Barnum’s Service Dog Retrieve Training (with Videos!)

Hey all.

I haven’t been posting here much lately. I have been very involved with the Occupy/Decolonization movement. I’ve been blogging at #Occupy at Home, and I’ve been trying to assist in organizing and providing nonviolent communication (NVC) to anyone affected by the Occupy movement. It’s been exhausting, scary, exhilarating work. I am learning so, so much, and stretching myself mentally every day. Sometimes I am overdoing physically, and cognitively, and then I have to pull back.

However, amidst all this, Barnum and I continue to train! Actually, taking time out to focus on Barnum is very grounding for me. Dogs will be dogs, no matter what political state the world is in, and for that I am grateful!

I have recently implemented a spoonie* version of Sue Ailsby’s Leading the Dance. I hope to post about how I’ve modified it, with Sue’s guidance, and how it’s going (short answer: well) some time soonish as part of my “Tips for Tired Trainers” series.

The skill we’ve been working the most is retrieving. This is truly exciting. We are actually getting somewhere with the whole “making Sharon’s life easier” part of the service dog training plan! Yeehaw!

Overall, Barnum has an extremely solid take/hold of any object I hand him. He is less consistent with picking things up off the floor and is still doing some problem-solving with certain items when taking them from the floor. We also have just barely begun to add distance.

Until recently, he definitely preferred small, firm objects like pencils and spoons and clothespins. He had a harder time with soft things, crinkly things, or heavy things. Now he has gotten comfortable with socks, leashes, scrunchies, and other soft items he used to make the “this feels icky in my mouth” face before. Shreddable things (paper, tissue, etc.), very thin things (flat lids, credit cards, change), and heavy or bulky things (boots, towels, hammers) will be next.

Neither Jersey nor Gadget had a solid hold; they wanted to pick the thing up, run to me, and spit it out at me as fast as possible. Barnum will keep holding the object until I cue the release into my hand. (My cue is, “Thank you.”) It is exciting to have reached a point in training where Barnum is doing something better than Gadget did. For example, I can toss something into the tub, have him jump in, grab it, hold it still in his mouth, jump out of the tub, and place it in my hand — only when I have asked for it.

On one hand, we still have a long way to go. On the other hand, the slow, careful, meticulous approach will pay off in the end. And he’s not even two! There is yet hope for us!

Now, here are two videos. Barnum was very excited to have someone watching (videotaping) our sessions. When we first started, he kept running over to her and peering up into the camera. I didn’t use that footage. I called him over, and he settled enough to focus on me, but as you will see, he was still much more excited and sloppy than usual.

The first video shows what happens when Mr. Barnum is overexcited when we are training the retrieve. I have worked hard to build this enthusiasm. Now I can direct it. Overly enthusiastic retrieves result mostly in him doing a sloppy take — stepping on the object, batting it with his paws, even (oy!) shredding it — and sometimes with a flawed hold — moving the object around in his mouth, or dropping the object before cued.

The first video shows him retrieving a Sharpie marker for the first time. (I can’t use Sharpies, but its the cap on, it doesn’t bother me.) It’s a hot mess. I finally figure out how to interrupt the situation. I change my technique and switch to having him take it from my hand — eliminating the chase/play/prey drive aspect of the “game” — then having him pick it up from right next to me, before tossing it again.

For the captioned version of the video, click here.

(Note: If you are reading this post as an email, to view the videos, click here.)

[Video description: Sharon sits in her chair and tosses a marker about ten feet away. Barnum runs after it and has some trouble picking it up. He is very bouncy. He brings it to Sharon and drops it. With his butt facing her, he tries again, in an overly enthusiastic way, to pick it up. Sharon looks like she is smiling or silently laughing. She says, “Leave it,” and Barnum immediately looks up curiously. Sharon says, “Yes,” when he is facing her and gives him a treat. Sharon says to the camera, “He’s not supposed to do all that,” and tells Barnum, “Excuse me,” so she can pick up the pen. She holds the pen out and Barnum tries to grab it before she cues, so she moves it out of the way. She holds it out again and says, “Take.” He takes it and holds it above her hand. Sharon says, “Thank you,” and he drops it, and it falls on the floor. After giving Barnum a treat, Sharon points to the dropped marker and says, “Take.” He picks it up and puts it in her hand when she says, “Thank you!” After treating the dog, she puts the pen on the floor on her left and says, “Take.” Barnum delivers it to her again on “Thank you.” Sharon says, “Okay, let’s start over again. Can you turn it off?”]

After that, we continued our training and restarted filming, which is the next video. This includes some items Barnum has never retrieved before (such as the scissors), so it’s interesting to see him figure out how to approach them and gain confidence with more reps. See if you notice how many variables we are working with. . . .

For the captioned version of the video, click here.

The description of the second video is below my signature.

In breaking news, in the last few days Barnum has actually started to retrieve items when needed! The most exciting moment was last night when I dropped a scrunchy and didn’t realize it until I saw him holding it. He had picked it up on his own but now wasn’t sure what to do. I called him over and cued the release, and he dropped it right in my hand. Good dog!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT

*If you are not familiar with The Spoon Theory, you can read it here. The term, “Spoons,” has been adopted internationally to refer to the functionality level a person with a chronic illness is currently dealing with, as in, “I just don’t have the spoons to take a shower today.”

[Video description: Sharon tosses a marker onto the floor.

Sharon: Take!

Barnum picks it up and holds it above her hand.

Sharon: Thank you! (Gives him a treat.)

Sharon tosses the marker behind the chair. Barnum retrieves it, though he drops it halfway to her. Sharon moves forward and puts the marker on a table. She wipes her hand on a paper towel and Barnum moves in as if to take it.

Sharon: Are you sure? This is a tough one. Take.

Sharon drops it on the floor next to her chair. Barnum grabs it with his mouth but holds part of it down with his front paw, tearing it in two.

Sharon: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

She leans down to pick it up. Barnum still is standing on part of it.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum steps back. Sharon removes the larger half of the ripped paper towel.

Sharon puts a pair of paper scissors on the ground next to her. They have a black plastic handle. Barnum circles them, apparently deciding how to approach. He picks them up and brings them over. Sharon moves her hand higher and farther away an inch or two a couple of times, then says, “Thank you,” and Barnum places them in her hand and receives a treat.

Sharon tosses the scissors behind her chair.

Sharon: Take.

Barnum stoops and looks at the shred of paper towel but leaves it alone and finds the scissors. He has to maneuver his jaw a few times to grab the scissors correctly, then picks them up and trots to Sharon’s front. She moves her hand higher. Barnum tries presenting them on her knee, but Sharon doesn’t give the cue. Barnum raises the scissors and puts them in Sharon’s hand when she says, “Thank you.”

Sharon puts the scissors on the table and tosses an empty cottage cheese tub (no lid) on the ground. Barnum immediately scoops it up and gives it to her. This is the one he seems most comfortable with. After he eats his treat, Sharon tosses the container about six feet away and says, “Take.” Barnum goes to it, looks back at Sharon to make sure this is what she meant, then picks up the container and delivers it again. Sharon drops the container on her opposite side so that Barnum has to go under the table to get it. When he brings it back, Sharon holds both hands seven or eight inches above her lap. Barnum tries to put it in her lap. Sharon won’t take it. Barnum lifts it up, and Sharon puts her hand under it but drops it on her foot plate. She waits to see if Barnum will pick it up on his own, but he is uncertain. Sharon cues “Take” again. Barnum picks it up from her foot plate, and this time Sharon allows him to put it in her hands in her lap. Sharon puts the container away and grabs a six-foot cotton webbing leash. She drops it at her side and cues, “Take.” Barnum moves to it immediately and swings around so he’s not stepping on it. He brings it to her and gets his reward. Sharon tosses the leash again. Barnum retrieves it again.

Sharon: Okay, good boy! Good job!]

It’s taken me more than a week to write this post, so Barnum has now improved on various things. He is actually just starting to occasionally do useful-in-the-moment retrieves! Last night, I dropped a scrunchy on the floor without realizing it, and he picked it up! Then he wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I called him over and he gave it to me. Good dog!

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