Training Update, Plus Where Is My Shark of Yesteryear?

Training Wrap-Up/Update

Barnum’s training moves apace. I try every day to do some handling (brushing teeth, coat upkeep, nail filing), some New Levels training (Sue Ailsby’s books), some service skills training, and/or some manners/basic obedience training. Most days we do not manage most of this! Still, almost every day we do some training.

The New Levels training is hard to track because a lot of it is review, and some of the “comeafters” require criteria that I’m not always able to do — like retrain it outside, or with another person, or in a different room. So, we speed through some of it, and then we stall out and wait on some until the weather or my pain level or whatnot enable me to do things in other rooms or outside, etcetera.

In preparation for future doctor’s appointments and things like that, we’ve been working on mat duration, down-stay, and relax. I’m loving combining shaping relax with down-stay and mat. These also mesh well with training default going to mat or crate when I’m eating, with which the MannersMinder has been very helpful. And we’ve also been adding new aspects of zen (“leave it”) into the mix, such as having my PCAs teach him zen when they’re doing food prep.

Most of the service skills we’ve been working on are doors (opening and shutting), light switch, and “Where is [person]?” He has made excellent progress on all of these. He can now turn on or off my bathroom light on one cue — the same cue (Lynn!) — pretty reliably, without flicking them on or off additional times. The most important light switch is my bedroom one. That’s still a challenge because the switch is right behind where I park my powerchair next to my bed, and that makes it hard for him to jump up and get it from the correct angle. We’ll get there, though.

Door shutting is, in some cases, completely reliable — such as if I’m in my powerchair — and in other cases, still not attached to the cue. He seems to know what I’m asking if I ask for him to shut my bedroom door when I’m in bed, but he still has some discomfort with it because of one time when the door bonked him in the butt when we were training that. Even though we’ve done it a hundred times (not exaggerating) since then, he hasn’t entirely gotten over that incident. Bouviers are like elephants: they never forget. They develop phobias at the drop of a hat.

With the bathroom door, he has no “issues,” he just doesn’t know what the cue is yet, and there are not as many obvious physical cues because I’m far enough away that he can’t tell if I’m pointing to the door, his crate, his mat, etc.

Where he is really shining, and what turns out to be one of the most useful skills, is finding the person. He loves this, and I’m very pleased with how I’ve trained it. I started teaching him when he was a baby to learn the names of my PCAs and Betsy, and my name, and that it was excellent fun to run to that person when he was asked, “Where’s Sharon/Betsy/PCA?” etc. What I’ve been working on lately is creating a behavior chain where he will open the door to get to that person, no matter where we are, and then nudge them until they ask him, “Where’s Sharon?”

I have discovered I most often need this skill when I’m in the bathroom, and I haven’t brought my walkie-talkie with me. So far, he will eagerly run and open my door and find and nudge the person if they are in an obvious location downstairs. It’s good training for both of us that we have to practice this skill with five different people, each of whom does it a bit differently.

Next I’ll be raising the criteria. It will become much harder if he has to open two doors (my bathroom door, which is probably the hardest door to open in the house, and then my bedroom door, which he does easily) or if he has to find the person in an unexpected location. When we have the entire behavior really solid, and he is nudging people in a totally obnoxious way, I will go back to teaching him to bark on cue so that he can bark in situations where he can’t get through a door, such as if I’m outside or if he needs to get Betsy, and she’s upstairs. I put bark/silence training on hold a few months ago because he was getting too barky (I started calling him, “Barkum”), but now that he’s had an attitude adjustment, I think it will go better.

Mais où est mon requin d’antan? (But where is my shark of yesteryear?)

One skill that is really important that we’ve had to return to basics on is his trained retrieve. He is great at picking up small things like pens, clickers, baggies, silverware, and even paper. He doesn’t chew or lick things. He doesn’t bat them around. He’s very purposeful about it. He usually remembers to hold things until I cue the release, even if my hand is on it.

The problem is that he somehow has learned that he can only open his mouth a leetle bit. Obviously I must have taught him this, because when he’s playing, and certainly when he was a pup, he had no problem opening his mouth very wide, as these pictures and this early post show.

Barnum prepares to launch Shark Attack.

Sure, it’s all fun until someone gets bit in the arm. Then it’s only fun for Barnum, not so fun for the owner of the arm.

Barnum chews bucket lid

“Mm, the lid to the bucket tastes as good as the bucket, itself.”

Barnum chews hose.

Now its a hose and a sprinkler all-in-one!

But somewhere along the way, when I taught him to take things from my hand and hold them, he got into the habit of opening his mouth just enough to bump his teeth against the thing, and then a bit more to hold the thing behind his canines. If I hold up something that is larger and requires a more open-mouthed grab, he is used to opening a bit and then a bit more, and then a bit more. So, he is sort of going, “nibble?? nibble? nibble,” until he has carefully and gingerly taken the item. However, the sequence occurred so quickly and seamlessly that I didn’t notice that’s what he was doing, because the end result was that he was holding the item the way I wanted.

It’s an excellent approach for helping me to dress or undress, a skill we recently started with sock removal. He’s very careful to avoid my fingers or toes. With removing a sock, you want a dog that will start with a careful, gingerly nibble. But for grabbing and pulling the front of a sneaker, it doesn’t work at all because he won’t open his mouth wide enough to take the front of the sneaker!

Further, when it comes to picking things up off the ground, this method fails miserably for anything that requires a wide, firm grip. What happens then is that he ends up pushing the thing around because he’s not lowering his mouth over it wide enough to grasp it with the first attempt. Round or slippery things roll away as he tries repeatedly to nibble at them. He ends up getting frustrated and giving up.

So, I have stopped most of our retrieve work and gone back to the beginning. I decided I needed to mark the moment when his mouth is open and to keep shaping him to open it wider. This is easier said than done. For one thing, I use a verbal marker (“Yes!”) for this work, and it’s harder to be precise with timing with a verbal marker than with a clicker. For another, he is a bouvier des Flandres, not a Lab or Weimaraner — in other words, he has a lot of hair obscuring his mouth. Even though he has a very short haircut for a bouv, it’s still not always possible to see whether or how much his mouth is open from the side.

Also, my original idea had been to do the training the way we’d started, but use fatter objects, but he just did the nibblenibblenibble thing with the bigger objects, so I knew we had to go further back to kindergarten. Instead, I’ve been using items he is very familiar and comfortable with, such as pens, and very high value treats when he’s very hungry and eager to work. Then I wave the item around in front of me and a little high for him so I can see when his mouth is opening. A lot of the work has just been me learning how to time my “Yes!” — which involves anticipating when he is about to open and trying to say it right before his mouth gets to its widest point — and how to position him so I can see his open mouth. I actually ended up training a little hop because he was having to jump up to grab for the item. That went away as soon as I lowered it a bit.

Once we both got used to the idea that he didn’t actually have to take the item, he just had to open up and grab for it, we started to make some progress. Last session, I had worked him up to grabbing — opening wide enough to take it in his mouth on the first grab — a wide handle of a dog brush. That’s where we are now. I am trying to regain my shark of yesteryear. If anyone had told me a year ago (or two years ago!) that I’d have to put lots of effort into getting him to open his mouth wide and grab willy-nilly at things, I’d never have believed it!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I liked grabbing things!), and Barnum SD/SDiT and reformed shark

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