Archive for the 'Clicker training' Category

Default Zen Remediation Week 2 (in pictures)

We’re progressing with Zen training even though I have not managed to do a solid training session every day. We do at least a bit every day, though. We’ve probably used another 300 treats or so out of our 1,000.

How I’ve been starting it is when my PCA brings me a meal, I usually still need to cue Zen (either “Leave It” if I’m verbal or “Eh!” if I’m not) and then after one or maybe two cues, we move to the food and my eating being the cue.

Barnum will now look up with anticipation for a training session when he hears me chewing. This would seem to be counterproductive, and I admit that I feel on the knife edge of creating a behavior chain, so I’m trying to head that off at the pass. I can pretty quickly now get him from sniffing at me or the food to backing up and ending up on his mat across the room.

I’ve reduced the number of repetitions — lowered rate of reinforcement in going for longer durations — and this means that sometimes he gets up from the mat and comes over. I’ve decided that if he wants to get on the bed to look out the window while I’m eating, that’s fine. Anything that maintains “ignoring food” as the goal behavior is OK. But if he comes back on the bed, looks out the window for a while, and then sniffs my food, he gets (as Sue Ailsby puts it), The Big Prize! Which is that he gets to go and lie in his crate for a couple of minutes and then be released. (No treat.)

Here are some pictures from a session a three days ago. This was after we had taken a break from formal sessions for a few days.

Sharon sits in bed with a plate of food on a tray in her lap. Barnum stands next to the bed, looking intently at Sharon's plate.

Beginning of Zen training session with lunch as the cue for “back off.”

Same image as above except Barnum's legs are blurred as he backs up away from the bed.

Barnum backs up after not getting clicked for staying put.

Same picture as above except Barnum has backed up so he's almost out of the frame.

Barnum backs up more.

Barnum stands on a blue and white rag rug next to the wall on the left side of the room. The bed is not visible except as a shadow on the floor on the right edge of the picture.

A couple more backward steps takes Barnum to his mat.

Same view as previous picture, except this time Barnum is lying on the rag rug, his head up and looking toward the bed, which just has a little corner visible on the right edge of the picture.

Next rep Barnum lies down on his mat.

Same picture as above except Barnum's head is resting on his front paws.

While not actually relaxed, Barnum is offering a more relaxed pose (and he sighed after putting his head down, earning a click).

Peace,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

P.S. I’m keeping my blogging to a minimum and trying to do less typing in general, including alt tags for the pictures, because I’m having repetitive strain issues with my hands. That’s scary because I spend all my time on the computer!

Default Zen Remediation

Or, “100 Treats Down, 900 to Go”

My current favorite dog blog is my friend Eileen’s blog (fittingly named Eileenanddogs). It’s unlike any other dog behavior or training blog I’ve read because

  1. Eileen is, like me, a training enthusiast (reads a lot, learns a lot from great trainers online, watches videos, trains her own dogs) but not a professional trainer, and
  2. she often blogs about her mistakes, including videos of her training mistakes, which is incredibly instructive AND validating, because we all make those mistakes! Well, I certainly do.

Today she posted about an idea she got from another dog blogger to train one behavior with 1,000 treats:

I love this because I tend to be a little unfocused in training and pass out treats for good behaviors, cute behaviors, behaviors I vaguely like, etc. . . . What if every trainer took 1,000 treats, really concentrated, and spent them wisely on one behavior?

Immediately I thought of the behavior I have been puzzling about how to fix lately: Zen. The frustrating thing is that Barnum can do a terrific zen (leave it) when he knows we’re training, and he will go into “training mode” after one or two repetitions, even if I use “real-world conditions,” like my dinner plate that has leftover food on it. But it doesn’t stick to the next real-world situation.

But then I thought, “What if I put all my training energy — small as it is — into Zen? And what if I required a form of Zen whenever we did any work or training for which he is getting reinforced?

So, I counted the treats I’d just gathered for the day, and added another bag for good measure. It added up to about 100. (There’s no way I’ll actually be able to keep an exact count; my memory and my math are not that good. But it’ll be close enough.)

I started with Zen from the beginning of the Training Levels and worked up super-fast. Then, I did treat-bag Zen and treat-hand Zen: No mugging the treat bag or treat hand anymore! If he was clicked for any behavior (whether Zen or something else), if he dove at my hand or the treat bag, I’d just wait (close my hand, close the bag) and treat only once he backed off. After ten repetitions of this, he seemed to get this for most of the rest of the day.

My big goal is to have Barnum stay well away whenever anyone is eating or there is any food in the room. He does sometimes go into his crate without cueing when one of my meals shows up, but just as often he doesn’t. He might hang around and ignore my food, but he also might hang around and get “nosey,” sniffing after things.

Today, when my food arrived, I cued Zen, and started with just having him move his nose back. I continued with uncued Zen, clicking for him being farther away. By partway through lunch (the first meal I tried this with), he was off the bed, across the room, lying against the wall. YAY!

We managed to replicate that, with only one or two lapses, for dinner, too.

I don’t know why it’s always such a surprise when I set out with a sensible training plan, stick to it, and discover that it works. It’s like this whole clicker training thing to which I’ve devoted a huge chunk of my life over the past dozen years actually is based on something logical, or something.

I wish I had a picture of Barnum at the beginning of lunch versus the end of lunch! Let’s see if I remember to keep it up tomorrow. (That’s part of the reason for posting about it; I tend to remember and keep up with things better if I write about them and share them with others.)

My end goal is the for the arrival of yummy-smelling food to be the cue for Barnum to go to his crate. Or if he doesn’t want to go into his crate, to go several feet away and stay away unless called.

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

Photo Essay: A Visit from Mina the Basenji

On Sunday we had a visit from a Basenji named Mina. I couldn’t resist the opportunity of working with a different dog — and an unusual breed of dog — which also afforded me the chance to work on Barnum’s self-control in a novel situation: focusing on me and holding stays when another dog was getting trained inside his house. Despite that I was really too sick — I have been paying the price since — it was an educational experience for all of us, I think. (Mostly for me!)

Mina very helpfully let me know our starting place should be Four-on-the-Floor.  (I’ve noticed that enthusiastic, food-driven dogs, especially small- or medium-sized dogs, tend to jump up with their paws on my lap because I’m sitting instead of standing.)

Sharon in her powerchair in front of glass doors with snowy wonderland behind. Mina, a small brown-and-white Basenji with prick ears and a curly tail, has her front paws on Sharons lap, nosing her hands that hold treats. Barnum is heading for his mat next to Sharons chair.

Beginning session: Barnum needs direction, Mina needs self control.

I started with ignoring her when she was on my lap and clicking/treating when her paws were all on the ground. A couple of times I lured her to get her paws off. I c/t Barnum for staying on his mat and not nosing into my session with Mina. He has a lifetime of clicker experience, whereas Mina was learning the clicker and everything else in a new environment — a big challenge. Barnum had a pretty clear idea of what was being asked of him or of behaviors to try to get treats, whereas Mina was really excited that she was getting all these treats without a clear idea of why at first. I bet she slept well that night!

But positive reinforcement works even before the learner has comprehended the “why,” so we were able to quickly move to having all her feet on the ground even before she’d figured out the clicker.

Mina is now standing on the floor in front of Sharon. Barnum sits next to Sharon on his mat. Sharon is feeding him a treat.

Mina now has four-on-the-floor and Barnum’s sitting on his mat.

Mina sits facing Sharon. Barnum lies on his mat. Both dogs are looking up at Sharons face.

We move on to “sit” for Mina and down-stay for Barnum.

Barnum lies on his mat, watching Sharons face. Mina stands on hind legs, one paw resting on Sharons seat, the other scratching at Sharons closed fist.

Hm, we’re back to paws-on-lap. Can you see what I’m doing wrong to cause this?

Hint: I’m not used to working with little dogs! I’m used to working with a dog for whom my lap is nose height!

Also, see how she’s pawing at my hand, above? That was interesting for me. I’ve taught a few dogs the beginning steps of Zen, and she was the first who tried lots of different strategies — biting, pawing, licking, etc., before finally backing off at all. Very smart and persistent. She’s a problem-solver. Using her paws like that reminded me of a cat.

Barnum lies on his mat, watching Sharon. Sharon is leaning over to hold her closed fist in front of Minas nose. Mina is sniffing Sharons hand intently.

Once I moved my fist down to nose level, Mina kept “four on the floor” to learn Zen.

But this position (above) was not sustainable for me, physically, so I adjusted. . . .

Sharon sits on the floor with her back to the glass door. Barnum on her right is lying on his mat with his chin resting between his paws. Mina stands in front of Sharon, gazing at her first.

I get on the floor to present my fist at nose height for Mina to learn Zen. Barnum chin targets the mat as his duration behavior.

Below is another behavior I’m not used to! Mina decided she’d had enough training and just hopped right onto my powerchair seat. I laughed really hard. A large, more cautious dog like Barnum learned to jump and sit in my powerchair after several shaping sessions. It took a lot of careful balancing for him. Meanwhile, Mina, the little, bold, curious, and nimble thing, just nipped up there herself as if she’d been doing it all her life. She wanted to see what she could see, I think. Or she was pretending to be a spaceship captain. Or both?

Barnum lying on his bed and Sharon sitting on the ground both look up at Mina sitting very erect and poised in Sharon's powerchair, staring out the window at the snowy landscape.

Call me Captain Mina! Full throttle, ready for blastoff!

What a way to start the new year!

– Sharon and Barnum, SD

P.S. Mina was gracious enough to let me back onto my chair once she’d finished training me to give her treats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needs – Human Example

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

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

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

Painfully true. (Just ask Betsy.)

Another cartoon by Sven Hartenstein

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

Needs – Canine Example

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

What’s that?!

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

Are you STILL on the computer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodnight, everybody.

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

When Your Service Dog Is Too “Smart”….

OK, so now you know I’m writing and blogging elsewhere, although I still plan to do my service dog blogging (and related stuff) here until I can get my own domain set up. Except for today’s post, because it turns out that won’t work. So I’m posting it on my writing blog, SharonWachsler.blogspot.com. I apologize for the inconvenience. Future Gadget- and Barnum-related posts will be back here at After Gadget!

You asked so many great questions about my experiences as a service dog (SD) partner and trainer that it is taking quite some time for me to write all my answers. I am also still finishing Barnum’s training. Until now I wanted to wait to train him to open the outside door to let himself out because I wanted to make sure he was really solid on having his door-opening behaviors under stimulus control. Which leads me to today’s topic.

Two of you asked about my funniest or most embarrassing experience as a SD handler, and that brought to mind this story which I’ve posted at SharonWachsler.blogspot.com.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT (who will hopefully know better)

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.

Service Dog “Find Person” Protocol for Human Helpers

Like virtually every dog trainer I know, I find training people much more difficult than training dogs. With a dog, I have a clear goal in mind, and I have learned how to break the desired behavior down, step by step, so that I communicate what I’m looking for very clearly. With people,  it’s too easy to rely too much on our shared language which often leads to assumptions that they understand what I’m asking (whether or not I’ve explained it adequately).

If you read this blog regularly, you’re probably aware that I’ve been sending Barnum to find my personal care assistants, either to deliver messages in a pouch attached by Velcro to Barnum’s collar, or to alert them that I need them ASAP. (As discussed recently in this post and shown on video in this post.) We are at the “proofing” stage of this behavior, meaning that it’s reliable enough that I am mostly actually using it and occasionally testing it to see if there are still any weaknesses in his reliable performance of the skill.

In the course of proofing, I discovered that I was communicating much more effectively with Barnum about what I want him to do than I was with the people involved about what I want them to do. So, I typed out this instruction sheet for my PCA (personal care assistants), and it’s posted in the kitchen. They have found it helpful, and I thought you might find it useful (if this is a behavior you want to teach) or simply of interest if you want to learn a bit more about the ins and outs of training this behavior.

Barnum’s “Where’s Person?” Protocol

If you KNOW I have sent Barnum to you (known training situation):

  • Wait for him to nudge you. If he DOESN’T nudge, point to your leg and say NUDGE.
  • When he nudges (whether you’ve cued him or not), say YES! And give him a treat.
  • Ask him to SIT.
  • Let him stay in the sit for a few moments (even if you’ve removed a pouch).
  • Say YES and give him a treat.
  • Say WHERE’S SHARON? It’s important to end with WHERE’S SHARON? Because I listen for that to know whether Barnum did the behavior, and because you saying that also tells HIM that he has earned treats from me.

If you DON’T Know If I’ve Sent Him (“Cold” Practice or REAL Situations) . . .

If he nudges you or he’s wearing a pouch, that tells you I definitely sent him.

If you’re not sure, try to be aware of Barnum’s body language/the situation.

Here are some clues I probably did NOT send him to you:

  • He wanders into the kitchen
  • He seems more interested in the food prep you’re doing (especially prepping dog treats) than anything else

In this case, please come check with me, and I will call him and keep him from hanging out and begging food from you, because this is not a behavior I want him to learn/practice.

These are CLUES I probably DID send him to you:

  • You heard him OPEN MY DOOR to get to you
  • He is RUNNING or trotting in to you with EXCITEMENT/purpose
  • He is STARING at you

If the above apply, please follow these steps:

  • If he nudges you, say YES and treat. If no treats are available, say Good boy!
  • Immediately, tell him to SIT!
  • Look for a pouch on his collar. If it’s there, take the pouch.
  • Find him a treat. Tell him YES! Then give him the treat.
  • ASK HIM WHERE’S SHARON? (And if there’s no pouch, follow him back to me.)

Happy (people and dog) training!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (this was one of my favorite jobs), and Barnum SD/SDiT (this IS my favorite job!)

Retrieving a Fork with Food on It (Zen + Retrieve = Yippee!)

I’ve said all along that I wanted to train Barnum more and better than I did Gadget and Jersey. I wanted him to learn skills they didn’t know because I now need more types of assistance than I used to. And I wanted Barnum trained better because there were skills Gadget had that were good enough, but that were never really perfect. For example, Gadget was good at retrieves but lousy at combining the “hold” with other skills, like heeling or sitting or sometimes even waiting for the release (instead of just dropping the item in my lap).

One thing I never trained Gadget or Jersey to do is pick up silverware that had food on it without tasting the food. I just didn’t know how to communicate that part, because I didn’t know about doggy zen. Since dropped utensils often have food on them, this was a hole in our training.

Thanks primarily to all I’ve learned from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels and the Training Levels list, I am a much better trainer now. I also owe some credit to Barnum for being harder to train than Jersey or Gadget, which made it impossible for me to be sloppy and take shortcuts like I did with them.

One of the ways Barnum is much better trained is with his “leave it.” I used the “puppy zen” approach to teaching this, and it’s an awesome tool to have in your dog training toolkit. (I’ve posted about zen plenty in the past. If you want to read some zen-related posts, click on the relevant tag or search “Zen.”)

We have been working on a default zen, which means that I don’t have to cue “leave it” for Barnum to know that he should not eat/sniff/touch/grab that thing/person/animal unless I tell him to. I wrote this earlier post on zen which includes a video (a captioned version and a noncaptioned version and a transcript of the video at the end of the post).

Recently we’ve also been working on combining zen and retrieve.

In general, I’ve been trying to widen Barnum’s repertoire of things he understands how to pick up, like big (wide) things, long things, heavy things, bulky things, flat things (e.g., paper), etc., as well as circumstances in which he picks things up (different rooms, outside, with other people around, with background noise like a video playing, over longer distances, with me moving, etc.).
I’ve also started combining zen/distraction with retrieving. I started leaving a treat on the floor and asking him to retrieve something while ignoring the treat. Over time I’d add more treats and/or put them closer to the retrieve items. Eventually I could put several treats under and around the item and still have him pick it up. The challenge was not with him snorking up the treats but with him being afraid to pick up an item that was within “the zen field.” (You can see the zen field at work in the video referenced above. If a treat was next to another treat that was also “zenned,” he wouldn’t eat it unless specifically cued to do so.)
Last Saturday he was doing really well with something we were working (I don’t remember what anymore) and for his treats I was using leftover cooked fish and fish skin that was very smelly and exciting to him. I was delivering the treats on a fork. I thought, “Hmmm.”
I got a clean fork and had him retrieve it. Then I smeared some fish juice on it and repeated. Then put a piece of fish UNDER the fork. And finally I used the fork I’d been feeding him from with a piece of fish speared on the end, and he retrieved it! (Without touching the piece of fish, I mean.) We did it a few times, including the fork ending up in different positions and having fish flying off it, etc.
In the following days, I tried it with pork and hot dogs. Each time, if I didn’t begin with review, he’d start toward the food end of the fork and I’d tell him leave it. But once I reviewed and he realized we were working zen AND retrieve, he’d switch to carefully picking up the handle end of the implement and leaving the food on the fork.
Today I finally made a video of him doing this, and I tried to show some of the steps leading up to it. It’s kind of a clumsy video. My voice wasn’t working, so we did it all without voiced cues, and he was not the most “in the game” he’s ever been, but hopefully you can understand what’s happening. (For the record, when I say, “Oops,” it’s not because he’s eaten the food, it’s because of the sloppy way he retrieved the fork which resulted in a piece of hot dog falling onto my foot plate, which he then went to eat, so I had to cue him to leave it.)
I am “signing” in this video, not speaking. I use the term “signing” very, very loosely because I am so out-of-practice signing that a lot of it is kind of incomprehensible mumbling from an ASL perspective, so the captioned version is as much for hearing folk as it is for Deaf or hard of hearing people.
You can watch the video (uncaptioned) below. . . .

The captioned version is here.

There is a transcript of the video below which might be of interest even to those who can watch the video, because there are some things you don’t see very well in the video that I explain in the description, like where the meat is, and that in the last retrieve the fork is right next to a piece of hot dog on the floor, etc.

Comments, critiques, questions, etc., all welcomed!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she didn’t do this stuff with me! Boo!), and Barnum SD/SDiT

Video Description:

Sharon: I’ll show you how Barnum and I train zen (self-control) and retrieving.

Sharon picks up a fork.

Sharon: This is clean.

Sharon holds out the fork and Barnum takes and holds it in his mouth. Sharon grabs the fork in Barnum’s mouth and clicks and he lets go and gets a treat. Sharon tosses the clean fork on the floor and Barnum retrieves it for a click and treat again.

She spears a piece of hot dog onto the end of the fork and tosses the fork on the floor. Barnum moves around the fork warily. He picks it up but at the food end, so although he doesn’t eat the hot dog, when he hands it to Sharon, the hot dog piece falls onto her footrest. He moves to eat it. Sharon voices something that sounds like “Leave it,” and Barnum retreats from the hot dog piece.

Sharon: Oops. We’ll try again.

She holds up another fork that has a beef cube on it and throws it on the floor. This time Barnum picks it up by the handle. Sharon shows the fork to the camera so viewers can see that the meat is still on the fork.

Sharon takes two more hot dog slices and puts one on the fork that has the beef on it and tosses the other on the floor. Barnum doesn’t attempt to eat the one on the floor. When he turns and looks at Sharon instead, he gets a click and a piece of hot dog from her hand.

Sharon holds it for him to take, and then give back to her. She tries to hold it for him out to the side, but drops it instead. Barnum picks it up by the handle and gives it to her. Sharon shows the camera the pieces of meat still on the fork.

Sharon: Perfect!

Sharon throws the fork with the meat on it over next to where the hot dog is lying on the floor. Barnum retrieves it while ignoring the hot dog on the floor. Sharon clicks and treats him.

They’re “Assistance Dogs,” Not “Public Access Dogs”

Brooke at ruled by paws is hosting Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #8 on the theme of “Marchin’ to Your Own Drum.”

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.

Marching to Our Own Drum!

Lately I’ve begun to realize just how much my current approach to training my service dog (SD) diverges from ideas, approaches, and perceptions of SDs in the larger US culture. Specifically, my main focus is on training my assistance dog to perform behaviors that assist me, due to my disabilities. This would seem to be not only sensible, but the very definition of an assistance dog, wouldn’t it? Indeed, it is. If you read the service animal section of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you will find this:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

Yet, more and more I am coming across individuals, organizations, and websites focused primarily, or in some cases, exclusively, on training dogs in obedience and manners so that the dog can accompany its person in public. (Here is an organizational example of a focus that is primarily on public access. Here is an organizational example of a non-task training approach to SD work.)

It’s understandable that public access training (which includes a dog being obedient, well-mannered, and unobtrusive in public as well as being able to perform necessary assistance tasks in public) is receiving so much attention. Public access is a legal issue, so it’s natural that organizations and individuals are concerned about complying with the law. Further, there are more assistance dogs working and being trained than ever before, which means more SDs are showing up in public. Into the mix add that more people are partner-training than ever before (with a great range of experience and skill) and that many partners have hidden disabilities that make them more vulnerable to access challenges. Finally, and sadly, there are an increasing number of people who wish to commit fraud by trying to pass off their pet dogs as SDs — both people with disabilities who have not done the necessary training and people without disabilities who simply want the companionship of their dog away from home. The pressure on the SD handler to make sure their dog behaves with perfect comportment at all times is thus a very big deal in the assistance dog world.

Meanwhile, here I am, training my dog to help me around the house — open and shut doors, turn on and off lights, pick up things I drop, carry messages to my human assistants, etc. We are barely doing any public access training simply because I spend almost all my time in bed and very rarely leave the house, so training in public is very difficult, and having a working dog in public is much less important than one who helps me at home. Barnum has to be “on call” at home at any time I might need him. Fortunately, his personality and the way we have trained mean that he is eager to jump into action.

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

Barnum opens the fridge for me.

I realize our situation is not that of most teams. In some cases public access is always crucial to the dog’s work. Guide dogs often work exclusively outside the home and are off duty at home. Their work involves assisting their human partners to get to and from work, school, restaurants, hotels, conferences, and subways. Thus, public work is essential for a guide dog.

For people with other types of assistance dogs, too, there is usually an expectation of public work — alerting or guiding or providing mobility assistance in stores, on the street, at work, etc. Most people with assistance dogs bring their SD with them everywhere for two reasons:

  1. The dog’s work is necessary or important for the disabled person in public, and
  2. The working bond between the partners is strengthened by ongoing work and training in a variety of settings and/or on a daily basis

Still, the proliferation of both SD fraud and poorly trained SDs have led some assistance dog organizations to require passing a public access test as proof that a dog is a service dog. For example, to be a partner member of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), I have to sign a form saying that my SD has or would be able to pass their public access test/definition. So, even though I have had two previous SDs and have been an IAADP member for a dozen years, now I’m no longer a partner member because Barnum and I don’t go out. I feel very sad about this.

Yet, Barnum is a working service dog around the house. You can see how much we’ve accomplished in this regard in just a month by comparing this recent post from July to this one from June.

I feel frustrated by this, and the irony does not escape me: the more disabled I am, and the more I need my service dog, the less I fit neatly into the category of a SD team. In fact, I can trace the changes in my disabilities in part by what my service dogs have done for me at a given time.

My first service dog, Jersey, did help me around the house, but the biggest difference she made for me was that she enabled me to occasionally go out by myself. I trained her to cart my oxygen tanks to and from the car, and to carry groceries from the van to the front door and then to the fridge. At doctor’s appointments or other occasional outings, her carrying my water and other things in a pack left my hands free to push my oxygen cart if I was walking. I went grocery shopping once every month or two with her and my mobility scooter, which was something I had previously not been able to do since I got sick. Before Jersey, I always needed someone to take me shopping.

[Note: I have some great photographs of Jersey working, but they haven’t been scanned into a computer yet. I hope to get the pics inserted by the time the Carnival goes up. Please come back in a week or two, and hopefully they’ll be here!]

Even the things she helped me out with around the house are different from the tasks I need canine assistance with now. For example, Jersey helped me fold and put away the laundry. But now I have human assistants do that. She also carted gardening supplies, which enabled me to garden. Now I’m much too sick to garden. Once, when I walked into my backyard to pick apples, I was too sick to walk back unaided, and she helped me get back home. Now there’s no question of me wandering out on foot into a field.

Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen canula, leaning forward with her mouth open, as if reading or talking. Gadget lies on the ground next to her in a green pack, looking up at her. In the foreground are several first-graders, looking in many different directions, some of them obviously moving around.

Gadget in a calm down-stay and paying attention to me while surrounded by little kids.

Gadget, my second SD, learned the same things Jersey did — bracing, carrying a pack, retrieving, loading and unloading groceries — but I also added some additional skills so that he could help out with more stuff at home.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house.

He learned how to alert me to the kitchen timer, to let the cat and himself in and out, to open and shut doors, to bring me the phone. When I got Lyme disease and became much more disabled than before, those skills became much more crucial than the ones for going shopping or putting away laundry. And then I taught him new things that were much more important — getting Betsy or my PCA when I couldn’t speak, turning lights on and off and bringing me water from the refrigerator to take my pills when I couldn’t get out of bed, etc.

Meanwhile, Barnum has learned to do things that Gadget didn’t. Barnum has a much more refined “go get person/deliver message” than Gadget did. He is helping me with undressing, which Gadget never learned. He alerts to my various alarms and pumps. And I still have plans for him to learn additional skills that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Barnum with a red plaid flannel pouch about 3 inches by 3 inches velcroed to the back of his collar.

This is the pouch Barnum wears for transporting messages or small items to or from others in my home.

Some of you may remember that when Barnum was younger, I was concerned that he’d never make it as my service dog because he was such a distracted, hyper flake in public. The irony is that since he’s matured, on the occasions I have taken him into public to train, he’s done really well — especially considering his age and his bouncy nature. I could have passed Jersey off as a fully trained SD before she had finished her training because her manners were so perfect and calm in public. She could have been doing nothing to help me, and we wouldn’t have been challenged because we “looked like” a SD team.

I once read about a SD program which had a separate category for dogs who could assist their people in the home but not work in public (due to anxiety or distractibility); they called these dogs “companion dogs” and they were not considered service animals. That has always bothered me. A “companion animal” is a pet. Dogs, cats, birds are all referred to as “companion animals.” However, a dog that opens and shuts the fridge, turns lights on and off, helps with the laundry, and retrieves dropped items for her disabled handler is a service dog, not a pet. If that dog doesn’t do well in public, obviously the dog should be left home when the person goes out. But that doesn’t make the dog any less a service dog. Why not just call that type of dog an “in-home service dog”? It would be more accurate, and in my opinion, more respectful to both members of the team.

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.

Barnum turns off the lights.

Barnum is already, by legal definition, a service dog: he increases my independence and safety by performing assistance tasks, which is what assistance dogs are supposed to do. The fact that my level of function and my level of dependence on humans is more than most assistance dog partners (and more than my previous level) doesn’t change that. However, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say he’s a SD in the eyes of assistance dog organizations, because I don’t know if we’ll do enough training — if I, myself, will leave the house enough, let alone with him — for him to pass a public access test. I try not to let it get to me. In the scheme of things, what’s most important is that Barnum and I are happy and productive together. I do hope, though, to feel a greater sense of acceptance and respect from the assistance dog community one day.

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

Don’t Worry, I Don’t Starve My Dog

I sometimes comment in posts here or on my Facebook page that Barnum earns his food via training sessions. Thus, he doesn’t usually get “meals,” as such.

I’m also aware that some days I post or tweet that we haven’t been able to train that day because I was sick. Other days I say things like, “Barnum was really eager to work because we haven’t been doing much training, so he was bored and hungry.”

I have wondered if maybe I should include a note to reassure readers that I’m not starving Barnum, but then I thought, “No, nobody would think that, would they?” But recently someone asked me if I fast Barnum on days we train, so I thought I better explain the details and nuances of the situation better to put your minds at ease. I also wouldn’t want anyone to think that I am advocating starving an animal to make them hungrier to work. That would be cruel and counterproductive.

So, what I mean, usually, when I say that we did “no training today” is that we didn’t have a formal or lengthy training session or series of them. Nonetheless, every single day Barnum earns treats just for incidental things throughout the day. For example, almost every time I go to the bathroom (several times a day), Barnum follows me in and I reinforce behaviors like eye contact, cooperation with handling (holding still for petting, cleaning out eye boogers, tick-checking his ears or pulling out excess ear hair or wax), or other simple behaviors like targeting parts of my body with his chin or nose. He gets food (kibble, hot dogs, cheese, raw beef, or a trout-and-potato biscuit) for almost every repetition.

When I am too tired, sick, or in pain to train more actively, and I want him to learn to respect my need to rest, I put the MannersMinder on his mat or in his crate; I set it to dispense food on a variable schedule to reward him for staying put and getting out of my face. Depending on how often its set up to dispense, this can add up to a meal’s worth of food.

He’s also starting to do a lot of incidental service skills throughout the day — bracing when I transfer to and from the toilet, turning on and off the bathroom light, getting my slippers if they slide under the bed, opening and shutting my door, and things like that. Again, each of these behavior is rewarded.

Sometimes there are days, though, where I’m too sick to do even some of these behaviors, and then I usually do something that will both give him some nutrition and some mental activity. This is generally giving him a knuckle bone to chew in his crate, or his Buster Cube or IQ Treat Ball to nudge around the house. The Buster Cube, in particular, holds an entire day’s worth of food, so I try to only use it if I think we’re not going to be doing any substantial training for 24 hours.

Barnum does actually get something every night that he clearly thinks of as a “meal,” although I consider it a “snack” because it’s a very small quantity of food. He gets several squirts of salmon oil, and a dropper full of Lyme-prevention tincture, usually mixed with two scoops of canned dog food. Sometimes instead of the wet food, he gets a small amount of table scraps — a bit of leftover rice or veggies — or some cottage cheese or raw liver or kidney. I say that Barnum perceives it as a meal because it’s in his bowl, it happens at about the same time every night, he is absolutely thrilled about it (and looks forward to it all evening, once it’s set up on his crate), and he always needs to go out to eliminate after. So, it has the routine of a meal that dogs seem to love.

If Barnum were a total foodie, or if he did not eat primarily a raw meat diet, I would probably make sure to give him more meals. Raw food is digested much more slowly than cooked food, so a raw-fed dog can go a day or two on one large meal and not be overly hungry. Barnum is also a self-regulating dog. When he gets full, he stops eating, even if there is more food available. In the case of his MannersMinder, he’ll just walk away from it and lie down somewhere else. If he had a piece of raw meat that he doesn’t want, he will “bury” it by wrapping it inside the sheet on his dog bed! (I take it out and put it back in the freezer.)

Still, it’s true that if we go a few days with very little training, Barnum might start acting ravenous, and then I’ll give him an actual meal, which is a big hunk of raw meat, usually a partial chicken carcass, but sometimes raw fish or pork. He’s usually only hungry enough for a real meal once every one or two weeks.

Anyone who has seen Barnum in the flesh knows that there is plenty of it (flesh, I mean) on his bones. He’s not fat, but he’s definitely not skinny!

So, have no fear, dog lovers, Barnum is well fed!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t get all this gourmet food my whole life!), and Barnum, well-fed and pampered SD/SDiT

P.S. I still consider myself to be on blogging hiatus, but I am trying to do short posts as issues arise that I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.


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