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.
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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.
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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.