The Light Switch Goes Down, Too!

There is an expression in the clicker world that I really like: “Whatever you train with a clicker, you can untrain with a clicker.” Or, as Sue Ailsby says, “You’re always working at cross-purposes with yourself.” For example, you spend forever teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash, not to pull. Then you get to the part in their training when you want them to pull in harness, pull a cart or your wheelchair, for example, or give you a bit of momentum when you’re walking up a hill. Since all the training has been done with a clicker, there is no “fallout” like what occurs with punishment-based training. So, learning something new is just learning something new; it’s not, “Bad dog!” for doing X before when now I want you to do Y. And both skills can exist side-by-side.

I knew I’d run into this when I trained Barnum to turn off lights after having trained him to turn them on. Of course, often how the training is accomplished in real life is less smooth (and more humorous) than you’re imagining.

A few months ago, I taught Barnum how to flick up the light switch, using his nose. I used Donna and Jessie’s videos (Part 1) (and Part 2and Barbara Handelman’s DVDs on training your own assistance dog as my guide.

I discussed this in more detail in my previous two posts on this topic, but for those who want a quick refresher: I free-shaped it from touching the board on the ground with his nose (careful never to click for pawing), until he was nose-targeting the light switch plate, then flicking up the switch. Then I progressively moved the board up to vertical, then put it against the wall near a light switch, then took away the board and had him do the real switch. Also involved were Lynn’s tip of teaching him to do paws-up on the wall and a trick from Barbara Handelman to attach some plastic tubing to extend the switch a bit, to make it easier on him and on the walls.

So, he has been flicking up the switch with his nose for quite a while now, and I have been working on him learning the cue. (“Light!”) As is my habit, I use both the spoken English word and the American Sign Language cue.

Now he has that learned well enough that I decided it was time to start teaching him to turn the lights off. I knew he’d want to flick the switch up with his nose instead of down with his chin, but I figured I could start with him chin targeting my hand above the switch. I thought we had a well-established nose-to-hand target and chin-to-palm target, but I underestimated the power of the switch as a stimulus.

No verbal cue or hand signal from me was strong enough to override the environmental cue of the light switch. The switch was there, and he knew his job was to flick it up, and no matter what else I tried to tell him, I was just getting in the way of what the light switch was there for! And when that was not working, he tried biting the switching and moving it up and down that way.

So, that was not working. I stopped and thought.

Okay, I thought, I taught this originally with the board on the floor, so maybe I should put it on the floor again and try to free-shape him to the top of the plate (above the switch as opposed to below it). So, I put the board on the floor, and there was no opportunity to click for anything because he zeroed right in on that switch and flicked it. He kept flicking it up, because I didn’t seem to understand that that’s what the switch was for, dammit!

He was not getting clicked, so he thinks, “Oh, of course!” And he grabs the switch between his teeth and lifts the entire board off the ground! He did this several times, and I was laughing so hard, because what have we been training almost every day for months? Retrieve.

So, of course, if I put something on the ground, and he knows that the switch is the thing — it’s all about the switch — his job must be to retrieve the light switch! He is trying to bring it to me!

Of course, it’s quite ungainly — heavy and hard to carry something with just your incisors like that.

Eventually, I realized I needed to take the switch out of the picture. (Yes, it would have been nice if I had thought of this simple, elegant solution several steps back, but there it is. We have reached the point where the dog is smarter than the human.) I turned the board around and had him nose-target the back of the switch, which is brown plastic (as opposed to the white front of the switch plate). I started just clicking for any nose touching, and then I tried to capture downward movement of his nose/chin. Eventually I was clicking for a nice, consistent downward nudge — basically smearing his nose/snout down the plastic back of the switch.

Then I turned the board around and covered the switch with my fist. I had to go back to just shaping here, because he really wanted to try to get at that switch, so I was just clicking for anything that was a nose- or chin-bump anywhere next to or above my fist. From there he “got” that he could target above my hand, and then I loosened my death grip on the switch some, and over time it was just fingers, then three, two, one finger over the switch, and by then the light bulb went on (no pun intended) and he was pushing my finger down, which pushed the switch down, and bingo!

We both got very excited about him pushing down the switch (something about the click of it, and the movement, he seems to find very satisfying), and he already had the concept that moving the switch was the point. I can now put my finger an inch below the switch, just as a reminder and to feel what he’s doing to make sure he’s not using teeth, only his chin. I could probably take my finger away already, but I prefer to take it slow and not have any back-sliding to biting the switch or frenzied flicking.

So, here is a case where I knew I was teaching something (flip switch up with nose) that I would later have to unteach in order to teach something new (flip switch down with chin), and yet have him retain both behaviors. Now the trick will be getting him to differentiate the cues.

It’s hard work being a service-dog-in-training!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (enlightened) SDiT

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1 Response to “The Light Switch Goes Down, Too!”


  1. 1 brilliantmindbrokenbody December 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    The fiance and I had a good giggle over the image of him trying to retrieve the light switch board. Or more like, I had a good giggle, which prompted the fiance’s interest, and he had a giggle once he knew what I was reading.

    Hudson does the switches with his teeth, and over the 2 years I’ve had him, he hasn’t done any noticeable damage to the switch. The wall is another matter – even when his nails are kept short, his ‘up’ leaves claw marks. Ah well. We’ll probably have to repaint around the bedroom light switch, but that’s the only switch Hudson does often enough to have done much to the wall.


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