I know my post yesterday was about grief, so it may seem odd to be posting this practically euphoric post today, but that seems to be how my life is, generally: up and down. Either that’s the way I am, or that’s the way life is. I don’t know.
In the midst of sadness, there is joy. In the midst of fear, there is hope.
I have a lot of happy and/or hopeful posts I haven’t finished yet, partly because I’ve been busy or there have been other topics, and partly because of the “will he or won’t he?” question about Barnum continuing as a SDiT. I’ll post about that issue — “What do the posts mean?” — another time. Hold that thought.
[Cue choir of angels singing.]
Today we had an actual loose-leash walk! It was probably the first time I’ve enjoyed a walk with him in — I don’t know how long — a year? Ever?
I have been working on “loose-leash walk” (LLW) with Barnum forever! Really, since he arrived. I could not understand why we were not making progress, despite all the issues I knew about (his distractibility, his low food drive, my pchair issues, etc.).
A while back, Sue Ailsby posted on the Training Levels list that if you’ve been working at LLW for three months and not making progress, it’s because you are not backing up far enough when the leash gets tight. You have to back up so far that the dog loses hope of getting to the spot he wants to get to.
I decided to tackle this with a two-pronged approach.
Issue #1: Focus
Since the “point of interest” for Barnum is pretty much “everything outdoors,” that meant he was always “over threshold,” so I decided to start training indoors. Not training the walking part, because he’s been doing perfect LLW indoors forever, and it never translated.
The problem was focus. I started a program about three weeks ago of heavily reinforcing eye contact, and especially, using a red light/green light approach to going outside every time.
You could also call this “door zen,” or “outdoors zen,” or “using life rewards.”
Basically, we’d get to the door and I’d wait for him to make eye contact. Click/treat. After a few of those, we’d move forward. Eye contact? C/t each time, and I’d open the main door. That leaves the storm door, which is much more exciting, because it is transparent, and then he can see outside. If I didn’t get eye contact within a few seconds, I’d back us up, and if necessary, shut the big door again.
once I was getting eye contact at least every three seconds or so, I’d move us outside, and do the same on the ramp, down the ramp, and to where he toilets. (I’ll save the toileting for another time. Big news there, too.)
I also incorporated c/t for looking when I said his name or for sustained eye contact when I gave the eye-contact cue, “Watch me!”
That has definitely helped.
Issue #2: Too Many Cooks
Barnum gets walked by three people in addition to me: One of my helpers, who walks him two or three times a week; his dog walker who comes once a week to take him to the pond; and occasionally, Betsy, to take him to the pond.
They all say that he walks on a loose leash with them. I question them, and they all give answers that suggest that Barnum is a perfect angel with them. This has been going on for many months.
So, I have been thinking, “What the hell is wrong with me?” Is it the speed of the powerchair? Is it me? Is Barnum really so dense that after a year he has not generalized the concept of walking next to an ambulatory person versus walking next to a chair (which my other dogs learned just fine)?”
The last time his dog-walker came to take him to the pond, I got a tip-off. Usually I’m in bed when they leave, but this time I was watching them walk down the ramp. I saw Barnum pulling, tight leash all the way, down the ramp!
I don’t think she thought of this as pulling, because he wasn’t hauling her around, as is typical for most dogs you see on leash. She was also focused on other things and not obsessed with LLW, like I am.
I decided to ask each of the other two people to show me how they walk Barnum.
Let me be clear: I did not think any of these people were lying. (And they weren’t.) I just wanted to evaluate what they were doing, what Barnum was doing, and see if I could learn from it.
The first person was Betsy. As with me, Barnum walked nicely inside the fenced yard, and then as they headed up the driveway to the road, he’d go to the end of his leash. Which is what he always did with me. In fact, he might have done it sooner with Betsy!
I had to stay back a good distance to watch, otherwise Barnum kept looking at me. I called, “Is that what he normally does?”
Betsy said they never walk up to the street. She always takes him right to the van, which is just a few steps outside the gate. So, he really was not getting any practice with her.
Lastly, my helper, who walks him more than anyone else, and takes him on long walks. We started in the yard.
Right away, he went to the end of his leash. In the yard, already. My helper stopped, waited for Barnum to stand still, and when he did, she moved forward, thereby creating a loose leash! Barnum didn’t have to do anything but wait. He got to continue from where he was pulling.
Predictably, after a few more steps, he was at the end of his leash again.
I stopped them.
First, we discussed timing. I explained that she needed to act before the leash was tight, when the snap was still hanging down, or the leash was making a “J” shape. She knew this, but what she hadn’t realized was that this meant she had to start walking backwards before the leash was remotely tight — when she could tell that it was going to get tight at the rate he kept going. That way, she could change things up before the leash was truly tight — just when it was threatening to be tight.
Once she had practiced that a couple of times — she learned the timing very fast; she’s an athlete, so she has great reflexes — we moved on to the “backing up” part.
I told her to back up ten steps any time the leash got tight. That was not remotely far enough.
I told her try backing up ten feet. Again, not far enough. Barnum still did not have his attention on her.
Also, she wasn’t backing up fast enough. That’s one of the problems with powerchairs — they always back up slower than they go forward (blasted safety features!) — but it’s something a healthy ambulatory person should be able to do.
I told her to back up quickly, as soon as she started backing up, and to back up fifteen feet. That was better, but still not good enough.
I said to back up twice as far as they had moved forward — so far back that Barnum had given up hope of getting anywhere. I said, “It doesn’t matter how far you get. If you spend the whole time in the driveway, that’s fine.”
I think that last instruction was a key element, because she had been worried about doing her job — giving him exercise. When I gave her permission not to worry about that, she was able to relax and focus completely on training.
Another cool thing that happened was when my helper backed up far enough that Barnum was looking up at her face to try to figure out what she was doing, I said to mark that (click or say, “YES!”) and offer a treat. She did that, with me coaching (“He’s looking at you! Click! Click now!”), and he took the proffered cheese!
I told her, if she could manage to mark and treat for eye contact, great, and if not, don’t worry about it. I watched to make sure she had the hang of backing up, and I left them to it.
I know Barnum’s not getting enough physical exercise. That’s not my priority right now. I play and run him around in the yard every day after he has peed and pooped (his reward for pooping on leash) so he gets to work off some energy, but I know that’s not enough.
However, even if he doesn’t go very far, an hour of walking is still an hour of walking, even if it’s covering the same patch of dirt, again and again. He is also getting a lot of mental exercise; a solid hour of LLW practice tires him right out!
I’m taking the long view. Eventually, this practice will pay off in him getting more exercise and walks. I’ll be able to walk him even when I’m not at my best, physically or mentally. And one of my other helpers, who used to really enjoy walking Gadget, but who hasn’t been able to risk being yanked around by Barnum, will be able to walk him, too.
Today, we made it past one neighbor’s house, and almost to the second. However, the black flies were really starting to get to both of us, so he was just as happy to turn around. We spent fifty minutes going just a few dozen yards, but it was a few dozen yards with almost no pulling!
Oh! Lest I forget: he also took treats the whole time! He even deigned to accept hot dogs, when I was between bags of cheese! He was much more focused and mellow, all the way around. Good dog!
– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT?