Archive for the 'Clicker training' Category



QuickPress: Workig Dog

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

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

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

Honing Our Service Skills: Barnum Training Update (Videos)

Or, “What I Did Over Summer Break”

I announced a couple of months ago that I was taking a blogging hiatus to focus on training Barnum. What I didn’t realize was that I was also taking the opportunity to be really damn sick. So, that’s been quite discouraging.

Mostly I have discovered that I cannot bounce back in a reasonable amount of time from going out. Any minor exertions or exposures completely incapacitate me for days afterward. Thus, I’ve changed my training goals and plans for the summer. I’ve shifted our focus from public access training (which I’m just way too sick to do) and foundational skills (Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels) to training skills that I really need now on a day-to-day basis, particularly when I’m very sick.

These skills include

  • Shutting and opening doors
  • Shutting and opening drawers and cupboards
  • Turning lights on and off
  • Dressing and undressing
  • Finding my PCA when I need help
  • Pulling the covers off my bed
  • Bracing/balance assistance
  • Pulling my legs to the edge of the bed
  • Answering/bringing me the phone
  • Alerting me to the kitchen timer
  • Alerting me to my infusion pump
  • Retrieving things I drop
  • Retrieving things I need

Wow. Seeing it all written out has made me realize, that’s a long list! No wonder we don’t have it all finished yet! Good reality check for me.

Some things on this list he is already very solid on, such as bracing and shutting doors and cupboards. Other things he knows solidly in some situations but not in others. For example, he is very good with the light switch in the bathroom, but not as good with the one in my bedroom because usually my chair is parked in front of it, which makes it harder to get to. (More about that below.) He knows how to pull off my socks but is clueless about my shoes. He generally is solid on retrieving things I drop, but he still needs to learn to retrieve a wider ranger of items, such as more awkward, big, and/or heavy items. Stuff like that.

Today I decided to videotape a few of the skills that we’ve been working on as a way to show some people on my training list what I was trying to describe and also as a way of testing Barnum. They are very short, fun little videos (about a minute or less each).

Pulling Shut Bathroom Door

Shutting a door by grabbing a cord and backing up is much harder than just nosing it shut. In the winter, I use this skill a lot because I keep the doors shut to retain heat. In the summer, we don’t use it as often because I like more air flow. Here’s what he did today:

(If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video. To read a transcript of the video, click here.)

What was so interesting about today’s test was the evidence of latent learning that occurred since we last worked this skill. I shaped this skill with a focus on Barnum’s body position — having him move parallel to the door and back up so that he wouldn’t end up shutting himself into the bathroom. I taught him to grab the cord and back up.

Over time, the harder pulls, he had to really back up fast to get out of the way, so on his own, he figured out a way to “beat the clock.” As you can see in the video, he pulls the door once and races out of the bathroom and then moves into position to back up when he grabs the cord a second time to finish the pull. Very smart!

Turning Lights On and Off

This is a skill that Barnum is most used to doing in my bathroom. I trained it there because most of the wall is tile, which can’t be scratched by his toenails. He has it down pat in there. However, the place I need the skill the most is in my bedroom, particularly when I’m in bed, and I want the light either on or off (often, when I have a migraine, I want it off post-haste!).

The tricky part is that I also park my powerchair next to my bed where it prevents Barnum from doing a direct jump-up right to the switch in a centered way. Or, it makes it much more difficult. He has to launch from right behind the chair, which he does on the third cue, so we’ll need to practice that more.

We have trained this a bunch with the chair moved out of the way so that he has the idea of the best angle to launch from, but the reality is that a lot of the time, in “real world” conditions, the chair will be in the way. So, lately I’ve been having him practice it with the chair in its usual space — that’s why you see the cardboard really scraped up.

I tested him on it today, and here are the results:

(If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video. To read a transcript of the video, click here.)

Did you see our blooper? It used to be that Barnum would flick the switch up and down and up and down if he didn’t get a click at just the right moment. By now, he usually has the idea and will just do it once in either direction. When training, I don’t use the clicker and just toss the treats, so he learns to pay attention to the click of the light switch as the indicator that he’s won. However, when using the skill — incorporating it into our lives — I’m still clicking him. I didn’t get the “Yes!” in fast enough and accidentally reinforced the dark/light double-flick. Oh well. We got it on the next attempt.

Find Help!

The last quick flick is the skill we’ve been training the most because it’s the most complex. I ask Barnum, “Where’s [name of person]?” I practice this with my four PCAs and Betsy, so he has to know it applies to everyone the same.

The skill — most of which you don’t see in the video — requires him to find the person, nudge their hand or leg, and then sit. When they say, “Where’s Sharon?” He runs back to me. The nudge is to make it clear to the person that he’s not just coming by to say hello because he feels like it (which he sometimes does). The sit is so he won’t come racing back to me whether or not they’ve realized why he’s there. (He has lately started to do a “drive-by nudging” where he runs up to them, barely makes contact, and turns around and runs back to me. The sit makes sure he actually completes the behavior.) And when I hear them ask him, “Where’s Sharon?” I know that they know I want them to come help me.

Here’s what it looks like viewed from my bed:

(If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video. To read a transcript of the video, click here.)

You can’t hear it in the video, but I heard my assistant say, “Good boy,” and “Where’s Sharon?” That told me that he had nudged her (my assistants praise him when he nudges) and that she would be following him to me under normal circumstances. In this case, she didn’t because I had told her I was videotaping it. That’s why I had Barnum shut the door, which is not normally something he does after I’ve sent him to get someone.

I hope you enjoyed these videos. I felt happy watching them because I noticed how enthusiastic Barnum was with all the skills. That tells me that we’re doing things right.

I don’t know when I’ll feel well enough to post again, but we are continuing to train hard whenever I have enough spoons.

I love to hear from you, even though I am not always feeling well enough to respond.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, at-home-SD/public-access-SDiT

Kvelling: I Can Haz Service Dog!

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

This is a celebratory post!

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

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

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

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

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

My heart is full of love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My bathroom door pull and two cupboard pulls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnum Assists with Post-Party Payback

I had a birthday a couple of days ago. A few friends came over for latkes, cake, and a game of poker. I had a lot of fun, and I knew I was overexerting, using pain and migraine meds to keep me going when I should have been in bed. But I was having such a good time.

You see, I live in the House of Capricorn. Barnum, Betsy, and I were all born in the latter half of December, and all on or around major holidays. I don’t post anywhere on the internet when my birthday actually is, for identity theft protection, but because our birthdays fall on or near major holidays, we often don’t hold our celebrations on the actual day. So, it remains to be seen when we’ll hold Betsy’s and Barnum’s parties.

Anyway, I woke up yesterday in immobilizing pain throughout my body and no ability to speak, which are two of the more common “crash” symptoms for me (along with exhaustion, nausea, brain fog, weakness, blah blah blah). Barnum was a bit of a challenge during some of it, because he needed some activity, but fortunately the new IQ Treat Ball I’d gotten for him kept him busy, playing doggy nose soccer.

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 moderately easy to get treats out, depending on how you adjust the size of the inner hole, and how big your treats are. I usually set it to moderately difficult.

(This was definitely a good pick and has confirmed my decision of putting dog puzzles on his birthday wish list.) I am not doing so fabulous today, either. These are the kinds of days when every little movement or expenditure of energy is a big deal. So, these are the days when I get to assess how my working partnership with Barnum is going. Our progress report is that we have made a lot of progress, and we still have a long way to go.

When I can’t speak, I get to test his understanding of signed cues. Most cues he seems to know, and others he’s a bit unsure of.

He has also helped several times with transfers to and from the toilet; he is very solid on this skill. That’s an important one, especially when I am between PCA shifts.

An even more important skill — one that I will use constantly once he knows it, and which I’m already using every day, at least — is shutting my bedroom door. He is extremely comfortable and enthusiastic with this skill when I’m in my p-chair, but becomes hesitant when I ask him to do it from bed. This is because we once had an unfortunate coinciding of my saying the cue from bed at the exact moment that he somehow managed (I still don’t know how he did this), to swing the door and himself in such a way that the door came from behind and smacked him in the butt.

Be that as it shouldn’t be, Barnum easily and enthusiastically shuts the door on cue most of the time, but if I’m in bed, and he’s not “in the groove,” I have to shape it with a few clicks and treats for him to have the confidence to finish the task. But we’re on our way to him shutting it with gusto when I’m in bed, as well.

He also has retrieved a couple of items I’ve dropped (a pen, a clicker, and a walkie-talkie), turned on the bathroom light, and alerted me to the oven timer going off. Yes, we still have a ways to go, but on the hard days, every little bit counts.

And now, a nap.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and nose-footballer

The Light Switch Goes Down, Too!

There is an expression in the clicker world that I really like: “Whatever you train with a clicker, you can untrain with a clicker.” Or, as Sue Ailsby says, “You’re always working at cross-purposes with yourself.” For example, you spend forever teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash, not to pull. Then you get to the part in their training when you want them to pull in harness, pull a cart or your wheelchair, for example, or give you a bit of momentum when you’re walking up a hill. Since all the training has been done with a clicker, there is no “fallout” like what occurs with punishment-based training. So, learning something new is just learning something new; it’s not, “Bad dog!” for doing X before when now I want you to do Y. And both skills can exist side-by-side.

I knew I’d run into this when I trained Barnum to turn off lights after having trained him to turn them on. Of course, often how the training is accomplished in real life is less smooth (and more humorous) than you’re imagining.

A few months ago, I taught Barnum how to flick up the light switch, using his nose. I used Donna and Jessie’s videos (Part 1) (and Part 2and Barbara Handelman’s DVDs on training your own assistance dog as my guide.

I discussed this in more detail in my previous two posts on this topic, but for those who want a quick refresher: I free-shaped it from touching the board on the ground with his nose (careful never to click for pawing), until he was nose-targeting the light switch plate, then flicking up the switch. Then I progressively moved the board up to vertical, then put it against the wall near a light switch, then took away the board and had him do the real switch. Also involved were Lynn’s tip of teaching him to do paws-up on the wall and a trick from Barbara Handelman to attach some plastic tubing to extend the switch a bit, to make it easier on him and on the walls.

So, he has been flicking up the switch with his nose for quite a while now, and I have been working on him learning the cue. (“Light!”) As is my habit, I use both the spoken English word and the American Sign Language cue.

Now he has that learned well enough that I decided it was time to start teaching him to turn the lights off. I knew he’d want to flick the switch up with his nose instead of down with his chin, but I figured I could start with him chin targeting my hand above the switch. I thought we had a well-established nose-to-hand target and chin-to-palm target, but I underestimated the power of the switch as a stimulus.

No verbal cue or hand signal from me was strong enough to override the environmental cue of the light switch. The switch was there, and he knew his job was to flick it up, and no matter what else I tried to tell him, I was just getting in the way of what the light switch was there for! And when that was not working, he tried biting the switching and moving it up and down that way.

So, that was not working. I stopped and thought.

Okay, I thought, I taught this originally with the board on the floor, so maybe I should put it on the floor again and try to free-shape him to the top of the plate (above the switch as opposed to below it). So, I put the board on the floor, and there was no opportunity to click for anything because he zeroed right in on that switch and flicked it. He kept flicking it up, because I didn’t seem to understand that that’s what the switch was for, dammit!

He was not getting clicked, so he thinks, “Oh, of course!” And he grabs the switch between his teeth and lifts the entire board off the ground! He did this several times, and I was laughing so hard, because what have we been training almost every day for months? Retrieve.

So, of course, if I put something on the ground, and he knows that the switch is the thing — it’s all about the switch — his job must be to retrieve the light switch! He is trying to bring it to me!

Of course, it’s quite ungainly — heavy and hard to carry something with just your incisors like that.

Eventually, I realized I needed to take the switch out of the picture. (Yes, it would have been nice if I had thought of this simple, elegant solution several steps back, but there it is. We have reached the point where the dog is smarter than the human.) I turned the board around and had him nose-target the back of the switch, which is brown plastic (as opposed to the white front of the switch plate). I started just clicking for any nose touching, and then I tried to capture downward movement of his nose/chin. Eventually I was clicking for a nice, consistent downward nudge — basically smearing his nose/snout down the plastic back of the switch.

Then I turned the board around and covered the switch with my fist. I had to go back to just shaping here, because he really wanted to try to get at that switch, so I was just clicking for anything that was a nose- or chin-bump anywhere next to or above my fist. From there he “got” that he could target above my hand, and then I loosened my death grip on the switch some, and over time it was just fingers, then three, two, one finger over the switch, and by then the light bulb went on (no pun intended) and he was pushing my finger down, which pushed the switch down, and bingo!

We both got very excited about him pushing down the switch (something about the click of it, and the movement, he seems to find very satisfying), and he already had the concept that moving the switch was the point. I can now put my finger an inch below the switch, just as a reminder and to feel what he’s doing to make sure he’s not using teeth, only his chin. I could probably take my finger away already, but I prefer to take it slow and not have any back-sliding to biting the switch or frenzied flicking.

So, here is a case where I knew I was teaching something (flip switch up with nose) that I would later have to unteach in order to teach something new (flip switch down with chin), and yet have him retain both behaviors. Now the trick will be getting him to differentiate the cues.

It’s hard work being a service-dog-in-training!

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

Retrieve vs. Fetch

I’ve wanted Barnum to know how to play fetch all along. I knew it would be a good way for us to play and give him exercise when I couldn’t take him for walks (especially in the winter). Fortunately, he had natural fetching instincts, and I’ve been able to shape a pretty reliable, enthusiastic fetch so we can play for a decent length of time with him still being “in the game.”

I have mentioned in previous posts that we are doing a lot of retrieve training. The trained retrieve is not at all the same thing as fetch. Fetch is a game, intended for fun and/or exercise, where the dog is welcome to squeak, pounce upon, shake, drop, and otherwise mutcher the ball or toy on his way back to you. In our case, my criterion for the return of the ball was also just that it needed to land at my feet, not in my hand, on cue, as is the case for the trained retrieve.

In a trained retrieve, the dog should be focused, pick up the object without batting it with his nose or paws, carry it quietly in his mouth (without rolling or chomping the item), and hold it until cued to place it in your hand.

However, two days ago Barnum made a connection between the two that is extremely useful for me. With fetch, I was satisfied with the ball just landing at my feet because I used the Chuckit! stick to pick it up. However, sometimes we use big, rubber squeaky balls that don’t work with the Chuckit! In the winter, the large, buoyant rubber balls will slide on top of snow, whereas a Chuckit! tennis ball would just plummet into the snow, possibly never to be seen again until spring. The solution I was thinking of was to train Barnum to bring the ball to me on the ramp, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to reach the ball to throw it again. (Because if there’s snow, usually the only place I can go is the ramp and the shoveled paths at either end).

We’ve been doing lots of Levels retrieve training, focusing on different aspects of it — sometimes a sustained hold, sometimes the give (waiting to release it into my hand till I say “Thank You,” or making sure to raise the item up high enough, or putting it in whichever hand I’m indicating), and now I’ve started teaching him to take an object from me and bring it to an assistant and vice-versa. I’m now also waiting for him to pick up the retrieve object if I drop it (accidentally or on purpose) without any further cues for me. I want him to learn that the behavior is not over until I have the thing in my hand and it’s not going anywhere.

He has started sometimes to “throw behavior at me” — when we are not training — by seeing things on the floor, picking them up, and bringing them to me, which I am rewarding. For me, it’s more important right now to encourage his “being in the game” and finding retrieving rewarding than it is to worry about whether the behavior is cued or not. Sometimes this gets rather funny, as if I put something down and he gives it to me, and I put it down again, then he gives it to me again. Eventually I realize I should put the item somewhere else if I don’t want to keep playing this game!

So, we were playing fetch on Friday with a big rubber ball, and around the third time he was coming back, he dropped the toy a couple of feet away, and I was wiped out and didn’t want to have to get it. So I just waited and held out my hand like I do for a retrieve, not really expecting much, but just to see what would happen. I didn’t use any retrieve cues. I was hoping maybe he’d bring it closer.

He saw that the game was not continuing (and he also had not received a treat), so he went back, picked up the ball, and came over and put it in my hand in my lap! I was thrilled. We did several more throws, and each time he put it right in my lap, just as if that was the way we always have done it. Clearly he made the connection between placing things in my hand for the retrieve and doing the same for fetch.

Dog trainers are fond of saying that dogs aren’t good at generalizing, but it varies a lot from dog to dog, and situationally. This is one case where Barnum generalized in a way I hadn’t expected, and it’s such a gift! It will make playing fetch in winter much more doable. I’m grateful to the Levels and proud of my boy.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (Fetch? meh.) and Barnum, SDiT

Dog Zen: Dog Impulse Control/”Leave It” Video

I recently posted some pictures of Barnum doing “pie zen” for Thanksgiving. The term comes from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. Zen is teaching a dog to get what it wants by not trying to get it. (Thus the name.)

Once you attach a cue to zen, it becomes the “leave it” cue for most of us.

There is also training “default zen,” which is when the dog learns, for example, not to snork up any food that’s on the floor unless they are specifically cued to do so. This is a very important skill for assistance dogs, so it’s one I’ve worked on with Barnum. Another way to teach this is Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice.” (Is it just me, or does it seem like a lot of clicker trainers are named Sue?) I’d started combining the two methods before I learned about It’s Yer Choice. Now I’m going back and retraining it some to fill in holes.

This video highlights mostly default zen, but it also shows how I can cue Barnum to eat treats on the floor or to ignore them. We had already been training this skill when one of my training heroes, Marge, the Rhodesian ridgeback rescuer and trainer, posted this video showing impulse control, which she trained via Susan Garrett’s method. Well, not to sound snooty or anything, but when I saw that video (and being a fan of musical theater), I thought, “I can do that.”

Then, Lynn, another trainer from whom I’ve learned much and who is on the same training list as Marge and me, tried it out in a similar fashion with her Weimeraner service dog, Lily and posted this video of it. She trained using the Levels zen method.

So, it seemed the gauntlet had been thrown down. Barnum and I may not be tops at everything. But he is getting to be quick the rock star in certain zen challenges. Okay, maybe “rock star” is a bit much, but it certainly looks impressive, doesn’t it? Well, see for yourself:

Note: If you are reading this post as an email, click here to watch the video.

A captioned version of the video is here.

Transcript of the video is below my signature.

You might notice that I say, “Leave it,” in a mellow tone. I’m not snapping or yelling it. Others use other cues, such as, “no.” Sue says it took her many years of clicker training (after crossing over from traditional training) to be able to use “no” in this way — not as a rebuke, but as a cue. I know that I am not yet capable of that.

Her new Training Levels books, Steps to Success, indicate that the cue is to be given in a “please pass the butter” tone of voice. I have started practicing whispering, “Leave it.” I might see how quietly I can say it and still have Barnum respond. He has excellent hearing, so my guess is that as long as he is focused on me — always the sticking point! — if it’s barely audible, he’ll respond.

I wanted to point this out because recently I had some guests, and one of them kept trying to cue Barnum to do a behavior (go to mat), which he wasn’t doing. I’m pretty sure the problem was that Barnum doesn’t completely know that cue yet. Since has only ever been given that cue by me before, and the person was not pointing to the mat (which would have given him an additional clue as to what was wanted), he didn’t recognize the cue.

Another guest told her, “You have to say it in a forceful tone of voice.”

The first person pointed out that I didn’t use a forceful tone. I was pleased to see that she noticed that.

This is one of the differences between a cue and a command. A cue is something that indicates to the dog that if they do something, they might get a reward for it. Thus, it doesn’t matter how you say it.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (whose “Leave it” was nowhere near this good, ever), and Barnum, SDiT and rising Zen Master

Video Description:

Sharon sits on toilet in small bathroom. Barnum is standing nearby. Sharon has a tray of beef cubes in her lap.

Sharon: OK, I’m gonna toss 10 cubes of raw beef heart on the floor.

Barnum looks at the meat on the floor and then looks at Sharon.

Sharon: Yes! I’m giving him one from my hand.

Barnum eats the treat and then looks at the meat on the floor again, then looks back up at Sharon.

Sharon: Barnum, sit.

Barnum sits.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum starts eating the food on the floor.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs away from the treats. He has eaten two pieces.

Sharon: Barnum, platz.

Barnum lies down and looks up at Sharon.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum begins eating the meat.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs away from the food. He has eaten three pieces. He looks up at Sharon again.

Sharon: Good dog.

She holds out her hand in front of Barnum’s nose.

Sharon: Touch.

Barnum nose-targets Sharon’s palm. Sharon moves her hand above his head and cues “touch” again, and then again lower down. At the third touch, Sharon says, “Yes! Go ahead.”

Barnum starts to eat the meat, but just as he’s about to eat the first piece, Sharon interrupts him.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs up.

Sharon: Go ahead.

Barnum sniffs and looks at the ground between Sharon’s feet but ignores the five pieces of beef that are still on the floor.

Sharon: Alright, foot!

Barnum gives Sharon a front paw.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats one cube and is about to eat a second.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs up and circles the food, looking at it from a different angle.

Sharon: Watch me.

Barnum makes eye contact with Sharon.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats the piece closest to him, which is a little farther away from the remaining three pieces of food. He looks at them and seems to decide he shouldn’t eat them. He looks at Sharon.

Sharon: Barnum, platz.

Barnum lies down.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum gulps down the first two pieces of meat.

Sharon: Leave it.

He looks up at Sharon and backs away from the remaining treat.

Sharon: Good dog.

Barnum lies down and looks at Sharon.

Sharon: Good boy. Yes!

Sharon gives Barnum a treat from the tray in her lap. He eats it and looks down at the remaining treat on the floor and then up at Sharon.

Sharon: Yes!

Sharon gives him another treat from her hand, from the tray in her lap.

Sharon: [To herself] Let’s see. [To Barnum] Chin!

Barnum rests his chin in Sharon’s palm.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats the treat on the floor closest to him. He looks up at Sharon again.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum looks around but doesn’t move to eat a treat.

Sharon: I didn’t give him anything to do so he doesn’t believe me. Foot!

Barnum gives Sharon a paw.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats the last piece of meat on the floor.

End.

Barnum’s Service Dog Retrieve Training (with Videos!)

Hey all.

I haven’t been posting here much lately. I have been very involved with the Occupy/Decolonization movement. I’ve been blogging at #Occupy at Home, and I’ve been trying to assist in organizing and providing nonviolent communication (NVC) to anyone affected by the Occupy movement. It’s been exhausting, scary, exhilarating work. I am learning so, so much, and stretching myself mentally every day. Sometimes I am overdoing physically, and cognitively, and then I have to pull back.

However, amidst all this, Barnum and I continue to train! Actually, taking time out to focus on Barnum is very grounding for me. Dogs will be dogs, no matter what political state the world is in, and for that I am grateful!

I have recently implemented a spoonie* version of Sue Ailsby’s Leading the Dance. I hope to post about how I’ve modified it, with Sue’s guidance, and how it’s going (short answer: well) some time soonish as part of my “Tips for Tired Trainers” series.

The skill we’ve been working the most is retrieving. This is truly exciting. We are actually getting somewhere with the whole “making Sharon’s life easier” part of the service dog training plan! Yeehaw!

Overall, Barnum has an extremely solid take/hold of any object I hand him. He is less consistent with picking things up off the floor and is still doing some problem-solving with certain items when taking them from the floor. We also have just barely begun to add distance.

Until recently, he definitely preferred small, firm objects like pencils and spoons and clothespins. He had a harder time with soft things, crinkly things, or heavy things. Now he has gotten comfortable with socks, leashes, scrunchies, and other soft items he used to make the “this feels icky in my mouth” face before. Shreddable things (paper, tissue, etc.), very thin things (flat lids, credit cards, change), and heavy or bulky things (boots, towels, hammers) will be next.

Neither Jersey nor Gadget had a solid hold; they wanted to pick the thing up, run to me, and spit it out at me as fast as possible. Barnum will keep holding the object until I cue the release into my hand. (My cue is, “Thank you.”) It is exciting to have reached a point in training where Barnum is doing something better than Gadget did. For example, I can toss something into the tub, have him jump in, grab it, hold it still in his mouth, jump out of the tub, and place it in my hand — only when I have asked for it.

On one hand, we still have a long way to go. On the other hand, the slow, careful, meticulous approach will pay off in the end. And he’s not even two! There is yet hope for us!

Now, here are two videos. Barnum was very excited to have someone watching (videotaping) our sessions. When we first started, he kept running over to her and peering up into the camera. I didn’t use that footage. I called him over, and he settled enough to focus on me, but as you will see, he was still much more excited and sloppy than usual.

The first video shows what happens when Mr. Barnum is overexcited when we are training the retrieve. I have worked hard to build this enthusiasm. Now I can direct it. Overly enthusiastic retrieves result mostly in him doing a sloppy take — stepping on the object, batting it with his paws, even (oy!) shredding it — and sometimes with a flawed hold — moving the object around in his mouth, or dropping the object before cued.

The first video shows him retrieving a Sharpie marker for the first time. (I can’t use Sharpies, but its the cap on, it doesn’t bother me.) It’s a hot mess. I finally figure out how to interrupt the situation. I change my technique and switch to having him take it from my hand — eliminating the chase/play/prey drive aspect of the “game” — then having him pick it up from right next to me, before tossing it again.

For the captioned version of the video, click here.

(Note: If you are reading this post as an email, to view the videos, click here.)

[Video description: Sharon sits in her chair and tosses a marker about ten feet away. Barnum runs after it and has some trouble picking it up. He is very bouncy. He brings it to Sharon and drops it. With his butt facing her, he tries again, in an overly enthusiastic way, to pick it up. Sharon looks like she is smiling or silently laughing. She says, “Leave it,” and Barnum immediately looks up curiously. Sharon says, “Yes,” when he is facing her and gives him a treat. Sharon says to the camera, “He’s not supposed to do all that,” and tells Barnum, “Excuse me,” so she can pick up the pen. She holds the pen out and Barnum tries to grab it before she cues, so she moves it out of the way. She holds it out again and says, “Take.” He takes it and holds it above her hand. Sharon says, “Thank you,” and he drops it, and it falls on the floor. After giving Barnum a treat, Sharon points to the dropped marker and says, “Take.” He picks it up and puts it in her hand when she says, “Thank you!” After treating the dog, she puts the pen on the floor on her left and says, “Take.” Barnum delivers it to her again on “Thank you.” Sharon says, “Okay, let’s start over again. Can you turn it off?”]

After that, we continued our training and restarted filming, which is the next video. This includes some items Barnum has never retrieved before (such as the scissors), so it’s interesting to see him figure out how to approach them and gain confidence with more reps. See if you notice how many variables we are working with. . . .

For the captioned version of the video, click here.

The description of the second video is below my signature.

In breaking news, in the last few days Barnum has actually started to retrieve items when needed! The most exciting moment was last night when I dropped a scrunchy and didn’t realize it until I saw him holding it. He had picked it up on his own but now wasn’t sure what to do. I called him over and cued the release, and he dropped it right in my hand. Good dog!

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

*If you are not familiar with The Spoon Theory, you can read it here. The term, “Spoons,” has been adopted internationally to refer to the functionality level a person with a chronic illness is currently dealing with, as in, “I just don’t have the spoons to take a shower today.”

[Video description: Sharon tosses a marker onto the floor.

Sharon: Take!

Barnum picks it up and holds it above her hand.

Sharon: Thank you! (Gives him a treat.)

Sharon tosses the marker behind the chair. Barnum retrieves it, though he drops it halfway to her. Sharon moves forward and puts the marker on a table. She wipes her hand on a paper towel and Barnum moves in as if to take it.

Sharon: Are you sure? This is a tough one. Take.

Sharon drops it on the floor next to her chair. Barnum grabs it with his mouth but holds part of it down with his front paw, tearing it in two.

Sharon: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

She leans down to pick it up. Barnum still is standing on part of it.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum steps back. Sharon removes the larger half of the ripped paper towel.

Sharon puts a pair of paper scissors on the ground next to her. They have a black plastic handle. Barnum circles them, apparently deciding how to approach. He picks them up and brings them over. Sharon moves her hand higher and farther away an inch or two a couple of times, then says, “Thank you,” and Barnum places them in her hand and receives a treat.

Sharon tosses the scissors behind her chair.

Sharon: Take.

Barnum stoops and looks at the shred of paper towel but leaves it alone and finds the scissors. He has to maneuver his jaw a few times to grab the scissors correctly, then picks them up and trots to Sharon’s front. She moves her hand higher. Barnum tries presenting them on her knee, but Sharon doesn’t give the cue. Barnum raises the scissors and puts them in Sharon’s hand when she says, “Thank you.”

Sharon puts the scissors on the table and tosses an empty cottage cheese tub (no lid) on the ground. Barnum immediately scoops it up and gives it to her. This is the one he seems most comfortable with. After he eats his treat, Sharon tosses the container about six feet away and says, “Take.” Barnum goes to it, looks back at Sharon to make sure this is what she meant, then picks up the container and delivers it again. Sharon drops the container on her opposite side so that Barnum has to go under the table to get it. When he brings it back, Sharon holds both hands seven or eight inches above her lap. Barnum tries to put it in her lap. Sharon won’t take it. Barnum lifts it up, and Sharon puts her hand under it but drops it on her foot plate. She waits to see if Barnum will pick it up on his own, but he is uncertain. Sharon cues “Take” again. Barnum picks it up from her foot plate, and this time Sharon allows him to put it in her hands in her lap. Sharon puts the container away and grabs a six-foot cotton webbing leash. She drops it at her side and cues, “Take.” Barnum moves to it immediately and swings around so he’s not stepping on it. He brings it to her and gets his reward. Sharon tosses the leash again. Barnum retrieves it again.

Sharon: Okay, good boy! Good job!]

It’s taken me more than a week to write this post, so Barnum has now improved on various things. He is actually just starting to occasionally do useful-in-the-moment retrieves! Last night, I dropped a scrunchy on the floor without realizing it, and he picked it up! Then he wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I called him over and he gave it to me. Good dog!

Product Review & Tip for Tired Trainers: The MannersMinder

I’ve heard about the MannersMinder for years, but I put off buying one until now for two reasons.

The first reason is money. While I am usually quite willing to try out promising, positive-reinforcement training gear, this product used to sell for over $100, and that seemed like a lot of money for something that would be an experiment for me. (It’s still pricey, but not that much.) I also wasn’t convinced it could really be that much more useful than clicker training the way I’ve been doing for the past year-and-a-half.

The second reason is that it can only be used with kibble or other mass-produced, uniformly sized treats. Barnum generally will not work for kibble, and I also don’t believe kibble is the healthiest way to feed my dog.

However, another partner-trainer I met online (Hi Robin!) encouraged me repeatedly to get the MannersMinder. She was convinced it would help solve some of my training conundrums, so I did a bit of research and discovered it was created and tested by Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and behaviorist whom I greatly admire. Feeling a bit desperate for an easier way to train when I’m unable to toss treats repeatedly, and reassured that it was not the result of a silly fad, I set out to find a kibble that might work.

One of my main issues with kibble is that it is made using an extrusion process that requires extremely high heat. This not only strips the food of much of its nutrient value and flavor, but this super-high-heat processing also makes kibble carcinogenic. Because Gadget died of mast cell cancer after finishing treatment for a first cancer, lymphosarcoma, I am very wary of exposing Barnum to any carcinogens, especially a daily dose of them.

Fortunately, someone from the Lymphoma HeartDogs Angels list I’m on told me about Flint River Ranch, which makes kibble that is baked, not extruded. I bought some samples of their different kibbles and taste-tested them on Barnum. Only some of their kibble is in “nugget” form — uniformly sized and shaped — the rest is “freeform,” like what you’d get if you baked actual food without a mold. So, I was only interested in the nugget varieties. Fortunately, Barnum loved it all! Definitely a step up from regular kibble, in his opinion.

I took the plunge and ordered the MannersMinder. When it arrived, I tested the remaining sample kibble to see if it fit in the machine. It did, and I invested in a couple of bags of very pricey Flint River Ranch dog food.

So what is the MannersMinder? It’s a remote treat delivery system. It’s basically a combination clicker/food dispenser. You have a remote control, and when you press it, the machine beeps, signaling to the dog that it is about to deliver a treat, which it does. (Here is a FAQ.)

One use I had in mind for the MM is to work through some separation anxiety. Barnum did not used to have SA. I put in effort, when he was a pup, to prevent it, and that was successful — until I stopped working to maintain the behavior. Now, if I leave him behind at home, or if I’m out with him and leave him with another person, he barks and howls and whines. Because you can use the MM to deliver reinforcements from a distance (of 100 yards, I think? Maybe 100 feet? I don’t have the booklet in front of me to look it up), I’ll be able to give him something to focus on when I move away and out of sight, and reward him for being calm and quiet.

There is actually a setting on the machine which allows you to select for reinforcement intervals (uniform or variable), so that it will pay off without you needing to press the remote. This is great if you want to focus on something else while your dog practices their “go to mat” or “down stay” or “remain quietly at home without mom.”

I have primarily been using the MM to train Barnum to go into his crate or to lie on a towel against the wall when I am about to eat a meal. I eat in bed, and we spend almost all our time in my bedroom, so there isn’t a clear environmental cue meaning “clear out” of a dining table or kitchen table like there is for most dogs. We spend a lot of time together on my bed, but I want him to understand that when I’m eating a meal, he has to be somewhere else. “Somewhere else” is a pretty vague concept. It’s one that Gadget understood, but I haven’t been able to convey it to Barnum.

Here’s a very short video of us putting the MannersMinder to work. It’s a quite unusual example of how we use it because normally Barnum is staring very hard at the MannersMinder, willing it to deliver a treat. In the beginning, after he understood what it did, he’d actually rest his chin right in the machine’s bowl! I think he was probably not that hungry when we made this video clip for you, so he wasn’t concentrating his Stare Beam at the machine.

(If you’re reading this post in an email, you can see the video by clicking on this link.)

Here is a transcript of the video.

And here is the captioned version.

If your dog is already clicker-savvy, if he is “operant,” he will probably do what Barnum did when I first placed it on the floor — run over, check it out, and start trying out behaviors! It was very funny. He pawed at it. He walked around it. He hovered over it. He tried pawing it from different sides. He nudged it with his nose. He nudged it from different sides and angles and with differing intensity. (Yes, he was playing, “101 Things to Do with a MannersMinder.”) He nudged it with such increasing vigor and frequency (an extinction burst), that he actually shoved it across the floor and into my wall. I was very impressed with the design of the machine — obviously made to withstand exactly this treatment — that it did not tip over and spill out a ginormous jackpot of treats!

Barnum has occasionally whined and groused at it, though he’s not a barker, so he didn’t go into a barking fit. Because I didn’t press the remote when he tried out these undesirable behaviors, he gave them up. He has learned, over time, that the machine only pays up when he is lying down in front of it.

This is obviously a great tool for training static behaviors, but I can also see how it can be extremely useful for someone with a disability or a fatiguing condition to make training a number of behaviors easier, whether static or dynamic. Here are some examples.

  • Exercising your dog when you aren’t able to take long, vigorous, or regular walks or throw a ball around can be difficult. You can play a variant of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels’ “Come Game using the MM as your second person. You’re on the couch. The MM is at the opposite end of the house. You call your dog and give him a treat. Then you ask for a sit, and when he sits, you press the remote. The beep is his “click” for giving you the sit. He runs to the MM to snork up his kibble, and you call him. He runs back. Click/treat, ask for sit (or down or whatever). Beep him, he runs to get the treat. Lather, rinse, repeat. You combine training, exercise, and dinner.
  • Training when you’re at a distance or need to move the dog around but are unable (due to pain, exhaustion, or mobility issues) to toss treats over and over. For example, if I want Barnum to work on sit, down, crate, or other behaviors while I’m lying in bed, I can put the MM on the floor or in his crate. I can “beep” behaviors when I want him to move to or stay where the MM is, and/or I can click and hand him treats when I want him moving toward me. This would also keep up the excitement level for him, because he wouldn’t know what type of treat was coming next, and where it was coming from. But I wouldn’t have to throw a variety of treats repeatedly to achieve this effect.
  • You can even get a “treat tossing effect” using the MM if you put it at the edge of a high surface (like a counter, table, or appliance) and remove the bowl/rim. Then, when you beep, the treat will slide down and bounce of the floor. It won’t land in exactly the same place every time, so the dog will have to run after it, which most dogs find exciting.
  • Giving your dog some mental exercise when you are too tired to train. Once she knows what she has to do in order for the MM to pay off, you can have her doing a long down-stay to earn her dinner, or repeated sits. If the behavior is established enough, and she understands the MM well enough, you can set it to dispense without having to use the remote.
  • It can act as a second pair of hands. If you want your dog occupied and happy and standing up while you groom her, put the MM so it is dispensing treats at snout level and set it to dispense without the remote. She will have something to focus on, and a reason to maintain her stand, while you focus your energy on brushing or buzzing her coat or clipping her nails or whatnot.
  • You could even use it as a “zen enforcer” by teaching your dog that something that is usually extremely reinforcing and an encouraged behavior sometimes must still be resisted anyway (that sometimes what seems like an available reinforcement is not available), and she should listen for your cue first. You could do this by telling your dog to leave it (or giving whatever your zen cue is) and then calling her over for a treat from you. Switching back and forth between your cue to take an available treat (I use “go ahead”) from the MM, and then cueing zen and clicking and treating for backing off the MM and coming to you for the treat. (For example: MM is on the floor five feet away from you. You are sitting in a chair. Dog naturally goes to MM to see if it will pay off. You say, “go ahead,” then press the remote. The MM beeps, and the dog takes her treat. She stares at the MM, waiting to see what happens next. You cue zen — “Leave it.” The dog is not expecting this. “Huh?” She says, turning to look at you, and you click and hold out a treat. She looks at the MM to make sure it’s not also offering a treat. It’s not. She trots over and takes the treat you are offering.)

Anyway, there are a lot of different uses you can put the MM to if you already are an experienced clicker trainer. You may very well already know several I haven’t mentioned that would be good as energy-savers for trainers with fatigue. (Please comment! I’d love to hear how other service-dog trainers use it!)

If you are not an experienced clicker trainer, I recommend carefully watching Dr. Yin’s DVD that accompanies the machine, and following the plan she has created, outlined also in a booklet. Then, when you are solid on all that, you can start getting creative.

Even if you are an experienced clicker trainer, watching the DVD is necessary. We only went partway through Dr. Yin’s MM protocol (very quickly, because Barnum already knew the behaviors) before I started freestyling a little to work on “leave Sharon alone while she is eating,” but I do plan to go back and finish up the protocol because I think it will help me get the most out of the machine.

The remote control is very easy to use. It has a hole that you can put a string or loop through, much like a clicker, but it fits very ergonomically in the hand, and requires very little pressure to use. It requires much less pressure than a box clicker, and even less than an iClick or similar button clicker. Also, because it lies flat on a surface, you can put it on a table or tray and just press it much more easily than you can with a clicker. (I have accidentally beeped a couple of times, but not as many as you’d expect.)

The machine also comes with a telescoping, standing target stick. I already had one of these, but you can never have too many good target sticks! (I have six now, plus two that I made when the Alley-Oop was off the market and the MM hadn’t yet been invented.) This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. For some service skills, such as bringing groceries in from the car, where the dog has to do different behaviors at different distances, it’s useful to have “stations” marked by target sticks so the dog can run between them. I would imagine that the same is true for some dog sports, like agility.

One note of warning to those with disabilities or conditions causing fatigue or weakness — the MannersMinder is pretty heavy, bulky, and awkward to lift and carry. The same properties that make it wonderfully “dog proof” in terms of preventing a dog from breaking into it or dumping it over also may make it challenging for some trainers. Eventually you could probably leave it in the same location for most training, and then carrying it won’t be an issue, but when you first start using it, it’s a consideration. It’s not horrible (for me), but depending on your needs and abilities, it’s something to consider. It’s a bit under three-and-a-half pounds, and it’s about the size (and shape) of an extra-large motorcycle helmet. I can lift it okay now some of the time, but a couple of years ago, I couldn’t lift anything ever, over two pounds. Often I couldn’t lift one pound.

If you’re noise-sensitive, or if your dog is, fair warning on that, too. This machine is loud and pretty unpleasant sounding. Barnum is not at all bothered by strange or loud sounds, so I didn’t even have to acclimate him to it. And I am able to tolerate the sounds fine, myself, most of the time now. However, again, from much of 2007 through 2010, I probably could not have used this machine because of the beeping, grinding, and other sounds it makes.

I hope this was useful. If you have a disability or fatiguing condition, do you use the MannersMinder? For what skills? What makes it better or worse than standard click/treat?

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t get to use these cool toys!), and Barnum, SDiT and Dog Who Stares at Goats Machines


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