The Dance Begins Again

Barnum is one year old now, and I am constantly pleased and impressed with his progress, and mind-boggled and discouraged by discovering new (and seemingly bizarre) problems. (Yesterday, Barnum refused to walk through mud, which he has walked through many times before in his life. So. . . . Huh?)

I love Barnum for who he is. (He is exceptionally lovable.) I probably won’t know for a very long time, however, if he will ever approach service-dog readiness, let alone Gadget-ability.

So, what worked so well with Gadget? What made him my yardstick?

He was a training machine, for one thing, and then we worked together so well as a service-dog team. We really had “the dance” down-pat. Not that we were perfect. We had our rough edges: Skills I trained at the end of his career, as new needs arose, were not 100 percent. I never shed my “clicker dependency” of not trusting that if I didn’t have it in a novel situation, I wouldn’t get what I needed from him. Gadget hated my van, etcetera.

Now I have introduced a different dance — Sue Ailsby’s “Leading the Dance” protocol — with Barnum; because I foresee trouble if I don’t change our routine. In a nutshell, he’s in that bratty, teenager stage where he will try to get what he wants, when he wants it, how he wants it. Which is a typical teen thing, and a typical dog thing, and a typical, um, living organism thing, too. So, who can blame him?

Unfortunately for him, that lifestyle doesn’t fit in with my plans.

Part of the problem is that he is bored and under-exercised. I’m working on that. It will really, really help a lot when I get my bad-ass powerchair working, too, so we can go on long, winter walks.

Pchair with headlights

Since my chair is made of used, recycled parts, it hasn’t been clear how to proceed with replacement parts.

You’d have thought I’d have had it fixed by now, but there always seems to be some new minor crisis to contend with that prevents me from wrapping my head around the chair repair issue.

What does “The Dance” Barnum and I are doing now entail? Keeping him leashed to me throughout my waking hours (“the umbilical cord”), singing him a silly song (really!), practicing eye contact, obedience, and downs (all stuff we were already doing) and various other odds and ends. One key factor is to make my PCAs less exciting to him, and to make me the center of his universe — more than I already am.

That’s the nuts and bolts. The feel of it, though, is actually quite a bit like trying to drag an awkward teenage boy onto the dance floor: He doesn’t want to dance, it’s stupid. Why can’t he just hang out with his friends? Oh, well, actually, maybe this is fun. Maybe I’m an interesting dance partner. But no. “This is so weird, do I hafta? Oh, now that I’m focusing on the steps, actually, this is pretty cool. I’m awesome.”

Gadget was more like one of those young ‘uns who runs out onto the dance floor and has no idea that he is a hot mess. He yanks you here and there and flings you about, having a great time, with no idea that you’re not. But, he’s also got the rhythm in him, he just needs some tutoring, and he’s willing, very willing, if there’s something in it for him. He discovers he likes to move and that his partner is actually quite cool.

Over the years, “dancing” together every day, Gadget and I were like an old, married couple. We anticipated each other’s moves and moods. Was the relationship perfect? Of course not, but it worked.

To see how Gadget and I worked together — the smoothness of our dance as well as our stumbles — video is the best. I’m incredibly grateful that Betsy and I were able to make a video of Gadget and me showing off many (but not all) of his skills. My friend and former PCA, Ryan, put the video on youtube for me, divided into two parts.

In this captioned video, Part 1, Gadget retrieves the phone, brings water from the fridge, helps with falls, and more.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Now, for the exciting conclusion: Part 2! In which Gadget alerts me to the oven timer, turns off lights, opens and shuts doors, delivers messages, and more.

Here is the captioned version.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Will there come a day when Barnum and I can waltz as well, or better, than Gadget and I did? It’s possible. I’m listening for the music. . . .

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum

8 Responses to “The Dance Begins Again”

  1. 1 Kathy January 4, 2011 at 1:34 am

    I’m wondering something but I may be way off base here. I think you said (apologies if I’m wrong: fibro-fog 🙂 that Jersey and Gadget were adults when you got them? So these bratty teenage behaviors aren’t something you’ve ever had to deal with before. So perhaps your comparing apples to oranges? Or comparing teenage behavior to adult behavior.

    If when my daughter was 16 someone had told me what a charming, responsible and completely enjoyable person my daughter was going to become at 26 I would have been astonished!!! Yet there she is.

    May Barnum astonish you too!

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler January 4, 2011 at 6:38 am


    You are spot-on. Excellent comment!

    Yes, all previous dogs were one-year-old or more when I got them. (Including Lady, my first dog, who was not a service dog.)

    We don’t know how old Lady was; the shelter said two years, but looking back, I suspect she was closer to one. Gadget was one-year-old when I got him.

    So, up until now, Barnum has been a totally unique experience! However, now he’s starting to act in ways that are pretty similar to how Gadget was when I got him.

    I actually relate better to obnoxious teens than I do to vulnerable babies, both canine and homo sapiens. grin.

    I was a bratty teenager, too, and I think I turned out mostly alright. I’m not too worried about Barnum in that respect. It’s more issues of whether I socialized him enough to different experiences and people, his desire to work and such, that will determine his ability to work as a SD or not.

    As to the “teenitis,” in six more months, when he goes under the knife, we’ll be relieved of the burden of so much testosterone, and that will help. (Something we don’t do with our human teens, thank goodness!)

  3. 3 Margaret January 4, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Wow, I love this post. Your description of Barnum’s and Gadget’s different dancing styles is so funny! … and totally helps me know them.

    I don’t think I’d seen a full pic of your bad-ass power chair before. That is *awesome*.

    Ivy and I are doing clicker training too. I’m constantly surprised by the things that are and aren’t difficult for her. But when I try to figure it out from her perspective (or my helpful clickery friends help me figure it out :), it almost always makes more sense.

    Missing you, my friend.

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler January 5, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Hi Margaret,
    Thank you!
    Lovely to read your comments, as ever! I’m so glad you and Ivy are “clicking.”
    Yes, I’m still surprised by Barnum on a daily basis. Trying to predict what he will enjoy or excel at based on previous dogs’ experiences, or even previous Barnum experiences, does not seem to be my strong suit. I think it’s because he’s evolving (growing up) so fast, all the time.
    Did you ever read Patricia McConnell’s book, The Other End of the Leash? I’m listening to it right now, and it’s terrific and is showing me how to see things better from a dog’s perspective. It’s very funny and readable and kind toward humans, too, which is nice.

  5. 5 Margaret January 5, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Yes, I have! It is one of the books my friend Caroline (who I think knows you from a clicker-training online group; her username is rumorofrain) recommended to me. I love it.

    I also love _Inside of a Dog_ by Alexandra Horowitz. It’s not not about training per se, but it is just fascinating on the topic of dog psychology, evolution, and behavior.

    I’m including a link to one of Ivy’s and my recent sessions:

  6. 6 brilliantmindbrokenbody January 17, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I found it somewhat intriguing to notice that your voice seems to be at its clearest and most audible when you’re giving Gadget commands. I find that when I’m tired, I pronounce Hudson’s commands much more clearly than anything else. Habit of saying the words, I suppose? That I’ve figured out how to make my mouth make them clearly even when it wants to make language garbage.


  7. 7 Sharon Wachsler January 17, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Yes, there’s a few things at play there.

    One is that my voice tends to be at its worst/nonexistent when I wake up, and usually over the course of the day, it would come back over time. We actually spent several hours shooting these two short videos, so my voice was returning. When we first began, I had no voice, but those takes didn’t show up on the finished product.

    The second thing is that sometimes, I couldn’t speak English, but I could sing or speak a totally comprehensible-sounding sentence in another language (such as French or German). (I grew up hearing German, though I don’t actually know how to speak more than a few sentences, and I took French for many years and used to be conversant, on the way to fluent.) I could also hum, and make unintentional sounds, like laughing or crying or yelling in surprise.

    It took a long term to figure out what this was, which was vocal-cord apraxia. It’s neurological, mostly having to do with how the vagus nerve has been affected by my infections, but some of it also seems to relate to my diaphragm and breath, which is more affected by babesia. The only people I know who have lost their voices to Lyme in similar ways to me have both Lyme and babesia, too, so I think it’s a combination.

    So, part of the thing that seemed to go with singing, humming, etc., was making high-pitched sounds — I could sometimes get speech if it came from my head as opposed to my diaphragm. I tended to give Gadget’s commands in a high-pitched or sing-song way, so that made them clearer.

    The other thing was the non-intentionality of it. Sometimes I would be home alone, just him and me, and since I never knew when (or sometimes if), my voice was going to come back, I was never certain why this happened: I’d be lying in bed, and I’d just start talking to Gadget, or I’d give him a cue, and then I’d realize, “Hey! My voice is back!”

    No medical professional I went to ever had an explanation or even a diagnosis for what was wrong — mostly because you can probably count on your fingers the number of doctors in Mass., who know diddly about Lyme, and even the two I consulted had no idea this could be a symptom. I actually got the dx of apraxia from a speech-language pathologist who also had Lyme, whom I met online. We emailed about it, and she figured it out, because she’s not only an SLP, she knows Lyme. She gave me exercises to try, which nobody else ever had, and they really helped. I also just figured out a lot of things on my own.

    By now, my voice is back and working normally most of the time. Every once in a while, after an exposure or exertion, it goes. And usually in the morning it’s gravelly. But I do think that talking to Gadget (and now it happens with Barnum, too), was a way to somehow short-circuit the problem my brain was having with intentionally sending signals to my vocal cords. Speaking to a dog, maybe, takes place in a different area of the brain than speaking to a person? Just like speaking another language can, or singing.

    The SLP I saw in person did ask if my voice was more likely to come back when I was talking to my dog, so I think he was on the right trail. I liked him, but that place was a toxic soup, and I had a bad experience with the interpreter, and it made me so sick, I didn’t think there was much point in going back, since mostly he acted sympathetic but baffled.

    I do think, though, as more and more animals are used in animal-assisted speech therapy, that more may be learned about how we process language when we communicate with dogs or other animals. I wonder, since we tend to speak to dogs like we do to babies, and both are universal across language, culture, etc., so it seems to be hard-wired, if it’s accessing some more “primal” part of the brain?

  8. 8 Sharon Wachsler February 16, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Response from reader, Kendra, who said I could post for her:

    About Doggerel and Motherese….

    Very interested in topic of language with dogs.

    Reminded me I wanted to follow up a study I’d heard of. Found abstract:
    Journal of Child LanguageJournal of Child Language (1982), 9: 229-237
    Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1982

    DOI: 10.1017/S0305000900003731 (About DOI) Published online: 26 Sep 2008 New

    Content Alerts Journal Widget About Widge
    September – Volume 9, Issue 01
    Add to Basket $30.00 / £20.00 Chito

    Kathy Hirsh-Paseka1 and Rebecca Treimana2
    a1 University of Pennsylvania
    a2 Indiana University

    Four master–dog dyads were studied to determine whether the language that is used in speaking to dogs (doggerel) resembles the language that is used in speaking to children (motherese). The structural properties of doggerel are strikingly similar to those that have been reported for motherese. Certain differences between motherese and doggerel may arise in functional and social areas. The similarities between the two language registers suggest that motherese is not elicited in response to either the linguistic level or the cognitive/intellectual level of the child. Rather, the social responsiveness of the listener may be sufficient to elicit the motherese register.


    Also, discussion of this topic in this book Why The Wild Things Are: Animals In The Lives Of Children By Gail F. Melson, pp. 46f

    See online extracts here



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