Our Recent Public Access Achievements

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

We're achieving another great carnival!

The theme for the fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “Achievement.” Barnum and I had two very exciting outings recently — one caught on video — which I’m very excited to share with you. It’s perfect timing for the carnival.

The achievements that Barnum and I celebrate are not the successes of a graduation or a title. Rather, they are small steps that are leading us — oh, so slowly, it often seems — along the path to a working partnership. I don’t think we have a single behavior that I can say is truly finished — not just service skills, but basic obedience and manners, too. Working on so many little skills day after day, it becomes hard to observe that any improvement is taking place. That’s why a day like last week — or last month when we first went into a store — is such a big deal: the improvements are a stark contrast to previous efforts, clear enough for me to notice and revel in them.

This past Thursday I had my biannual appointment with my primary care doctor. The appointment itself was completely useless. (More about that another time.) However, I brought Barnum with me — even though he couldn’t come inside — with hopes that we’d do some training in the parking lot after my appointment. My driver and assistant took care of him during the appointment.

Barnum and I have really only started public access work in the last couple of months. He went into a store — the small village coop in a nearby town — for the first time on September 12. I had someone along who could video the event, which is very unusual. Below is the movie I made of it. (Like the combination treat pouch/leash belt I’m wearing? I got it from Mimi of sheekoo.com, and I love it!)

(If you’re reading this post as an email, click here to view the video.)

Click here to read a transcript of the video.

Click here to watch the video with captions.

But wait, there’s more! Fast-forward to a week ago. As I mentioned, Barnum had to stay in the van with my driver while I had my appointment. In my state, there is no public access for teams in training, so where you are able to go is dependent on the goodwill of the managers of such establishments. My doctor told me that their policy is that a SD team is not allowed in unless the dog is finished training. (These policies seem much more prevalent today than when I trained Gadget or Jersey. I wonder whether this is due to the boom in partner-training SDs — and private and program trainers, too, for the record — who are not yet skilled enough trainers, or not familiar with and careful of laws and etiquette around public-access SDs, creating negative perceptions of SD teams or SDiTs.)

Anynoodle, there is still much that can be done in parking lots or on sidewalks or at the locales that are SDiT-team friendly. Thus, after my appointment, I dressed Barnum in his snazzy working gear. We had a couple of “oopses.” One, which has never happened before, and which I hope never happens again, is that Barnum jumped the gun on exiting the van. He has gotten pretty good at staying inside until he is cued to exit. For whatever reason, though, today he jumped out while leashless. This was scary because we were in “the city” (for my area), and there was actual traffic beyond the parking lot. However, my helper snagged him, I walked him back to the van, and he jumped back in. Disaster averted. First note of something to work on more!

Then, we did some automatic sits before exiting (which is what he should have done instead of just hopping out previously), and I cued him to jump out and sit, which he did. I was pleased he was so focused on me and that I got such a fast and snappy sit. I had him sit-stay while I moved around, and then we were off.

Here’s how Barnum made my day:

  • Focus. Barnum kept focus on me and loads of eye contact the whole time. That is the foundation for everything else. I was thrilled by it.
  • Happiness. Barnum’s tail was up and wagging. His step was springy. He showed no signs of fear or vigilance (except one startle issue, which I’ll get to shortly). He was totally in the game and enjoying himself. At one point, I said, “Back up,” and instead of just walking backward, he leaped backward. He does the bouvie-bounce/pounce/spring thing when he’s loving training.
  • Loose leash. I didn’t even realize until we were on the way home that Barnum never pulled on the leash except at the end, when another dog was right nearby, whining at us.
  • Positional cues. I asked for sits, downs, nose touches, chin targets, backing up, standing up, coming to my side, and Barnum was about 90 percent reliable on all cues.
  • Toileting. When we were first heading from the parking lot to the sidewalk, I could tell that Barnum wanted to go sniff and mark the lawn, bushes, and flowers we were approaching. However, I kept him busy and focused on me, and he either realized that marking and sniffing was not acceptable, or he was too focused on working to care. When we were finished training, I took off his pack and harness and brought him to the grass and cued him to pee. He offered a short squirt, which I was very pleased about. It indicated to me that he probably did know the cue (as soon as I said, “Hurry up,” he started looking around the grass, circling, and sniffing) and that he was doing his best to follow it, even though he didn’t need to go. It’s possible that he was just marking, now that he had the opportunity, but I’m okay with that as a stepping stone to a more solid elimination on cue. This is the first time he has eliminated on cue in a totally new environment!
  • Transferring new cues from home – Part I: Door Opener. These were the ones that really thrilled me. Barnum has never touched a door opener before. The door opener for the external door at my doctor’s office is a silver vertical rectangle — not at all the shape I thought I’d remembered! At home, we’d been practicing the moves that would apply to a door opener — the same ones as for turning on or off a light switch — but my faux door-opener was a big blue paper square! The real door button was about three feet high and placed on the pane between the glass door and window. I held my hand over the button and had him nose-target my hand a few times. He could reach it without jumping up, but only just. He had to stretch his nose all the way up. . . .
  • Then I pointed at the button and told Barnum, “Touch!” He just barely bumped the bottom of the button, but that was enough; the door immediately swung outward. Barnum jumped back in surprise. I gave him extra treats and praise, along with the initial click/treat, and we did that a few more times. He hit the button every time, and he was surprised by the door every time, but with successively decreased concern. I think we’ll have to practice this many times before he is totally comfortable with the door swinging open. It’s the one area he has always had anxiety — doors swinging toward him from the front or the rear. (When he was temperament tested at seven weeks old, a solid object moving suddenly toward him was the only part of the test that scored poorly on; everything else was perfect or near-perfect, and those results were surprisingly predictive of his future behaviors and tendencies.) So, the fact that he continued to press the door opener and did not wig out — in this completely new environment, to boot — seemed like a good sign to me.
  •  Transferring new cues from home – Part II: The Retrieve. We have not yet achieved a complete trained retrieve at home. Barnum will take something from my hand, hold it quietly for a pretty long time, and then — on my cue — will drop it. But he hasn’t figured out that picking things up off the floor can be handled the same way as taking things from me. So, our big effort has gone into the take/hold part of the retrieve. It had not even occurred to me to try this skill away from home yet. . . .
  •  Then, something happened — I can’t remember what anymore — where I was holding something out, and he went to take it in his mouth! I had not been looking for that, but I was able to click and treat it. “Why not?” Says I to myself. So, I held out a pen — the object he’s the most eager and comfortable taking and holding — and we did a few repetitions of that. Well, knock me over with a feather!

I was bringing him back to the van to load up and leave when a woman parked next to me with a boxer in her car. Barnum was still paying attention to me, not the boxer, so I was eager to get out of there before he could start practicing some bad behavior, such as pulling to get to the other dog, and for all I knew, jumping up to get a sniff. (Our biggest distraction is other dogs. Our second biggest distraction is people — strangers. Barnum feels the need to greet/sniff them and inquire as to whether they’d like to give him attention or food.)

Unfortunately, this woman wanted to chat me up about my “service dog.” I had to correct her that we were in training, because Barnum was not comporting himself as a trained SD should, and I don’t like to spread any more misinformation about SDs than already exists. Then, she wanted to tell me about how her dog, the one she is leaving in the car who is wearing no gear, is a service dog, too, and perfectly eager for our dogs to interact! Usually if I say, “We’re training,” in a very “read-between-the-lines-please” voice, people back off a bit, but not this woman. Trying to focus on getting Barnum refocused and loaded into the van while not getting downright rude to this stranger meant that I lost control of the situation, and Barnum decided that, yes, it would be acceptable to pull like a freight train to get to the boxer, who had started to whine.

Somehow, finally, I managed to ignore the other person enough to get Barnum loaded, and then he settled down. On the way home, we did lots more practice with taking and holding objects, and various simple skills, and I was just over the moon.

Outings like this are extremely helpful in showing which behaviors have jelled and can be taken to the next level, and which need some remedial attention. The trip made it clear the areas we need to work on most: Leave it/zen for people, leave it/zen for dogs, more work with moving-door-related fear, and more work on default sit before and after exiting the van. But on the way home, the refrain in my head was, “Go, Team Barnum! Woohoo!”

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and future door-opener of my world

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about the ADBC, read past issues, check out the schedule for the next few carnivals, or learn how to get involved, please visit this page about the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival.

P.P.S. You know what was really an achievement? Completing this post! I had so much difficulty creating and uploading that video — it took a week! — and then when I finally did get it uploaded, I discovered I had left out a segment in the middle and had to create and upload a new version! All future videos will be much shorter!

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16 Responses to “Our Recent Public Access Achievements”


  1. 1 Cyndy Otty October 14, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Go Team Barnum indeed! I can so relate to that giddy sense of accomplishment you must have had. It’s actually what I was thinking about when I decided on the theme because it’s such a great place to be.

    I think you have a WP tag for the video, as it isn’t showing up on this page. But I put your video on dotSub for you: http://dotsub.com/view/59deba0b-b2d9-447c-b63c-c095f98ea72a

    Thanks for the great submission, Sharon!

  2. 2 Sharon Wachsler October 14, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Cyndy, thank you so much! I have fixed the link so that the video appears on the blog post, as it should. I will now caption the video, too! Thank you for your technical wizardy, as usual.

  3. 3 kendra October 14, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    celebrating with you and barnum! i was impressed with how well you navigated the narrow ailes of the store, and barnum calmly followed the chair when out of sight of you. wonderful.

  4. 5 Martha October 14, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Yay, go you and Barnum; that is quite an accomplishment!!! Are you ok from all the people and fragrance things in the store?

  5. 6 Sharon Wachsler October 14, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    Thank you, Martha! That’s kind of you to ask. Yeah, that is the least smelly store around. It is well-ventilated and most people around here don’t use much in the way of scented products. Usually there are very few people there (which was the case that day). The car fumes were a bit worse than usual, but it was OK. It’s a coop. A lot of it is natural foods, etc. However, I do normally use oxygen and a mask, but I forgot my mask, and I left my cannula and regulator in my bedroom, so even though I had oxygen in the car, I couldn’t use it! I was so focused on training with Barnum and bringing all his gear and treats, etc., and it was a last minute thing, because I never know when I’ll be well enough to go out, so we just went with it. But, that’s why I have my hair as covered as possible, so it wouldn’t absorb too many fumes. Then, when I got home, I bathed and changed clothes. I did pay for it later, but it was totally worth it.

  6. 7 Sarah Skilling October 15, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Thanks for making the video. I learned a lot from it. I hope everything continues to go well with you and Barnum. My parents are Bouvier breeders, and I grew up with the breed. Barnum is doing a great job with you. GO TEAM!

  7. 8 Sharon Wachsler October 16, 2011 at 12:33 am

    Thank you so much, Sarah! It’s nice to meet another bouv lover. I’m hoping to do more posts in the next few months about bouvs, why I chose the breed, and why they are not the right breed for everyone. I wonder if I know your parents kennel.

  8. 9 Cyndy Otty October 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Quite welcome. Always happy to help. 🙂

  9. 10 Sarah Skilling October 16, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    My parents are Jim and Kathy Engel of Centauri Bouviers in Marengo, IL. They breed working bouviers first and foremost. They are not doing much active breeding any more as they are getting up in years, but my dad is writing his second book on the breed.

    I know bouvs are not the right dogs for me because basically too lazy to train a dog that is that naturally independent. I prefer a dog that is more driven to please his or her owner. My first SD is a border collie/lab mix (Daphne), and my SDiT is a toy poodle (Liam). Both of them are pretty trainable and have a desire to please (especially Daphne). I am hooked on poodles. I love their intelligence and their cooperative nature as well as their quirkiness. Liam is always trying to figure things out, especially to find a way to get what he wants.

  10. 11 Sharon Wachsler October 16, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    Oh, well, of course your father is famous in the bouvier world since he literally wrote the book on the breed. (I own that book!) I’m sure you know some of his writings are controversial. I am not in agreement, for example, that bouv breeding has changed for the worse. Definitely, the breed has changed in the US, but most of the changes I think are positive. (Except the coat! I agree with him there. Each bouv I get, the coat is harder to manage!) However, Barnum — Mr. Kissy-Face Softy — is an example of the non-schutzhund type of bouv Jim Engel writes is basically a fake bouv. OTOH, I bought schutzhund biting things for Barnum when he was young because he was such a tug fanatic and a shredder and nothing could hold up to Jaws, as we called him. And I don’t think gun shots would bother him — he acclimates to noise very well.

    But, he is such a lover, and he rarely barks. (I did a lot of training to debark him, though.) I described how affectionate he is to a friend in bouvier rescue and she told me about one she’d had like that and said, “I told him, ‘If I’d wanted a golden, I’d have gotten one!'” So, yeah, sometimes I think Barnum is a golden or a Lab in a bouv suit, when he is licking the face off one of my assistants because they happen to be face-height.

    I am hooked on bouvs, but if I couldn’t have a bouv, my second choice would be a standard poodle, for many of the reasons you state. They are super smart and fast learners! Since I’m allergic to “normal” dogs (with shedding coats), I am limited in what kind of dog I can have. There are definitely days I envy people who have their choice! My first dog was a BCx (we think), and she was super smart and trainable. The only problem is I didn’t know squat about training, and she suffered as a result. I wish I could do it all over. . . .

  11. 12 Sarah Skilling October 16, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    I don’t agree with many of my father’s opinions either. I think there is room for different types of dogs within a breed. To say that the breed has changed doesn’t automatically mean it has deteriorated. However, I think there is something to be said for the working temperament as opposed to another iteration of a lab in a rough coat.

    My choice of a toy poodle was manifold in reasoning, but aside from temperament, I wanted a highly portable dog who would fit under an airplane seat if necessary (I travel). My disability is a psych disability, so I did not need a large dog. And everything about the poodle seemed ideal, especially the temperament, which I hoped would be like Daphne’s (my border collie/lab mix). They are similar in temperament, so that much worked out fine. I might go with a standard next time depending on how much travel I am doing at that point in my life. But I am very happy with Liam. He is a stellar little SDiT even at just five months old. I’ve been able to do a ton of socialization with him even as young as he is, and have begun his work in obedience as well. He’s smart as a whip.

  12. 13 Sharon Wachsler October 16, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    Yes, I agree with both your points in your first paragraph. It does seem as if Labs are taking over the world, especially the AD world. (Note to Lab lovers: I love them, too! I understand why they are the most popular breed in America. But, they are not the dog for every person and every job. Though I often wish I had a dog with the food drive of a Lab. Just sayin.) Each of my bouvs has been very different, and with varying degrees of “bouviness.” I would say that, overall, Gadget was the most bouvy across the board, but they all still had certain characteristics in common.

    Yes, I know several handlers and trainers w/miniature poodles who are extraordinarily talented and trainable, and at a very young age. There is a lot to be said for a dog that learns young, matures fast, and lives longer! (Since Barnum has been a slow-to-mature dog who is not the smartest I’ve had, and since Gadget died at nine years old, I’m keenly aware of these drawbacks right now.) It’s likely I’ll never be on a plane again, so that isn’t an issue for me. There are definitely times, with my big self and my big chair, and my big oxygen canister, and my big dog in his pack, that I wish I could work a dog that fit more neatly under tables or between aisles, etc. But I need size and strength, and most of the help I need is at home, so there it is.

    I often hear that people with small SDs get a lot of (sometimes nasty) access challenges. I hope that hasn’t been the case for you. I hope things continue to go swimmingly in your transition from Daphne to Liam. (Out of curiosity, did you decide to switch sexes or was that just how things went? I am thinking my next SD might be a bitch. I might need a break from dudes for a bit!)

    Anyway, I’m really glad you found my blog! I haven’t been blogging as much lately because of a combination of sicker and busier than usual. Hopefully I will do more soonish….

  13. 14 Sarah Skilling October 17, 2011 at 12:22 am

    I have definitely had some public access challenges with Liam that I did not have with Daphne. The situation improved a bit with a vest, but not very much. Fortunately, I am a confident and articulate person who is not intimidated by these challenges. I have my disabled ID, my doctor’s letter, and my copies of the ADA law to pass out, so I feel prepared. Of course, if an access controller asks to see ID, I point out that the law does not require me to produce it; however, I am always prepared to do so if necessary. I am actively working Daphne still, as at nine years old she is still pretty healthy despite some tumors we had to remove. I am, however, keenly aware of her mortality due to just having lost our older dog at 13 1/2. I am also aware that she may get to the point where she wants to retire, and I want to have Liam ready when that happens. As of now, Daphne works eagerly every chance she gets, and enjoys her work very much. That dog has a terrific work ethic. I feel so blessed to have two great dogs to work with. They don’t look anything like each other, but they have similar temperaments and high levels of trainability.

    Barnum is a beautiful dog, and he seems to be shaping up nicely.

    When I chose to get a toy poodle as my next SDiT, I started by praying a lot for the right dog (no kidding–I prayed about this a lot, as I do with many things in my life). I approached a breeder that I had heard good things about and told her what I was looking for–a calm, confident dog with a desire to please. She told me she had a litter from really nice parents that should produce what I wanted. The litter was all males. For this reason, the choice was kind of made for me. I would have been fine with another female, though. I like to work with females because I think they are a little more docile and easier to train, but I don’t think the difference is that important; obviously there is a huge overlap between the genders. Liam is not fully sexually mature yet, but I find him to be very personable and our bond to be quite strong (he tends to have separation anxiety in fact, which is something we are taking him to a veterinary behaviorist for early next month). Finding the right dog isn’t really about gender, it’s more about the dog’s basic nature, much of which is inherited. The nature of the pup’s parents is paramount, although whether the dog lives up to its genetic potential is mediated through the environment.

    I hear ya about sicker and busier. I hope things calm down for you soon. I look forward to reading more about your work with Barnum.


  1. 1 My 200th Post: A Time to Sit and Reflect? Nope, Just a Time to SIT! « After Gadget Trackback on October 20, 2011 at 1:43 am
  2. 2 Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #5: Achievement – Gentle Wit Trackback on November 1, 2011 at 6:38 pm
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