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Waspish Wednesday: The Obstacle to Training My Service Dog

A poster showing a paved road with a huge, long boiling mass of molten lava pouring out across the road, black smoke billowing up from it. Under the picture in large orange letters, it says, "Obstacles." Beneath that in smaller type, it says, "Some things cannot be overcome with determination and a positive attitude."

A Despair, Inc., Demotivator

[To enlarge image, click here.]

The theme for this month’s Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “Obstacles.” Lately it’s become very clear what my biggest obstacle is in training Barnum: me. Or, to be kinder and more accurate, my panoply of disabilities and their attendant symptoms.

While searching for inspiration to create a catchy title for this post,I  googled famous quotes on obstacles. I ended up at the proverbia.net Obstacles page. Here are two representative quotations:

Obstacles are like wild animals. They are cowards but they will bluff you if they can. If they see you are afraid of them… they are liable to spring upon you; but if you look them squarely in the eye, they will slink out of sight. ~Orison Swett Marden, American author and founder of Success magazine

Stand up to your obstacles and do something about them. You will find that they haven’t half the strength you think they have. ~Norman Vincent Peale, American preacher and author of The Power of Positive Thinking

What I noticed as I read through the quotes (aside from the fact that, except for unknown authors, these were all said by successful white men) is that the underlying message to all of them is this: Obstacles aren’t real. What you think is an obstacle is actually your personality defect. Get some perspective, little missy! Ditch the bad attitude and start thinking B-I-G! If you fail, it’s because you didn’t follow the dream recklessly/doggedly enough, and it’s your own damn fault.

Uplifting, no?

Although most of these quotes are from a century ago or more, the ideas they espouse are the same victim-blaming, magical-thinking-induced ideologies that I and every other person in the US (and most other countries) are relentlessly subject to today. (If you need some convincing, please read Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. She lays it all out much better than I ever could.)

Many of us with disabilities or serious illnesses get told by family, friends, strangers, even doctors how positive thinking, and mind-over-matter, and mind/body connection, and blah blah blah is going to cure us. How if we think positive! And act cheerful! And smile! And be good little poster kids and supercrips and Brave, Inspirational, Role-Models (because therebutforthegraceofgodgoyou), we can overcome every obstacle! After all, isn’t that what the American dream is all about? Isn’t that what all the commercials tell us — about limitless growth, wealth, expansion, progress?…

In fact, this quote was my favorite of the bunch at the Proverbia.net site because it is just so brutally honest in its social Darwinism:

The block of granite which was an obstacle in the pathway of the weak becomes a stepping-stone in the pathway of the strong. ~Thomas Carlyle, British historian and essayist

That’s the truth of it: If you’re “weak,” too bad for you. If you’re “strong,” you get all the cookies. (And by cookies, I mean, money, security, respect, freedom, independence, choices, opportunities, etc. In a nutshell, privilege.) Basically, “weak” can just be a stand-in for whatever misfortune or trait a person might have which puts them on the margin. Of course, “weak” can also literally mean “weak,” and that’s a reality for some of us, too.

My biggest obstacles are not imaginary. They are not any sort of personal failing on my part or Barnum’s to be determined, smart, dedicated, hard-working, or creative enough. Because, in all honesty (but not modesty), I have all those traits. And they’re not enough. My severe pain and mondo-weirdo sleep disorders and exhaustion and inability to think clearly and inability to drive and inability to leave the house and inability to leave my bed and struggles to walk, talk, bathe, etc., all affect my training with Barnum in every possible way.

It is so damn frustrating! I want a trained SD desperately. It’s true that I am training him to a higher standard — in terms of both the solidity and number of skills he’s learning — than I used with Gadget or Jersey. Nonetheless, I’m also a better trainer, and we’ve been working longer than I’ve ever worked to get a SD completely trained. I don’t want to just keep training forever! I want to spend time with Barnum working, playing, getting out and about, having fun, being free and independent. I want this so bad! And lately it has become so starkly apparent that the reason we are so behind in so many areas is not him; it’s me.

When he started rounding the corner to two year’s old, a lot of dog maturity suddenly clicked into place. He has more energy. He catches on to ideas much faster. (I wrote recently about how we’re having more “light bulb moments.“) He’s more enthusiastic and confident. He wants to train. Indeed, he wants to interact with me all the freaking time! He’s insatiable! He’s turned into a training machine. This miracle I’d been hoping for of a dog who really wants to work, who chooses to be a service dog, is coming to pass. And much too much of the time, I’m so damn tired, I just want him to leave me be. I want peace and quiet and rest.

And I also want so much to work, work, work him. Lately, when we train, the clicker magic is there. He has recently — within the last three weeks — either learned the beginnings of or dramatically improved aspects of the following behaviors:

  • Opening the refrigerator
  • Opening my bedroom door (almost a completed behavior and on cue) and opening the bathroom doors (understands the cue but hasn’t figured out how to work the doors yet)
  • Pulling my bedroom door shut from the outside (which is a completely different set of behaviors than shutting it from the inside)
  • Carrying an item in his mouth from me in bed to a PCA in the hall
  • Standing or sitting on a table to be groomed
  • Going into crate as a default when I start eating a meal (not 100 percent yet, but more often than not)
  • Nose-targeting my feet (which will later be shaped into pulling off my socks and helping me move my legs when I can’t do it on my own)
  • Generalizing the light switch UP skill
  • Learning the light switch DOWN skill
  • Going to find a named person to let them know I need help
  • Retrieving novel objects from the floor
  • Holding his head and mouth still (no chewing or licking) for tooth brushing
  • plus doing ongoing work on go-to-mat, down-stay, sit-stay, zen/leave it/self-control, come, crate, quiet, separation anxiety, and other things I’m forgetting.

All of which is probably leading you to think, “Damn! They’re doing great! Why is she complaining? Clearly they are overcoming obstacles, otherwise they wouldn’t be showing all this progress, right?”

Yes and no. Yes, we’re making progress. Nobody is more aware of that or more excited about it than I am — believe me! I’ve waited a long time to see this. There was a time I thought we were hopeless! I’ve tweeted and posted on our Facebook page, and on the Training Levels list, about how Barnum has really started to help me with some important skills, especially when I’m very sick. This is terribly exciting, and there have been a time or two I almost wept with gratitude and joy that we have achieved this place. I also tend to shower him with praise, hugs, and kisses when these events take place.

What I’ve noticed the most, when I actually need help, and I ask him to do that thing, not just as a training exercise, but because it would really be damn useful, and he does it, it’s a totally different world we are entering. It’s the world of partnership, of a new level of communication, of moving from mommy/baby or teacher/student to something more like, well, partners. It’s really the word that sums it up best, because it’s appropriate in every nuance and meaning of the word — equals, mutual supports, working team members, family, beloved, etc.

But. . . .

We are not there yet. Most of the skills above are still in their youth, if not their infancy, in some cases. Most of the time I’m still putting the energy out, out, out, and only sometimes is it coming back. By his second birthday, I really had expected him to be working full-time, with just polishing of a few skills. Instead, only a few of his skills are in working order, most of them are under construction, and a few haven’t even been introduced.

So, yes, the reason we have achieved what we have, despite the immense obstacle of my illness, is due to our determination, smarts, dedication, hard work, and creativity. We certainly wouldn’t have gotten here without all that. But the fact remains that we still have so very far to go because the obstacle of my illness is real and cannot be “overcome” as in the endemic supercrip trope. We can only chip away at this block of granite a little bit at a time, sometimes with a pick-axe, and a chunk comes tumbling down, but mostly with a dull pocket knife, or a bent spoon, or sometimes just a toothpick or a thousand drops of water over the course of years that hollow out a smooth indentation where I rest.

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

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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!

Video Transcription: Training a Psychiatric Service Dog Skill: Soothing Agitation

Title (white text on black): Sharon & Barnum Train a Psychiatric Service Skill

Next screen: Shaping Head Press into Thigh to Dissipate Handler Agitation

Cut to image of Barnum and Sharon on bed. Sharon is mostly under the covers and wears a wool hat. Barnum is a black bouvier, extremely fluffy. He presses his chin into Sharon’s hand while Sharon rummages for treats in a plastic bag with the other hand.

Next screen:
I start with Barnum chin-targeting my hand.

Next screen: Once he’s offering chin-on-thigh, I keep up my rate of reinforcement.

Cut to video. Sharon holds out her hand, and Barnum, who is lying down next to her on the bed, puts his chin in her hand. Click/treat.

Sharon waits to see what Barnum will do next. A pause. When he doesn’t offer a behavior, Sharon puts her hand on her abdomen. Barnum chin-targets it, click/treat.

This time Barnum immediately rests his chin on Sharon’s thigh after eating his treat. Quick click/treat.

Sharon waits, and Barnum again offers chin-on-thigh, click/treat. Sharon intentionally moves her hand with the piece of hot dog onto her thigh, so that Barnum already has his head in position while eating the treat.

Barnum puts his head back down in almost the same spot, click/treat.

He swings his head over and puts his chin down more in the center of Sharon’s lap. Sharon click/treats right in position, so that immediately after eating the treat, he only has to lower his head an inch, and she can click/treat again.

They repeat this twice more.

Next screen: Then I start selecting for longer or heavier contact.

Next screen: At our next session, I start selecting for cheek/shoulder rolls.

A different day. The room is full of sunlight, and Sharon is not wearing a hat, although she is lying in bed in the same position as before. Barnum is on the bed next to her again.

Barnum puts his chin on Sharon’s thigh in the same spot that ended the previous clip, click/treat. He does it again, click/treat.

He waits for Sharon to grab a handful of treats, then tries laying his head next to her leg. Nothing. He puts it back on her thigh, click/treat.

He puts it right back down in the same spot, click/treat.

He repeats that, but this time Sharon waits. He moves his chin more toward the center of her body and earns a click.

Immediately he puts his head back in the new position, which, because it requires him to stretch further to reach, also has his head turned to the side slightly, so that his cheek is making primary contact, and more of his head is resting on Sharon’s leg.

He puts his head in the same position, but he doesn’t get a click. He tries stretching a bit, laying his head more heavily, and that earns a click.

He licks the quilt cover a couple of times, and he and Sharon make eye contact.

Next screen: Starring: Barnum as SDiT and Sharon as Trainer/Handler

Next screen:
See more videos at our blog: https://aftergadget.wordpress.com

Why Barnum Is No Longer My Service Dog

Hi!

I don’t blog here at After Gadget anymore. I moved to SharonWachsler.com over a year ago, but I still get notices from WordPress telling me that new people have subscribed to After Gadget. This post is for you subscribers to tell you my REALLY BIG NEWS and to invite you to subscribe to my ACTIVE blog, sharonwachsler.com because this blog you’re subscribed to here generally has no new content!

Moving alone: My big news is that I no longer have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), and I no longer have chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFIDS/ME), and I no longer have chronic Lyme disease and coinfections! Thus, I no longer need a service dog! Barnum has been “career changed” to “demo/training/sport dog” as I work my way toward becoming a professional dog trainer.

I am currently interning with two trainers, Caryl-Rose Pofcher and Elise Gouge. I’m learning tons from both of them.

Barnum and I have not started our sport training yet. He has had an ear infection for 16 months (no, that’s not a typo!) which has been treated with everything you can imagine, from ointments to oral antibiotics to acupuncture to full-sedation ear flushes. We think this very nasty chronic infection is due to underlying hypothyroidism (already being treated) and food allergies (which we’re sussing out now). This means that he’s on an eight-week trial of ostrich and quinoa. Although I have found ways to do treats and toys with ostrich and quinoa, it’s incredibly expensive and time-consuming, so I’m waiting to do classes with him till the food situation is easier. We will start introducing new foods into his diet in three weeks and see how he does with them. (Yay!) I already know he’s allergic to chicken. I am really, really hoping he is not allergic to beef, pork, turkey, and/or duck.

If you want to keep up with me and Barnum, or if you want to know how I recovered my health after 18 years of severe, disabling illness, please check out my current website, SharonWachsler.com. That is where I blog now. That’s where I have info about my writing, consulting, dog training, etc. If you want to skip directly to my recovery story, including “before” and “after” pictures and videos, read the post I published a few days ago. If you want to learn more about neuroplasticity and HOW I recovered, visit my page on neuroplasticity and my recovery.

I’ll leave commenting open here for a short time to support ease for readers who are not familiar with my new/current blog, but my strong preference is for you to comment on my new site (so I don’t have to keep logging in and out of two different websites). Thank you so much for your support and interest in my blogging and all-things-dog over the years! I really appreciate all I have learned and continue to learn from you!

Love,

Sharon and Barnum, Former Service Dog

The 10th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival — Perfect!

Welcome to the Tenth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival! I’m pleased that many of the bloggers who contributed to the first #ADBC, hosted by me in October 2010, have returned, and some new bloggers have also swelled our ranks. In honor of this being the tenth carnival, I chose the theme of “Perfect 10.” Participants could write about “ten” or “perfect” or both.

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.

ADBC #10

I’m delighted with how this issue came together. Thirteen bloggers have contributed pieces — some of them have become my new favorite assistance dog posts! Plus, because some posts were accompanied by terrific pictures, for the first time, I’m including a few pictures from some of the posts. You are in for a treat!

The Top Tens

These bloggers are all about the tens. Some looked at the last ten weeks or ten months; others made “top ten” lists, which are a lot of fun. It seems as if top ten lists naturally lend themselves to humor and celebration.

Ro of In the Center of the Roof was part of the first #ADBC, and I remember her contribution as being particularly funny. I’m so glad she’s back because Carnival Post – Top Ten is a feel-good post from top to bottom. Not only is Ro’s match with Jayden perfect, but Ro lists ten added bonuses to their partnership that have nothing to do with Jayden’s guiding ability. Several side benefits (added potassium, quitting smoking) seem pretty unusual. Under “Attitude Adjustment,” Ro explains:

I might be feeling depressed and then it’s time for Jayden’s afternoon Kong Wobbler treat. I’ve taken to pronouncing “wobbler” so it sounds very French and you can’t stay in a bad mood when you’re asking your dog if he wants his Wobbler in a high pitched silly French accent.

Patti Brehler, a puppy raiser for Leader Dogs, wrote about her first Ten Weeks with Dutch, a Golden Retriever pup. A delight to read, each plays with puppies anecdote is accompanied by an impossibly cute picture of Dutch, such as the one below. And clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks he’s adorable:

An 8-week-old Golden Retriever puppy's head and front paws are between my blue-jean clad legs. Behind him is the glove box of our van; to the right side is the van door handle. My red fleece jacket is visiible at the bottom of the picture.

Our only choice was to enter by the stage. As I coaxed my golden fur ball past the front row seats a harmonic “awwwww” rolled out ahead of us. The “awwwwws” resonated to the back of the room like a wave….

Guide Dog Jack was good enough to write L-Squared‘s post for her because she had writer’s block. Well, L-Squared better look out because the Chocolate Dog is such a talented humorist that he might take over her blog! (The pictures which illustrated each point are also great and often hilarious.) Jack wrote a list of ten ways in which his human is Not Perfect. Here’s number six, text and picture:

Super-close up of Chocolate Lab Jack shoving his big brown nose into the camera lens - the photo is so close that all the pours of his nose skin are visible clearly, while the rest of his head is nearly entirely out of focus in the background.

Sometimes I think my girl almost forgets to feed me, so I have to wake her up at o’dark-thirty – by poking her face repeatedly with my nose – to remind her that it will be time for my breakfast in only four more hours!

Martha of Believe in Who You Are has had her new guide, Jory, for ten weeks and is trying to figure out how to teach Jory to do A very good down:

With each dog, I learn something new. This time, I think it is if one method doesn’t work, try something else till she understands. I don’t expect her to be perfect, but I’ll be happy when she is very good and happily lying on the carpet or tile in and out of harness.

Shai, a Golden Retriever who is such a pale yellow that he's almost white. A light-skinned woman with short, straight gray hair and glasses, a white turtle neck and a light blue hoodie leans her head against Shai's shoulder. It looks like they're sitting on the ground, covered with autumn leaves.

At her blog, Shai Ezer-Helper Beside Me: Training My Service Dogkhills wrote a long post chronicling Ten Terrific Training Months with their cherished trainer, Stacey. khills’s post contains many photos and videos (no descriptions or transcripts as far as I know) of her service dog, Shai (often accompanied by other Golden Retrievers) tackling an elevator phobia and a serious distraction problem with other dogs. Among their many adventures is a class with Victoria Stillwell!

When my sister & brother called to arrange a Mother’s Day dinner, I was able to look forward to a big gathering instead of worrying that Shai would not perform well in a big crowd. He rode for 5 hours in the car, then we went directly into the restaurant. He was perfect. Everyone talked about how well trained he was.

Embracing Imperfection

The posts in this section acknowledge that no person or assistance dog is perfect. These bloggers defy perceptions and judgments by the public, other assistance dog partners, or their own inner voices to celebrate their dogs and their partnerships. Some simply accept imperfection as a reality of life, while others celebrate certain imperfections as bonuses.

Cyndy of Gentle Wit wrote one of my favorite posts, thanks to its refreshing honesty and dry wit, about the myth of the perfect match — on both the handler side and the dog side — in her post, (Im)Perfection:

I’ll let you in a little secret: whatever you’ve heard from other guide dog users about their dog never needing a correction is totally and completely a lie. I used to be almost ashamed of my skills as a handler and disappointed in my guide dog because I heard this so many times before training, during training and even after training.

Starre of This Witch’s Familiar is joining the Carnival for the first time, and she’s a welcome addition. In ADBC: (im)Perfect, she talks about what she learned from her experience as an owner trainer of her retired service dog and what she’s hoping for with the yet-to-be-born puppy. A big hope seems to be more acceptance and support from the broader assistance dog community:

Most people who are trying to take this road *are* trying to do this right. Being told that you have to look and be perfect 100% of the time is not okay.  Nobody is perfect, and that’s what makes us human. That’s what makes our dogs, dogs. Its okay to be imperfect.

Flo of A Mutt and His Pack wrote a post that really resonated with me. Duncan is a rescue dog, and that always comes with its own challenges and rewards. I also nodded my head at the all-too-familiar description of how public perceptions of perfection and imperfection of a working dog team are often bass-ackwards. What moved me the most in ADBC #10 – Perfect 10, was the story of an Obedience competition where Duncan and Flo have different ideas of what perfect behavior is appropriate that day. Even though I’ve never competed in Obedience, I’ve had similar moments:

We disqualified on a Companion Dog (novice obedience) run because I was exhausted, and he broke heel to come around to my right side, my weak side. He wouldn’t sit on the halts because I was a little off kilter and he’s trained to stand and brace…. Duncan was a service dog. He’d been perfectly behaved for what I needed, not what I wanted, and I’d basically had a tantrum that we “failed” in front of a judge.

Brooke (with Cessna and Rogue) of ruled by paws wrote about Rogue, the puppy she is raising and training to be her successor guide dog. In Impossible Perfection, Brooke describes some of her own and her pup’s imperfections — which lead her to consider washing Rogue out — but with new equipment and improved training, the team is confidently moving forward:

Some people may look at our challenges and say that Rogue isn’t an acceptable guide dog candidate, but I’m not ready to give up on her. If I had given up on Cessna so easily, I would have missed out on eight amazing years of partnership with an amazing teacher.

Frida Writes is another who embraces imperfection. I related a great deal to her post, Perfectionism and Service Dog Training. Like me, she holds herself and her dog to high standards, standards which can be thwarted by the pain and exhaustion of illness. She discusses what happens if others see her team as less-than-perfect:

As I mentioned in my last ADBC post, it took me a while to figure out why my dog would sometimes throw himself in front of my footplates–to prevent someone from bumping into me hard, to draw my attention to the kind of men who frighten me… So what can initially look like a lack of perfection can be the purest of perfection–finding a need and fulfilling it, even when directed to do otherwise. It just does not appear that way to others. And I’m okay with that.

Remembering our Perfect Dogs

The last three posts look back on assistance dogs who made a profound impact on their handler’s life. Even though (or perhaps because) each dog came with some difficult issues, these dogs were, in certain ways, perfect for their partners.

I was really moved by The Pawpower Pack‘s post about her first guide dog, Rhoda. Perfect After All is a short but powerful post that takes the reader on the journey of a perfectionist newbie who overcomes unexpected behavioral problems with her first guide dog only to lose her to early illness. Having faced some similar struggles, this post at the Doghouse socked me in the gut:

When I got my first assistance dog, I admit to have watched far too many “Guide Dog Movies®” and read just as many “Guide Dog Books®” I had partaken of the “Guide Dog Program Koolade®” with gusto, and expected perfection! Instead, I got Rhoda — a crazy, hyper, and very unfocused dog who had been damaged emotionally by her time in the guide dog training kennel.

Karyn of Through a Guide’s Eyes tells the story of her first assistance dog, Chimette. Together, they shared A Decade of Love. Karyn describes defying expectations — others’ as well as her own — to train her own combo dog. Even though I knew Karyn through most of that decade, I realized in reading this post that I hadn’t known who she was before Chimette:

He taught me to love life in spite of the severe progressive nature my disabilities would take on. Most envision service dogs from a limited skill perspective. Either they are hearing dogs or guide dogs or mobility service skilled dogs or psychiatric dogs. I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined a dog doing as much for me as Met and I learned to do together over our decade long partnership.

My post was written in November, 2011, two years after my service dog, Gadget, died, and I only came across it now. In the pensive mood that hindsight and a new working partner brings, I pondered the question, Two Years Later: Was Gadget the Perfect Service Dog?

Sometimes I’ve thought that I built him up in my mind to be more perfect than he really was. I’ve wondered, “Was it really that Gadget was so amazing and special, or was it mostly that he was the service dog I needed to get the basic job done? Was it really more that I lucked into adopting a dog who learned solid public manners, assistance skills, and loved to learn — despite the issues he had when he arrived?”

Thank You, Readers and Bloggers!

Thank you so much to the bloggers who made this such a fantastic carnival, and thank YOU, our readers, for whom we write. I hope you will share the link to this post on your blogs or social media so that others can enjoy this splendid collection of posts. And as you make the rounds (at your convenience), consider leaving some comment love at the posts that speak to you.

Plus, bloggers, the raffle results are in. You may already be a winner! No, really — find out who takes the prize!

Lastly, the next #ADBC will be hosted by Frida Writes in April 2013. The schedule and other #ADBC details are at the Carnival home page.

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

Two Years Later: Was Gadget the Perfect Service Dog?

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.

ADBC #10

You know what’s odd? I wrote most of this post over a year ago, long before I had picked out a theme for this month’s Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. But since I so often get ideas for posts, start writing them, get too tired to finish, and then forget them, I checked my drafts for “perfect” posts and found this one!

This is not the post I’d originally planned for this carnival, but in case I’m too sick/tired/busy to write that one, I’m posting this (instead of or in addition to the one I’d planned to write.) Enjoy!

The post below was originally written November 19, 2011. All I did to finish it was write an ending and do some editing.

* * *

Today is the second anniversary of Gadget’s death. I’m on a list for people whose dogs have died after undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma.* It’s called the Lymphoma HeartDog Angels list (LHDA). We talk about anniversaries a lot on LHDA: anniversaries of birthdays or gotcha days, anniversaries of diagnoses, anniversaries of deaths.

When we are facing an anniversary, it often brings up memories of seminal moments in our dogs’ lives: the diagnosis, the decision to do chemotherapy, the dog’s last day. Stories of how these dogs came into our lives often touch me, such as Susan’s story about Freeway, whom she found abandoned on the side of the freeway. Susan picked her up in her car and they changed their lives forever.

Bettina fell in love with a shelter dog when she was a teenager and begged her mom to adopt him. But when they got to the shelter, they found that the sheltie mix had already been claimed. It turned out Bettina’s mother had applied for him already, as a surprise. Thus began Bettina and Niko‘s relationship, which lasted over seventeen years!

When I think about how Gadget entered my life, what strikes me is how much random good fortune played into it — how I blithely adopted this dog who turned out to be an excellent service dog and my heartdog — and I never even realized how high the odds were stacked against that until much, much later. I lucked into the perfect dog!

Not that Gadget would have been everyone’s perfect dog. Unlike his predecessor, Jersey, who was sort of the poster dog of winning over people who disliked dogs, Gadget was very doggy — and unschooled. Literally his first act upon entering my home was to lift his leg and pee on the clean guest clothes I kept in a basket by the door. Whereas Jersey never pulled on the leash, Gadget would run to the end of it and keep going. During his first week with me, he pulled my mobility scooter over onto me. He had phobias of round things (colanders, hats, outdoor garbage cans) and was wary of men, especially men in hats.

He was a drivey dog, a dog who needed a job, and I think things might have ended badly for him if he’d gone to someone who didn’t have the skill and patience and desire to put in the training to channel that drive. He wore me out with his need for physical and mental exercise. He taught Jersey that she didn’t really have to come when called. He chased all sorts of creatures, including adult black bears. He nipped my landlord, a male friend, and my dog walker, all during his first year with me. I nipped this behavior in the bud (ha ha), and Gadget learned that nipping people was counterproductive and would not bring the goodies that other behaviors did.

When I knew he was the dog of my dreams was when we started clicker training, especially shaping. The service skill I taught Gadget first was the first behavior I ever taught with a clicker: I had trained Jersey to shut the front door, and that was my clicker conversion experience. It was so positive and went so smoothly that I thought it would be a good first service skill for Gadget, too.

Here’s how I taught Jersey: I took some orange construction paper and cut out a circle and taped it onto the door at nose height. Click for approaching the target, then nosing the target, eventually wait for touching to turn into nudging, then harder nudges, then multiple nudges until the door was shut, then click for only some of the nudges it took to close the door, and finally click only for the closed door. When this was solid, I removed the target and clicked for shutting the door without it, which required going back a few steps to reintroduce nudging the door with no obvious target. With Jersey, this process had taken five days of three short sessions per day. I had been very impressed with that!

I intended to follow the same lesson plan with Gadget, but he had other ideas. I put the target on the door. Gadget immediately went to sniff it, and before I could even click him (I hadn’t expected him to orient to the target so quickly since we’d never used one before), he touched the target. I clicked that. He touched it harder. Click. He nudged the door shut! I gave him a jackpot.

When I opened the door again, he started nudging right away, and it only took two or three clicks for him to shut it again. He was so excited that if I held off on a click, he’d try pulling off the target to retrieve it. So it ended up on the floor. Even without the target, he kept orienting to the same spot on the door and within a couple of clicks the door would be shut.

“Well,” he must have been thinking, “obviously the object of the game is to shut the door. Why didn’t you say so?” Because very soon he switched to using his paw — much more efficient without all that nudging business. Within three minutes of beginning the game, I could open the door and have Gadget shut it, over and over again, with just a single click when the door latched.

Gadget, in other words, was a conceptual thinker, which I’ve been told is unusual for dogs. Thus, I managed to train him to do several skills without really providing all the details most dogs would need; I learned to expect these mental leaps and became what is known in training parlance as a lumper. Gadget would quickly grasp what the end goal of the behavior was and just do whatever worked to get there. For example, when I taught him to go find Betsy to bring her a message, and he was confronted with her closed door, he decided all on his own to bark at her door (which Betsy was not thrilled about). I had not realized how special this was. I just thought, “He’s problem solving. He’s got a brain, and he’s using it.”

When I recently told this story to a friend who has trained numerous service dogs professionally, she said, “That’s a dog on a mission!”

It was Gadget’s gusto and independent mind that I loved so much. A smart dog who has been given tools and taught to think for himself is a joy — and a nightmare. After teaching Gadget how to open the outside door to let himself out to relieve himself, one day I discovered the front door open, cold air filling the house, and no Gadget to be found! He’d realized that if he could let himself out when I told him to, he could also do it when he decided to!

I called him, and he came in. I vowed to keep a closer eye on him. He managed one more “escape” before I realized he was gone. The third time he tried it, I caught him in the act. He sauntered to the door and began to open it. I told him, “No!” very sternly, and that was the end of it — until the last year of his life, when he took to letting himself out to find me if I went out without him.

* * *

It’s odd. Grief and memory distort; they magnify some things, blur others. Even though after Gadget died I was lost without him, and I still couldn’t imagine Barnum achieving the number of service tasks or the level of support Gadget provided, I still didn’t realize how exceptional Gadget was.

Not that I didn’t remember how special he was to me, how important. I remembered our perfect moments: When the humans didn’t know I was asking them to shut the door, but Gadget did. When he woke me up when the timer went off and I had food on the stove I’d forgotten. When he alerted me that I’d left the sink on and flooded the bathroom (even though I never trained him to do that). When a stranger came into my home at night and Gadget stayed by my side, barking and ready to attack, but followed my cue to down and stay instead.

I also remembered his “flaws”: that he never completely adjusted to the move to a home with other houses and cars on it, that he worked much more eagerly if he knew I had cheese with me than if I didn’t, that he would get so excited to do a task that he’d get sloppy.

But these were not the moments that made me miss him so much, that left me feeling utterly lost and broken, like a part of my body had disappeared with him. It was the dailiness: Letting himself out. Bringing me water from the fridge. Waking me up so I’d take my medication. Carrying messages to others in the house. Turning off the lights when I went to bed. Opening the doors. Carrying groceries from the van to the house.

Yet, I always thought, “We could have done better. I didn’t train him to real stimulus control on many behaviors. We were never free of the food reinforcers.”

Sometimes I’ve thought that I built him up in my mind to be more perfect than he really was. Especially as I became a better trainer while working with Barnum and achieved levels of consistency and proficiency that Gadget and I never had, I’ve wondered, “Was it really that Gadget was so amazing and special, or was it mostly that he was the service dog I needed to get the basic job done? Was it really more that I lucked into adopting a dog who learned solid public manners, assistance skills, and loved to learn — despite the issues he had when he arrived?”

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I came across something I thought was gone forever — the one video I had of Gadget. Betsy and I made it the year before Barnum got cancer, and a friend of mine put it on Youtube, divided into two parts. A year ago, that friend closed his Youtube account, and I was so sad that I had lost this tangible proof of who Gadget and I were together. Then, when I was captioning videos for a recent post, I discovered that I’d posted and captioned the videos of Gadget before they were taken off Youtube. (You can see them here: Gadget and Sharon Part One and Gadget and Sharon Part Two. Or read the transcripts: Part One and Part Two.)

When I watched them again, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t focused on the skills themselves or on all the mistakes I saw us making. Instead, I noticed his gusto. He was so eager, motivated, and engaged. Yes, it sometimes took two or three tries to get something right, but he was determined.

He was, indeed, a dog on a mission.

It is good to be able to miss him for who he was and not for his supposed perfection or flaws. It’s good to see this side of him that I loved so much, preserved for me to celebrate and mourn. A dog on a mission to work, to keep playing the game, and — let’s face it — a dog on a mission to earn cheese.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

*I’m one of the few people on the list whose dog did not actually die of lymphoma. Gadget’s chemo was effective for lymphoma, and he was in remission. Unfortunately, he developed mast cell cancer four months into his lymphoma treatment, and that is what killed him six months after he got lymphoma.

Call for Posts: 10th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival! #ADBC

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.

Perfect “10”

I am thrilled to be hosting the TENTH Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (#ADBC)!

We’ve come full-circle. I hosted the first ADBC in October 2010, and between that time and this, eight other bloggers have hosted, coming up with some really terrific topics. And guess how many bloggers have contributed posts? Hint: Some have graced us with their presence once, while many others have a reserved table, having been part of every (or almost every) carnival! (You can find links to all the past hosts, topics, and carnivals at the home page of the ADBC.)

The Theme: Perfect 10

This month’s theme is “Perfect 10.” You can write on “perfect” or you can write on “ten” or you can write on “perfect 10.” Some topic ideas:

  • The myth of the perfect assistance dog can be a burden. Did you expect your first canine assistant to be perfect and have an “Oops” moment? Or do you find that others are shocked when your dog is, well, a dog?
  • Conversely, has your current or a past assistance dog been perfect for you? Was there a perfect day or a perfect moment? A way in which the two of you fit together that you could never have imagined?
  • Is there an arena of your partnership or other doggy life where you are striving for perfection or where you achieved some recognition of perfection?
  • For people who have pet dogs or train pet dogs, are there “nuggets of perfection” you have gleaned from assistance dog trainers or handlers that inspired you to do things differently with your own dog(s)?
  • There are so many things you can do with ten! A top ten list of . . .
  • Things you love about your service dog. Reasons you got a service dog. Best days with your dog. Ten worst moments. Ten funniest moments. Ten things you hate that people do about your assistance dog.
  • Anniversaries. . . Ten years ago. Your first ten months of training. Your dog’s tenth birthday. Your tenth day as partners.
  • Or anything else I’m not thinking of on the theme of Perfect 10!

The Guidelines

These things are required:

  • Anyone can submit a post — as long as it’s pertinent to the theme. You do not have to be an assistance dog partner or puppy raiser or trainer, etc. You just have to write something relating to the theme of “Perfect 10” as it pertains to assistance dogs.
  • The deadline for submissions is Monday, January 28 at 11:59PM (of whatever time zone you’re in). If you are writing or want to write a post and haven’t made the deadline, please contact me. I’d like as many people as possible to join this Carnival #10! I plan to post the Carnival on Thursday, January 31.
  • To submit your post, please comment below with your name (as you’d like it to appear), the name of your blog, the name of your post, and the URL for your post. OR, if you prefer, tweet me the same info at @aftergadget.
  • If you have anything flashing or moving on your blog or post (snow falling, gifs that move, graemlins, etc.), or music that automatically plays when someone enters your blog, we request that you turn off those features until two weeks after the carnival goes live, OR please include a head’s up that you have this feature in your entry below. The reason for this is that moving imagines or music can make text difficult or impossible for some to read and can also trigger migraines (both of which are true for me). A more serious concern for me is that for some readers and contributors to the carnival, these features can cause seizures if they visit your site. By providing me and other readers with this information ahead of time, we can make informed decisions in taking care of our health and safety about whether or not to visit your blog. Thank you for your consideration.

These things are requests (not mandatory, but they make me happy):

The Goodies

I want this Carnival to be special, so I’m doing a raffle and giveaway. Everyone who submits a post for the Carnival will be entered. This is just to CELEBRATE our community of assistance dog partners and our allies — just for FUN! No good cause. No fundraiser. No goals or charity — Just. For. Fun!

The winners will be randomly chosen (using random.org) among contributors.** Here’s what’s available for the giveaway so far:

I’m hoping to collect more giveaways by the publication date of the Carnival. If you have an item you’d be willing for me to raffle, please get in touch! I would love to have a variety of goodies — little things that will be fun to receive; they don’t need to have monetary value. I’ll post new items, with links and info to the donor’s site (if relevant), here and on the After Gadget Facebook page and on Twitter as they come in. (So, if you have a business, I’ll happily plug your stuff!) If you have something to offer, please email me or Tweet me or message me on Facebook! The more who get involved, the more fun it will be (I hope!). Update on raffle: See swag post!

So, get those wheels a-turnin’. What do you want to share with the world on the theme of assistance dogs and “Perfect 10”? I look forward to your posts!

Also, if you are willing to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, other social media, and anywhere else, I would so much appreciate it! I love my internet assistance dog community which the ADBC has helped foster. I would love as many people was possible to be part of this celebration!

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

*Here’s the answer to who and how many bloggers have participated in previous ABDCs…. Forty-eight! Here they are, in the order in which their posts appeared: Ro, Carin, Allison, Torie, Jen, Beverly, L-Squared, Kali, me, TrulyAble, TheTroubleIs, Ashley, Sherlock, Robin, Patti, Linda, Katrin, Cura’s Mom, Trish, Lisa, Brooke, Coreena, Cyndy, Martha, Jess, Static Nonsense, The Pawpower Pack, Michelle, Becky, Kimberly, Beth, Solstice Singer, Karyn,  Kelley, Sam, Artemis, Andrea, Flo, Cait, Hopesclan, Wendy, Lyssa, Patty Aguirre, Lynette, Hera, Katie, FridaWrites, and Kathie! If you comment below, I’ll happily turn your name here into a link. (Too much work to go hunting down 47 links on my own.)

Beginning Training the Simultaneous Pull-and-Push Door Opening

Barnum and I have started training on opening my bathroom door from the outside. This can later be applied to several other doors in the house.

The difference between this task and others I’ve written about is that in this case, instead of pulling down and back, Barnum has to pull the cord down and then, while continuing to keep the tension on the pull, push the door inward. This is the most difficult door-opening behavior in my opinion because it’s counterintuitive — due to the opposition reflex (which dogs, people, and other mammals have), the natural tendency is to pull back — and it’s also the opposite of his reinforcement history, which is to open and shut doors by pulling down and BACK.

So, here’s how we’re approaching this behavior:

1. I tested, myself, how far I’d need to pull down and where I’d need to push the door to get it open if my hand were a dog’s mouth. I then put a sticker on the pushing spot for Barnum to use as a target.

2. I shaped Barnum to nose-target the sticker and started selecting for harder nudges.

3. I decided Barnum wasn’t nudging hard enough, and I wanted to get a hard nudge on cue. He knows “nudge” for nudging a person, but I’ve never actually put nudging on cue. I just taught behaviors that involve nudging by shaping and then gave a cue for the whole behavior, like, “Shut the cupboard.” So, I got out the Poundin’ Bed Bugs toy* and had him practice pushing in the bugs.

Plastic toy with four different colored "bugs" sticking out of a plastic "bed." A red plastic mallet hovers above the bugs. When one bug is hit down, another pops farther out.

We don’t use the mallet. Barnum’s snout is the mallet.

4. When he was getting tired of that, I switched to having him hold a pen in his mouth (it’s one of his favorite things to hold or retrieve) and do different things while still holding onto the pen. This is because eventually he’s going to need to hold onto the door pull while also pushing the door inward, and I want to get him used to holding something in his mouth while also nudging the door. He also is just in need of remedial “holding onto things until the cue has been given to release them.” He’s so used to retrieving the thing and bringing it to me that if I don’t take it he starts trying to shove it into my hand or press it into my lap or bouncing his head like, “Here it is! Here it is! Take-it-take-it-take-it!”

So we practiced a few different behaviors while holding the pen: backup, sit, let’s go (working walk), and “touch.” The one I’ll eventually focus on is “touch,” and then I’ll stop giving that cue and just shape a firm nudge of my hand while holding the pen. I’ll also start sometimes giving him a door pull (not attached to a door) to hold while doing other things.

Once he is good at both holding and nudging at the same time, and once we have a firm nudge on cue, we’ll go back to working on the door and try to combine things. Right now he’s trained enough in the skills that are the most useful to me that I don’t feel a lot of urgency on this skill. It will be useful to have it, but we can just work it when we’re in the mood.

Back to writing and resting, guys!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who somehow figured out how to do this skill even with my lumping-style training), and Barnum, SD/SDiT

*I found out about this toy as a useful service dog training aid from Barbara Handelman‘s DVD set, Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog. You can watch a video of her training a pup with this toy at her page on clicker training an assistance puppy.

#NVC Meets Clicker Training: Needs and Reinforcers – Part 1

Writing, clicker training, and nonviolent communication (NVC) are my passions. For several months I have wanted to write a series on how NVC and clicker training overlap (thus combining all three passions) but I keep being too busy — with, guess what? Yeah. All of the above. I’ve been co-organizing an NVC telesummit that started Monday, Nov. 5!* When I do these things, it tends to use all my spoons. I made an attempt at cohosting the first call, but it was too much for me, so I’ve gone behind the scenes again. I’m better at the writing and brainstorming and promo stuff, I think.

Anyway, the more I study nonviolent communication (NVC), the more I love it. This has also been true for me with clicker training. The more I learn of both, the more obvious it becomes how I can apply the underlying principles of both to virtually everything in my life, and I find it fascinating to see how they bleed into each other.**

It’s not surprising I would see these synergies, because this is where my energy is going, but since I haven’t yet met anyone else who is passionate about both applied behaviorism and NVC, I haven’t had anyone to share these exciting little bursts of insight with. That’s where you come in!

I have heard from a couple of NVC people, and a couple of clicker people, that they’re interested in this topic, so I will take a stab at it. The most encouraging response was when I explained the difference between “splitting and lumping” to an NVC practice group facilitator, encouraging her to “split” more in her teleclasses. She later told me that that had been a useful tip which supported her in her role as facilitator. Since clicker training is basically a form of pedagogy, this shouldn’t astonish me, but I’m still always surprised when I pass a tidbit along to someone who isn’t already a clicker enthusiast and they tell me, “It worked!”

DISCLAIMER! I am not a professional in either field. I have no certifications or degrees or licenses. In both areas, I am an enthusiast, a dedicated amateur (though I’ve been clicker training much longer than studying NVC). I strongly encourage you to ask questions, to challenge me, to tell me if you disagree with me — and of course, because I am a believer in positive reinforcement, I also encourage you to share what you like, what makes sense, and where you think you can expand on my ideas. I think these sorts of interchanges — no matter whether they take the form of agreement or disagreement — offer the most potential for juicy learning and cross-pollination of ideas. I hope this will be a wonderful learning opportunity for many people, especially me!

I’m actually going to leave my attempt at defining what NVC or clicker training are, including the purpose of each, till another time. I want to start off with what I see as the basic “unit” of each practice. In NVC language, this would be “needs.” In clicker language, it’s called “reinforcement.”
In this post, I’ll tackle needs. The next post on this topic will take on reinforcement.

Needs – Human Example

Let’s start with needs. NVC holds as a basic tenet that all people have the same basic needs. This list at the Center for Nonviolent Communication is a basic example, though I prefer this PDF by Miki and Arnina Kashtan of BayNVC.
Now I’m going to say something that a lot of NVC practitioners (and other people) might find challenging, but I hope you’ll stick with me anyway. My first NVC teacher and main mentor believes, as do I, that animals have the same basic needs as humans. In other words, those lists I linked to are not just lists of universal human needs; they are cross-species lists of needs. If you’re thinking, “What about bacteria? What about amoebas? I doubt they have most of these needs,” I agree with you. Though I can’t prove it, I think it unlikely that bacteria have a need for companionship or trust or fun. So when I refer to an animal/being in these discussions, I mean “anything with a brainstem that eats,” because that’s Karen Pryor’s definition of an animal that can be clicker trained, and because I think it’s a manageable and reasonable way to define parameters. And yes, that includes humans — people can definitely be clicker trained, though it’s called TAGteaching (mostly because a lot of parents got in a flap when they learned their kids were being taught using a tool “that was for animals!”).
Do ALL animals need everything on the lists I’ve linked to? Maybe not, but then not ALL humans need everything on these lists, either. For example, I know some people who would say “sexual expression” is not a need for them. However, overall these are universal human needs, and enough experiences and science support my belief that they are equally applicable universal needs among social species, such as dogs, horses, parrots, apes, and dolphins, to name just a few. (If you’d like more information on this topic, I recommend For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and in Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell, who studied both zoology and behavioral psychology. Although the book is geared to dog lovers, McConnell uses other species as examples as well.)

At any rate, a lot of learning to practice NVC is learning to connect with the basic needs at play in ourselves or in others with whom we’re interacting. This often takes the form of hearing the needs underneath the strategies we are using to try to get those needs met. For example, suppose I’m in an argument with my partner (this is hypothetical — I’m not saying this is an argument I have with my partner, nor that this is the language she’d choose), and she says, “You’ve spent the whole day blogging, and now it’s almost bedtime and you’re still at it! I’ve been waiting for you to watch a movie with me! I rented this DVD so we could have some time together, but you care about that stupid computer more than me!”

If I have my “NVC hat” on (as opposed to losing my head), I might make some guesses as to what my partner is saying her needs are. From an NVC perspective, her need is not to watch a movie because plenty of people and animals don’t care about movies; movie-watching is not an universal need among people. So, what are the possible needs she is asserting? My guesses might be that her needs are for fun, connection, companionship, and knowing she matters.
I might try to find out by asking, “Were you really wanting to have some connection with me tonight? To know that you’re important (matter more to me than my computer)?”
A cartoon of a hippopotamus and a giraffe. The hippo says, "I think that you..." and the giraffe shouts, TELL ME YOUR NEEDS!!! A banner says, Dear Beginners, This is how you can make your partner hate NVC. (Or hate you.)

Painfully true. (Just ask Betsy.)

Another cartoon by Sven Hartenstein

If she says, “Well, yes, I do want to spend time with you, but I also am just really sick of work, and I can’t understand why you aren’t! We spend all day on our computers, and now I’ve got this movie we’ve been waiting to see, and I want to watch it! Don’t you?”
From this, I think probably her primary need is fun (play, relaxation, enjoyment) and secondarily also some companionship in having fun. So, watching the movie with me (or by herself, or with someone else) might meet her needs, but so also might other forms of play, relaxation, or enjoyment, such as playing cards or backgammon or doing something fun with the dog or with someone else. So I might agree to watch the movie with her, or if I want to keep working, I might empathize with her need for fun and ask if she’d be willing to watch it without me — if that would still be fun and relaxing for her? And we’d go from there. Her needs have been identified, however. (My needs will be in another post in the future!)

Needs – Canine Example

Now I’m going to apply the same scenario to a dog! (Note: Because I have more experience with behavior in dogs than in any other nonhuman species, my examples will usually be dogs, but I encourage people with birds, horses, llamas, rats, etc., to comment with questions or examples.)
I’m blogging away at my computer, and Barnum starts barking. (This IS a real example which happened while I was writing this post, so I used our interaction as an experiment.) He’s looking out the window when he barks. Barking is no more a universal need among dogs than movie-watching is among people. Don’t believe me? My first service dog (same breed) never barked, even when a stranger approached the house. So, what is the need underneath the behavior here? First, I’ll tell you what I think he was “saying,” before I tell you what needs I guessed. I guessed he was saying, “I see someone in the yard, and I want you to know that they’re there!”
Back of Barnum's head and back as he looks out the window towards a green, leafy view outside.

What’s that?!

Note that there appears to be an extra step here: I am interpreting Barnum’s dog language into human words. This is a difference between communicating with most animals and most humans; humans are more likely to be able to use language we think we understand to interpret into needs. However, we often rely too much on language, thinking we know what another person is saying when we don’t, and we tend to ignore obvious (body) language from nonhuman animals about what they are saying. There are many times I know quite clearly what a dog is saying to me, while I can have a long, drawn-out discussion or argument with a person before I have a facepalm moment and say, “Ohhhh, so you mean X?!” Sometimes I’m not sure what Barnum (or another dog) is saying to me, and sometimes I am.
With either species, the process is basically the same: You make guesses and see how they land. With a dog, you often need to use a strategy to make a guess because just asking the dog, “Are you wanting X?” doesn’t always work. (Note: Except when it does. Many dogs know words for toy/ball, play, eat, dinner, car, walk, out, etc. Barnum knows the words “train” and “training,” and I try to use care about saying them in his hearing because he can get very disappointed if training is not forthcoming when he thinks it is.) Anyway, aside from these obvious examples, you usually “ask” a dog what they want by beginning a strategy that you think will meet their need and see how they react to it.
In this case, if I think Barnum is saying, “Pay attention! Intruder alert!” I’m likely to guess that Barnum’s need is communication, contribution, and safety. In other words, he wants to communicate to me that one or both of us might need to handle the danger of a stranger coming to our home; he wants to contribute to me by letting me know this. So I would probably thank Barnum for barking, ask him to be quiet, and treat him for remaining quiet while I look out the window or go to the door to see who’s outside. Looking out the window is partly for my own peace of mind and partly to convey to him that I have heard his alert and am taking it seriously — that he has communicated successfully to me his concern for our safety.
Suppose I do this and I see . . . nobody! Which is what happened! Either I guessed wrong or there was a dog, neighbor, or other “disturbance” he saw, heard, or smelled (perhaps in our neighbor’s yard) that I didn’t see. So, I went back to my work (this blog). As with my human partner, my initial guess was not entirely correct, but I’m still open to more information.
A few minutes later, Barnum — who was looking out the window again — barked again. Obviously what I did before did not meet his needs. I’m going to make a new set of guesses. I watch him for a few seconds and notice that his bark and body posture are a bit different from when he is truly alarm barking. I also catch him glancing at me a couple of times between barks.
I decided that actually Barnum is probably thinking, “I’m bored! She’s been staring at the computer all day, but last time I barked, she paid me some attention and moved away from the computer. If I keep barking, she will probably pay attention to me by telling me to be quiet, and I might even get a treat if I am quiet, and then I can do it again!”
Barnum lying on Sharon's bed with his chin on her computer keyboard in her lap.

Are you STILL on the computer?

I made a different set of guesses about his needs. I guessed Barnum might have needs for stimulation, play, challenge, purpose, connection, or companionship. Possible strategies to meet these needs include: physical affection (ear rubs, belly rubs, butt scritches), play (tug, fetch, chase), a puzzle toy (Buster Cube, treat ball, Kong), or training — which engages body and mind and usually is his favorite strategy for meeting needs of connection, creativity, purpose, challenge, stimulation, learning, and movement, among others.***
I decided to leave training as a last resort for three reasons: 1. It’s what I usually use, and I wanted to experiment. 2. I wanted to finish this post, and training can use up a lot of my physical and mental energy. 3. Training meets so many of Barnum’s needs that it would be harder to distinguish which specific needs were successfully being met by the strategy of training (normally not something I care about, but for the purposes of this experiment, I wanted to try to figure it out).
Then I actually tested this out while I was writing this post. I didn’t start with petting because Barnum rarely wants petting except first thing in the morning or last thing at night. (It’s a Bouvier thing.) I was also interpreting his body language as requesting more active engagement than passively receiving physical affection. So, I moved to the edge of my bed, got a plush squeaky toy and threw it for him. (The spider that quacks like a duck!)
Huggles Seat-Belt Spider

It actually looks creepier in real life. And it sheds!

He was not that interested at first, but then when I made it clear I would play with him (by voice and body language), he got it, and we played some version of tug/fetch/chase. Much to my surprise, when we started playing this way, he came over all wiggly and pressed himself against me. I took that as a request for petting, which is a delicious and rare treat for me (mutually reinforcing, AKA meeting needs for physical affection and connection for both of us). I vigorously rubbed his back and sides and scratched his butt, then he happily bounded over to pounce on his toy. We played some more, during which he requested scritches one more time, and then he got bored.

At this point, I could have decided his needs were probably met. Clearly he HAD had a need for connection with me, including physical affection, and I was touched by that. He’d had some fun, but my guess was that he had not had enough stimulation, play, and similar needs satisfied. If I went back to the computer, he might go back to looking out the window and maybe barking. Even if he didn’t, he might still have these unmet needs but just suffer in silence.
I thought it was likely that his needs for mental engagement (stimulation, challenge, play, whatever you want to call them), were still unmet. Again, I wanted to see if something other than training would work for him. I gave him a previously stuffed IQ Treat Ball set to a high difficulty level. He immediately began pushing it around my room, trying to get the kibble to fall out.
Two hard plastic balls, one blue, one orange. Each has a transparent hemisphere and then a divider inside with an opaque hemisphere below. There is a hole in the divider that can be adjusted in size, and the transparent hemishere has one hole in it as well.

Can be made difficult or  easy to get treats out by rolling

This might seem like a strategy for meeting a need for food, but I have often found that Barnum prefers a food-dispensing toy to easily-accessed food. For example, once when I was leaving the house, I left him a raw knuckle bone and the Buster Cube to occupy himself. Betsy came back into the house because she’d forgotten her hat and saw that he was ignoring the knuckle bone completely — normally a high-value food reward — in favor of the Buster Cuber, with its lower value kibble, because the reinforcement of working to get the food out was so much better. In other words, in that case, his need for challenge or work was greater than his need for eating or chewing.
Barnum pushed the ball around my room until either it was empty or it got stuck under my bed (or maybe both — he’s pretty good at getting toys and treats out from under furniture) and then went to his crate and took a nap. I decided his needs for connection and activity had been met, and now he had a desire for peace, rest, or space.
Barnum sleeping on the bed, Sharon's bare foot in the foreground.

Goodnight, everybody.

Future posts on NVC and clicker training may cover some of these similarities:
  • Opposition to punishment
  • Splitting
  • Assumption of innocence
  • Observation
  • Separating behaviors from intent
  • Focusing on the moment, not guessing stories
  • “Respect the organism”/Recognizing that the other has needs
  • Asking for what you want, not what you don’t want
Please let me know what you think of this topic!
– Sharon and Barnum, SD/SDiT
Notes:
*I’ve decided not to post my NVC events here from now on because I think you’re probably not that interested in that. But if you do want to be on my mailing list for NVC events I’m helping to organize, drop me a line and I’ll add you to my email list. If you want to read the blog posts I’ve been writing on this, they’re at Mair Alight’s blog, where I’ve been putting up information on the telesummit.
**I’m also clear on a couple of very fundamental principles in each practice that seem to clash as theory. From the clicker side, I anticipate the argument, “But we can get the behavior we want without needing to know WHY it’s occurring,” and yes, this is often true, and it is often true that it helps a lot to know the need behind the behavior in the first place to prevent it or to influence it. From the NVC side, I anticipate two major arguments: 1. That animals aren’t people, and 2. that clicker training (and behaviorism in general) is used to elicit behavior, which is “manipulation.” Indeed, the founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg, refers to “manipulation” as a form of violence specifically stating “that would include any use of punishment and reward.” I think actually both science and experience can show that, in practice, these are complementary, not antagonistic, approaches. I definitely plan to delve more deeply into these issues later. You might get some ideas of where I’m heading if you read Rosenberg’s article, “Praise versus Encouragement.”
***Note to trainers concerned that I’m reinforcing an undesirable behavior chain: I asked for a down-stay then worked at the computer for a short time before the next step to break the behavior chain of bark-cued quiet-reward for quiet.

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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