With a New Service Dog the “Moments” Are Many, Stark, and Blended

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.

These Are the Moments

It’s Assistance Dog Blog Carnival time again, and from the moment Martha posted her call for entries, I knew what I wanted to blog about. The problem was that I’d just written that post at the beginning of the month — before I knew that would be the #ADBC theme.

What I immediately thought of are the moments that occur now, sporadically but frequently, when I think some version of, “Hey, Barnum is actually acting like a service dog now. He is actually making my life easier.” So, yes, I have written about this before, especially lately, but that’s the thing about these moments — they occur frequently, and each one is a little bit different.

Because I have a new camera that’s easier for me to use than my old one — and which can take multiple images in one second, so I can get several pics of Barnum when he’s moving fast — I thought it would be fun to “capture these moments on film.” All the pics in this post were taken within about five minutes tonight.

Sometimes these moments are sit-up-and-take-notice moments, when I am surprised to discover that Barnum knows something I didn’t think he did. Usually that’s a moment when I realize, “He actually knows this cue!” For example, now he will turn on or off the hallway light pretty consistently on the single cue, “Light!” Even with my back to him and me moving away from him. This is noteworthy because he has trained and used this cue mostly in my bedroom and bathroom, so this shows that he’s beginning to generalize the idea and he will look up high on walls now when I say, “Light!” To figure out what I might be talking about.

Barnum standing on hind legs, left front paw planted on the wall, nose on switch plate. Because he has to fit between the powerchair and the wall, he is at an angle, coming to the switch from his right.

When I am done taking pics, I ask him to turn off the light.

Sometimes it’s when I’ve been taking a skill or achievement for granted because I’m used to our level of fluency but someone else sees it in action for the first time. Last week I asked Barnum to open my bedroom door when Betsy was in the room with me, and he ran over and opened it. Betsy said, “Hey! He did that on the first try!” I was surprised because he has been very fluent in that skill for a long time. He almost never needs to make more than one attempt; I didn’t realize she didn’t know. (Such as in the video below, posted four months ago. I decided against making videos tonight; they take too much time. I just wanted to focus on individual moments!)

Similarly, a few days ago Barnum removed my socks when one of my PCAs was here. She smiled and said it was the first time she’d seen him do that. Again, I was surprised. She said she knew he could do it and she’d seen us train it, but she hadn’t seen the whole behavior as a complete working skill before that. I tried to capture the sock removal process on film, but Barnum was so quick, I couldn’t keep him in the frame to take pictures fast enough.

With his front half on the bed, Barnum grabs the toe of the sock on Sharon's left foot.

Beginning with the left foot….

Now standing on the bed, Barnum pulls the toe of the sock on Sharon's right foot. (Her left foot is now bare.)

Moving on to the right foot…

Speaking of socks, another moment is when I realize Barnum is more helpful (easier, faster, more pleasant, whatever) with a task than a human would be. (Please note, humans reading this who sometimes assist me, that this is not any sort of slight against you.) When Barnum takes off my socks, he grabs the toe and pulls until it’s off and then hands it to me; it’s pretty fast and painless.

Barnum pulls the right sock by turning his head and body so the sock is now stretching as it's pulled off.

And twist and puuuuuulllll!

Barnum is now turned diagonal to finish pulling off the very long sock (about two feet long).

And puuuuuuullllll!

An extreme closeup of Barnum's snout -- just part of his nose and the front of his mouth visible with the sock -- tan, red, and blue wool stripes -- protruding from his mouth.

Here ya go!

People, on the other hand, often make quite a meal of sock removal because they are trying to be careful and gentle. I’m in pain a lot, so they are worried about hurting me. I have big, sweaty feet, so removing my socks can be quite a chore, as it’s hard to find socks big enough.

Human assistants often try to loosen the sock, roll it down from the top, ease over my ankle or heel, tug here and there — all out of a desire to be gentle and caring. Unfortunately the process takes too long, which causes me more pain and exhaustion than I want to deal with. Barnum is not thinking about my pain or exhaustion. To him, sock removal is a fun game that might earn him a treat, so it goes fast!

Likewise, I’ve started having Barnum help me off with my long-sleeved tops (something I do several times a day due to fluctuations in temperature and to get to my PICC line).

Barnum is lying on the bed near Sharon's bare feet and pulling on a white long sleeve.

It’s like a sock — for your arm!

I didn’t used to ask him to do this because I thought calling him, getting him in position, and polishing the skill would be more trouble than it’s worth. But I realized last night that actually he can do it quickly and easily, making it less painful than doing it myself or with human help.

I focus my training on the skills I need when I can’t do them alone. When no human assistant is here. When I’d be stuck without Barnum’s assistance. It often seems like overtraining and sometimes I question that choice — until one of those days happen when I really do need that help. But more often I find that I ask him to perform a skill just because he enjoys it, I enjoy it, and it’s easier and more fun than relying on a person. And sometimes because he actually does a better job.

Often it just comes down to attitude or communication. It’s not that people in my life have “an attitude” about helping me, but if Barnum’s in my room, and my PCA is in another part of the house, it’s just more enjoyable and less emotionally tiring to have Barnum help me, which he finds thrilling, than to — for example — pull my PCA away from making my food or doing my laundry — to come over and do something as simple as shut a door or turn off a light or pull down my covers.

Sometimes — usually on a day I’m doing badly — Barnum and I will work together without my really paying attention to how much he’s doing until the series of skills coalesce and I realize, “Hey! He’s making this day a lot more doable.” One realization usually starts that thought train going: “Huh, I only had to ask him that once. Hm, he will do this behavior in a chain with that one and I don’t have to reinforce them separately. . . .”

It took me a long time to get down to writing this post, and then it just flowed out of me, and I think the reason for both the procrastination and the ease is that the moments happen so often now, they are easy to miss. So, on one hand, it’s taken me a while to pick out what to write about, to remember, “What were our recent ‘moments’?” On the other hand, there are so many that once I call them forth I could write an endless post about this moment, then this moment, then this one.

But I don’t want to do that to you, readers. I might put you to sleep!

Barnum sleeping on the bed, Sharon's bare foot in the foreground.

Goodnight, everybody.

Besides, there are a lot of posts to read in this blog carnival, and I know you will want to get them all. I only wanted you to stop here for a moment.

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

P.S. Guess who’s hosting the next #ADBC? Get ready!

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7 Responses to “With a New Service Dog the “Moments” Are Many, Stark, and Blended”


  1. 1 FridaWrites November 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I don’t know what it is about dogs and socks, but my dog is obsessed. It is indeed really nice not to have to wait and wait for very basic help or to have to interrupt a person a lot. Service dogs remove a lot of frustration.

    Most people never see most of the tasks my dog does, often because they’ll jump in, not realizing he can do it, such as opening a door. Some tasks that he does they wouldn’t know are tasks because he does them without being asked.

  2. 2 FridaWrites November 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    …and the tasks he does without being asked are desired and developed from intelligent disobedience–such as standing and blocking people from bumping me if there’s a crowd. Example: kids crowding around stage before orchestra concert–I’m stuck in first row.

  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler November 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Barnum actually hated the feel/taste of socks in his mouth for quite a while. Weird pup — perfectly happy to pick up metal, but not socks! LOL.

    “It is indeed really nice not to have to wait and wait for very basic help or to have to interrupt a person a lot. Service dogs remove a lot of frustration. Most people never see most of the tasks my dog does, often because they’ll jump in, not realizing he can do it, such as opening a door.”

    Yes, there is a lot to be said for this when often, as disabled people, we spend so much time waiting for others to help us. I, too, have had people jump in to help with something — such as picking something up off the floor — that I’d rather have Barnum do, in part because he’s still learning to jump to on that, and the practice supports me for the times when there isn’t someone around to do it. Also, he really likes retrieving things.

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler November 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Yes, I read about this on your post! Well done, you two! I was impressed.

  5. 5 pattibrehler November 1, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Awesome moments! Enjoyed this. 🙂

  6. 6 Sharon Wachsler November 1, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Patti, Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed.


  1. 1 The ninth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival | Believe in Who You Are Trackback on November 12, 2012 at 11:53 am
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