Archive for the 'Barnum' Category

Barnum is 3! (in Hedgehog Years)

Barnum turned three today! This is one of the fun things about getting a dog from puppyhood that I never experienced before with rescues: knowing when they were born and remembering the day.

You might have noticed I’ve done very little blogging lately. That’s because I’ve been quite ill this month. Barnum has a lot of blog-worthy activities going on, I just haven’t been up to writing about them. But I really wanted to post something for his birthday, even if it’s just silly.

So, here’s what Barnum looked like three years ago today:

newborn puppy's head held in hand

I’m not sure this is Barnum, but it’s either him or one of his littermates.

Now even his paw is bigger than that puppy’s head. Even his ear is twice as big as that head. But anyway. . . .

He arrived in February 2010 at eight weeks old, and his favorite toy to play with was a hedgehog. We played with that hedgehog a lot. Here are some pics of Barnum and me on the day after he arrived:

Barnum and Sharon sit on the floor. Barnum is a fluffy black 10-pound fuzzball with a white blaze on his chest. Sharon holds a skinny, long hedgehog toy in the air, and puppy Barnum has his mouth open and a paw up, ready to grab it.

Do you want the hedgehog?

 

Same play session, Sharon slides hedgehog across the floor and Barnum chases after it.

Barnum chases hedgehog.

 

Sharon sits on the floor. Barnum is a round 10-pound very fuzzy black puppy. Sharon waves a skinny, floppy hedgehog toy in front of Barnum who is grabbing it in his mouth.

Barnum grabs hedgehog.

 

Puppy Barnum is curled up on Sharons lap, chewing the hedgehog.

Chomp, chomp, chomp….

When I talked to Barnum’s breeder a few days (or weeks? Who knows? I was completely sleep deprived during Barnum’s puppyhood; the whole time is a blur) after he arrived, I told her his favorite toy was a hedgehog, and she said he had a hedgehog there, too, that he liked to play with.

Today, for his birthday, one of my assistants surprised Barnum and me with a lovely big, soft plushy hedgehog with a loud “squeaker.” It didn’t actually squeak. It was more a sort of honk or oink. Barnum looooves plushy toys that squeak — the louder, the better.

He grabbed it and very happily chomped it, making it squeal again and again, his stubby tail wagging the whole time. And when he’d had enough of that, he started to full its feet off. I told him to stop because appendage removal is always the precursor to a complete disembowelment, but my assistant said it’s his birthday, he could do what he wanted. So I let him go ahead. It took him less than a minute to pull off all the feet, unstuff it, and pull out the honker.

We picked up the random bits of hedgehog fluff and fur and body parts. I didn’t get a picture of the hedgehog in its pristine state or even when Barnum was chewing it, because he was on my bed, his butt to me. Not a good angle for photography!

My assistant said, “This was poorly made. It wasn’t stitched tightly enough. That’s why he was able to pull it apart so fast.” Uh-huh. . . .

She put it back together with reinforced the stitching. I got my camera. I played a very short game of fetch and tug with Barnum and his refurbished hedgehog. I tried to get pictures of it in his mouth, which was very cute, but he was always moving so fast I couldn’t take the picture in time. This was the best I could do:

Dark, blurry picture with half of Barnum's face holding the hedgehog in the corner of the frame. Most of the picture is an unfocused picture of a messy living room.

That’s his face in the upper left corner. He’s running back to his mat with the hedgehog…

… to dismember it. It was easy to get pictures of that!

Barnum is now a big, full-grown black brindle dog, hair clipped short. He's standing on a dog bed, shaking the stuffed toy in his mouth.

Grab hedgehog and SHAKE.

Barnum presses toy into mat while pulling on it with his teeth.

Hold it so it can’t escape (and to get better leverage).

Closeup of hedgehog being held between both front paws and Barnum's gaping maw above with stuffing being pulled out the top of the hedgehog's head.

Yes! We have FLUFF!

Barnum continues to chew the hedgehog between his feet while the squeaker and stuffing have been spread around.

No destuffing is complete until a squeakerectomy has been performed. (That’s the long white thing in the plastic bag that got flung a couple of feet away.)

Mangled hedgehog with torn face and stuffing leaking out and very flattened between two front legs.

My work here is done.

Barnum stands on his bed looking into the camera, with a quizzical expression.

What’s next? How about that squirrel you’re holding?

Barnum has grown up. He’s a much bigger dog. He’s got a lot of talents and skills he didn’t have as a puppy. He got a much bigger hedgehog. And he destroyed it much more quickly. The great circle of life is complete.

By the way, I know he is naked. Here’s why: We were letting his coat grow out for the winter till we found three deer ticks on him between the end of November and early December. They are very hard to find when his coat is full. So we shaved him. Now we finally have snow so we can stop tick checking till the thaw. Never fear! Barnum’s got a new fleece coat to keep him warm indoors, in addition to the coat he already had for walks. At night, when the house is chilly, he sleeps under my comforter pressed against me, taking up three-quarters of my queen-sized bed. He suffers terribly.

Happy New Year!

– Sharon and Barnum, SD and Birthday Boy

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!

Barnum Is Now a Coupe

He is a two-door service dog. The latest model.

While I spend the vast majority of my time in bed, I also make frequent trips to the adjoining “master bathroom,” which has a difficult-to-open door. It’s actually not as bad as it used to be, but I can never fully shake off the fear of my first experiences with this door.

When I first used the bathroom in this house was when I was a potential home-buyer. I went into the bathroom, shut the door, and did my business. Then, I tried to open the door, and I couldn’t. It was stuck. It was summer, and the wooden door had expanded and become too tight. I’m not super strong. I yelled for help. Nobody heard me. I banged on the walls. I tried repeatedly to tug the door open with its obnoxiously unhelpful egg-shaped door knob.

I don’t remember how I got out. Either someone noticed I’d been gone a while and came to look for me, or — using that extra boost of adrenaline that comes with a combination of fear and humiliation — I finally managed to free myself. Forever after, I was nervous about getting locked into that bathroom.

I made changes: I changed all the egg-shaped knobs to levers and hung door pulls on them for Gadget to use to open and shut the doors. The levers were also easier for me to open. And most importantly, a locksmith friend of mine adjusted the door so that it fit better in the frame and didn’t stick in the summer.

Even with all this, that bathroom door is still the most difficult-to-open interior door in my house. It takes more torque to release the bolting mechanism than any other door does. And even though Barnum has become quite accomplished with the other doors in the house, I hadn’t yet taught him this one because it presents an additional challenge due to the size and configuration of the bathroom.

So, until I taught Barnum how to open this door, I have mainly been dealing with the problem by almost never shutting the bathroom door. This doesn’t allow me a lot of privacy when my PCAs or other people are around, but I’d rather lose some privacy than get trapped in the bathroom. It’s so undignified! (And the location of this bathroom, combined with the very thick, insulated walls mean that when I do have to yell or pound for someone’s attention in there, it’s very hard to be heard.)

The reason this door was the last bastion of dog-door-opening difficulty is that I couldn’t use the same training technique I used with others. The way to make the job of opening a door easiest on Barnum is to have him approach the handle from the side furthest from the lever’s end, as opposed to pulling straight on. This way, he uses maximum leverage with minimal force to release the bolt. (Physics is your friend.) You can see this technique in action in the video below, where it takes less than three seconds for Barnum to open and exit the door. (From 0:03 to 0:06.)

Transcript of the video is here.

However, the master bathroom has a built-in cabinet right next to the door, so Barnum’s only options are to pull from the front or to pull from the lever-end side, which is even worse.

A door with a metal door lever with a red nylon webbing pull attached. It has a knot in the bottom. Next to the door is a cupboard, with a cabinet door and three drawers. Thin, turquoise nylon pulls hang from the cabinet doorknob and the knob of one of the drawers.

Here’s the bathroom door and the counter immediately on its left that prevents Barnum from getting good leverage.

So, I messed around with it for a while. I tried partially filling the latch hole on the theory that if the bolt had less distance to travel, it wouldn’t require as much torque to release. For whatever reason, that hasn’t worked.

Meanwhile, I started shaping* this behavior with a very high rate of reinforcement so that Barnum would be VERY EXCITED to open the door. I actually began with his favorite PCA sitting on my bed and only partially shutting the door, asking him to find her (as I previously discussed here and also here). This is Barnum’s Very Most Favorite Skill in the World. He LOVES to find people, get a treat from them, and then run back to find me. This also happens to be the most likely real-world application of this skill — if I’m in the bathroom and need Barnum to go get me help. So, I was tweaking the circumstances for maximum thrill.

Once Barnum was whining with excitement every time he flew at the door and tugged, I switched to just shaping a very enthusiastic approach to taking and pulling the cord. Then I shaped for longer holds and harder tugs. Occasionally, seemingly by complete chance, the door would fly open, but most of the time, Barnum was throwing his terrific enthusiasm (and considerable strength) into the job, without success.

I did notice, eventually, that the times that the door opened “out of the blue” did have something in common — Barnum was approaching from further away. So, I went back to my frenemy, physics, to try to figure out the problem. It seemed clear that Barnum needed to pull DOWN more BEFORE he pulled back. He also needed to approach as close as possible to, and parallel with, the cabinet. And there was something about approaching from farther away that helped. Shaping him to approach from the side was easy — I could manipulate each approach by where I threw the treat from the previous attempt. I realized eventually that the distance of the approach often simply meant a more enthusiastic, energetic pull. But why that was so crucial I still wasn’t sure.

I wanted to make the pulling easier on him. Someone on a training list I’m on once mentioned that a very long pull cord works better for her SD than a short one, so I switched to a long cord. That made things worse, which helped me realize that Barnum needed to choke up HIGHER on the cord to be able to pull down more easily. This wasn’t something I’d figured out with Gadget, who naturally had a tendency to grab high and who was also a bit shorter and more naturally wild/enthusiastic in his grabs. Eventually I realized that the two key ingredients were to shape Barnum to grab higher and to pull down hard at the beginning, versus a slow, steady pull that tended to be back as much as (or more than) down. That’s why the “running start” made a difference; he naturally tended to grab higher and pull down more when he was excited.

So, today I moved the knot higher up the pull cord (or tug strap, as some call them), and I tossed treats as far behind him as possible to get him coming at the door faster/further away and as close to the cabinet as possible. Success! Once he understood that grabbing up higher was the key, he was very excited about it. I jackpotted any time the door opened, not least because the door suddenly swinging open was a bit startling to Barnum the first few times.

Then, each time he opened the door, I had him run to find my PCA. Creating this behavior chain served two functions:

1. He loves this behavior, so it added value as a positive reinforcer for opening the door.

2. Most of the time when I really will need him to open the door, it will be to go find help, so it’s good to forge the links in this behavior chain now.

After a few rounds of this, Barnum was getting mentally fatigued (he was still extremely enthusiastic, but he was starting to get cues mixed up and just throwing behaviors at me), so I ended with BOTH the bathroom door and my bedroom door shut, which — again — most closely simulates what I will need in a real situation. He also has such a strong positive reinforcement history of opening my bedroom door to find a PCA that I thought it would be exciting to him.

Well, he did it! He opened the bathroom door. I said, “Where’s [person]?” And he raced into my room, whined with excitement in his hurry to get my bedroom door open faster than was caninely possible and found her. She praised and treated, asked him where I was, and he ran back to me! I was very proud and pleased.

I wanted to pet him or thump him on the chest in celebration, but he really does not like to be touched while in training mode, so I asked him for a “high nose,” which is the behavior I have settled on for when I want some celebratory physical contact at the end of a training session and he doesn’t want to be touched. I do a “high-five” position with my hand, and he bonks it with his nose (because even though I say, “High nose!” which means nothing to him, a palm facing him is our nonverbal cue for “touch”), and he gets a treat, and everyone feels good. (I have been giving a lot more thought to how and when Barnum wants to be touched and how we can both have our needs met and respected since I read this post by Eileen and Dogs.)

Of course, we will need to practice this and get the entire behavior chain on one cue (“Where’s [person]?” leading to opening both doors, finding and nudging the person, sitting down, waiting for the “Where’s Sharon?” cue and then returning) but I feel very confident that we are close to that now.

High nose!

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

P.S. I know I haven’t been posting much lately. I have a lot of posts that are mostly done, and I hope to get back to blogging and other writing soon, which I will be filling you in on. . . .

* For those of you who are new to my blog or to clicker-training lingo, a few explanations/definitions:

Shaping, sometimes referred to as “free shaping,” is, in my opinion, the most creative, advanced, and fun form of clicker training because there is no prompting by the trainer. Instead, we use a dog’s offered behaviors and reward those that resemble — in tiny ways, at first — the end result we want. The dog has to do more thinking than in any other form of training. It is a step-by-step way for dog and trainer to problem-solve their way to a solution. In my experience, behaviors that are shaped are the strongest behaviors when they’re finished than those achieved by luring or other methods, possibly because they tend to involve such a high rate of reinforcement (sometimes referred to as RR).

Rate of reinforcement (RR) means, quoting Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training Glossary: “The number of reinforcers given for desired responses in a specific period of time. A high rate of reinforcement is critical to training success.” Here is a much longer discussion of RR and its importance in dog training.

QuickPress: Workig Dog

Today is one of those days when I woke up and couldn’t move much or speak. Here are some of the ways Barnum has helped me today.

  • Helped me take off turtleneck shirt. (New task that still needs a lot of work.)
  • Brought my PCA to me — perfectly. (Opened door, ran to her, nudged her, and led her back to me.)
  • Pulled off my socks.
  • Helped with bathroom transfers.
  • Shut bathroom door.
  • Took three messages to Betsy.
  • Pulled covers down. (Not all the way, but enough to be helpful.)
  • Opened and shut the fridge.
  • Shut bedroom door.

I think I’m forgetting some things, but the main point is that he is actually helping me now on days I need it. It’s good to be able to practice things and see what is really working and where the holes are that need further training.

Training Update, Plus Where Is My Shark of Yesteryear?

Training Wrap-Up/Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnum prepares to launch Shark Attack.

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

Barnum chews bucket lid

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

Barnum chews hose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Essay: Barnum’s Service Skills

In honor of our Gotcha Day a few days ago — two years together — I took a bunch of pictures of Barnum doing stuff. The idea was to show all the things we’ve learned in the past two years. Of course, it didn’t show everything he’s learned, like not eating the furniture or pooping indoors or attacking people’s pants, etc.

We also didn’t take pictures of some of the skills we’ve been working on all along, and that I have blogged about before: sit, down, come, crate, go to mat, zen, etc. This does not mean we’re finished training these behaviors, but I thought it would be more fun (and we only had so much time and energy) to photograph the newer, flashier stuff.

It’s taken me till now to get the pictures uploaded, then downloaded, then captioned, etc., but here ’tis!

I didn’t know how to adjust the camera settings, and since these tended to be action shots, there are very few that are not artistically blurred. That’s right, it’s not a defect, it’s a feature. Thus, I now present . . .

The Post-Realist Photography Exhibit of Barnum at Year Two

Stand tall to turn on and off the lights!

Barnum standing on hind legs, front paws planted on the wall, nudging switch down with his nose. He's over 5 feet tall this way.

Turning off the lights!

Open the bedroom door….

Blurry picture of Barnum from behind, pulling purple tug cord on door handle.

First, grab the cord and pull back.

Step 2:

Another blurry picture of Barnum's furry butt. Wider stance, pulling back hard on the pull cord.

Aaaand pull BACK and DOWN!

Step 3:

Blurry picture from behind, bedroom door swinging open.

Eh viola! The door, she is open!

And then close it!

Barnum running to shove his nose behind the door which is open against the wall.

Get that nose behind it, and in one fluid motion, SLAM it shut!

Done!

Barnum is whirling from the door, which is now shut, toward Sharon sitting on the bed. He's moving so fast that he's a blur, with his left front and right rear legs just shadows of movement.

The second the door latches, whirl around to collect your treat!

Where’s the PCA?

Barnum sits on the floor watching Sharon who is sitting on her bed, signing (with hand and facial expression), "Where?" in ASL.

Sharon asks me "Where?" is the PCA?

I know! I’ll find her!

Barnum sits staring fixedly at a young woman standing in the kitchen.

I have found you. I am staring at you. Do you get the message?

When that doesn’t work. . . .

Barnum stands up and noses the hand of the woman who's standing in the kitchen.

Hello! I'm bopping your hand! Pay attention!

Since we’re in the kitchen, he might as well open the fridge. . . .

Barnum swinging into action, blurred hindquarters show movement as he grabs for the door pull on the refrigerator.

I got it!

Mmmf. Riss iss harder dan id loogs.

Barnum pulling straight back on a navy blue door pull attached to the refrigerator handle.

Puuuuuuull!

Persistence pays off!

Barnum stands back a few inches from the fridge door which is now open a few inches.

Okay, it's open! Can I close it now?

Yes! Shut the fridge!

Barnum stands in front of closed refrigerator door with his nose against it.

Shutting is more funner.

I’m a clumsy human, which  means a dog’s job is never done. First, the clicker I dropped accidentally. . .

Barnum crossing living room to pick up red clicker underneath an end table. His head is down and his mouth is open, even though he's at least a foot away still.

She's always dropping these clickers!

Then the pen I dropped on purpose.

Barnum is in a sit. A pen is on the floor about four feet away. Sharon's legs and wheels are visible in the background.

She made me sit so I wouldn't keep picking things up before they could manage to take the picture. Humans can be so slow.

Ah gah da peh im my ma-ow….

Barnum standing, with muzzle on the floor. The pen isn't visible under all his fur.

Mm-kay. I'b gedding ib.

I got it!

Barnum spinning toward Sharon. Pen is in his mouth, though we can't see it because his side is to the camera.

Ah brinnin eh peh...!

And now the retrieval of the “dropped” leash….

Barnum stands in front of Sharon. She's holding his leash and is about to clip it to his collar.

Why are you putting on my leash now?

You’re welcome. (By which I mean, “Where’s my treat?”)

Barnum has the leash clipped to his collar at one end. The other he is putting in Sharon's hand in her lap.

Honestly, you drop this thing so often it's like it's intentional. . . .

Two years ago he looked like this:

Baby Barnum, an adorable puppy that looks like a black teddy bear with a white chin. Sharon's hand is rubbing his chest. Her hand is bigger than his head!

What a face!

And now!…

Closeup of Barnum looking into the camera, smiling, very hairy, lying on Sharon's bed.

Look at me now, world!

Love from Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT

Gotcha Day! (Got Me)

Hi folks.

Two years ago tonight, Betsy brought home a little bundle of fluff who turned into Barnum, my wonderful service dog/service dog in training. I was looking forward to a celebratory post today of lots of pictures of him doing all the stuff he’s learned in our two years together!

Today, I did get a bunch of pics of him — opening and shutting doors, turning lights on and off, opening the fridge, and being generally adorable and super fluffy. Unfortunately, the energy expended in doing all that has left me very weak and in too much pain to upload, post, caption, and tag pics. Typing this is painful and exhausting, but I wanted to say SOMETHING because INSIDE I am celebrating!

We LOVE Barnum! He is an awesome snugglebear lovemuffin and he’s become pretty smart, too!

So, consider this a placeholder. As requested by Cyndy, I am trying to post some of his baby pics from when he just arrived and “looked like a teddy bear” on our Facebook page. Stop by and go, “Awww.”

If you have memories of him as a puppy, or of me talking about him as a pup, please share in comments!

Love from . . .

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

P.S. Speaking of adorable puppies who grow up to be assistance dogs, the awesome L-Squared of Dog’s Eye View is holding an auction to complete her sponsorship of a puppy for Guide Dogs of America — the program from which she obtained her current guide dog, Jack. Please check out her auction, bid, share, tweet, and generally spread the word for a great cause!

P.P.S. Speaking of auctions, the one I’ve been working on for my NVC teacher, Marlena, is getting ready to go up. If you have offered to donate an item, I would really appreciate it if you could try to get me your listing info within the next week. Thank you! (And mark your calendars to visit the auction starting March 9! We have some truly amazing offerings!)

Update: Illness, Writing, Not Much Training

Howdy.

This is possibly the longest time I’ve gone without posting since the early months of this blog. There have been a confluence of events that have brought about this non-postingness.

One is, and I know this will come as a total shocker to those of you who follow my blog, I’ve been really sick. For realz! What with all my chronic illnesses, you’d think this wouldn’t surprise me, but it still kinda does. The issue is that I have been sicker, overall, since Octoberish, with some periods of being much sicker and/or much longer than usual. Every once in a while, I have an “up” day, and I think, “Huzzah! The suckiness hath lifted!” But nay, ’tis not so. The form changes, but the suckiness continueth. For the last couple of weeks, the major issue has been migraines every day.

This is really the first time since my Lyme treatment started to work, around spring 2009, that I have plateaued or dipped and not made a comeback eventually. My doctor and I are not sure what to make of this. A reinfection? An undiagnosed coinfection? A resurgence of babesia (which we had to stop treating because my liver couldn’t handle the antimalarial drugs required)? Or some of the drugs have stopped working? Or are one of the drugs making me sick?

It could also be an MCS thing — foods I’m reacting to that I’m not aware of. Inhalant allergies could have gotten worse, like dust and mold. Maybe there’s some sort of outdoor pollution occurring that I don’t know about that’s doing me in? The most frightening specter of all — could I be allergic to Barnum? I just can’t even deal with the hideousness of that proposition. I was allergic to my cat for years, not knowing he was the cause of my round-the-clock migraines. This worries me.

But all is not gloom and doom. There are good things going on, too. I’ve been working away at helping to organize the fundraising auction for Marlena, my NVC teacher. I’ve learned a lot, and it’s given me an excuse to interact more with some of my fellow students. (BTW, if you want to donate something and you haven’t yet, you have about ten days to get me the info.)

I also have written two long pieces. One is an essay for a really kick-butt anthology on intersections of oppression in feminism (most of the pieces are primarily about race/racism in feminism; mine is mostly about ableism in the feminist movement). The other writing project was a long, complex piece of erotica that was inspired by a documentary I watched on Frida Kahlo. And I’m hoping, if I hear back from various editors in time, and if I’m functional enough, to get in a few more submissions — work that is already done and just looking for a home. (This time of year seems to be heavy with deadlines; I don’t know why, but it always is.)

After I got these two pieces in, I found out that a book that was coming out that I thought had my work in it does not actually have my work in it. My story was accepted by the editor, but when it went to the publisher, they cut it. Normally, I’d have heard months ago, but the editor’s computer got hacked, so her email informing me never got to me. I found it out when I saw my name was not listed on the back cover of the book! It doesn’t happen often, this editor-says-yes-publisher-says-no, but when it does, it really bites. It feels like you’ve been sucker-punched: “You’re in! You’ll get published. You’ll get paid.” Then several months later, “Oh, by the way, the publisher hates your piece (cuz, although nobody says it, they don’t think it’s ‘marketable.’) Sorry!”

But that’s just a blip. The really big problem with writing is that when I write, I can’t do anything else. I can’t train with Barnum. I can’t talk on the phone to friends. I can’t blog. I went more than two weeks without bathing to get the short story done by the deadline extension the editor gave me. And I have to push myself beyond my total physical and mental breaking point to do it.

So, why do I do it? Well, partly because sometimes, when I write, I feel ridiculously happy and connected to myself and some sense of purpose that I never have in any other part of my life. Some of it is that usually these writing gigs pay something (paltry as it might be, and believe me, it’s generally quite paltry), and I have very expensive illnesses, and I worry about spending more (on supplements and air filters and house maintenance and my Lyme doctor who isn’t covered by insurance) than I am bringing in. So, this is a feeble attempt to put my finger in that dam. Some of it is that I just don’t know who I would be if I wasn’t a writer. I think I wouldn’t be me, anymore.

And, along those lines, I am working out a plan with the folks at AbilityMaine to return there as a staff writer. I’m really excited about this. It feels weird because Norm, my dear friend who died three years ago, founded AbilityMaine. So, it took some adjusting to the idea of working there without him, and I sort of flopped around undecidedly for a while. But I do know Norm would be very happy that AM is still in existence, and he was the biggest booster of my writing of anyone I’ve known, so I’m sure he would be happy for me to return. It’s just . . . odd. I will fill you in as developments, er, develop. And meanwhile you should start reading AbilityMaine so you can bask in its fabulousness.

Also, Breath & Shadow, the literary journal I founded, was an outgrowth of AM, and I might be writing for them, too. Again, we’re still not sure exactly how this will all shake out, but if you don’t read Breath & Shadow, you really should, because it’s been in the excellent hands of Chris Kuell since I left in 2007.

One great thing about writing for AbilityMaine is that I will once again get to be a free agent! I won’t be constrained by the whims of the publishing world’s ableism and other bullshittery. As long as I know what the parameters are of what they’re looking for, if the writing is good, it’ll get published. This is such a rare and wonderful and almost-unheard-of-thing in the writing world, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

Where is Barnum in all this, you may wonder? Mostly on my bed, leaving big piles of dirt and dog-hair tumbleweeds in his wake. His coat is really long now, and he does look gorgeous as long as we can keep up with the grooming (which is a bear!). The good part about me being so consumed in my writing is that he is extremely eager for my attention when I have it to spare (or even when I don’t). So, he’s been extra cuddly, and he’s also very into training on the occasions I’m up to it.

Primarily, we are working on generalizing and learning the cue for turning on and off lights, generalizing and learning the cue for pulling doors shut (as opposed to nudging them shut or pulling them open), and adding some “attention seeking behavior/alert” to his “go find person” skill. (More about that last one in a separate post.) We’re also working a little bit every day on handling/grooming, such as keeping his mouth still with my fingers or a toothbrush inside, allowing grooming of the “sensitive bits” of his coat, recall, fetch, and working retrieve.

This Monday, February 27, will be our two-year Gotcha Day anniversary! Can you believe it? I haven’t decided what I’d like to do for it. I really want to do a photo essay or video of all the things he’s learned in two years, but between technical difficulties and extremely low energy, I think that’s unlikely. But, I am very proud of him.

Good night all. Hope to post on or before our Gotcha Day.

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

Kvelling: I Can Haz Service Dog!

I’m writing a short post because I have a lot of other stuff I need to do before my brain shuts down for the day. (Yeah, I’ve been awake two hours, and already I’m at low brain. Oh well.)

This is a celebratory post!

I can see my way forward with Barnum as my best service dog yet! He now can open my bedroom door on cue (with much enthusiasm) and the refrigerator door (with less enthusiasm), neatly retrieve most things I point to, and is well on his way to pulling shut (much harder than nudging shut) my bedroom door and bathroom door — two very important skills for me — and going to a named person for help after opening the door to the room we are in. I also, so far, am managing to prevent him from realizing that he has the power to open doors for his own means; so far I’m making it worth his while to only do it on cue.

Yes, we still have a long way to go before all established skills are really solid, and we have a buttload of obedience and public access to work, and various service skills he has not been introduced to. But we are now at the point where he is helping me in small ways, every day!

I give tremendous thanks and acknowledgement to Sue Ailsby and everyone on the Training Levels list who has provided tips and encouragement. You have made me a much, much better trainer and also helped me realize that I wanted a much higher standard of training for Barnum than I had for Gadget (let alone for Jersey).

Barnum just shut the bathroom door behind me for the first time, which is a tricky door because the latch sticks. He is now chomping on a well-earned knuckle bone. Meanwhile, I need to apply myself to an essay that is due soon.

I just wanted to share my joy and my thanks with everyone who has helped me along this journey. I do feel a tinge of sadness that Barnum is truly stepping into Gadget’s footsteps for the first time. I still miss my Gadgamonster, but I am so happy to have my Barnum, too.

My heart is full of love.

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

The Power of “Sit” to Open — and Shut — Doors!

It seems like every day now, Barnum is making progress in one area and showing holes in training (or backsliding) in another. It’s a challenge for me to mentally keep track of what to focus on, as well as to physically put in the work involved. It’s as if Barnum read the bouvier des Flandres handbook and learned that at two years of age, he becomes more an adult, and less a puppy, and has started — for better and for worse — to grow into those traits for which the breed is known.

On one hand, he is learning faster, is thinking more independently, has more energy and drive to work. These are some of my favorite traits of the breed, and why I gravitated toward bouviers and have continued to stick with them as service dogs. Unfortunately, I have not been well enough to provide as much physical and mental stimulation as he needs. I’ve also felt frustrated that I cannot capitalize on his new-found drive and enthusiasm to train as much as I’d like.

On the other hand, when I am able to work him, we can work long sessions, and varied skills, and he is very much “in the game,” to quote Sue Ailsby (aka Sue Eh?). Not only is he in the game, but his “little grey cells”* seem to have multiplied or plumped up or something, so that the “light bulb moments” are coming more often. As a trainer, and especially as a partner-trainer of a successor SDiT slogging a long, hard road, these light bulb moments are what I live for! I feel indescribably elated when they occur.

We have had some literal light bulb moments, such as Barnum learning to nudge the light switch down (in addition to up) and beginning to learn to generalize this skill to other locations than the one with which he is most familiar (my bathroom). However, the most exciting new skills are our advances in opening and shutting doors. Barnum has been shutting my bathroom and bedroom door for quite some time. However, there was a period when we lost ground on the bedroom door because somehow — I still don’t know how it happened — the door bopped him in the butt right as I gave the cue to shut the door, and he developed a fear of shutting my bedroom door and particularly of the cue. (The cue was poisoned.)

We worked our way past that by removing obstacles, literally. I’d move my powerchair, oxygen tank, trash can, and other things away from the door during training sessions so he could regain his confidence. Then he was very confident and enthusiastic shutting the door if I was in my chair, but not in my bed. (The butt-bopping incident occurred when I was in bed.) Over the last several weeks, I’ve been reshaping him to shut the door when I’m in bed, and he is now about 80 to 90 percent solid on that.

Meanwhile, I have done occasional shaping sessions with him to teach him to grab the door pull on my bedroom door and pull it down and back, which — when done just right — opens the door.

A door with a metal door lever with a red nylon webbing pull attached. It has a knot in the bottom. Next to the door is a cupboard, with a cabinet door and three drawers. Thin, turquoise nylon pulls hang from the cabinet doorknob and the knob of one of the drawers.

My bathroom door pull and two cupboard pulls.

I have not been in a hurry to train this skill because, even though it’s an extremely useful skill for me, I was waiting on two things:

  1. I wanted Barnum to have a better grasp (no pun intended) on “take” and “hold,” which he was learning from our retrieve training. Cueing him to “take” the pull would make generalizing the skill to other doors easier — especially when he comes up against doors where the handle must be pulled down and then pushed in, a much more challenging combination than pull down and back.
  2. I wanted to have some sort of control in place for when Barnum realized he had The Power to Open Doors.

Now, I have been pretty frank in this blog about Barnum not being the smartest dog on the planet. However, he’s no dummy. If you teach a dog to open a door on their own, at some point, if there is a reason for them to want to be on the other side of that door, all but the meekest or slowest of pups is going to realize that they can let themselves out.** Gadget let himself out of the house a couple of times before I caught him in the act and communicated that that was not how things were to be done.

The first time that Barnum did open my bedroom door in a training session, he didn’t realize he’d opened it. He was turned away from the door, snorking up his treats. By the time he turned back to the door to discover it was ever-so-slowly swinging open, he was like, “Huh! The door’s open. Cool,” and he wandered out to see what was happening elsewhere in the house. During the same session, he opened the door again, and the same thing happened. I ended the session, deciding that I would have to think of a way to condition him to believe that whenever he opened that door, the really Excellent Stuff for Dogs was taking place inside my room.

We had plenty else to work on, so I just let the issue float down to the bottom of my consciousness to collect dust — gold dust, as it has turned out, I think. Apparently, after a month of severely poor functioning for me, including cognitive function, my little grey cells have come to life, too!

Along with our more advanced skills, which Barnum and I either had learned from doing Sue’s Original Levels or from service skill training I’d figured out on my own with Gadget, Barnum and I have been very slowly working our way through Sue’s new book, Training Levels: Steps to Success. The idea is for us to fill in any gaps in our foundation skills that I may not be aware of (and some that I am) and then progress to the higher levels that we have not yet achieved.

Well, it just so happens that one of the steps we have been working on is Sit, Level 1, Step 4, which is “The dog sits by an open door.” The idea is that the dog learns to sit any time before he goes through a door — the open door becomes a sit cue, and thus you have a default sit for any open doors. This can later help prevent dogs rushing outdoors. Barnum actually has excellent door manners, but there is always something to be learned from any clicker training exercise (especially a Sue Eh?) exercise, so we have been doing our door sits.

One day I was thinking about how I could get Barnum to stay in the room every time he opened the door, and it occurred to me that I could make the default behavior after opening a door to sit and look at me! Eureka! And we were already halfway there because Barnum was already learning to sit at open doors!

So, I was ready with this plan in place, but I hadn’t counted on how excited and enthusiastic Barnum would become about opening doors. Once he really understood the purpose of all this tugging on the strap, it was thrilling to him to open the door and win a click and treat, and then to run behind the door and slam it shut — and win another click and treat! Since I was now teaching him the cue for opening the door, which requires repetition — and since he was so excited it was hard to interrupt him — I let him carry on with opening and shutting the door in true bouvier style. (Very! Loud!!)

“At least,” I thought, “if he is obsessed with shutting the door after opening it, he is not running out the open door. So, we can bring control into the equation once he’s learned the cues a bit better.”

And that’s what we’ve done. I used a helper to toss treats because that allowed me to focus on timing my clicks and not exhaust myself with throwing. However, the bonus of this was that Barnum naturally oriented to the helper to get his reward after opening the door. Once I was able to reliably cue him to open the door, I took over the treats and he had to reorient himself to look at me. From there, I used whatever I had in my arsenal (zen, “Watch me,” and/or “sit”) to get him to face me, sit, and wait for his next cue (with clicks and treats for every behavior he completed, until I could go for twofers and use the second cue in the chain as a reinforcer for the previous behavior).

Thus, what we ended up with (when things went perfectly) was

  • Sharon (lying in bed) cues Barnum to open door;
  • Barnum opens door;
  • Barnum whirls toward Sharon;
  • Barnum sits and awaits further instructions;
  • Sharon cues Barnum to close door
  • Barnum closes door, turns to Sharon and sits again.

Then, it got even more exciting than that. Here’s a hint: We added elements from the Come Game and Retrieve! But I’ll leave that for another post when I might even have video of the behavior chain.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT-well-on-his-way!

*Bouviers des Flandres are a Dutch/Belgian breed, so it seems appropriate to quote Hercule Poirot here, a brainy Belgian (though a fictional one).

**Interestingly, I know some people who worry about teaching their dog to open the refrigerator. This has not (yet) been a concern of mine. No matter how hungry Gadget was, it never occurred to him to want to open the fridge, and I doubt very much that Barnum will do it either. I think the thrill of freedom — the run of the house or the outdoors — and the lure of attention and society while I am boringly asleep is much more of an enticement to my bouvs than food. Also, so far Barnum is still startled any time he opens the refrigerator door. He finds the movement of the door aversive, so I am shaping that skill with very high rate of reinforcement and a very low-key emotional environment. Hopefully he will eventually get past this startle response, but for now, I don’t see him trotting off happily to open the fridge on his own.


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