, ashamed, confused, and scared because of my puppy-raising ineptitude — what I perceived as failing Barnum and setting us up to wash out as a service-dog team. I also allowed myself to get jangled by the discouraging and patronizing voices of other dog trainers I met online.

A lot has changed, thank dog!

First of all, after Barnum turned four month’s old, when much of the stress of babyhood wore off, I fell in love with him. This isn’t to say I didn’t love him before; I did. But I wasn’t in love with him. There’s a big difference.

Secondly, as we started to have little training victories, and Barnum developed an attention span and the ability to go longer periods without peeing (in the house), we were able to communicate better. This, too, helped me relax and appreciate him more.

Most recently, I have seriously dedicated myself to working Sue Ailsby’s training levels, which have given me step-by-step directions for ways to explain things to Barnum. I’ve discovered a lot of the bumps in the road we had hit in previous months were due me not knowing how to translate what I wanted to teach to a puppy. I was more used to explaining how to build a behavior in an adult dog. As a result, I was asking for mental leaps I wasn’t even aware were there. This created anxiety for Barnum and frustration (and feelings of inadequacy) for me.

It just keeps getting better: This week, not only do Barnum and I have a quiet, peaceful house to work in for extended periods, I am also functioning better physically than I have in three years!  Suddenly, Barnum and I are particiating in our own unplanned bonding, training, and play retreat!

Gadget rolls in clover

First, a festive roll in the clover. . . .

High-Speed Chase

Then, a rowdy game of "tag."

Barnum in pool, 6 mos old

Finally, a refreshing dip to cool off. (Every time I was about to take a picture, Barnum would turn tail!)

With this breathing space for both of us, and the Training Levels’ step-by-step directions, I find that my enjoyment and skill as a dog trainer is coming back to me! When Barnum is confused, or a skill isn’t being shaped just how I’d like, I’m able to think it through and say to myself — sometimes in the split-second necessary to change tacks in mid-training stream — “Ohhh, I need to back up and do it this way!” And lo and behold, it works! It’s just about the best feeling in the world.

I don’t know which is better: Barnum’s total happiness and obvious gratitude for me finally being able to communicate to him what I want, or my tremendously improved self-confidence and attitude about training.

Like most dogs, Barnum is not big on hiding his emotions. This is part of dogs’ wonderfulness. Thus, Barnum is quite willing to let me know whether he is pleased with what’s happening in his world at any given time. When he is not pleased, he will tell me — emphatically. However, when he is happy, he wags his whole body. For example, ever since I switched him to raw food, after finishing a meal, he comes over to me, grinning and wagging like mad.

“Thank you, thank you!” His body language gushes. “That was awesome!”

Now the same thing happens at the end of a training session. We are both concentrating very hard, but there’s also the rush of learning, teaching, communicating. Often, at the end of a particularly sharp session, Barnum runs to me and nearly knocks me over to enthusiastically lick my face. He never used to do this after training; it’s new, since our little “training retreat” week.

Some might call it anthropomorphizing, but I know what I’m seeing: not just happiness, but gratitude. After several confusing months, where sometimes we were communicating well, and sometimes we were both frustrated, we have achieved a solid communication and trust in ourselves and each other.

“Thank you, thank you!” He kisses me, wags, and grins, after a clicker session. “Now I get it! I get it! I wish you had just said so before!”

Kisses!

I love you, Mom!

There are all sorts of paradoxes here: That we made big leaps in progress when the pressure was off. That working with very definitive goals within a rigid structure — and even knowing that I will be testing myself on them — forces me to focus, which helps me relax. As with writing, the more connected I am to my task (teaching a skill), the more I connect to others involved (Barnum), and the more I’m connected to myself.

That just going hog-wild with clicking/treating (being super generous in clicking even the smallest hint of the behavior I want or doing rapid-fire or jackpots of treats) almost always gets us to a more advanced form of the behavior than being stingy with the rewards is a typical paradox of clicker, too. (And sometimes, lately, has gotten us farther and faster than I expected.)

I’ve also been trying to incorporate additional types of games into our play, especially “mind games” that help Barnum problem solve. I use them as breaks in between training sessions, or as rewards for progress, or I combine them with a training exercise. For example, to teach loose-leash walking, you put a “distraction” — something the dog really wants — at the end of your destination, and then you proceed toward it. If the leash gets tight, you go backwards. I used the muffin tin game, shown in the captioned video below by Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs, as Barnum’s distraction/destination. He really wanted to get to that muffin tin!

Click here for a transcript of the video.

With “time off” and the Training Levels as my guide, all I’ve had to do is put my head down and work on what’s right in front of me. With much of the guesswork removed, I am actually more able to “think on my feet” and be completely in the moment. All this means is that I’m attuned to Barnum’s needs, which is the name of the game, not just in training sessions, but in the rest of our lives. It’s about connection.

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5 Responses to “Retreat! Click, treat, repeat.”


  1. 1 Abigail Astor July 8, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    This After Gadget entry made me very, very happy. From the bottom of my heart, I am glad that things are starting to get a little easier with Barnum and that the two of you are bonding.

    Keep up the good work!

    Abby

  2. 2 Helen and Raja July 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Hi Sharon! Love your sincere and moving blog! A cooler blanket is a plastic “blanket” about 10 by 20 inches with compartments of freezable gel that you can buy in a camping goods / outdoors stores to freeze in your home freezer and then lay over your food in the cooler when you go on a picnic. I got mine in the EMS store online, but I understand Mejier has them too. Mine is by Rubbermaid. I am not supporting any store or brand, but just want to share where I know you can get them. They cost less than $5.00 each. I have 2 and Raja will use one and then I freeze it and take the frozen one on the next trip. Also you can roll them up and stuff them in the refrigerators in hotel rooms when you’re on the road.

  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler July 9, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Thank you, Helen!
    This is in response to a blog (tip of the day) Helen wrote for Dogster.
    I have seen ads for cooling pads for dogs, but wondered if they’d work, and cooling vests the dog wears, but wonder if Barnum would find that less comfortable than nothing (as he’s still getting accustomed to gear). And the vests are really pricey, so I definitely don’t want to get one if it doesn’t work. And with everything, I wonder if they will outgas fumes that will make me sick. But a friend w/MCS with an assistance dog has one like I think you’re talking about, and she said after a year it had outgassed. So, the price is right, I will try one!

  4. 4 Nessie July 13, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Sharon:
    I’m so glad things have gotten easier for you and Barnum. Your blog has really touched me in a lot of ways. I hope you’ll accept this award: http://cupsquietlybeingfilled.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/you-like-me-you-really-like-me/
    Thank you for writing!

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler July 13, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Nessie,
    Thank you so much! I am surprised, honored, delighted, and surprised!
    Wow! It’s going to take some work to find 15 blogs I love that haven’t already been honored.
    Anyway, I truly appreciate it. Thank you!
    And I had just been trying to keep Barnum from eating my bed. Couldn’t have come at a better time!
    -Sharon, Barnum, and the Muse of Gadget (who would have expected to win awards)


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