Or, “What’s the Point of That?”
Barnum and I are working on Level 4 Retrieve in the original (older) version of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. (Actually, we are somewhere between Level 4 and Level 5 on this.)
Every day, at least once a day (sometimes two or three times a day), we train with our dumbbells. We have three: a hard plastic white one, an unpainted wood one, and an aluminum one. I rotate them so he gets used to different materials, textures, and sizes of objects in his mouth. (We got them from J&J Dog Supply.)
[Note to MCSers: All of the dumbbells were very tolerable, after just a brief wipe down. Metal is inert and not a problem unless you’re sensitive to aluminum. The plastic is a very hard plastic that barely gives off any smell. And the wood is untreated poplar, which is a hard wood with very little odor; it is usually the wood best tolerated by people with MCS.]
Here is a video from ten days ago. (We have made a lot of progress since then, actually.) There’s no dialogue at all, until the very end, when we finish and I praise him and tell him “release,” so I didn’t caption or transcribe it. A brief description of the “action” of the video is below it.
[The video shows me holding out a white, plastic dumbbell to Barnum, him grabbing it in his mouth, me clicking and tossing a treat, over and over again! The nuances are that I sometimes hold off on the click a second or two longer, that I occasionally hold it higher or lower, and that he grabs the bit of the db in the correct position every time.]
When members of my household see us working this skill, instead of marveling with excitement at our consistency or the amazing improvement in Barnum’s enthusiasm, they say, “What are you doing? What’s the point of that?”
Fellow dog training
fanatics addicts enthusiasts, do you ever feel like you live on the planet Clicookislobberania? I mean, how can it not be obvious that my holding this totally useless object while my dog puts his mouth on it, again and again, will naturally lead to him opening doors, carrying grocery bags to the car or house, retrieving pens I drop, bringing me my slippers, letting himself out to pee, opening cupboards and drawers, helping me dress and undress, pulling the covers off of me, answering the phone, and bringing me water from the refrigerator?
Well? How pointless is all that, huh? Does that clear everything up for you? How about a little support, dammit!
Sorry. I get overexcited. I know you just want to understand. I’m sure you don’t realize you’re wearing an utterly perplexed and dubious facial expression when you ask what the hell the purpose is of this seemingly tedious pursuit of . . . whuh?
No, to me it is far from tedious; it is thrilling. I work it so often because I want this skill so bad. You see, what we are working on is the foundation for The Trained Retrieve, the Holy Grail of the service dog foundation skill.
In fact, this is not one skill, at all. It is actually a combination of three separate behaviors: the take, the hold, and the give.
Why am I working so hard to get this right with Barnum? Because I glossed over it with my previous service dogs, and as a result, some skills were never up to par. Where things fell apart was maintaining a “hold.” Both Jersey and Gadget could retrieve. For example, if I dropped a scrunchy on the floor, or I sent them to get me the cordless phone, they could pick the item up (“take”), bring it to me (moving while they “hold” the object) and then put it in my hand (“give”).
However, neither of them was able to reliably hold the object quietly in their mouth while walking next to my chair, or while standing still next to me while I freed up my hands to take it. No, if I didn’t take the object when they brought it, they’d either drop it in my lap, or drop it on the floor and pick it back up (repeatedly), or shift it around in their mouths before giving up and dropping it on the ground again.
[Warning: The following paragraph is dense with clicker training terminology. Proceed at your own risk of being bored, confused, learning something new, or some combination thereof.]
I always thought of this problem as not having the “hold” on cue properly, but recently Shirley Chong gave me a different perspective by saying that the “give” was not under stimulus control. Both are true. My previous service dogs did not maintain their “hold” behavior until released, so that was not under stimulus control. But they also dropped the object (“give”) before I asked for it — in other words, before it was cued, so that was not truly on cue, either.
[Okay, those of you not interested in dog training or operant conditioning can refocus now.]
In fact, this seemingly boring repetitive exercise doesn’t just teach three behaviors. It addresses several essential aspects of all three.
First, it teaches Barnum how to take an object and hold it in the proper position (so that the bar rests behind his canines and in front of his molars), making him less likely to damage something by crunching it. Because I hold onto the db and take longer and longer to click, he learns to hold it until he’s cued to release it (give). This part of the training, above all, will give me with that heretofore elusive duration “hold.”
Eventually, when I start to let go of the object, he will learn that if he keeps quietly holding it in his mouth, he gets a click/treat, but if he drops it on the floor, he gets nothing. And, yes, at some point I will put the object on the floor (and eventually farther and farther away from me), and Barnum will learn how to take it (grab it correctly) from the floor. An object like a pen or bottle would be taken in the same way as the dumbbells, behind his canines. An object that is flat, thin, hard to grasp, or that requires care, would be “picked” with his lips (a pair of glasses), or front teeth (a dime or pulling my socks off my feet). When grabbing a pull cord to open a heavy door, he needs to get it in his molars so he can pull hard enough.
While the retrieve (go there, get that thing, bring it to me) seems like a simple skill — and for some dogs, especially dogs who naturally like to fetch — it is. Barnum does, in fact, know how to do this. However, this is not the same as building a trained retrieve, with each part equally strong and under stimulus control, providing multiple applications beyond retrieving. It is that part of the process that requires so much time, patience, and attention to detail.
How does it get applied “in real life”?
When Barnum knows these skills, I can tell him to take and hold a door pull, and pair that with “back-up,” and voila! We have door opening.
If I want him to bring me water from the refrigerator, he has to take the door pull and hold it while pulling back to open the fridge door. Then he has to take and hold the water bottle in the proper position in his mouth so he doesn’t puncture the bottle or drop it. He has to maintain that firm but gentle hold while he goes around the fridge door and noses it shut, and then brings me the water. At that point, I will ask him to give it to me, but perhaps only after doing “paws up” on the bed.
Do you get it now? This is the gateway
drug skill to most of the service tasks Barnum will need to know! Now you see why dog training is so exciting and addictive, right? Right? Alright, wake up. The post’s over. [Sigh.]
-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I learned to retrieve using my favorite toy, my Dino!), and Barnum, SDiT (If I chomp the bar thing in her hand, I get beef heart!)