Archive for the 'Building Enthusiasm (in your dog)' Category

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


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


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.


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.


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*?!?!

Building Enthusiasm: Take a Training Break

I created a protocol many months ago of ways to increase Barnum’s enthusiasm and “in the game”-ness. Eventually I want to post the whole list, and then do separate posts on each aspect. I already did one post on this topic, focused on treat delivery, and the stark difference in “Go to Mat” a year ago versus more recently.

One of my the main challenges with him has been his lack of enthusiasm, and I wrote about what it means to be in the game and how essential that is for clicker training my own service dog.

Recently, Barnum seemed to lose his gusto for training. I was somewhat concerned, but I also decided to give him some time. He might be going through a “learning plateau” where what he’s learned is being organized and stored into long-term memory, which can give the appearance of flaking out and forgetting everything he knew. The heat’s been a factor, too.

Also, taking a training break is a good way to get a dog back in the game. With Barnum, this seems to work best if I keep things very boring on his days off, and the only stimulating, fun things that happen are things I make happen. This means no watching squirrel TV, no unearned Kongs, no wandering around the house getting loved up by everyone else.

It’s much easier to take a training break if you are sick or tired or busy; in my case, I’ve been all three! Combine this with a heat wave, and a dog-training hiatus seems just the ticket.

Yesterday, I had time, energy, and an eager dog. I tested the waters and Barnum dove in!

Here is what we practiced:

  • take/hold with all three dumbbells, three sessions;
  • shutting doors (multiple doors in one session, and several opportunistic reps of shutting my bedroom door;
  • paws up/jump up to push a nose target high on a wall (will eventually be used for automatic door openers, opening/shutting high kitchen cupboards, and light switches);
  • brace (possibly his most solid skill);
  • go to mat (living room dog bed) — focusing on speed and cue;
  • simple commands outdoors (sit, down, touch, loose-leash walk);
  • turning on light switch (he really seems to enjoy this one);
  • sound alerts (toaster oven timer, infusion pump alarm);
  • and a bit of brush-up on a variety of other skills, as opportunities arose.

I was very pleased with his eagerness, focus, motivation, and stamina. We really, really need to work on Zen more, but I’m waiting until my New Training Levels books arrive to start back at the beginning.

We are also back to doing umbilical cord/leading the dance, which seems to help a lot.

Good dog! Good trainer!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and possibly a contender

Winsome Wednesday: Encouraging Words

I’m not up to writing Part II of “A Typical Atypical Day in the Life…” because I’m too sick today. That’s pretty typical of living with CFIDS, and Lyme, and MCS, though!

I can only manage a short blog right now.

Today was another good day, if not physically, then emotionally. It was a winsome Wednesday, therefore I’m not feeling particularly waspish, so I’m taking the week off from Waspish Wednesday.

I wrote to Sue Ailsby (AKA Sue Eh?), creator of the Training Levels, my dog-training guru whom I so much admire. (In addition to being a great trainer, she is also kind, honest, and very funny.)

I sent her the video I posted on youtube yesterday, although with the link to my post from a couple of days ago about how I think Barnum may work out as a service dog (or SDiT, right now), after all.

This was her response, which she gave me permission to publish:

Oh Sharon, that’s SO good. The biggest, most important thing you said in your blog was that he’s lost his Zen. That says it for me – and says it about you, too, because most people just get annoyed when something like that happens, and don’t go far enough to see WHY it happened. I can’t think of anything more hopeful you could have said than that he’s losing his Zen. That’s WONderful!

I felt so happy when I read that. This is the paragraph from my previous post that Sue’s referring to:
Barnum’s “zen” has also suddenly gotten worse, which is a good sign, actually. He was ridiculously easy to train in zen (“Leave it”) because food was not that exciting to him. Now he has to think about it more — how badly do I want that morsel? I’m perfectly happy to rework our zen in exchange for a food-driven dog!
There are some behavior problems that I’m delighted to have, and this is one of them!

Barnum and I worked our retrieve training. He’s making much faster progress now with the new dumbbells. I combined some aspects of Sue’s method with some of Shirley Chong’s, and that approach has really improved his enthusiasm. More on that another time.

We also practiced door shutting — mostly working on stimulus control (shutting the door when I ask and not shutting it when I don’t ask) — as well as learning to listen for the sound of the latch clicking shut as an indicator that the door is truly shut. He loves this skill so much, that he continues, about once a day, to trot excitedly into  my bathroom and shut the door, necessitating that someone let him back out!

I managed to get a few photo albums up at my FaceBook After Gadget page and have 20 followers now. (I just need five more to officially make it a fan page!)

Plus, the good news on the loose-leash walking just keeps coming. Today was a personal best for Barnum and my helper who walks him. They went all the way to the mailbox and back, which is about one-and-a-half miles, round trip, loose leash all the way!

My helper said he only need a couple of “gentle reminders” on the way there and the way back. He is even learning to control himself when his favorite doggy playmate dive-bombs him in the road (while she is loose, and he is on leash) and not fling himself at her, trying to play with her.


Tonight, Betsy and I shaved Barnum again to make tick-checking easier. I’m so pleased that he is getting easier and easier to groom. He is more relaxed about it most of the time.

However, I need new clippers. The old Oster clipper and its blades that I have just aren’t cutting it (no pun intended). I send the blades out to be sharpened, and within a cut or two — or sometimes with no use at all — they are too dull again.

However, Barnum looks extra adorable, especially because now you can really see his eyes. I will try to put up photos.

Lastly, though I was wiped out, I joined a teleconference with Shirley Chong, which one of my wonderful readers told me about and invited me to.  (Thank you!)

It was very informative, as well as entertaining (much like Sue, Shirley is very funny and personable and seems kind to humans as well as dogs). It was also neat to “meet” several of the people I’ve gotten to know online via the Training Levels List.

Now if I can just get some sleep.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, freshly shorn and snoring loudly

Boy, Do I Have Egg on My … Floor

Lately, things have been going surprisingly well with Barnum. I don’t think the neutering could have had time to take effect, but having to restrict exercise and not allow off-leash time for ten days was really beneficial for our work.

For one thing, he is now becoming super-reliable about peeing while on leash. He has even started ringing the bell to indicate he has to pee when he really doesn’t have to pee that much, just so he can go and pee a moderate amount in order to earn his rewards! His reinforcements for peeing on leash within a minute or two of going outside are a handful of treats and a walk around the yard. He’s not eliminating on cue yet, but we are on the way!

I have also been working on having him help me get to the bathroom. Usually, I need this most first thing in the morning or late at night. These are the times my pain and mobility tend to be the worst. And, often my pchair is plugged in (charging), so I really don’t want to unplug it and use it unless I absolutely need to (which sometimes is the case).

This job requires several smaller tasks:

  1. Wake up and emerge from his crate when I call him (usually with my kissy-sound recall, because I’m often nonverbal first thing in the morning).
  2. Hold a stand-stay next to my bed, while I put my hand on his shoulders to help me steady myself to stand.
  3.  Walk with me, matching my pace, with his shoulder lined up with my leg, to and from the bathroom.
  4. If I stop, stagger backward, etc., match my movements or position (stand still or back up, as the situation requires).
  5. If I stagger, fall, move unevenly, lean against the wall above him, remain calm and in place.
  6. Allow me to put my hand on his shoulders — and stay in place — if I  need to regain my balance or I’m dizzy. (I’m not putting weight on him, just teaching him how to be still for me steady myself. This is for what I think of as my “drunken walk,” because I think if you didn’t know I had a disability, and you saw me walking this way, you’d think I was hammered.)
  7. Down and stay while I use the toilet. (This is the one he is having the hardest time with. Sometimes he decides to wander back to bed. Sometimes he pops up to see if I’ve forgotten to click him.)
  8. Walk back with me to the bed, doing all the same things as on the way from the bed.
  9. Go back to his crate and go to sleep (as opposed to trying to jump on my bed or demand attention, etc.).
Barnum, with a spring haircut on his body, but not yet head or feet, looks a bit disreputable as he lies down on a ceramic tile floor, one brown eye peering out from a mop of hair.

A straggly looking Barnum, mid-haircut, shows off he CAN down in the bathroom.

I started teaching this by clicking and treating for having him walk next to me to the bathroom. That was easy. Over time, I have shaped his position so that his shoulder is where I want.

He is also already surprisingly steady, consistent, and relaxed with the bracing work. He achieved this level faster than either Jersey or Gadget did. I attribute this to a couple of factors. One is that he’s had no experience of being pushed into place (“modeling” — the conventional way to teach sit and down involves pushing the dog’s butt down and pulling their head to the floor by their collar, respectively). Therefore, he doesn’t assume any pressure on his body is something he has to give way to.

I think it’s also just because I’m a better trainer, so I laid the foundation better with him. For instance, I first worked on teaching him to stand in a balanced way by capturing that (click/treat), when I saw him standing square. Likewise, I broke down the steps for this into tiny parts, so that by the time we are doing it for real, it seems natural to him.

For those of you keeping score at home, this has us walking well and bracing well. Where we ran into our first major problem was when I first tried it out upon waking in the morning (when I am most likely to need this help): I signaled him and he . . . continued to sleep. Well, he might have lifted his head to glance at me, but that was as far as it went.

His attitude seemed to be, “I’m asleep. I’ll get to you when I feel like it.”

Not acceptable.

I already have Barnum conditioned to leap out of bed and coming running when my infusion pump alarm sounds, which I did by first using classical conditioning — pairing the sound with special treats — his meds or supplements in Pill Pockets. When he was jumping up whenever he heard the alarm, I started shaping the behavior with my clicker, so that now he only gets his treats if he jumps onto my bed. I’m still shaping his response to include nudging me, or otherwise escalating his behavior, to wake me up. I also added dinner as a reinforcer for responding to the alarm.

So, I know he’s capable of springing into action from a dead sleep; I just wasn’t making it worth his while. I pondered: What treat would be delicious and exciting enough to get him to jump out of bed, that I also could keep by my bed? Then it came to me. Hard-boiled eggs.

Barnum is wild about egg in any form. Usually I feed him raw eggs with his Lyme-preventive supplement, but sometimes I give him my hard-boiled yolks when I’m trying to balance out my protein and fat.

So, a few nights ago, I paired my kissy sound with a bit of egg a few times before bed, and that did the trick. The next morning, when I called for him, he pelted over for more egg (which I keep in a container in a mini-cooler next to my pillow).

Probably the reason why most people don’t use egg as a training treat is that, even in its neatest form (hard-boiled), it’s still quite messy. After one eggstremely successful trip to and from the bathroom, I decided that this was the right treat for Barnum, but not eggsactly conducive to going back to sleep for me. My hands were covered in egg goo and slobber.

After that, I donned medical gloves before each training session and tossed them when I got back to bed. The other problem is the floor. Bits of yolk crumble and fall frequently on our way to and from the bathroom. Unlike most (normal) dogs, Barnum will not hoover up any tiny morsel of food he sees on the floor. Even when it’s his favorite treat, he only licks up the bits he considers to be worth his while.

Still, a sticky floor is a small price to pay for having this skill in place. My slippers will be well-worn by the time we are done training this behavior.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, eggsellent bathroom-walking companion and SDiT?

Building Enthusiasm: Go to (Yoga) Mat

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been collecting tips to share for building more enthusiasm in your dog.

This really isn’t just about “enthusiasm,” per se. It’s about having your dog, as Sue Ailsby puts it, “in the game,” every time you train. In other words, a totally focused and engaged dog. Of course, this is the goal of every good trainer, and especially a service-dog trainer, upon whom so much depends.

If you’ve been following Barnum and me during our first year of training, however, you probably remember my struggles with Barnum’s lack of interest in food, extreme distractibility, and other quirks that made training sometimes feel as if Barnum was not only uninterested in playing my game, but was in fact, wandering out of the arena to find a place to nap or scare up a poker game.

In a future post, I’ll provide my “Building Enthusiasm” checklist and then tackle different tips in succeeding blog posts.

Today’s post is a “show and tell” of how different Barnum looks when he is in the game, versus when he is not.

I chose our “Go to Mat” work because I happen to have video of a quite unsatisfactory performance from last summer, when I was testing Go to Mat for Level Two, as well as a second video, from about a month ago, to contrast it with.

In the second video, we are working Level Three.

By now, I think he could probably pass at L3 and go on to L4, because we’ve achieved the default down-stay that’s being shaped in the second video, and he knows the cue, as well. However, I’m still tweaking other aspects of our mat work, such as proofing different “mats,” different locations, and other criteria.

First, the old video, which is captioned. (Transcript available here.)

If you’d like to play along at home to identify variables that made this behavior slow, ask yourself the following questions about my performance as you watch:

  • Where are my treats?
  • Where are my hands in relation to the treats?
  • How much time elapses between when Barnum responds to the cue, “Mat,” by running toward the mat, and my click?
  • How much time elapses between when I’m sure Barnum’s feet are all on the mat and my click?
  • How much time elapses between when I click and the delivery of the treats?
  • How do I deliver the treats? (Also, where do they land? And, how long does it take for them to get into his mouth?)
  • In the second rep, what does Barnum do during the time gap between the click and the treat delivery?

My list above are just some of the issues at play. I’m sure you can think of others.

At any rate, I went back to kindergarten and taught this skill from the beginning.

Part of this involved choosing a new cue — “Park it!” — because the old one was poisoned. (See Level Three homework post for explanation of poisoned cues.)

However, because I’ve changed the criteria for this session, and I’m shaping something new, you will not hear me use the cue at all.

I also decided to change the mat, itself. The one in the video above, which had been our main mat, was a relatively small square piece of material that slipped easily on the floor.

When considering a better mat to practice with, as well as what might be portable for when we are training or working in public, I wanted something lightweight, “non-smelly” (e.g., not a rubber-backed bathmat, which I can’t tolerate, due to my MCS), washable (so chemical fumes and residues could be removed from it), and “sticky” (so it would not slide across the floor when Barnum landed on it).

Someone suggested cutting a yoga mat to size. This seemed like a great solution, as I already have one that is outgassed and not being used for anything else. I just needed one of my helpers to clean it for me and let it dry.

Meanwhile, I’d been working on teaching Barnum that anything could be a mat (towels, canvas bags, sheets, etc.). It was going well until I discovered that Barnum was always orienting himself to face me: He would run to the mat and plunk down, facing me, regardless of what direction the “mat” was in, and this often meant the mat was going in one direction, and he was in the other, so he was making a cross, with just his middle on the mat!

By this time, Barnum knew to run to the mat; he knew that anything could be called a mat; and he knew to lie down immediately on it. But he didn’t understand that I wanted as much of his body contained to whatever the “mat” in question was. I realized that the yoga mat, in addition to preventing the slippage, could be an excellent tool for teaching the criterion, “all four paws on the mat.”

I set this up by putting the yoga mat, full length, against a wall. Because the mat is long and narrow, Barnum could run to either end or the middle, and as long as he lined up against the wall, there was plenty of room to have all four feet on. However, if he was not parallel to the wall, it would be very obvious (to both of us) which parts of him weren’t on the mat.

It worked really well. It was much easier for me to see where all his paws were, and I was able to click for two, then three, then four paws on. I raised my criteria to four paws quite quickly, and we did that for a few sessions, with me periodically shortening the mat by turning one end under, to keep focusing Barnum on keeping his whole body on the mat, no matter the size or shape. I also worked in the automatic down as a new criterion, when he became solid on “all four paws.”

Working against a wall with a mat that stayed in place was much easier for me, as well, because I found it much easier to get the treats in the right spot. If they hit the wall, they would still land on the mat. And if they went to the edge of the mat, they didn’t slide underneath, which had been a problem before, leading Barnum to lose focus by trying to dig the treat out from  under the mat.

Other trainers had suggested to me before that I use a corner (two walls), but that had always been too hard for me, physically. I found it awkward to throw the treats into a corner. Also, there just aren’t many usable corners in my home. Most of them are blocked by furniture or have doorways where the treats can slide under or are very cramped and small.

So, the yoga mat has helped a lot.

However, Barnum’s speed and eagerness, his “in the game”-ness has been most affected by changes I made in my rate of reinforcement, my timing, and multiple aspects of my treat delivery.

Check out what his mat behavior looked like a month ago (below), and compare it to the previous video!

(Note: This video was taken at the end of a session, so Barnum’s actually less bouncy and focused than he normally is for mat work these days; you can see this when he stops at one point to look out the window. I should have stopped this session earlier, but I wanted to get some of it on tape, and the opportunity didn’t arise till the end of our session.)

[Access note: I wasn’t able to upload this video to dotsub, where I normally caption videos. However, there is virtually no dialogue in this video, only the clicks, except for the three times I say, “Release!” Those are the times Barnum pops up and runs off the mat. If anyone is able to upload it to dotsub, let me know, and I’ll caption the clicks. Read the “transcript,” which is mostly a description of the action in the video.]

See how he jumps up and runs off the mat?

And trots back with focus?

Notice how I try to keep a higher rate of reinforcement (although I do miss many opportunities to click, and sometimes click late, partly because of the work in wrangling the treats).

We have done sessions where he literally leaps into the air, all four feet off the floor, when released from the mat, and runs hard back to it, but those aren’t on video.

The best part, of course, is when I can apply our skills to real life. We now practice Mat every week when the visiting nurse comes to change my dressing.

Hopefully in the not-too-distant-future, when I finally get my powerchair and van lift working again, we will start public access training. Mat — AKA “glue yourself to the floor” — will be one of our most important skills.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who never learned mat!), and Barnum, moderately enthusiastic SDiT

Gotcha Day: One-Year Anniversary!

It’s our one-year Gotcha Day anniversary, February 27!

One year ago, tonight, Betsy flew home with Barnum. He was so little, he was smaller than a cat, and fit in a carrier under the seat in front of Betsy on the plane. He had piddle pads in his carrier, and after Betsy used all but the last one, he peed on it. Of course, he arrived at the airport with vomit on his little chin and paws, because he’d never ridden in a car before.

But he was still happy. Betsy and he fell in love instantly, and she let him kiss her with his vomity face, which she would never do now!

He was just an itsy-bitsy tiny little ball of fluff! As I described in the post about how he got his name, he was afraid of the snow. He climbed Betsy to avoid touching the cold ground.

Barnum on Betsy's Shoulder

His first night home, Barnum peeks over Mount Betsy

Now he is 80 pounds, he snores loudly when he sleeps, he jumps through four-foot snow drifts and sits outside in 10-degree weather on a hill of snow that almost reaches the roof of the house, just enjoying the “crisp” air, and periodically eating and snorkeling through the snow.

Barnum, King of the Hill, surveys his domain from atop his snowy peak

Winter rules!

[Photo description: Barnum sits atop an enormous mound of snow, several feet high, next to the house. He is level with the windows of the house. He wears his orange vest, and his beard is white with snow.]

Barnum's head and shoulder's, very shaggy, his snout totally white with snow, his head cocked to the side in a very adorable, questioning way

Are you seriously expecting me to go inside now?

He comes in with a frozen beard, and a frosted rump, and then he wants to go out again.

A year ago tonight, we could carry him around like a little sack of flour — a very wiggly, adorable sack of flour that constantly tried to bite and lick our hands and faces.

Baby Barnum Chews Sharon's Finger

"Mmm, Mom's finger tastes just like it did a minute ago. Yup, fingery."

[Photo description: Little puppy Barnum, black, very fuzzy, with big toes, and a white blaze on his chest. He is lying on his back, leaning forward to grab Sharon’s index finger in his mouth. The only part of Sharon visible is her hand, but from the angle of Barnum’s eyes, he appears to be looking at Sharon’s face.]

The first thing we had to do, once we brought him inside, was give him a bath. He objected wholeheartedly. He cried, as if he were being tortured. Yes, we felt horrible, but he reeked of fragrance, which was making me sick, so there was no other option.

Puppy Barnum's first post-bath pic

Aw, widdle puppy still damp from his firwst bath. (Not sure if he likes this new place.)

[Photo description: Eight-and-a-half week-old black puppy, nine pounds, curly hair, eyes still a little milky blue, damp from his first bath, with very big paws. He’s on the front in front of his crate, and Sharon’s hand is in front of his mouth, offering him a treat. Her hand looks almost as big as Barnum’s head! Barnum looks a little shell-shocked.]

I was planning on doing a much bigger deal celebratory blog and day. I was going to bake him a “Gotcha Day” doggy cake and more, but I’ve been wiped out. I spent most of today and yesterday sleeping, and the last few days resting.

Also, Barnum doesn’t seem to realize that it’s our anniversary, because he’s decided to hit a learning dip/plateau these last few days, when of course, I want to feel like we are flying high.

You’d think he could choose a more convenient time to organize and store everything he’s been learning into his long-term memory. But, no. That’s dogs for you.

It’s as if he’s not even paying attention to the Gregorian calendar and how my sense of accomplishment and self-esteem correlate to how long he can hold a sit-stay now that it’s 365 days since he arrived at my home.

(I’m making fun of myself, in case that’s not clear.)

In all seriousness, I haven’t been able to spend as much time as I’d like on playing and training with him, not just because I’ve been kind of flattened, but because I’ve been putting a lot of energy, instead, into mobility repair/upgrade so that we can achieve our training goals and he can have the life he deserves:

  • First priority, trying to get my outdoor powerchair repaired. (Since it is for outdoor use, and Medicare covers my indoor chair, I can’t go through a vendor and get it repaired the standard way.) I got it working for about a week, and then it died again.
  • Second priority, get a platform lift installed my van, which will always work with any type of chair, to replace the crane lift, which doesn’t work with some of my chairs and has become too hard for my PCAs and I to use.
  • Third priority, find used free or cheap batteries for my backup indoor chair (which is also the one I can use with my current van lift and take inside stores and clinics, but the batteries can’t hold a charge, at all).

All of this is so that I can take Barnum on walks again, and also so I can take him into public spaces more, like stores and libraries and such, so we can train behaviors in new environments and work on public access skills.

We really, really, really need to get out more. The combination of constant, massive snow and ice storms, and the unreliability of my powerchair has not been good for his exercise and energy needs, and has seriously hindered my training goals.

(If you’d like to help, check out my Why the “Donation” Button? page. Thank you!)

I had wanted this Gotcha Day post to encapsulate all sorts of changes, big and small, that have occurred over the past year, but I haven’t been equal to the task. I actually did start to write a post, many months ago, of all our achievements, big and small. I was going to make that a regular feature of the blog. But that one post, which I started when Barnum was about five months old, got so long, I never finished it! I kept adding to it. If I tried to do one now (with him fourteen months old), it would be a  book!

However, maybe I can try to get out some more short, triumphal “achievement posts,” perhaps by doing a “Gotcha Month” celebration. Then, I will feel less pressure to pack everything into one post.

Instead of a big laundry list of changes, here is just one example of how much has changed within one year: Bathing.

Tonight, when I went to the bathroom, Barnum followed me in. (I wrote in a previous post about how I like to take “toilet training” opportunities.) On his own, just for fun, Barnum decided to jump into the bathtub.

Here’s what we worked on, on the spur of the moment. We started with the following already-established behaviors:

  • Sit in tub, on cue;
  • Down in tub, on cue;
  • Default remain in tub until released;
  • “In the tub” and “Out of the tub” cues;
  • Default down and stay in tub (staying comfortably relaxed in a down in the tub);
  • Staying relaxed in a down while water dribbles in;
  • Staying relaxed in a down while I move the sprayer/hose (with no water coming out) around over him and let it clang and jangle against the sides of the stall;
  • Staying relaxed in a down while I rub him all over, as if I were shampooing him;
  • Staying relaxed in a down while I dribble water on him from the sprayer/shower hose.

Then we added in these new elements:

  • Staying relaxed in a down with water almost to his elbows;
  • Staying relaxed in a down with water on more of a steady stream (but just for a few moments);
  • Staying relaxed in a down with water switching back and forth between spigot and sprayers (but not really getting him wet with sprayer, just keeping relaxed with the sounds and vibrations associated with the change from one to the other);
  • “Bobbing for Kibble” — standing or in a down, as a way to play in the water and also get more comfortable with getting schnoz wet and learning not to snork in water through his nose accidentally;
  • Standing still to be toweled off in the tub (he’s the first dog I’ve ever had who doesn’t like being toweled off!);
  • Giving the cued paw for drying while in the tub;
  • Gentle discouragement/distraction to keep him from playing “scratch at the drain, like I’m trying to dig through the tub” game;
  • Practice other cued behaviors in tub (Watch Me, Touch, Chin-in-Palm);
  • “Tub Zen” — learning “leave it” when applied to tub means, “No, don’t jump back in the tub, please! We are done playing in the tub!”

That last one is a lovely “problem” to have, isn’t it? Needing to train him not to keep jumping in the tub? I think it’s better than cake.

This is the dog who, a few months ago, I had to painstakingly shape, for many sessions over a few weeks, how to jump in the tub. For some reason, he had a mental block about it. He would end up with three paws balanced on the tub edge, teetering, with his face almost touching the tub floor, looking down at the treats that had landed in there, whining because he wanted to get to them, but either too anxious or too uncertain to know how to take the final leap.

Now, he jumps in there even when there is no hint of a treat around. I love the power of shaping!

Happy Gotcha Day to us!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and one-year-resident of New England

MiniPress Training Moment: Stomp!

There are adorable, funny, or exciting things that happen all the time while training, and I think, “I want to blog about this.”

Then I almost never do, because I tend to want to write long, cerebral, carefully-worded blogs that take me hours and hours, over the course of several days, to write.

And I want to include pictures and captions and descriptions of said pictures, etcetera.

Then I reread them, copy edit, spell-check, proofread, etcetera.

Plus, there’s being sick and trying to have a life (ha!) and there you have it.

Wonderful moments lost. Yes, lost because I have a memory like a steel sieve.

I am going to try to overcome my natural verbose tendencies with Training Moments MiniPresses.

Here’s tonight’s:

I’m doing Training Level Three Target with Barnum, which is that he has to run 10 feet and press a small target with his foot and run back.

We’re working on the “the foot target still ‘works’ even if I move it” part. Actually, I backed up, because I started moving and reducing my target too quickly, because when I introduced it, due to his past experience with the nail file (see My Operant Dog! for video), he started targeting it right away.

But when I tried to get distance and reduced target size and different environments, it was too much. He ended up just running over it, without paying too much attention to actually hitting it.

Tonight, we were back to our big target, with me on the floor, close to it, and just moving it a couple inches after a few reps.

He started getting sloppy with the overrunning it again.

Usually, when we start a new skill, I am profuse with clicks, because in the  past, he has not been “extinction hardy” and would get upset (whine or just shut down and give up) if I didn’t click everything. I have had to very slowly introduce “twofers” very rarely; he seemed to experience them as punishments, for quite a while.

He has much more confidence and a higher frustration threshold now, but I am still careful to click for almost every single attempt with new skills.

The foot targeting counts as new because I took us “back to kindergarten” two nights ago.

But tonight, he overran it once, no click. Then he hit it with part of a foot next time, which I clicked, but realized I hadn’t wanted to, and gave off “oops” body language. (He’s sensitive to these nuances.)

I decided to click for intent — not so much how centered or solid the touch is, but simply the clear intent to whack it with his foot, even if it’s not a particularly good touch. Even if he doesn’t actually hit the target, but he looks like he’s trying to hit it, versus happening to hit it while galloping past/over it. Going for enthusiasm over accuracy, in other words.

I try to toss the treats a good distance so he has some enthusiasm and energy going. (Part of my “How to Build an Enthusiastic Dog” protocol which, I promise, I will post some day — hopefully soon.)

He came running back from the bathroom, and I’m ready to click him for any decent directed paw-to-foam-target attempt.

He runs full-tilt to the target, as if he’s going to overrun it again, then he stops and POUNCES, punching both front paws onto the target like, “BAM! Check this out! This target is TOAST! WOOHOO!” (Yes, if he was a person, he’d have said, “Woohoo!” Or maybe, “Yeehaw!”)

It was hilarious. I clicked and tossed the entire handful of food, which was about 15 pieces.

Okay, Sue Ailsby disciples, I know she doesn’t believe in jackpots, and I have to say, the evidence is convincing, and in general, I don’t think JPs work with Barnum. (Though they were gold with Jersey, so I maintain that with some dogs, they are worthwhile.)

However, this wasn’t me thinking, “That deserves a jackpot.”

It was just me thinking, “I better end it right THERE,” and tossing all the food partly to make sure I didn’t try to go for the badbadbad “just ONE more,” and partly just pure pride and gratitude for what he’d just done. I felt generous.

I just sat there and laughed and laughed. Then he came over and very thoroughly licked my face, mostly my chin.

He was wagging a lot. He likes when I laugh. (Everybody finds laughter reinforcing, if it’s with you, not at you, I think.)

That pounce wins the Training Moment of the Night award.

Alright, this was not as short as I intended, but I wrote it in under half an hour, which is a record for me.

Somebody click me.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (What took him so long? I used a good solid paw whack, or two, as a default!), and Barnum, SDiT, living up to his clown/acrobat name

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