One Step Closer: The Service Dog Leash

A lot of exciting activity yesterday. As I posted yesterday, for a few days, Barnum was not getting his usual amount of attention because I had [gasp!] other things I needed to deal with. So I tried to keep him entertained with his Kong Stuff-a-Ball.

Periodically, during my writing flurry, I’d call Barnum, just to work on his recall and remind him that good things happen when he comes to me. (Good things in this case are food, some lovin’ up (but only if he’s in the mood), and a release to go back and play with his toy.) But he did miss training. He got quite cranky about no training, actually.

Thus, I knew he had focus and motivation, so yesterday, for the first time, we used my service dog (SD) leash. While using a different leash might not seem like a big deal, it was to me, because:

  1. It attaches to my waist, so pulling would be a real problem.
  2. It is much shorter (unless I let it out for going behind me) than our practice working leash (it has two lengths of about 32 inches each, so normally it’s 32 inches from my waist to his collar, except if I adjust it to make it longer)
  3. I want him to associate that leash, along with his other working gear, with him being totally focused on me, so I waited to use it until I was sure I was at nearly SD working-walk competency before we used it in training.

In other words, symbolically, it was of much greater importance to me than to him. I had to know we were both really up to the task before I started using it. Yesterday, I felt confident that we were, and we lived up to expectations! Gooooo, Team Barnum!

We practiced “working walk” (WW) around the house and on the ramp, and he was really excellent. WW is something between loose-leash walking (LLW) and “heel” (as it’s used in competition). For WW, I require not just a loose leash, but eye contact at least every three seconds (preferably more), attention focused on me and my movements at all times, no elimination or marking or sniffing the ground, no eating anything he comes across unless it’s a treat he’s been clicked for that’s fallen, and I tell him “go ahead,” and he has to maintain parallel position with my chair on my left side (unless I ask for something else).

We were about 80 percent to a perfect WW (in very familiar surroundings — I’m under no delusions we can achieve this in the wide world). The only parts that were off (the 20 percent that was unsatisfactory) were the following:

  • He took left turns much too wide, still haven’t come up with a fix for that — I didn’t have this problem with Gadget or Jersey;
  • His butt swings out a bit too far sometimes, especially when making eye contact (i.e., he’s not as parallel as I want);
  • He hasn’t totally figured out the correct way to get back into position when we’re in a really tight spot, like a close corner;
  • He does not 100 percent know his cues for sit and down with one verbal cue only while on the move, in positions than facing me, etc.

That probably seems like a lot that’s “off”, but please compare it to all the stuff he was doing right!

  • Great eye contact;
  • Overall consistency in staying in position;
  • Maintaining default stand-stay when we come to a stop;
  • Knows the cues for getting back into position if he’s facing me and I want him to get back in heel position (“come around,” and “side”), and often did them default (without cueing);
  • Loose leash all the way
  • Performed other skills I tossed in (shut cupboard, shut drawer, touch, watch me, leave it, sit-stay, stand-stay, down-stay when chair moves)
  • His “back-up” is a thing of beauty — I’ve never had a dog who backed up next to my chair so well — and he does it as a default whenever I back up (without cueing), and he does it almost equally beautifully if I cue him to back up while I stay still

I was very excited!

We also had some interesting little bonuses during our session. At one point, while we were doing WW indoors, he rested his chin on my thigh and looked up into my eyes, and I laughed, because it was so cute, and without thinking, clicked it.

Then I thought that chin-on-knee/thigh in public might actually be a useful skill, for instance, if I need him to check in with me because the environment is distracting/overwhelming for either of us, or to signal that yes, he’s working and paying attention, or if I want him to take my agitation-calming behavior “on the road.”

So, while he was in that mode, I cued and clicked “Chin” a few more times. Then we made our way to the driveway, to practice in a more distracting environment, because he is used to the driveway leading to the road (excitement!), which leads to a walk (unbelievable excitement!).

As I’ve learned from Sue Ailsby, whose Training Levels I’m following, whenever anything changes in a behavior, especially something that’s such a big deal as a more distracting environment, you make everything easier. Therefore, from the gate onward, I loosened criteria for everything except these behaviors, which I still required:

  • Loose leash
  • Relatively correct position (on my left side, but he didn’t have to be parallel or really close, etc.)
  • Eye contact/noticing me (it didn’t have to be really good eye contact, but he had to at least flick his eyes up to my face on a pretty consistent basis)
  • Taking treats (because if he can’t take treats, he’s too distracted to think and pay attention to me, so there’s no point in continuing until things get boring enough that he can think again).

If he was paying attention to me, taking treats, etc., we went forward, out onto the driveway and toward the road. Anytime he started sniffing the air or staring off into the distance or otherwise not paying attention to my being on the other end of the leash, I’d back up.

It took him a while, but he caught on. We didn’t make it to the street, but that was fine with me — it hadn’t been my goal. (Although I’m sure, given the chance to think about it, it would have been his goal.) He also made no attempts to sniff the ground or to mark!

Then we did a working walk back into the yard, he did a sit-stay while I closed the gate and took off our very special leash and I gave him a release, and we played chase and fetch.

I enjoyed another bonus surprise behavior during our play. He was bringing me back the ball!

He used to have a very nice play fetch as a puppy (which I know is common for puppies, but not so much for bouviers, so that was something the breeder and I actually looked for), then it lost steam in adolescence (again, pretty typical to lose that type of behavior in adolescence), and I had started training a strong play retrieve, but then winter and snow made that impossible. (The tennis ball needs hard ground to bounce and roll on, and the bigger balls that can be used in the snow got buried. I also couldn’t get around in the yard because of the several feet of snow to keep training fetch.)

Therefore, this was our first time playing ball in many months, and without my even asking, he was bringing me the ball! To earn treats!

Such a good day!

Then I let him have some free time in the yard to dig in the mud. Hey, he earned it!

By the way, to anyone training their dog who feels guilty if you miss a day (or a week) of training, I say, consider it a strategy. We went the previous few days with the bare minimum of training. A couple of times, I did a little with him because he was just begging me for it, and I felt he needed it for his mental health, but it was very brief. Otherwise, because I was on a deadline, I was either writing or resting or sleeping. Even though he was getting physical exercise, he would cover over and be like, “Train me, dammit!”

So, that was actually good for us. I think it is good to take a break sometimes and get the dog really demanding training.

Peace,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I will never divulge the secret of the crisp left turn!), and Barnum SDiT (and looking dapper in the gear)

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1 Response to “One Step Closer: The Service Dog Leash”


  1. 1 Kathy April 5, 2011 at 1:22 am

    You can train anybody but if they aren’t motivated it’s a losing battle. (I know this from raising children, not dogs.) I am so happy to hear Barnum wants to train! Yay for you and Barnum!


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