Archive for the 'Assistive Tech/Powerchairs' Category

Two Things Service Dogs Can Do that Assistive Technology Cannot (with a side note on brain injury)

I’m having that feeling again. That feeling of being in a partnership. Of having a service dog I can rely on. It’s been three years since I last had that feeling, and boy, am I happy it’s back.

Not that Barnum and I don’t still have plenty to work on. We do. But here’s some of what he’s done today, and I’ve only been up five hours (and he was out on a walk for one of those hours):

  • Helped me undress for my bath by removing two socks, two long-sleeved shirts, and — with coaching — a pair of sweatpants
  • Shut my bedroom and bathroom doors to keep the heat in (repeatedly because I and other people sometimes forget to shut them, see below for memory issues in humans)
  • Shut and opened both doors when I needed them opened
  • Went to get my PCA while I was in the bathroom (opening two doors to get to her)
  • Retrieved my walkie-talkie, a plastic lid, and a pen when I dropped them
  • Retrieved my slippers for me (a few times)

And other stuff which I’ll describe below.

The reason I’m writing this post is that several times today I was able to rely on him for things that I hadn’t planned on needing him for, and it reminded me of all the times people have suggested I use this or that piece of equipment — instead of a service dog (SD) — for a particular problem. And why those solutions sometimes fail me. That’s why I’ve categorized this post under “Waspish Wednesday,” even though it’s not Wednesday, and it’s mostly a celebratory post. It’s also because now that I am enjoying the partnership I have waited (and worked) so long for, I am remembering (with some bitterness) all the unhelpful suggestions of people who have told me that I didn’t need a SD for what I need a SD for.

Not that I don’t use or believe in assistive tech (AT). I do. I use a lot of AT, and I am a big believer in people having access to as much AT as they want to improve their quality of life. And I also believe that there are some situations for which AT is much better than a service dog.* And, they are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary — in my case.**

So, here are two things that service dogs can do that assistive technology (with very few exceptions) cannot:

  1. Think
  2. Move on their own

For example, one of the main things I use Barnum for is communication. I have written about this quite a bit, especially in recent posts. When Gadget died, I got a “doorbell” that became my main way of getting my PCAs, but it had a lot of drawbacks that made me miss Gadget all the more. A lot of people over the last three years have suggested a lot of equipment ideas to rely on instead of Barnum. They are a bell (already have it), walkie-talkies (already have them), and an intercom (have it but can’t use it). Even though I use the doorbell and walkie-talkies every day, I still need Barnum. Here’s why:

  1. My assistants and I are human.
  2. I have neurological damage that impairs my memory.
  3. I have MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity).

Let’s start with #3. The reason I can’t use the intercom is the same reason that for quite a while I couldn’t use the walkie-talkies or the doorbell — they are plastic, and they offgas plastic fumes when they are new. The doorbell took the least amount of time to offgas. I don’t remember now — I think it was just a few weeks, primarily because the only part I have to be near is tiny and the bigger, smellier part is away from me, in the kitchen. The walkie-talkies took a year to offgas. The intercom we have had for over two years and it still reeks to high heaven. I doubt I will ever be able to use it.

Problems #2 and #3 are just variations on a theme. I’m human and my assistants are humans, therefore we sometimes forget things. They have sometimes gone home with the walkie-talkie. They sometimes forget to bring it with them outside. They sometimes go to the bathroom or to get the mail and don’t take them with them. One of my assistants refuses to carry it because of the electromagnetic radiation it emits.

Plus (#3) I have a disability which specifically fucks up my memory, therefore I forget a crapload of things all the time. Every day, many times a day, I forget things, often the same things, repeatedly. All these ideas you might have for dealing with this? Writing things down? Carrying things with me? Velcroing them to me? Timers? Alarms? I’ve tried them all. I already use them all. And it’s still not enough. So don’t fucking suggest them. Please. (That was the waspish part. Could you tell?)

Anynoodle, what I have done in the years since Gadget’s death and Barnum becoming a reliable SD is use the doorbell, and more recently, the walkie-talkies. They certainly are much better than not having them, but there are issues. One is that sometimes I can’t speak, so when that happens, the walkie talkies are about as useful as the doorbell in that they can convey only one piece of information: “I am trying to get your attention.” This can be very limiting, whereas having Barnum bring a note is much better, as I explained in this post.

Another issue is the brain damage/memory thing. I lose these pieces of equipment. A lot. I used to lose the doorbell and the walkie talkies constantly. Frustratingly constantly. Because the problem was that when I taped the doorbell to my overbed table, I didn’t lose it, but I could only use it when I was in bed and not to call for help from the bathroom. Then I got the walkie-talkies, mostly for their portability, and I’d forget to take them with me to the bathroom. (Oh, and someone suggested — after I explained about my memory — that I keep another set of walkie talkies in the bathroom at all times, which tells me that this person doesn’t use walkie talkies because they have batteries that must be charged every night, like a powerchair. If I left them in there all the time, the batteries would be dead when I need them. It also assumes I’d be able to find and reach them in the bathroom which is used by other people. Or perhaps she thinks I should buy three or four sets of walkie talkies?)

Then, I got the brilliant idea of Velcro! I velcroed the doorbell and walkie-talkie to my overbed table where they are within reach and cannot escape. I also put Velcro on my powerchair so I could bring them with me. This has worked very well for the doorbell in that I just leave it velcroed to my overbed table all the time, so I never lose it. But for the walkie-talkie, sometimes I leave it stuck to my overbed table, and I can find it. Sometimes I lose it in my bed. Sometimes I attach it to my chair and then use it when I need it, but more often, I attach it to my chair and then can’t get to it because I’m in the tub or on the toilet and my chair is out of reach, or I have gotten back in bed and left the walkie-talkie attached to my chair, and I can’t reach it, etc. (The bathroom that has the tub is not wheelchair accessible.) Or I bring it to the bathroom with me and put it next to the tub/toilet and then forget to take it with me when I leave and then it’s in the bathroom and I’m not, and I can’t get to it. See how helpful that piece of AT is?

Ahem.

But NOW, I have a working SD. So, today when I wasn’t sure if I needed help getting dressed or not after my bath, but I really wanted my PCA to go make me lunch because our time is limited, I could send her off to the kitchen with the agreement that if I needed her, Barnum would come get her (because I had left the walkie-talkie on my powerchair and also forgotten I had it with me, whereas Barnum’s a lot harder to miss!). And when I stood up and realized yes I had used too many spoons and I needed to get to my chair FAST before I fell over, I could have Barnum open the door ahead of me and skeedaddle out of the bathroom so I could make it to my chair, as opposed to having to sit back down on the toilet, wait for my PCA to come back, help me up, and get to my chair, which would used more PCA time and even more of my spoons. And when I dropped the walkie-talkie (that I’d forgotten I’d brought and therefore didn’t think to use and therefore left it behind), Barnum picked it up and brought it to me. And when I forgot to put on my slippers and they were in the bathroom and I was already in my chair, I could send Barnum back into the bathroom to get them.

You cannot call your bell or walkie-talkie or slippers when you leave them somewhere. Well, you can, but they won’t come. They also won’t retrieve things. They also won’t open doors to get to the thing or person you want.

I love my powerchair. I would be in trouble without it. But sometimes if I am feeling well enough, I prefer to walk to the bathroom, for example. (I try to always use as much energy as I can without overdoing; it’s a very difficult balance.) Sometimes it is fine and good to walk to the bathroom. Sometimes it’s impossible and I don’t try. And sometimes my powerchair is charging or I think I’m doing better than I am, and I discover that I have used too many spoons (especially now that I’m on Clindamycin which means I’m spending a lot longer on the toilet than I’m used to!) to get back to my powerchair, my doorbell, my walkie-talkie, my bed, and I might need my service dog to help me get up and walk back, or to open the door, or to get a human assistant to bring me my chair.

Choices. Having a service dog offers me choices. Because I can choose what needs doing in the moment based on what and how I’m doing and what I need, and I can ask him to do that particular thing, and he can do it nearby or at a distance. He can get and bring the thing or person I need. Because he can think, and he can move all on his own, without a joystick. Though he does bring me a lot of joy.

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

*I believe that wheelchairs and other mobility aids are generally preferable to service dogs for ongoing mobility needs such as balance, walking, etc., because frequent use of dogs as mobility aids can be physical damaging and dangerous to the dog. If you are a full-time wheelchair user, I think it is better to use a powerchair than to have a SD pull a manual chair. If you need walking assistance frequently, a cane, walker, or chair is probably a better bet. However, sometimes you need both. For example, when I have had my powerchair break down, I have used a manual chair with a SD helping to pull it as an emergency backup measure.

**I realize that some people use human assistants or canine assistants or AT instead of one or the other or both of these, and I fully support everyone having the options to make these decisions because no two situations are the same. Everybody’s situation is unique. For example, I know a lot of guide dog partners who do not use a cane because their guide dog is a far superior navigational aid, and I also know people who use both when training a dog or when an issue arises and people who prefer a sighted aid (person) or a cane. And all of us who partner with assistance dogs have times when we cannot use our dogs — when they are sick or have died or have retired — and we have to make do with AT or people in the meantime. I know people with physical disabilities who use SDs so they don’t have to rely on PCAs or certain types of AT, and I support that, too. In my case, I rely on all three, and I am fine with that, too.

Video: Pivot Left with Wheelchair

Barnum and I have been making tremendous progress in his training. All of a sudden, his learning has accelerated, and several skills are coming together. It’s very exciting.

One of the challenges we’ve had all along is keeping him in position when I turn left.* He generally works/walks on my left, so when I turn left, I am turning into him. His (very natural) response has been to backup — to avoid getting hit — and wait until I am perpendicular to him, when he will then step forward until he is eventually parallel to me again.

The problem is that I don’t want him perpendicular to me at all, ever, unless I have specifically cued that behavior. I want my service dog parallel to me, at my side, for several reasons:

  1. When he’s wearing a pack with items I want to access, it will be easiest to do so if he is at my side.
  2. Service dogs should be as unobtrusive as possible. We already take up a lot of space because I am a large person in a large powerchair with an oxygen holder on the back, and he is a big dog. When we add the pack, we’ll take up even more space. If his butt is sticking out, we’ll take up unnecessary room.
  3. He is most likely to get bumped into by a person or shopping cart or other things, or to back up, himself, into store displays, people, or other objects if he is not lined up next to me, where I can better protect him and shield him with my body/chair.

I didn’t have a problem teaching Jersey or Gadget to turn left, because with both of them I started with a four-wheeled mobility scooter. It had a very long base — as long as they were. So, when turning left, they were forced to stay parallel to me; there was nowhere else to go. Turning right was trickier — that is when they usually swung wide. I taught them right turns by using natural barriers — walls — and making right turns with the dog between me and the wall.

When I switched from a scooter to a powerchair with Gadget, he already knew how to move correctly with me, and it was never a problem to apply what he knew of walking with a scooter to walking with a chair. I didn’t have to do any retraining.

I’ve tried using natural barriers with Barnum to teach left turns, but there really aren’t many available. There are no accessible outdoor structures (like the garage I used to teach Jersey and Gadget, when I lived elsewhere), and in my home, there are very few walls or pieces of furniture that provide enough room for making turns.

I came up with a new way. I used the method that many trainers use for teaching hind-end awareness or for heeling training — having the dog place their front paws on a thick book or low stool, and then clicking them for taking steps with their hind legs. Eventually, they learn to pivot.

Barnum and I have been doing this pivot training for a few months, though not very frequently. Since one of the first shaped skills I taught him was to scratch his nails on a filing board, it took a while to extinguish scratching the book. Another issue we had to contend with is my problem with spatial awareness and cognitive mapping.

I’ve never had a good sense of direction, and the multiple insults to my brain from chemical injury and neurological pathogens hasn’t helped matters any. There are several posts I want to write about how brain injury affects my life, especially my two most important and beloved activities — dog training and writing — and this is one example. Before Barnum and I did a session, I had to cue him to walk with me in his “service dog walk” to figure out which way his butt should swing. I’d find a landmark in the room and circle my finger again and again in the direction I wanted his butt to spin in relation to that landmark. I didn’t want to accidentally shape him to spin right! Sometimes I just wasn’t mentally with-it enough to train this behavior.

Even after I’d captured and reinforced hind-foot steps to the left, he was pivoting without any seeming awareness that he was, or that that was what he was being clicked for. I think he has just recently become aware that his hind-end movement is what earns the treats.

The video below (which has no sound, except clicking, so it is not captioned), shows how the skill is now coming together. First I give him a few practice clicks spinning on the book, and then I slowly join him in the exercise, trying to click for him moving his hind feet when I move my chair — or even just to catch up and put himself parallel to my chair.

We still have a ways to go. The pivoting is not a default yet, but he’s incorporating the movement more often when we do “working walk” than he used to.

For those who are wondering about a cue — I did not attach a cue to this behavior. The cue will simply be my chair turning left.

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

* This discussion pertains to “working walk” or “service dog walk,” not just simple loose-leash walking. If we are going for a casual walk, for recreation, he doesn’t have to stay in position. What I call “working walk” requires Barnum to be at my side, parallel, and giving me brief eye contact at least every three seconds, but usually more like every other second at minimum while moving, and more sustained eye contact when we’re stationary. Most people would think of what we’re doing as “heel,” as I used to. However, “heel” is actually a precision drill-team-like movement, used for obedience competitions. There aren’t many real-world applications to “heel,” especially because it can’t be maintained for long periods; it’s too demanding.

Golden Days of Summer – Part I

Although the payback has begun, Barnum and I have had a couple of terrific days. I’m very grateful. Finally, we’re getting a chance to enjoy summer together!

It started Friday, when I finally got a sunny day and male goldfinches at my feeder, allowing me to take a “golden days of summer picture” of the view from my window. I guess you will just have to take my word for it that these are goldfinches in the foreground, because they are in shadow, so their beautiful yellow color does not show up on the photos.

Framed by window panes, a clear lucite feeder on the window in the foreground has two birds in it, though they are in shadow and not identifiable as to species. Outside the window is lush, tall green weeds and wildflowers, especially gold flowers that resemble very tall black-eyed susans. The sun is shining brightly, casting a golden glow on the greens and yellows.

Gold flowers and gold finches in the golden sun.

Of course, somebody had to see what was so interesting. . . .

Very similar image as previous, except there is one bird in the feeder instead of two, and Barnum's head is at the bottom right of the photo, looking out the window that is open. Just the silouette of the back of his head, ears, and neck are visible.

What are we looking at? Is there a squirrel?? Is there a chipmunk?? I don't hear one...

But after ascertaining that there were no exciting rodents to watch, he got bored and went to his crate.

By the way, I have not yet definitively identified these flowers. They are not black-eyed Susans or Jerusalem artichokes. One of my PCAs says they are brown-eyed Susans; she’s probably right. I need to look them up.

Anynoodle, later that day, Betsy drove Barnum, me, and my revitalized Jet powerchair to the pond, and we had a great time. Barnum ran around sniffing, peeing, and running some more. He was quite good, overall, at keeping within visual range, visually checking in, and coming when called. He did not come promptly every time I called, but he did always come eventually, even when there was an interesting person or dog to follow.

There were a few times my chair made worrisome noises, or that it jerked a bit, which makes me suspect wheel-motor issues. However, it did get me safely from the van and down the trails to the pond and back again. I don’t know how long it will last, but hopefully at least until the rest of the summer or fall, and maybe by then I will have a replacement for the purple chair.

Betsy went into the water, and Barnum had a terrific time bounding into the water to her, then running back to me for a treat, then back to Betsy again. This was a great way for us to practice recalls and also to ask for behaviors (sit, touch, chin, down) when he arrived before receiving his treat.

Betsy was able to entice him to let his feet leave the bottom for just a moment to get a treat from her. This is good, because if I ever get my PICC line removed and am well enough, I would like Barnum to provide swimming assistance for me, as Gadget did.

He got the zoomies and ran around and around the beach, in the water and then out. He certainly is entertaining to watch!

Amazingly, he tuckered himself out enough that he was very interested in working for treats. On the way up the path away from the beach, he actually walked next to my chair, as if doing a loose-leash working walk, even though he was off-lead. He eagerly responded to cues for sit, down, stand, touch, chin, etc. We even did a couple of short sit-stays!

Then, this morning I was able to get a video of a training session. Barnum is now picking up the dumbbell from the floor! Short video of that is below. Link for captioned version is below that, and for transcript below that.

In the video you can see that he sometimes nose-nudges or paws the dumbbell before picking it up. So, I will have to eliminate that part of the behavior before we move on to combining the “take” with the “hold.”

This is the captioned version of video.

This is the transcript of the video.

Part II will cover Saturday’s adventure, when we spent the day at our town’s annual celebration. Public access galore in a super-high distraction environment. Stay tuned!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and beach zoomer

Progress!

Today was a day of hope on some fronts and tangible improvement on others. I thought I’d share with the class.

Hope

I have been working with the consumer affairs division of the district attorney and attorney general’s office for my region to try to get some help dealing with my purple powerchair nightmare.

(If you’re new to this blog, just click on “Assistive Tech – Powerchairs” in the Dogegory cloud in the menu bar on the right, and you’ll find scores of posts. The upshot, though, is that I bought a specialized wheelchair in order to be able to walk Barnum in my rural area, and it has been dead most of the time I’ve had it, no matter how many times it gets “fixed.”)

It was not going well, and I was resigning myself to the likelihood that I’d have to hire a private attorney and sue. I’ve never filed a suit in my life, and the idea of the mental and emotional work it would take, not to mention the physical effort, is extremely unappealing. I really don’t want to spend my precious energy that way. I also just never thought of myself as the kind of person who files lawsuits, you know?

Today, however, I heard from someone at the business where I got my chair who is new to the organization and is coming on board to “put out fires.” Apparently, I’m one of the larger fires, and having the state’s AG involved seems to be issuing more smoke on my behalf. He listened and was sympathetic, which was a really nice change of pace. He also let me know that they are having a lot of internal problems that are interfering with them responding to my demands.

So, I don’t know what will come of this, but it was the first time I have felt like somebody at their end cared and remotely “got it” about the situation. I’ll be emailing him some documents, and we’ll speak again. I’m afraid to get my hopes up, in case this doesn’t work out, but at least there is a glimmer now that there may be some sort of resolution I can work with.

Progress!

I have finally decided to take my own advice and only do retrieve training (work with the dumbbells) for extremely short sessions. This had been my plan for a long time, but I’m so desperate to get our trained retrieve, that if he was enthusiastic and showing progress, I always wanted to do “just one more.” That is a very common pitfall among clicker trainers. I know this, and yet, I kept doing it!

It’s just crucial that a service dog is excited and eager to do the tasks that you need, because you can’t force a dog to help you, especially if he has to choose between doing a requested behavior versus playing, eating, or napping. Since the trained retrieve is the basis for the great majority of service skills, the foundation is supremely important. The ideal is to train for demand, meaning the dog isn’t just willing to work, but is demanding it. This is something Gadget often did, and I appreciated it, but I didn’t have to work for it with him; he was just naturally eager. With Barnum, oh yes, I am working for it!

My ideal was three sessions a day with the dumbbells, of three to five reps each session; but I was doing seven or 10 reps instead. This sometimes led to Barnum becoming frustrated or bored, and his performance would suffer accordingly. So, I finally stopped that and decided to follow my own rules. It’s going great!

Today, we have done two sessions so far (hope to squeeze in at least one more), and each time he held the dumbbell, on his own, without dropping it. I have also started doing distracting things like tapping the top of his head or  his lips (very annoying to him) or waving treats around in front of him, and he is keeping his hold. Hopefully I’ll get some video soon to post. GOOD BOY!

I have to go back and read the Training Levels for retrieve, because we are past where I’d read for Level 3 and Level 4, and I need to find out what comes next.

Improvement!

Barnum and I had another walk today, almost an hour long. Ideally, I’d like to get us doing two hours, but I’m working my way up slowly. (My body won’t be up to that every time, at any rate. But, fall is coming, so I want to get in as much walking as possible before I’m grounded again.)

He got all excited when he saw me putting on shoes — something I don’t do unless I’m going out. (Hand factoid: one of the bonuses of being inside and in bed most of the time is very soft feet!) When I got into a wheelchair with extended leg rests, his hopes were confirmed. Recently, he has not shown enthusiasm at being told he’s going for a walk, so this was a harbinger of things to come.

He was very bouncy and perky for most of the walk, and he still  managed to keep a loose leash almost all the time, even though I tried us going at a faster pace (something that used to flip his “charge ahead” switch). Throughout the walk he gave me tons of eye contact and almost constant focus. I actually allowed him leeway to wander and sniff on the rare occasions he was inclined, even permitting minor leash tension, because I want him to enjoy the walks, and not just have them be an endless work session.

He also peed, on cue, before we left, and pooped during the walk, which he will not do if he’s stressed out, so that’s all good! We stopped periodically to practice sit, down, chin, touch, come by (come around to the left side of the chair), and side (stand parallel to the left side of the chair), and some very brief stays!

I used hot dogs for most of our work, and for the first half hour of the walk, not a single car passed us. When a truck appeared, I got out my cheese (unfortunately, I forgot the tube of pureed cottage cheese — doh!), and we played “look at that.” He is finally catching on to the LAT game.

During the rest of the walk, two more cars, a motor scooter (new for him, I think), and a bicyclist all passed by, and he was increasingly relaxed about them. He did less looking over his shoulder, but I also c/t him for doing that, and that gave him confidence that it was okay to check the environment. He is now getting in the habit of looking at the car, turning to me for his cheese, looking again, back for the cheese, and then when the car is gone, he gets c/t for focus on me.

I think we will only need a few more walks before his automatic response after seeing a car is to look at me for treats. From there, we will move to (an eventually cued) behavior of going to the side of the road and sitting quietly till the car has passed.

I also started incorporating some Zen (leave it) training during the walks, which he sorely needs. (More about that another time.)

There were two very exciting moments during the walk. The first was when the bicyclist, a neighbor, stopped to chat, and . . .

  • Barnum went to sniff his shorts, and I said “Leave it,” and he did!
  • Barnum eagerly performed sit, down, touch, and chin while I talked to the neighbor (a distraction, especially because Barnum knows his dog — and Barnum remembers everyone).

The second was when another neighbor was  out walking her dog and walking right towards us. In the past, Barnum’s behavior with this dog  has been obnoxious. He wants to play with every dog he meets, whether or not they want to, and whether or not his style of play is one they like. With this dog, he learned early to mount her, and she just put up with it. Bad scene. Neighbor did not like that!

So, when my neighbor saw us approaching, she asked if I’d like her to stop, which I answered, very gratefully, “Yes!” Barnum, amazingly . . .

  • continued to keep focus with me most of the time and
  • maintained a loose leash, though he was Very Excited to see this other dog.
  • When we got close, he did do a few lunges, and I’d back up, and he’d get under control, and we’d move forward again.
  • The most miraculous part was that he stayed by my side while I talked to my neighbor and —
  • with a gusto I cannot adequately do justice to — threw himself into sits, downs, chin and nose targets,
  • and even held a short sit-stay while I rotated around him, 
  • with another dog just a few feet away!

My neighbor asked if they could greet, and I said yes, but I realize now that was a mistake. I think I will start teaching Barnum that he is to ignore other dogs unless it is officially off-leash play time. He’d start out with a friendly nose-sniff greeting, and then he’d start jumping around in a frenzy, trying to induce play. I’d back up, he’d get under control, etc.

Overall, I was terribly proud of us both. I’m sure my neighbors — and most people in town — think I’m a complete weirdo, and that I have a wild, out-of-control dog, and that all I do with him is randomly shove food at him. I’ve come to realize that if someone doesn’t understand clicker training, and that the “behaviors” you’re clicking for can be so minute (not pulling, or a flick of an ear or eye indicating the briefest awareness of my existence) or even counter-intuitive (clicking for sniffing the ground or for looking at a car), that it’s really hard for them to understand.

Fortunately, what with all my disabilities and my “unique” personality, I think most people think I’m a weirdo anyway. But this is a town that is exceptionally tolerant (even welcoming) of weirdos, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. After all, it’s Barnum’s and my process and ultimate results that matter; it’s not a popularity contest.

So proud of Team Barnum tonight!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she was a lot less strict with me!), and Barnum, SDiT and *maturing young bouv*?!?!

Quel Fromage! Mat in Parking Lot

Today did not go as planned, but I learned some important lessons along the way.

1. If you think something might not really be reliably fixed, and you use it anyway, and it turns out to be broken, breaking it apart with a screwdriver probably won’t help, but at least you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something.

This is in reference to the buckle on my hydraulic powerchair lift in my van. My PCA took Barnum and me and my Jet pchair to Greenfield today (the nearest city — until recently it was a town, but it transitioned and now has a mayor), to check out a powerchair for sale on Craig’s List.

The chair seat is not at all the right dimensions for me (previous owner was much smaller than me), and I’d have to replace it entirely anyway because it’s a rehab seat, and I need what’s called a “van seat” or “captain’s chair.” I need to research whether I can get a new seat to fit the base, and how much that would cost. It’s a bummer because it’s a good brand and a decent model, in excellent condition, almost brand new.

Anyway, I tested the chair out, and then we went to the coop parking lot. The plan was that I would do some training with Barnum in the lot or on the sidewalk while my PCA bought groceries and went to the pharmacy for prescriptions. However, when she tried to unload the van, one of the buckles would not detach from the chair’s harness.

There happened to be a plumbing and heating van nearby, with a guy sitting in it, so my PCA asked him if we could borrow a flat-head screwdriver. I forgot to ask her for a small screwdriver, which is what I would have needed to finesse the buckle open. But when it was clear finesse was not an option, I just went for it, hoping it was sturdier than it looked. It wasn’t, but I felt okay about it anyway.

So, I just sat in the chair behind the van and tried to practice stationary skills with Barnum. Skills like sit, watch me, down, touch, and others don’t require movement. Nor does keeping a loose leash, for that matter. Barnum’s leash was not loose most of the time, initially, so those were all good things to practice — in theory, anyway.

2. The value of the treats really does matter. We ran out of cheese a few days ago, but I had a bag of hot dog slices with me, and I hoped that would be exciting enough. Barnum definitely was interested in them at home and in the car. However, he was not focused and in the game in the parking lot. I got the occasional sit or hand target, but a lot of the time, he was just frustrated at not being able to go anywhere, and too fascinated by all that was going on around us. I clicked for anything remotely resembling paying attention to me, especially eye contact. However, after a few clicks and hot dogs, he refused to take any more.

Then my PCA came out with the grocery bags. I asked her to give me one of the packages of cheese, which I ripped open with my fingernails. As soon as Barnum smelled it, he was like, “Cheese? Is that cheese? What can I do for you?”

I had his attention! (Or rather, the cheese did. But, that was okay, because I am Master of the Cheese. Soon to be a new video game.) Barnum was happy to sit, down, touch, etc., for cheese, which I just shredded into pieces with my fingernails. (It’s a locally made fresh mozzarella, so it didn’t require a knife.)

3. Bringing the “go to mat” mat was a brilliant idea, and I deserve some sort of award for having thought of it and utilized it. I realized, after my PCA had gone into the store, that I hadn’t asked her to grab Barnum’s “mat,” a very old yoga mat, that was rolled up next to my oxygen tanks.

When she came out to drop off the groceries before going to the pharmacy, I asked her to get it for me. I tossed it on the pavement in front of my chair. Barnum looked at it, a flicker of recognition in his eye. He tried stepping on it. I clicked for that and tossed cheese on it. Aha!

Pretty quickly I had him staying on the mat, sitting, then downing on it. I let it go that he was lying cross-wise on it, so that his hind end and front paws were off it. I didn’t use my cue at all. I just clicked and tossed cheese.

It had a very calming effect! Soon he was lying calmly and contentedly, watching people, cars, and wheelchairs go by, with only the mildest interest. There were startling sights and sounds that he glanced at and then returned to the important work of giving me eye contact from his down-stay on the mat, thus eliciting cheese.

I’d estimate it took less than 15 minutes for him to go from distracted and overstimulated to totally calm and holding his stay on the mat in a very strange and arousing environment. I was actually even able to use his cue (“Park it!”) by the end of the session, because he was reliably downing with his whole body on the mat by then.

So, there is something to be said for stillness. If we hadn’t been stuck there at the ass of the van for over half an hour, I probably would have been frustrated and concerned about Barnum’s ability to focus and train in strange environments — a challenge for us since he hit six months old or so.

4. Sometimes it’s better to just do what works, rather than what looks good or seems right or proper. After we got home, I had my helper assist me to unbolt the clip on my powerchair that was attached to the broken harness buckle so I could drive my chair inside. Then I instructed her to cut the offending (really, in all senses) broken buckle off the lift.

Tonight, when another helper was here, we managed to free the clip from the buckle (which will go to the transfer station on the next dump day), and I bolted the clip back on the chair. From now on, I will just use a length of chain and carabiner that is already on my lift to attach to that clip on the lift harness. I mean, really, who needs this shit? I am so done with going to the experts for powerchair-related maintenance, unless it is either (a) outrageously complicated, or (b) covered by Medicare.

My long miserable, miserable experiences with my purple powerchair have taught me that when it comes to powerchairs, I’ll either go to a truly professional, Medicare-covered dealer, or I’ll do it myself! (That saga is ongoing. I am working with the consumer affairs division of the attorney general’s office. They have turned out, so far, to be useless. If that changes, I’ll let you know. Unless my luck turns around, it looks like I’m heading to court with a private attorney. Oh joy. Just how I want to use my limited energy.)

But, you never know. Maybe there are good surprises in store. After all, today did not at all go how I’d planned the day to go — quel fromage! — but it was productive nonetheless. As dog is my witness, I will never be cheeseless again.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (Behold! The power of cheese!), and Barnum, SDiT

P.S. Deb found another squeaky ball for Barnum. Thank you, Deb! He is uncertain about the nubbly texture and smaller size, but he likes how squeaky it is. Here’s a short video of him playing with it.

The Difference!

Clichés are clichés because they’re true, usually, and “What a difference a day makes” is my truism for the day. Barnum was a much happier dog on our walk today than our last walk on Monday.

But first, another difference: The new Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is up, and the theme this time around is “the Difference.” Each carnival has been different, with more people getting involved each time.

Kali at Brilliant Mind Broken Body did a terrific job pulling it together and presenting the extremely diverse topics and posts. There are several topics that have not been broached before in the ADBC, as well as some classic themes.

Please make sure to read the summer 2011 issue of the ADBC!

If you want to learn more about the ADBC (what a carnival is, what the ADBC focuses on, who can participate, links to past issues, etc.), please check out its home page. The next carnival will be in October, hosted by Cathy n’ Bosley at Life with a Hearing Dog. Please check out Cathy’s blog in September, or tune in here, to find out the theme, deadline, and other details for that edition.

Secondly, what a difference it makes to have a reliable powerchair again! Sure, it’s no great shakes at speed or power, but at least I feel fairly secure that when I leave for a walk, I will be able to come home on my own steam, and not be stranded in the road, waiting for someone to discover me and get a helper to drive my van out to pick me up!

Barnum and I had our first real, “normal” walk today, after many months of difficulties. I took him for a walk when there was no PCA or anyone else at home! I didn’t worry about getting stranded, the chair losing power, etc. So, that was lovely.

My dog was quite different today, too. Laura, you were right in your comments about my last post, Barnum did have more of a spring in his step after just one walk with me!

Last time, his loose leash walk was about 80 or 90 percent. I had wondered how much of that was him being slow and uncertain. I wondered if, when he pepped up, he’d start to pull again.

Nope! His LLW was practically flawless today! Maybe once or twice the leash got tight, and then he would automatically pause or take a couple of steps backward. It was the most effortless walk I have ever had with any dog! Yeehaw!

When we started out, he still seemed a little concerned, but a bit less than last time. I used lots of very animated happy talk, and clicked/treated for “looking happy.” I’m sure this is the kind of thing that would make a traditional trainer or someone who doesn’t think animals have emotions roll their eyes, believing that what I’m doing is “not scientific.”

But, it’s really pretty obvious, if you’re paying attention, whether a dog is confident or scared, relaxed or nervous, mellow or angry. I clicked Barnum for sniffing interestedly at the ground or roadside, for walking with a bounce in his step, for smiling (open, relaxed mouth), and for other tail, head, and body indicators of calm or enjoyment.

The most obvious difference was his overall body language. That improved very quickly as soon as I used my happy voice and started doing lots of clicks and treats. But he still had a bit of a concerned look in his eyes, though the rest of his body language looked relaxed. Eventually, he was bopping along, his eyes were bright and open, and he seemed engaged in earning his treats and being out in the world.

My initial guesses as to what was worrying him were cars, the loose dogs that rush out and bark a ways down the road, or getting swarmed by biting insects. The insects were not bad today, so that was not an issue. To make sure the dogs weren’t the problem, today and Sunday, I turned us around before we got near the territorial dogs. One thing at a time, after all.

I am now thinking the issue most likely is cars. Some of his worried look returned occasionally on the way home, after a couple of cars had gone by. As I explained in my post on rural living, cars are rare enough that when one goes by, it is a minor event (we have to get to the side of the road, if nothing else), but not so rare that we don’t usually have three or four pass us on a walk. And I took him out today at “rush hour,” from 5:30 to 6:15, so we probably had six or seven cars go by. (Sometimes we can take a walk, and no cars will go by, but that has to be at a lazier time of the day.)

He has always visually tracked cars, and I had hoped that over time he would learn that they are neither prey nor predator, and that he’d grow used to them. I used to try to play the “look at that” game from Control Unleashed with him, but of course, it’s been months since we’ve had consistent walks.

Today I was ready with not just hot dogs and cheese, but a tube of pureed cottage cheese, which is his favorite thing in the world. When he saw or heard a car, we played LAT. By time we were nearing home, and the last truck went by, he was almost exclusive focused on me and the cottage cheese.

I think I will just work on desensitization and counter-conditioning, because we don’t seem to do well with LAT. I want to find someone to sit in a car at a distance and creep up on us a few sessions, using cottage cheese as my counter-conditioning tool. I have a feeling that with enough desensitizing sessions, combined with happy walks, he will get over his car concern. It will also help if I can take him to the city, where there are so many cars, they won’t be such an event (flooding).

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Carnival, especially Kali. I have a lot of reading to do in the next few days!

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

Old New Adventures: Pond & Blog

The Jet Powerchair Rides Again!

Today, Barnum and I went to the pond (the happiest place on earth, if you’re a dog, or a person who loves dogs) in my van. This was my test-run to see if my powerchair that I’ve been working on could handle the hills and pine needles and tree roots and such. And it did! Without all the tipping and out-of-control feeling of the purple monstrosity, too.

The plan had been that if the chair survived the walk at the pond, Barnum and I would walk home. However, on the way back to the van, it started to rain, so we decided to drive back. The rain stopped before we loaded the chair, but I didn’t know if it might start back up; I just got this chair working, I don’t want to risk getting caught in a downpour.

Barnum had a fabulous time. He ran and ran, the embodiment of joy. He was quite good about coming when called (not 100 percent on the first call — we’re still working on that — but always eventually). He checked in visually frequently.

He also was much more confident and eager to go in the water than I’d anticipated. He waded in several times to cool off and drink. (Humidity was over 78 percent when we left, so I didn’t bother with the Swamp Cooler.) I clicked him for going in deeper, and he’d come out, get his cheese, and wade back in. Excellent! I’m hoping he’ll be a swimmer eventually. If I ever get my PICC line out, I’d like to teach Barnum to help me swim, like Gadget used to.

Now I feel ready to go for real walks with him, around the neighborhood or to the pond or for on-the-road public access training. My old powerchair has been given — and has given me — new life! (L’chaim.)

A Non-Dog Blog

My pchair isn’t the only thing I’ve been trying to bring back to life. I’ve also been trying to get back to my writing. Bit by bit, I’m making progress, as my body and brain respond to Lyme treatment. (My Lyme-related pain is always less in the summer, too, so I’m trying to capitalize on that.)

For quite a while, I’ve known I need to create a new website and blog for the writing side of my life. My old sites are very out-of-date. They don’t even have my current email address. I had hoped I could transfer material to the aftergadget.com blog, and make that my “everything” website (writing, dog, and disability stuff), but I’ve changed my mind, for two reasons.

One is technical. I’ve had problems using the site since the beginning. I thought I’d learn as I went, and that over time, I’d get the blog running full-steam-ahead. Instead, the opposite has happened. It’s been like a hydra: I lop off one tech problem and two more grow in its place. I’ve learned my lesson from the purple powerchair; sometimes it’s better to give up early and cut your losses.

The other is content-related. The more I take part in social media (blogging, Twitter, and Facebook), the more I realize that not only do they provide opportunities and possibilities I hadn’t known about, but also that they are becoming the major — or sometimes the only — way to access certain information, networks, and people. Since writing is about communication and connection, it’s really essential to use these tools.

However, I have what might appear to be an odd handicap: I’ve got too many interests! I have several writing niches: dogs, disability rights and culture, humor, erotica, environmental issues, and queer/feminist nonfiction, plus a smattering of speculative fiction, non-genre fiction, and poetry. I also have written a lot of poetry for children that I have never gotten around to organizing into publishable form. Most of what I publish these days is either erotic fiction or disability-related nonfiction.

This might not seem to be a problem, except that most people who rely on social media for their work — especially writers — have one niche or two. For example, I have connections and friendships with people in academia (women’s studies, disability studies, queer/gender studies), playwriting, essays, poetry, environmental journalism, humor writing, sexual information and education, song writing, storytelling/memoir, erotica, speculative fiction/sf (science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream), dog writing, etc. They are mostly focused on specific forms, and/or specific genres within those forms.

Not that there isn’t overlap. Many people write both poetry and prose, for example. And there is a lot of cross-genre writing too; some of the most prolific writers of erotica and science fiction are the same people. Combined with our current cultural fascination with all things otherworldly, this has led to a boom in demand for erotic stories featuring werewolves, shapeshifters, zombies, fairies, and the like. (I’m beginning to worry that my erotica, which boringly only focuses on humans, will soon have no home!)

However, most writers I know either focus on one or two forms or genres, or they write one form or genre under their real name and another under a pseudonym. Thus, if you go to Sacchi Green’s blog, you know you’re going to get mostly lesbian erotica and some sf. Cecilia Tan’s blog focuses on combined erotica/sf and baseball history. If you go to Susie Bright’s blog, you’ll get essays and memoir about the intersections of sex, feminism, and social justice. If you go to Victoria Stilwell’s or Sue Ailsby’s blog, you’ll get dog training information.

It makes sense to specialize, because different people have different interests, so they go where they find what interests them. Since I generally have no interest in reading horror or young adult Christian fiction, I’m unlikely to read Stephen King’s blog (though it’s actually hilarious) or um, the blog of someone who writes YA Christian fiction.

I know I have a few readers who come here mostly because they enjoy my writing, not because they are “dog people,” but even in these cases, there is usually some personal connection to me or my other topics (disability, chronic illness, etc.). As a result, I usually don’t blog about aspects of my life unrelated to dogs or disability. Lately, as I get back into other writing, I’m feeling a bit hindered by this.

I also feel awkward sometimes when I blur the line. Or hen I retweet something from my erotica world, because I don’t know if my dog or Lyme disease or whoever-else-found-me-through-After Gadget people want to read that. Probably, if I have two blogs, I can have two accompanying Twitter accounts, too.

I want to blog about my writing — what I’m working on, my process, to burble with joy when I am in the creative flow, and to explain the aspects of my disabilities that inhibit me. I’d like to post clips of forthcoming work, links to existing work, and interviews with other writers. I also want a place that will help me integrate the business of writing with my blogging — where I can hawk my services as an editor, teacher, proofreader, and hopefully, eventually, my books! (It’s really become essential for serious writers in some arenas to already have followers in order to get a book contract.)

So, I’m creating a new blog on Blogger. It’s true that there are aspects of Blogger I really don’t like, however it’s quite easy to use, and it provides a lot more latitude with regard to content and use as part of a business than WordPress. I have no idea when it will be done; I have a lot of other irons in the fire right now. Still, I’m excited that it’s in the works. It feels like an important step in my taking myself seriously as a writer. Plus, between the two blogs, I can be more me.

Thank you for joining me on my journey thus far!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (star of many old humor columns), and Barnum, SDiT and Pond Puppy


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