QuickPress: Little Miracles

(Shallow) Background

Friday, I took Barnum to the vet for some blood work. When we arrived, he ran around inside the van, whining with excitement. (Anytime we go anywhere, he’s thrilled.) I probably should have taken steps to attempt to calm him, but I was negotiating for the reasonable accommodation of having Barnum’s blood draw in the van, since I can’t go inside the clinic. (I have a cargo van, not a minivan, so there is a big, empty space inside. It’s not like I was asking them to do the blood draw in the parking lot or inside a regular little car.) I doubt I could have gotten him relaxed and focused enough to accept food treats, anyway.

Barnum was fine when the first vet tech came to the van. When the second one  joined us, he freaked out. Don’t know why. He allowed us to hold him only because I’ve taught him, “Hugs!” for restraint, and I was doing most of the holding. But he was really anxious (and thus, uncooperative)!

I thought, “Am I living in a dream world to think this dog will ever be a service dog? I can’t even get him to focus on me at all or take his favorite treats (chicken feet!) if we are outside our yard!”

I still haven’t managed to do much about getting my (outdoor) powerchair mobile again, but I thought since I was already bundled up for cold weather, Barnum already had his “Easy Walk” harness on, and I didn’t have a personal care assistant (PCA) physically capable of walking him, I would try to take him for a short walk in my “indoor” power wheelchair. It actually went pretty well, and I was thinking, “This wasn’t as hard on me as I expected. Why aren’t I doing this every day?”

Little Miracles

1. By late that night, I had barely eaten that day, was exhausted, shaky, weak, and had a headache rolling in. I was two hours late in starting my infusion. I’d forgotten to ask my PCA to set up my electric menorah (which I love), on my window sill. Barnum, fortunately, seemed to be conked out.

I wobbled over to my menorah, plugged it in, and sat on the edge of my bed, singing the first blessing, which is the blessing over the candles. I turned on the candles for the third night. Despite feeling physically crappy, the warm glow of the lights and the familiar blessings washed over me, relaxing me, imparting a sense of well-being.

As I was singing the second blessing, thanking G-d for miracles, Barnum suddenly bounced up from his crate. He wiggled over to me, his stump of a tail wagging as fast as possible, and turned circles around me, bopping into my legs.

This is how I interpreted his body language: “I’m so happy! I love you! I like it when you sing! Pet me, and pay attention to me, and love me up! Aren’t I fabulous?”

Yes, fabulous — I had to agree with him. I still felt like crap, but I didn’t mind. I had that “everything will be okay” feeling. It takes a lot of work to be utterly miserable when there’s someone wagging his whole body at you, radiating joy and sheer pleasure in being in your presence. I slogged my way through infusing, heating up the food my PCA had prepped, and treated Barnum and myself to a round of nose-touching a variety of objects. This is a building block to the trained retrieve in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, and it’s a skill that Barnum enjoys and is good at.

Overall feeling for the night: Good dog! Good medicine.

2. Of course, healing for the soul only does so much towards healing for the body. In this case, not a hell of a lot, as it turned out.

I went to sleep at 5 AM, even though I’d been wishing since 8 PM that I was asleep. Three hours later, at 8:00 AM, I woke up because I had to pee. (I have to pee very frequently. This is true for everyone I know with CFIDS/ME.) I was in severe pain and very weak. Partway through peeing, I had to stop to vomit. Not a great start to the day.

The rest of the day wasn’t any better. Although it was not as bad as a stuck day, it was pretty close. I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t move much beyond minor hand/arm movements, such as typing while laying down in bed. I was in a lot of pain. The best part was that I slept most of the day.

My evening PCA came to feed me and help me attend to basic personal care needs. I have a “doorbell button” that I use to call my PCAs from another room. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the worst functional losses for me due to Gadget’s death has been that I can’t send him to get someone for me, and this button is my main “replacement” for this help.

For example, last night, my PCA helped me transfer out of bed to my chair, and then from my chair to the toilet. I brought the doorbell button with me to call her when I was ready to do the process in reverse, which we did. When I was back in bed, she went to the kitchen to continue working. At some point thereafter, I realized I needed her. I looked for the button. I’d left it on the footrest of my powerchair, out of reach.

I tried using my reacher/grabber against my chair’s joystick to move it around enough that I could grab the button. No good. Too far, and the wrong angle. I tried beeping my chair’s horn, but it’s pathetically quiet, and not surprisingly, my PCA never heard it.

“Well,” I thought. “Barnum and I have been working on cues for barking and shushing, so maybe I can get her attention with some barks.”

I had my doubts because (a) Barnum barks for fun, still — at his toys, at his reflection in the glass doors, etc., so I figured she’d probably ignore him, and (b) Barnum and I had never practiced “Bark!” with only the hand signal (ASL for “speak”), nor with me in bed.

I got his attention and gave the cue for “bark,” and out came a very nice, distinct, sharp bark! I clicked and treated, and we did it several more times. Sometimes they were more like whines, as barking on cue is a different ball of wax than doing it as the urge strikes, but occasionally I’d hold off clicking, and he’d work his way into a loud, strong bark.

Did this bring my PCA running to check on me? No. I did eventually manage to get her attention another way (see below). The barking had not raised suspicion because she assumed he was just barking at his knuckle-bone or something. However, I was then able to tell her, “In the future, if you hear him barking repeatedly when I am alone with him, please come check on me.” I plan to tell all my PCAs this, and . . . voila! A service skill is born! (Or, is gestating. I still need to extinguish his other barking behavior, and we need more practice to get many strong, clear barks in a row as an “attention bark,” but it’s a very strong beginning! And he loves it!)

Good dog!

3. When the barking failed to work, I once again tried to reach the doorbell button with the reacher. Barnum now was “in the game” for clicker training. When he saw me fiddling with the stick, trying to manipulate the button to lift it (and utterly failing), he naturally became interested in this thing. After all, it could be a toy that needed demolishing!

He reached for it, and I made encouraging, happy noises. I thought I might be able to get him to drop it closer to me (he does not yet know a formal retrieve, but he will play fetch sometimes), or he might chew on it and accidentally press the button.

What happened was, as I held my breath and watched, he reached down and touched the button with his nose! I heard the “ding-dong” of the bell in the kitchen. Good dog! I clicked and treated and made lots of happy sounds and invited him onto the bed for petting.

Do I think Barnum knew what I was trying to do, and jumped in, Lassie-like, to save me?

No, I don’t. We have been doing lots of nose-touch training lately as a step in teaching a trained retrieve, and that has meant me holding up every conceivable object for him to nose target. Therefore, it’s possible he was nose-touching the button to see if it would earn him a c/t.

However, I think that’s unlikely, too, as he has not yet learned to touch things on the ground. In fact, the cue for nose targeting at this stage is just my holding an object in front of him.

The most likely explanation is that he was curious. He is still on the mouthy side — liking to explore things with his snout and mouth — and he saw me messing with a strange new object and decided to see what he could learn about it. In doing so, he probably accidentally pressed the button.

But I don’t care! The result is that I needed to call my PCA, and Barnum did it! Curiosity is good, because it’s part of the desire to learn and test out new behaviors that is such a part of clicker training a service dog. In fact, his outgoing, curious nature was a major reason Barnum’s breeder chose him as the best SD candidate.

Another important aspect of the behavior is that once I c/t him for touching the button, he stopped nosing it, and I was able to get him to focus elsewhere so that he didn’t decide to chew, stomp, or otherwise maul it. We are learning to communicate, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Will he ever be an “all-around service dog” who has the manners, focus, and obedience required for public access? I have no idea. Nevertheless, I am gaining confidence in us as a working team. I feel more and more that he will be able to help me out at home, to be an assistance dog to me in the house. Since I spend over 98 percent of my time at home, that is a really big deal.

 

Barnum age 11 months

I'm the shit!

Good dog!

Happy Hanukkah!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (“The Nose”)

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6 Responses to “QuickPress: Little Miracles”


  1. 1 Ashley December 6, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Although I got Dixie before I got sick, if you would have told me then that she would be a service dog within a couple years I would have rolled on the floor laughing. She was a BSC 6 month old puppy who I adored but drove me nuts some days. My parents couldn’t stand her.
    And here we are today, she is the darling of our family and my parents’ granddog, so well behaved and helping me around the house even though she can’t work any more. Even during her SD training I thought we would never make it (especially in retrieve training).
    Like you said, [Barnum] might not make it. But you have a bond with him and that is so important and precious. And you have these good days and there will be more and more.
    (sorry if this is kind of rambling and random, my brain is gone today. What i’m trying to say is I’ve been there and can see the potential of those good days)

  2. 2 Kathy December 6, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    Yes Barnum, you are the shit! Oh Happy Day!!!

  3. 3 Curasmom December 7, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Positive Intent! Based on what you have written, Barnum is showing the signs of being a wonderful AD — inside OR outside the home. I look forward to reading your posts in a year or two, when Barnum is an AWSOME partner who either responds to or anticipates your every need. I KNOW that all your hard work will pay off — even though Barnum didn’t have the benefit of Gadget’s hands-on experience to help him through this challenging learning process, Gadget is not only watching over you both, but helping when he can. (Yes, I believe that our beloved animals have a “soul” that continues on after physical death — so sue me!) I “know” that Barnum can fully fill Gadget’s shoes (though he will be a totally different being) — just stay positive and KNOW that he can do it . . . and he will . . . I am not sure when — maybe tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, or even a bit longer . . . but he CAN do it — just believe!

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler December 8, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Aw, thanks, Cura’s Mom! We appreciate the vote of confidence. Today he DID manage to come, sit, and down while there was another dog around to play with! Glimmers of hope.
    Of course, he was massively hungry, and I had a bag full of super-smelly tripe, but hey! Whatever it takes!

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler December 8, 2010 at 12:45 am

    LOL. Thanks, Kathy. You always know just what to say!

  6. 6 Sharon Wachsler December 8, 2010 at 12:52 am

    Ashley,
    Much the same could have been said about Gadget as Dixie — my parents thought he was a terror, and by the time he died, my mom had love and respect for him. I, OTOH, always knew he had it in him. I think I was blessed by my ignorance. By now, I’m so much more aware of what can go wrong.
    But yes, the good days count for a LOT. Just coming back from the bathroom today after a bath and seeing him napping in his crate, instead of having to have him in the bathroom with me, trying to climb on me and drink the bath water and getting in my PCA’s way, was such a treat. I looked for chewed slippers, stolen sneakers, etc., but all was peaceful!


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