Archive for the 'Dog behavior' Category

Dog Faming – Picture It!

My friend Eileen did a terrific blog post on Dog Faming — an alternative to the current trend of “Dog Shaming.”

What? You haven’t heard of dog shaming? Neither had I. Sadly, now I have. There are multiple “dog shaming” websites and Facebook pages devoted to people posting pics of their dogs doing (or having done) things the people Are Not At All Happy About, with a sign saying what misbehavior the dog has engaged in.

I understand that these pictures and comments are supposed to be funny (and every once in a while, I do find one genuinely funny), and I also don’t believe the dog knows their picture is on the internet. I’m glad that one of the most popular sites (over 100,000 “Likes” on its Facebook page!) now has an “Adoptable Friday” feature which shows a “shamed” rescue dog available for adoption every week. I’m certain the vast majority of people who post on these sites love their dogs.

Nevertheless, there’s a dark side to all this: This trend supports ideas about dogs and dog behavior that are inaccurate and that can cause a lot of misunderstanding and misery for those on both ends of the leash. When I read these sites, I feel sad — and frustrated.

One problem is that I see many dogs displaying unhappy body language, which leads me to believe that the person taking the picture has already made it clear to their dog that they are mad. The dogs are displaying appeasement signals. In other words, they know their person is upset and this is stressful to the dog, so the dog uses these signals to say, “Please calm down. Can’t we just get along?”

Unfortunately, people tend to misunderstand this dog body language. Here is a quote I lifted from one of the dog shaming Facebook pages that sums up the problem:

The funniest thing about some of these dogs is that they know they did wrong and their lil ears are back because they KNOW they messed up. I just love dogs so much.

Comments about dogs “looking guilty” or “acting guilty” are a common theme on these sites. In actuality, scientific studies show that dogs “look guilty” to humans whether or not they have actually done anything “wrong.”

A lot of the pictures show dogs who look blissfully unaware that their owners are “shaming” them. They are asleep or lounging around looking relaxed. The pictures that make me sad or concerned are like the two below. The white dog on the left (Miniature Poodle?) looks scared and miserable. The Husky on the right looks like it’s super pissed off and is about to attack if given any provocation.

A small, white, curly-haired dog (probably miniature poodle) hunched back, tuck-tailed, head down, ears down, eyes down. Sign says, "Days without rolling in poop: 0"A husky whose ears are pinned back, mouth/muzzle muscles pinched, eyes like slits.

Whatever happened before or during the taking of these pictures is probably pretty miserable for both human and canine.

Another problem is the number of posts of dogs who do something frequently — in many cases, apparently (like the poodle on the left) every day — and I have to ask myself, “Why are the owners continuing to support this behavior in their dog?” If they know the dog rolls in poop, destroys the sofa, eats socks, etc., why are they giving the dog unsupervised access to poop, sofas, and socks? In some photos, there are even dog crates in the background, and I have to wonder if those crates are ever USED?

I think the fact that people are posting these pictures about “dogs who need to be shamed” points to some of the answer. If you think the dog knows what they did was “wrong,” you might think that telling them off and/or shaming them is an effective way to change their behavior. So, management (use of crates or X-pens or tie-downs to prevent access to the poop or couch or socks) and training (teaching the dog to chew on a Kong or play with a toy or get a treat instead of the undesirable behavior), don’t enter into it. And the problem behavior continues.

Finally, the more you focus on mistakes (or accidents or “bad behavior”), the more you tend to encourage that kind of behavior. Here’s a rather amusing post on this phenomenon.

The flip side is also true: One of the most wonderful aspects of positive-reinforcement training (clicker training) is that by focusing on what your dog is doing right, you both tend to feel good because you are both “winning” over and over again. Both dog and human are generally very happy during and after a clicker session. In fact, if you find yourself becoming tense or angry, all the trainers I know advocate quitting the session ASAP and doing something else instead. Nobody learns (or teaches) well if they are stressed out.

So, one dog trainer started a Dog Faming contest on her Facebook page.

Still time to FAME your dog in November! Post a staged pic or your dogs w/ a sign telling us something you love/admire/are thankful for about them. It’s a photo op and a training op all rolled into one! Best pic wins a prize! Please share, and consider ‘liking’ Caninestein Dog Training’s page while you’re there.
More training/photo challenges coming soon! Let’s go ‘viral’ with positive messages about our dogs!

So, over the course of the last few days, Barnum and I have had some fun with my new camera, the signs I made, and of course, a bunch of treats. Something very interesting happened during the course of these photo shoots which I’ll tell you about at the end of this post. Meanwhile. . . . Let the show begin!

Bouviers require a lot of grooming while also not being the most touchy-feelly dogs, so I’ve put a lot of effort into Barnum being cooperative with grooming….

I couldn’t find a good place to put the sign, so I taped it to his collar.

Inside and out….

Close-up of Barnum's face with a blue plastic tooth brush with white bristles approaching his mouth. In the background, a sign taped to the wall says, "Holds still for tooth brushing."

I wanted to show the brush ON his actual teeth, but I’d need a third hand to lift his lips.

Certain themes did arise…

Pulling the bathroom door shut..

Nudging the bedroom door shut.

Fortunately, Barnum doesn’t seem bothered by the repetitive nature of some tasks.

Barnum in a narrow hallway pulling shut the bedroom door. Sign says (again),  "Helps conserve electricity by shutting doors. (Many doors.)"

Aaaaand this door, too….


Action shot of blurry Barnum nudging shut a heavy door to the outside. Sign again says, "Helps conserve electricity by shutting doors. (Many doors.)"

The whole house is made of doors.

Okay, but there is stuff to do besides closing doors. Well, except that this is technically still a door, I suppose. . . .

Barnum stands next to open refrigerator looking away from it. Sign says, "Opens the fridge... (without sampling the contents)."

It’s open. Now what?

He’s also good with retrieving skills, like this….

“Moo yoo wahn gees now?”

And this….

Barnum stands holding a wool slipper in his mouth. The sign on the bed next to him says, "Brings my slippers (instead of chewing them)."

He retrieves my slippers more often than anything else.

And this….

That’s a piece of hot dog and a piece of raw beef on the fork.

He had to hold this still for quite a while so I could get a picture where the sign wasn’t blurry from swinging around:

Barnum sits on a narrow black coffee table holding a red pen in his mouth that has a sign suspended from it that says, "Will Hup, Sit, Hold, and Stay -- combined!"

Tadah! I’m a trick dog, too!

What I noticed was this: After every photo session, I was so damn happy. I felt such warm, tender, joyous feelings toward Barnum. He was all waggy and bouncy, and I was all smiley and delighted. I’d invite him up on the bed and moosh on him and give him treats. It really did affect me to focus on all these things he does that make my life easier or that make it easier for me to care for him. Even the “trick” of sitting on the table holding the sign, while not a useful behavior in itself, showed me how solid some of the component behaviors are, which ARE useful and important. There’s nothing groovier than loving a Bouvier!

Go check out Eileen’s dog faming post and the other dog faming posts at Caninestein on Facebook and give them some “Likes” and comment love!

If you have a dog faming post to share, please provide links in the comments!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (famous without the signs), and Barnum, SD

P.S. Wasn’t this post enLIGHTening?

Side view of Barnum standing on his hind legs with his forepaws resting on the wall, his nose pressed to the wall between them. (The light switch is blocked from view by his paws.) Sign in the foreground says, "Is very enLIGHTening."

Barnum nudges the light switch with his nose.

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

The Difference!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New & Improved Bouvier!

Now, with significantly reduced levels of testosterone!

Oh. My. Dog.

I’m backlogged on posts I’d intended to write today, yesterday, the day before, etc. But I’m not writing them. Instead you’ll have to suffer through another gleeful post about the progress Barnum and I are making.

First of all, my outdoor powerchair has been fixed — again — I hope! It seems fixed. I used it today and it ran very well. I didn’t notice any problems. Please, please let it be fixed, once and for all!

Sharon in a woodsy setting in her large outdoor chair. It has very large black knobby tires, elevated black metal leg rests, a purple square base, and an oversized gray captain's chair with headrest.. Sharon is reaching into a treat pouch hanging from the joystick while baby Barnum (4 months old) trots toward her.  He is shorter than the wheels. The chair gives an impression of great size and power.

This is the kind of rugged terrain that chair needs to handle.

My chair underwent quite an overhaul. It was rewired. the battery boxes were replaced and terminals cleaned, loose wires more securely tucked away, and light switch more firmly reattached. I also got new chargers!

(Thank you, Mom and Dad, for taking my chair for repairs and returning it to me! And for putting up my dog-smelling van for two weeks!)

Anynoodle, Barnum and I went for our first real walk in a month or two. As usual, before we left, I asked him to pee, and he did. Hooray.

I didn’t know if he’d respond differently to this chair than the only one I’ve had to use lately, but he seemed more comfortable, actually, with moving next to the outdoor chair today. I assume this is because 90 percent of our walks have been with the outdoor chair, so it’s more familiar.

I kept the pace slow, and he was damn-near perfect for the first several minutes. If this had been a Level Three test for loose-leash walking, we would have passed! However, I couldn’t consider it a test because I was doing a lot of clicking and treating. He’ll have to be able to go 40 feet without clicks or treats to pass that.

To get to that level, I will raise my criteria and reduce my rate of reinforcement — clicking for eye contact and also for relaxedness — and then I can start phasing out the treats. He is showing some nerves and apprehension during some parts of the walk, and I don’t know why, so I tried to click him for “enjoying yourself,” as well as loose leash and eye contact and such.

But, I didn’t take this walk with the plan of testing anything. I just wanted to get more practice in and have a nice time and give him a bit of exercise. The bugs were not as bad as they’ve been lately, either.

All was going well until  we were partway up the very steep hill, and Barnum’s friend, Lucy, the Vizsla, came roaring down to us. She is typically off-lead, and likes to dive-bomb Barnum to get him to play with her, and to beg for treats from me.

Longtime readers know that nothing is more exciting and distracting to Barnum than other dogs. He also has a history of playing with Lucy. Needless to say, staying controlled and on a LL is difficult with Lucy roaring around.

Oh, and yeah, Barnum was not wearing his no-pull harness, just a regular buckle collar.

At first he started pulling to get to Lucy, and I backed up as fast as I could and tried to get between them. He looked at me, I c/t. He looked again, c/t!

He  repeatedly chose  to interact with me and earn treats rather than throwing himself at Lucy!

I couldn’t believe it! Not only did he generally keep a loose leash and repeatedly give me uncued eye contact, but then he started throwing sits, and I was able to CUE sit, down, and watch me, several times!

The most amazing thing was that I was able to use my Zen cue (“Leave it,”) to get him to turn from Lucy to me. There were several times when he really would have been well within doggy manners to tell her off. She sniffed his butt, his penis, his face, and tried to get between him and me, actually trying to grab cheese right out of his mouth, and he kept responding to my “Leave its,” by ignoring her. Sometimes I didn’t even need to cue him. He was just so focused on me doing c/t as fast as I could.

Today felt like a HUGE breakthrough.  It was an almost spiritual experience, having those brown eyes staring at me so hard, I could practically see the gears going in his mind. He worked so hard to focus on me and not be swayed by the temptress, Lucy!


He wasn’t perfect, of course. He knew (or deeply hoped, and he was right) that once we got to her driveway, if he sat and gave me eye contact, I would  release him to play off-leash with her. As  a result, the closer we got to her driveway, the more he lost focus, until he was pulling every time we crossed the driveway threshold, and I had to keep backing up.

However, he did then sit and stare at me, and hold his stay, off-leash, until he was released. I also managed to repeatedly call him off marking off-leash (not every time, but even once was 100 percent more than in the past!) and multiple “Leave it”s from snorfling my neighbor’s adorable baby, who just started walking three days ago. She loves dogs and wasn’t afraid of him, but I didn’t want him to knock her over or get slime all over her face. (All that panting and cheese-eating, Barnum was good and slime-faced by then.)

His Zen definitely needs a lot of work — most of the time he didn’t actually stop cold and turn or back up and look at me — but he did at least not do the thing I didn’t want him to do, most of the time. He seemed to understand that this was a baby person, and that made her interesting (she’s shorter than him!), but he also seemed to be showing some care around her. He just really wanted to sniff her.

Anynoodle, he and Lucy played, and he ran around marking things, and rolling on his back in the grass, and exploring. We had some other breakthroughs here: He came when called twice (though not every time). We came running after me when I drove out of sight. And I was able to do several short sessions of training with him while Lucy was right there! He sat, hand-targeted, and gave eye contact, all on cue, despite Lucy being A) a dog, and B) all over him and me to try to get to the treats.

On the way home, he was so tired, he kept wanting to stop and rest, but even though I was going slow, I couldn’t carry him or anything! He HATES the heat. So, he was speeding up, partly to get to Lucy (who decided to escort us home) and partly because he wanted to get home. Ironically, I had to keep backing up every time he did this. I told him,”The slower  you go, the faster we’ll get there,” but he didn’t seem to respond.

Must. Sleep.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (80% more likely to be SDiT)

“Lose It or Move It” Updates…

There’s been a lot going on with Mr. Barnum, but since I revealed that I am considering washing him out, I’ve become afraid to post about it!

If training is going well, and I have my hopes up, I’m worried about getting your hopes up, too! If training is going badly, I don’t want you all to think, “Oh, well then, there’s the proof that he’s not gonna make it.” Because really, there are always up days and down days, with any dog (or other being) — with any learning venture, there are peaks and plateaus. Yet, I’m so aware now that others are aware of the stakes.

It’s weird. I really love knowing so many people are supportive and pulling for us, and yet now I feel an obligation to my readers, too. Barnum and I are already dealing with the weight of my own — and my friends’ and family’s — expectations; I don’t want any more on us!

It’s not that anyone’s done anything wrong. On the contrary, I have been quite touched by the love and outpouring of support when I started posting the “Washout?” series.

I’ve never liked nebulousness and ambiguity. I’ve always been very goal-oriented, driven, motivated. I like a plan. I scheme and chart and make lists of what I’m going to do. (You all saw this past week what happens when I get focused on a goal. I’m very focused.)

Not that I’m not able to adjust in the moment; I am. It’s the creative aspect of clicker training — when I just click for something because it feels right, and then after I click, I realize why I did it — that’s one of the best parts.

In fact, when I read this sentence in Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog! — about “the shaping game,” where one person plays the trainer, and one plays the animal, trying to get the “animal” to do a certain behavior with just well-timed clicks or whistles, I thought, “Aha. This is why clicker training comes so naturally to me.”

In my experience intuitive, creative, intensely emotional people make great shapers, and calm, observant people make great animals —  just the opposite of what you might expect.

“Intuitive, creative, intensely emotional,” sums me up pretty well! (Not that that’s all I am, but it’s a big chunk.)

Anynoodle, with that in mind, I’d say that so far, “Operation Lose It or Move It” — as I’ve been thinking of The Barnum Experience, ever since Sue said, “Whack those suckers off!” — has been going pretty well. (I am hoping I don’t have to explain the double entendre there.)

I’m not sure how much of the progress really has to do with the neutering per se. I thought it would be too soon to tell, hormonally or biologically, until at least two months. However, it has seemed to me as if Barnum has overall been more interested in food since the surgery. He is certainly now working hard for treats that he used to consider “low value”!

I think there are a few factors that have made him, overall, much more interested in training:

  • Having an enforced two weeks of no free running, and lots of very short on-leash walks, right after the surgery, has helped the elimination on leash a great deal, as well as focus and loose-leash walk (LLW).
  • As I wrote in an earlier post, I combined intensive focus/eye contact work with evaluating how other people were walking him, which has led to actual loose-leashness on most outings with him, although they are not really so much “walks,” as he doesn’t get to go far yet. Still, tremendous progress there. That’s definitely primarily a training issue, not a hormonal one.
  • However, he is also eagerly taking treats on these walks, something that was very rare before. He will even take hot dogs, which he considers lower value than cheese. The fact that he wants to earn treats on walks has accelerated the LLW training.
  • After keeping him on leash for all elimination went so well right after his surgery, I have continued to make sure every time he goes out, it’s on leash. The exception is if it’s raining and there’s nobody else to take him out (powerchairs don’t do well in rain). He is now urinating the second we get to the gravel, and I think he “knows” that cue, when he’s on the gravel. I’m positive if I said, “Hurry up,” to him in a strange location, it wouldn’t register at all. He is also now pooping on leash most of the time, though he does still prefer his privacy. (Is that a bouv thing, or are all dogs like this? All my bouvs have been privacy poopers, but I don’t remember that being the case with our BC mix.)
  • He spent the past week with very little training, very little attention, very little mental stimulation — and he has been clamoring to train. I tried to squeeze in a session once or twice a day, if I could. Usually some retrieve training right before bed, but for the most part, he has had a taste of the easy life, and he doesn’t like it! (Yeehaw!)
  • During his week of auction-induced boredom, he tried on several occasions to induce me to train. The most humorous one is when he goes into my bathroom and shuts the door: “See? Look! I can shut the door! Cool, eh? Click me!” The problem is that he is then inside the bathroom, with the door shut, and I’m in bed. That’s what you get when the dog has learned the behavior but it isn’t yet under stimulus control.
  • The most exciting moment for me (well, there have been a couple, but this was the first), was about a week ago. We were working on the corner cupboard in the kitchen, which is a very tricky door to shut, as it’s hinged in the middle, and I was ready to release him, even though he hadn’t managed to shut it, because I could tell he was getting mentally fatigued and frustrated. I tried to end the session, but he wanted to keep going! And it wasn’t the treats, because these were not fantastic treats which he snorked down somewhat distractedly. No, it was the puzzle. He really wanted to figure out how to get that cabinet shut and to shut it, dammit! I’ve never seen that in him before. I didn’t know if he had it in him, but now I think he might.
An open, wood, corner cabinet door. There are two panels with a hinge connecting them. There is a chrome knob on the upper, outer corner -- on the left -- and a piece of pink paper is stuck in the middle of the other panel.

That piece of paper is his target for where to push to close the cupboard once he has the other panel flat.

  • Another first this week was that one of my helpers was able to take Barnum for a walk around the pond, which both she and Gadget used to love. She had not been able to do it with Barnum, however, because when we tried it, he . . .
    1. pulled on leash,
    2. didn’t come when called,
    3. could not be relied upon to get in the van when it was time to leave,
    4. was overly boisterous with other dogs he met there, and
    5. was overly suspicious of people he met there  (if they didn’t have dogs).

    When they got home after their outing last week, my helper said that Barnum was great, that “it was just like taking Gadget!” Whoah! High praise! (She didn’t used to like dogs, and was somewhat afraid of them, but Gadget converted her. After the first few weeks of baby Barnum, it seemed as if he was restoring her original opinion of dogs. Could Barnum now be on the brink of redeeming himself?)

  • Barnum’s “zen” has also suddenly gotten worse, which is a good sign, actually. He was ridiculously easy to train in zen (“Leave it”) because food was not that exciting to him. Now he has to think about it more — how badly do I want that morsel? I’m perfectly happy to rework our zen in exchange for a food-driven dog!
  • We have done more practice in the van — first just with us sitting in the driveway, and then short trips where all we did was practice getting in and out of the van in controlled ways.

So, that’s a bit of the post-surgical update on Mr. B. There is still a lot of evaluation and testing to do, a lot more training. I do think the neutering has had an effect, but I also think my change in strategy in some key areas has set us up to succeed more often.

The big test will be to see what happens when we got into strange or distracting environments, and if he is still interested in food then or not. Particularly because I’ve been working focus in very low-distraction/below-threshold environments and working up, I’m not sure what will happen when we are in the midst of some excitement.

I’ll continue to keep you posted. I am still reserving judgement, but the prognosis now is more guardedly optimistic than before. We’ll just have to see what happens, now that the balls are no longer in his court.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (How dare they compare him to moi?), and Barnum, hungry(!) SDiT?

P.S. One of the After Gadget Jackpot winners has been determined. Pop on over to this new post at to find out who it is, AND to read my new, simplified instructions for those of you were overwhelmed and flummoxed by the last ones. (Sorry!)

Washout? Part 3: Barnum’s Balance Sheet

This is the third in a series about facing the decision whether to wash out Barnum or not. For an explanation of the term, and common causes for washing out a working dog, please see this post.

The second in this series was this post about people asking if I’ll keep Barnum if I do wash him out.

Now, the crux of the matter: how did I arrive at this crossroads? Why, and how, am I making this decision (or set of decisions)?

Training with Barnum has been a challenge since the beginning. I’ve written a few blog posts about that. Some focused on struggles relating to Barnum being my first puppy, others on raising a pup in the wake of my grief — and reduced physical functioning — with the loss of Gadget. Several also described challenges unique to Barnum, and how I’ve worked to overcome them.

However, most of the “public record” of how hard I’ve had to work to train Barnum has not been on After Gadget, but on the training list-serv I belonged to. For over a year, I’ve asked questions, received advice, noted triumphs to celebrate, and groused at ongoing frustrations. I also developed an entire training strategy based around Barnum’s unique challenges, called “Building Enthusiasm,” which I’ve passed on to other trainers — either novices to dog or clicker training, or to those who had “difficult dogs” in ways similar to how Barnum has been tough. I’ll be honest — I’ve downplayed my struggles with Barnum on this blog for the following reasons:

  1. I’ve noticed that people respond much better to happy posts about successes than they do to sad or frustrated or grieving posts;
  2. It’s more fun for me to write  posts about breakthroughs and successes than to write how, yet again, we are proceeding more slowly and with more problems than I could have ever anticipated;
  3. I’m less likely to receive comments that judge, offer unhelpful advice, or preach if the posts are celebratory.

It’s just made more  sense, all-around, to post about training struggles on a list whose purpose is to provide information, feedback, support, and advice about training, and to post about other things on my blog. I could easily have gone on at After Gadget not revealing the struggles I’m having with Barnum. I could have — like most owner-trainers do who are considering a washout — kept the discussion to a small group of trusted friends (usually other partner-trainers), hoping that ultimately Barnum and I would prevail, and nobody would be the wiser. Certainly, there is already enough judgement, discrimination, and ignorance facing owner-trainers (e.g., this assistance-dog blog and comment that lumps in partner-trained SDs with fake SDs); admitting that we and our dogs are not perfect and that we have doubts can therefore feel dangerous. Thus, the “stealth” approach holds a lot of appeal, but I chose to be open, instead, for the following reasons:

  1. By nature, I’m an “open-book/tell-it-like-it-is” kind of gal. I don’t like keeping secrets. They make me uncomfortable, and I get stressed trying to keep track of who knows what.
  2. I hope others will learn from my transparency. I think it’s important for the public to realize what goes into training a service dog (SD), including why not all dogs can or should be SDs. Hopefully this will lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of the work involved in partnering and/or training with a SD.
  3.  Another group I hope will benefit is other/future SD trainers. It’s crucial to know the potential pitfalls in order to guard against them. It’s also helpful to know that if you are considering washing out your dog, you are not alone, and you are not giving up on your dog — on the contrary, you are trying to do what is right (not what is easy), for you, your dog, and/or the public.
  4. Finally, I wish to educate friends and families of SD trainer-handlers. I believe that learning how many factors are involved, and how common it is, for SDs to wash out, or for partner-trainers to consider washing out their SD or SD-in-training (SDiT), will lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of why and how this decision is faced, how devastating it is even to contemplate, and how even the most well-intentioned person can increase the distress their loved one is suffering when facing this decision. (In fact, I’d say those who are the most well-intentioned are the most likely to inadvertently cause pain.)

Despite many possible red flags, I have persevered with the assumption of success, until three recent sets of events. All of these events were ordinary for us — they were even predictable, for the most part — and it was because they were so typical, that I had to stop and take stock.

  1. I’ve had a chance to work other dogs. In the course of doggy play dates and teaching a neighbor how to clicker train, I’ve recently worked very briefly with three different dogs — different ages, sexes, and breeds. The one thing they all had in common was that, while Barnum wandered around, sniffing and peeing on things, totally uninterested in what I was doing, these other dogs swarmed all over me, desperate to earn clicks and treats, giving me their complete focus, totally food-obsessed. Every time I have worked another dog since I’ve gotten Barnum, I’ve felt this wonderful sense of joy and relaxation, because I knew exactly what to do, and it felt so damn easy. It was such a relief to know I really did know what I was doing.
  2. I’ve been trying to take Barnum “on the road.” We are at the point in the Training Levels where he has mastered almost all of Level Three, including things like sitting or downing on one cue from a distance of 10 feet; longish sit-stays and down-stays, with distance; crate and mat work, with duration; sustained loose-leash walk and eye-contact, and other moderately advanced obedience work — as long as we do them in the house. As soon as we leave the yard, and in fact, often as soon as we cross the threshold from the house into the yard, Barnum loses all focus. For 14 months, I have worked to get him to eliminate on cue; not only is his elimination not on cue, he usually doesn’t “go” on leash at all; he’s so distracted when I take him out, that he will “hold it” for up to 26 hours. Recently, I thought he had a urinary tract infection because he went two days in a row, not peeing for over 24 hours each time, and his urine was brown. It turned out he was fine; his urine was so dark because it was incredibly concentrated. When we go to other locations to train, he’s so excited and distracted, he often cannot take a single treat or follow any cues at all.
  3. One night, we were working on how to shut a cupboard that works differently than all the others. This is the kind of task Barnum generally quite enjoys. He likes free shaping, and he likes shutting things with his nose. We’d worked on this cupboard before, so I expected it to be a relatively short, fun, easy session. Barnum seemed to be “in the game,” and then suddenly, he wandered off to look out the window. (He loves to look out the windows.) I managed to get him back in the game by increasing my rate of reinforcement to something ridiculously high, and he shut the cupboard, and we quit. But, the whole time, I felt like his mind was half on wondering what was out that window. I thought, “If I need him to do something for me once he is trained, will he come and do it, or will he just keep looking out the window?” In training, I can set up everything for Barnum to succeed: I can wait until he is really hungry and bored to initiate a training session and use a super-high rate-of-reinforcement, fantastically high-value treats, and really low criteria. However, what happens when he has “graduated”? Without all these inducements, will he be a reliable, eager, full-time SD?

Without further ado, here is Barnum’s Balance Sheet — the pros and cons of his suitability as my future service dog.


  • Barnum is physically sound (as far as I know). Aside from a tendency toward urinary tract infections, which I believe I have solved with dietary changes, he doesn’t seem to be prone to any illnesses or physical conditions. In fact, on Tuesday his hip and elbow x-ray results  came back good. (Before I can deem him entirely fit for service, he will need an eye exam, as well.)
  • Barnum has a sound temperament — he is not unduly aggressive nor unduly fearful. We still have some tweaking to do in a couple  of areas, but overall he is good about allowing himself to be examined, handled, and manipulated. He doesn’t exhibit any phobias of people, animals, or objects. He has a fast recovery from being startled or receiving minor ouches (such as having a paw stepped on, etc.).
  • Barnum, overall, is a good lifestyle fit with me. He is willing to do a lot of napping and resting when I am napping and resting. He does not need or want constant attention or physical or mental exercise. (Although I am having a problem with him whining to wake me up when my PCAs arrive.)
  • Barnum is very loving and sweet. So far, he has the most demonstrative nature of any of my bouvs (who are known to be reserved), while also not going to the excesses of jumping up, unwanted kissing, or seeking out attention from strangers. This works well for the psychiatric service work I’ve started with him. It’s also just a nice bonus.
  • He is very tuned in to sound. He has learned the name of the people in the household, and also attends well to sounds of relevance, such as the telephone ringing, my infusion pump alarm, timers, etc.
  • Barnum is well socialized. He behaves appropriately (for the most part) with other dogs, people, and other animals. He does not seem to be phased by costumes, strangely shaped objects, electronic doors, shopping carts, or other noisy or strangely moving or funny-shaped things.
  • Barnum has shown some aptitude and enthusiasm for certain service skills, particularly alerting to sounds and shutting doors.
  • Barnum is fun and likes to play. He is a master at tug and chase, and he’s learning a play retrieve.


  • Barnum is not food motivated. It has been very difficult to get across to people just how little Barnum cares about food, even supposedly “high value” food like meat, liver, and cheese. He is more food-motivated now than he used to be, because of a lot of hard work on my part, but for intensive clicker training, low food-motivation is a serious problem.
  • Barnum is extremely distractible. Even in the most familiar environments, the slightest sound, smell, or movement makes him lose focus completely. When we are in unfamiliar environments, he can’t focus at all.
  • Barnum is not terribly work/play/training motivated. Even some dogs who don’t care that much about food learn to love clicker training because they like the problem solving. This is not Barnum. Likewise, while he enjoys play, he won’t work for a ball toss, a game of tug, or the like.
  • Barnum is not that smart. What can I say? People don’t like to hear this, but it’s true. He’s not stupid, but he’s not the brightest bulb on the tree, either.
  • Barnum is a “soft dog.” This is a combination of traits. He is sensitive, which has both positives and negatives. The negative is that he takes it very much to heart — is easily crushed — if things don’t go the way he thinks they should, e.g., he sometimes responds to the lack of a click as a punishment. The biggest challenge of a soft dog is that he has a very low threshold for frustration, which means he gives up easily.

A note about all these “cons”: Any one of these traits, on its own, is definitely workable. A combination of several is workable, too. In fact, I believe all dogs are “trainable” — it’s just a matter of how hard you have to work, how long it takes (how much patience you have), and how high you can fly.

The combination of all these particular traits together, however, is hugely challenging. What it comes down to, as Sue Ailsby puts it, is getting the dog “in the game.”

Being “in the game” is a way of describing the absolute FIRST thing you MUST have before you train or work your dog in ANY situation. It’s the bottom line. I offer, for instance, two people, each working a dog in agility. One dog isn’t sure how to do weave poles but is paying attention to the situation and trying hard to figure out what the trainer wants. The other dog knows how to do weave poles perfectly but keeps wandering off to visit the sidelines. Which dog do I want to be working?

*I* want to be working the one that’s in the game, even if he doesn’t know anything about what he’s supposed to be doing.

A dog who is in the game is engaged, eager, trying, learning. Maybe they are not the brightest pup, maybe they don’t have the pieces together yet, but they are focused, and they want to communicate with you. They want to know, “What happens next?”

If you have a dog who doesn’t want to work for food, who doesn’t want to work for the thrill of problem-solving, who is so distracted that he barely registers your existence, who is so easily crushed that one false moves makes him give up completely, how do you get him in the game and keep him in the game?

This is the puzzle I’ve been trying to solve for over a year. For a long time, I thought that I must have really overestimated my abilities as a trainer in the past. I thought I’d deluded myself about how well Jersey or Gadget were trained. Certainly, there were a lot of things I could have done better with them, however, what I’ve realized is that it’s mostly not me, it’s Barnum.

Let me qualify that. Could Barnum do better with a better trainer? Absolutely. Would some of our problems disappear if he were living with someone who was not limited by severe fatigue and pain? I’m sure.

However, the fact of the matter is that Barnum is not a “normal” dog. Because Barnum is not ordinary, I’ve had to be extraordinary. For the first few months, I wasted a lot of time and energy being angry and disappointed with myself and with Barnum. Eventually, I realized I had to change the way I approached almost all aspects of training. The Training Levels list helped me do that.

Barnum has forced me to be a much better trainer than I was. I have to do everything just right. I’ve had to improve every aspect of my timing, my treat delivery, my attachment of cues, my setup of training plans, my selection of criteria, and on and on. That Barnum has made me a better trainer is a gift I can take with me no matter whether he becomes my pet or my SD. I will work future dogs much better, I am positive.

However, training a SD goes well beyond honing one’s skills and having a dog achieve his highest potential. Training a SD means that, at the end of the process, you have a dog who is not just able to work, but who is willing and eager to work, at a huge number of skills. I cannot force Barnum to perform service skills, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to.

This means that he has to choose to work. Following a cue has to be his most compelling option. If the choices are (A) go help my person open a door; (B) continue with my nap; or (C) continue watching the birdies out the window, a SD needs to choose “A” every time, and with gusto. There are three factors I’ve been weighing— the questions that sit heavily on my heart — as to Barnum’s suitability to continue as my SDiT:

  1. Training-wise, can I get him in the game and keep him there? How much longer will I have to struggle for every little taste of progress? Will it be faster, in the long run, to start over with a dog who is in the game? Will I get so burned out by how difficult the training process is that I will lose the desire to train a SD at all?
  2. Assuming I can train Barnum to do all the obedience, public-access, and service tasks I need, will he be reliable? If he has the choice between watching the neighbor dog trot around her yard, or helping me in the kitchen, will he come when I call? What about if I need him for an alert, and I can’t call him? What about in an emergency situation? What about in public?
  3. Does Barnum want to be a SD? If he could talk, and I asked him, “Would you like to face interesting mental challenges and be with me all the time and be at my beck-and-call and choose focusing on me over anything else that’s going on, would you rather do that, or would you rather be a pet?” What would he say?

This last one is a hard one for a lot of people to get their minds around. It’s well-known in the AD world that the dog chooses the career. If they don’t want to be a working dog, they will try to let you know. A good trainer or handler will read the signs.

Some dogs let you know in no uncertain terms that they are done. They refuse to work. Other dogs make it clear that there’s nothing in the world they love more than working for you. In some cases, in fact — such as Gadget’s — without a job, they turn into “a problem dog.”

At this point, I can’t tell what Barnum’s wish is, which is perhaps the most difficult question of all to answer. I know what I want our future relationship to look like. Barnum can’t know what his future as a SD would be, and it’s my job to read him as best as I can and extrapolate. Right now, I’m not clear at all as to where his interests lie.

I do, however, have a plan. I decided two things.

One was that I wanted to give us a trial month, where I did everything I could to try to “make it work,” and recorded each day’s activities, so that I could have a concrete, objective log to read through after the month was over. I created a long list of strategies to incorporate during that month, which I will describe in a future post.

The second was that I wanted the opinion of a trainer whom I greatly respect, and who has been following Barnum’s and my progress since he was five months old, which is Sue Ailsby. She has trained (and titled) innumerable dogs, over decades, in almost every dog sport there is, as well as having trained her own SDs (and lots of people and other animals, too!). I emailed her that I was considering washing Barnum out, and why. I also outlined my one-month “make it work” strategy/evaluation. Here are a few excerpts from her very wise and kind email:

Poor Sharon. I can’t answer the question for you, but . . . I sent you [some] videos [of my SDiT] . . . to remind you what working an eager dog is like. . . . [You’re always posting] about how hard you’re working and all the things you’ve done to try to get Barnum working with you as a partner. . . . The whole I-can’t-take-food-away-from-home thing speaks to me of huge stress. He’s not comfortable. And if he’s not comfortable yet, it’s highly unlikely that he’s ever going to BE comfortable. Which is not a working dog. . . .
I assume he’s neutered.
I think you know the answer, Sharon.

I got this email and cried a lot, because it just affirmed for me what I already believed. The one place I disagree is that I don’t think Barnum is “stressed” as in “unhappy,” when in public. I think he is just super excited and fascinated. Is he in a state of hyperarousal? Yes, but it’s possible that can be overcome. In fact, he will sometimes refuse to take food in the house or yard, when he is clearly not stressed, but just much more interested in something else, such as watching birds at the feeder. Also, sometimes he will take food in strange, new places. In fact, Jersey and Gadget displayed more stress about new places than Barnum ever has.

Still, it doesn’t matter what the reason is if we can’t train through it. The one ray of hope was the question of whether Barnum is neutered. I wrote back and said no, he wasn’t, that I was waiting until he was at least 18 to 24 months old, as this reduces the likelihood of bone cancer later in life. Did she really think it would make a big difference?

I received a very encouraging reply:

My friend has a Portie [Portuguese water dog] she adopted as a 14-month-old. He’s stunning, and she wanted to finish his Canadian championship and show him at the US specialty. She also wanted to do agility, obedience, rally, tracking, and drafting with him. He was awful. He wasn’t food motivated, he was distractable, he couldn’t seem to remember stuff. She was putting an enormous amount of effort into trying to inspire him. I TOLD her to neuter him but she didn’t think it would make a difference.

She finished his Canadian championship and shortly thereafter we went to the American specialty and she got to show him. The day after he got home, she neutered him. He’s not perfect, but his personality changed completely. He’s earned 2 water titles, an obedience title and 2 rally titles in the year since he was neutered.

I’d whack those suckers off and give him some time to see if it makes a difference.

Done and done! Barnum was neutered on Monday. He is recovering nicely. He has transitioned from being in pain and utterly freaked by the Cone of Shame (E-collar) to just being really itchy “back there,” and irritated as hell about the collar. His strategy for dealing with the collar is typical Barnum: he just slams into/through any obstacle, so it’s anyone’s guess how long the collar or house will last.

Barnum, a black brindle bouvier des Flandres with an extremely short haircut, lies on a wooden floor with an enormous translucent plastic cone over his head. His head and body posture all indicate a miserable, self-pitying, hang-dog expression.

Insult Added to Injury

I don’t know how long it takes for the hormones to settle down. (Anyone?) I figure I’ll give him a month or two to recover, and then I’ll put my “make it work” plan into action.

After the Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) 2011 blogswarm is over, I’ll try to post some pictures of Mr. Bucket Head and get back to other issues.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she did that to me the first week I got home!), and Barnum (forever altered, SDiT?)

Lost-for-Words Wednesday: Video of CM Kicking Dogs

I’ve been busy with other writing projects, including a fiction-writing grant application, a carnival post (with happy training video), and other stuff.

I’ve also actually been taking Barnum out, since my chair is currently functional again. (I don’t expect it to last. More on this another time.) But, for now, we are both very happy to leave the yard together. (Yeah, I’ve left the ramp for the first time in . . . how long?)

So, this is a quick post. A lot of bloggers do a “Wordless Wednesday” post. Instead, here is my “At a Loss for Words” Wednesday post. It’s a video of Cesar Millan kicking countless dogs.

These were aired on the TV program, the Dog Whisperer.

I can’t put up the actual video here, because — shockingly! — it was taken down from youtube. But you can view it where it’s still up, on the DancingDogBlog.

[Access note: Because I can’t download the video, or upload it to another site, there’s no way for me to caption it or transcribe it. However, honestly, I couldn’t bear to watch it again anyway, even if I could. I apologize to my readers who can’t access non-captioned or transcribed video.]

I just watched it. I found it extremely upsetting. I only ever watched a few episodes of the show (I’d just end up yelling at the TV), but I bet I saw him kick some dogs and never knew it. You see, he kicks them from behind, so it’s harder for people to see. What a great “training” technique. Honestly, it looks like a good soccer-pass fake. Too bad these are dogs, not inanimate objects intended for being kicked around a field.

He usually kicks the abdominal area/testicles. You’ll also see him hanging dogs by their collars (choking), and other forms of abuse he calls training.

Of course, it’s not news to anybody who knows anything about modern dog training that his methods are dangerous for people and dogs and inhumane. In fact, before the first episode of the show ever aired, the American Humane Society and various other dog behavior professionals told National Geographic that they don’t support the methods shown. They asked National Geographic not to air the show. (Note: Several months ago,I did read the aforementioned AHS position paper on Dog Whisperer, and there are multiple links to it, but the links for the original document now bring up a 404 error message. Funny how things critical of CM keep getting erased from the web, huh?) The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior wrote to Merial, asking the corporation not to support Millan’s videos.

Given this, why, you may ask, does this matter? There are plenty of good trainers out there, knowledgable people, and he is just one guy.

The biggest problem is that people buy it and buy it and buy it. I have friends who quote him. People who would never hit their dog, but who try to emulate him. Because he doesn’t call what he does “hitting” or “kicking,” he calls it “interrupting behavior” and “redirecting.”

They spout his rhetoric and take his viewpoint to heart, essentially that any means necessary to make the dog do what you want is the right thing to do. These are not bad people. They love their dogs. However, CM is selling them faulty goods.

I and countless others who have switched our methods had to understand a new underlying philosophy about training. CM and his dominance and ends-justify-the-means message interfere with the learning processes of millions of people.

The other problem is that people say, “But his methods work! He saves these dogs from being put down. Isn’t that the most important thing?”

What I hear in these arguments is, “If the dog is terrified in the process of being ‘trained,’ isn’t that for the greater good? Don’t the outcomes speak for themselves?”

No, it isn’t, and no, they don’t.

Let’s start with the “some discomfort is okay for the dog’s own good” argument. All you have to do is watch these dogs’ body language (or sometimes, listen to their yelps), to know they are way beyond “discomfort.” The dogs in this video are throwing every kind of calming and appeasement signal they can at CM, and they are punished for it. The blatant body language of anxiety, fear, and distress was the worst part to watch, for me.

Secondly, even if you think such tactics are justified, we have no idea what is actually happening because there are many hours of video edited into a few minutes. In the video montage above, you can clearly see at least two places where editors cut CM’s more horrifying kicks, such as the one to the snout. How do we know what happens weeks or months later, after the dog with behavior issues has experienced this additional trauma? Does the dog stay “calm” (CM’s term for “scared/shocked into total shutdown”) forever? Are the cameras around for that fallout?

Eileen, whom I mentioned in some previous posts, recently put up this terrific video, showing the difference in her dogs responding to a cue taught by positive reinforcement and by negative reinforcement. I told her I thought this was very brave — to go public on a mistake and own the consequences. But this is how people learn. (This video is captioned. Much of it is also narrated.)

I have certainly made my share of wrong-headed training decisions in the past, and occasionally I still make mistakes that I regret. However, unlike Eileen and me, CM has repeatedly refused — despite offers from many qualified, kind behaviorists to show him a better way — to change his mantra of outmoded, disproven dominance theory and his tactics of coercion and punishment.

Having, in fact, trained an old dog to do new tricks (with clicker training!), I know it’s not only possible, but easy. So, what’s CM’s excuse for not learning?

My dogs were getting paid with kibble, hotdogs, and cheese. CM is getting paid many millions of dollars. The value of a reinforcer is determined by the one being taught. Clearly, CM sees fame and fortune as much more reinforcing than actually helping, not hurting, dogs.

Please contact the National  Geographic Channel and voice your concerns.

With a heavy heart,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I was mostly spared those horrors), and Barnum (I am blissfully unaware of human nonsense!)

P.S. Comment moderation is on. I once made a negative comment about a CM video on  youtube and was called some nasty names. None of that will be showing up on my blog, thank you.

L3 Homework: Why Won’t My Dog Do What I Ask?

I promised I’d eventually catch you up on where Barnum and I are in on training. It won’t be chronological, so consider this part of an intimate peek into the brain of someone with fractured thinking. (You’re welcome!)

Sometime soon, I hope to post:

  • All the socialization experiences Barnum had when he was ages 9 to 16 weeks;
  • The videos and/or descriptions of the Level Two tests we passed;
  • The videos and/or descriptions of the Level Three behaviors he has already passed;
  • Various other training tidbits and milestones.

Today, let’s just pretend you already are caught up on the fact that we passed L2 several months ago, and are now itching with a deep and abiding curiosity to know my homework for L3.

The homework for Level Three of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels is this:

Handler lists, in writing, ten reasons why a dog might not perform a required behaviour.

This question asks, in essence, “Why might a dog not perform a behavior that the handler/trainer believes the dog knows?”

Reasons do not include, “He’s stubborn,” or “She’s stupid.”

Here is my list, which I actually wrote a few months ago, when we were first embarking on L3.

1. He might be distracted.

This is a big one for us. I can ask Barnum to sit, and as he starts lowering his butt to the floor, any of the following can literally stop him in his tracks: a gust of wind (which carries scents to be sniffed or blows leaves to chase), a person speaking (even whispering or just saying one word), something moves (a bird flies past the window, someone else walks by), he hears/sees/smells another dog, etcetera. If he can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense it, it can be distracting.

2. He might hear the cue wrong (have trouble distinguishing the sounds of two cues).

For example, I discovered that “Watch” (my former cue for eye contact) and “Platz” (my cue for down), sound very similar to Barnum, and he sometimes got them confused. For this reason, I changed the cue for eye contact to “Watch me!” and made the inflection very different, both of which seem to help.

Similarly, he might see the cue wrong — have trouble differentiating between two hand signals, which has also happened to me, and I’ve had to alter one a bit to make it clearer. This has happened with us with the cues for sit and stand, and with the cues for nose-targeting (“Touch!) and down.

3. He might be following a pattern that you have unknowingly taught, so that he is not following the cue you think you’re giving, but following the pattern he anticipates.

I remember reading in Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog! about how she had to inform another dolphin trainer that her dolphins were not jumping based on the hand signal she was using as a cue, but were instead jumping at even intervals that the trainer had unknowingly trained.

For this reason, I try to be aware of patterns of timing, or behavior chains, but sometimes I unintentionally train a pattern or chain anyway. For example, at some point, I must have done a pattern of sit, down, stand, down, with Barnum a few times, even though I know I didn’t do it consistently in any given session or in every session.

Nevertheless, I’ve done it often enough that Barnum, after being clicked and treated for a sit and a stand, would automatically offer down, no matter what I asked for. I’ve been working on scrupulously shaking it up.

4. He might be following environmental cues you aren’t aware of.

This “Oops” moment was featured in my video of Barnum passing L2 stand-stay.

At the beginning of this taped training session, I tried to work on eye contact, and Barnum — who had never done this before — barked each time I said “Watch.” I realized that, yes, “bark” and “watch” sound a little similar, but I don’t think that was all that caused the confusion.

First of all, at that point, Barnum was pretty good at recognizing the hand signal for “Bark!” but not the spoken cue; and so far, I have not taught him any hand signal for “Watch me.” For another, we had mostly worked on “Bark!” and “Quiet,” at night, and in the kitchen/living room. On the other hand, we primarily worked on eye contact in my bedroom, usually during daylight. It seemed to me that he was offering barking because that’s what the environment suggested I would ask for.

5. The dog might respond to unintentional cues given by the trainer/handler.

Speaking of hand cues, Barnum is a master at interpreting body language. Very often, he cues off of the position or movement of my eyes, hands, arms, head, and probably other things I’m not aware of, when I give a command.

Then, if my head, eyes, hands, or arms do that (whatever that is) while I’m asking for a different behavior, he performs the behavior that he’s come to associate with my body movement or position.

For example, without my being aware of it, we apparently did a lot of training of the “down” position when my arms were hanging down or palm-up in my lap. I was more likely to have my hands in fists or resting palm-downward on my lap for “sit.” None of this was conscious on my part.

I became aware of these tendencies when I started to give Barnum verbal cues only for “sit” or “down,” and noticed that he first looked at my hand position before deciding which behavior to offer. What I said was much less meaningful to him than my unconscious hand-shapes.

For instance, if I said “Sit,” and my arm was hanging down or palm-up in my lap, he would down instead. I had to retrain these cues by moving my hands a little bit with each repetition from the positions he associated with the behavior to completely different postures, and then randomizing them.

Even putting your hands behind your back — which many savvy clicker trainers do — does not always work to prevent unintentional cueing. For example, I discovered that I unconsciously tipped my chin up and looked at Barnum’s rump when I cued him to sit.

I learned that I could cue a sit simply by moving my eyes (to look at his hindquarters) or very slightly raising my eyebrows. Below is a video of me cueing Barnum to sit or down without using voice or hand signals. Or watch the captioned version of the video here.

Read the transcript of the video here.

6. You might be using a poisoned cue.

A poisoned cue is one that has come to either have a negative or potentially negative association for the dog, or one that doesn’t “work” anymore because it has become meaningless. Examples of the former include when the handler intentionally does something that the dog finds aversive, such as punishing an incorrect response, or when “shit happens,” such as when you are just introducing your cue, “Up the stairs!” and the dog’s metal dinner bowl comes clanging down the stairs at that exact moment as he is climbing them. (This is not a theoretical example, I’m sorry to say!)

An example of a meaningless cue as a poisoned cue is if you call your dog to come to you, and she ignores you and continues to sniff the exciting smells she’s enjoying, or playing with another dog, or chasing a squirrel, or whatever is more rewarding than coming to you. After you have done this a few times, you’ve taught your dog that, “Fido, come!” has no connection to Fido stopping what he’s doing to run over to you.

It is possible to have a poisoned cue and not realize it.

7. The dog may not like to do the behavior or feel comfortable with it in certain circumstances.

For example, if you ask your dog to down when there is another dog nearby that your dog feels may be a threat, your dog might be apprehensive about taking this submissive posture around the “scary” dog. Some dogs, such as Jersey, really hate lying down on a wet surface, such as a sidewalk that is damp.

8. He might have a brain fart.

Yes, that’s the technical term.

Seriously, I’ve seen this happen with all my dogs at one time or another. For example, occasionally I will give Barnum a cue he pretty much knows, and he clearly knows he’s supposed to do something, but it’s just escaped him. He’ll look at me like, “What? I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?” And if I do, he does the behavior just fine.

9. There might be a physical or medical reason the dog doesn’t want to do the behavior.

A few months ago, Barnum mysteriously began ducking his head when I tried to pet him on the head. In the past, I had worked a lot with him on first tolerating, and then enjoying, being petted on the head.

“What’s gone wrong?” I thought.

I had all sorts of ideas, relating to fear, linking head petting to other things we were training, etc. I kept trying to retrain it and getting nowhere. It turned out that he had an infected cyst over one of his eyes, and it was painful. He didn’t want to be touched anywhere in the vicinity. After one day of antibiotics, he was perfectly happy to have his head petted again.

10. You have (intentionally or unintentionally) raised the criteria for the behavior, and it’s too big a jump for the dog to understand what’s being asked of him.

This is where the famous “Four Ds” come in: duration, distance, difficulty, and distraction.

Friend of the blog and terrific Training Levels trainer, Eileen has given me permission to post her excellent videos on this subject (Eileenanddogs on youtube). Updated note! These videos are all either captioned now or on their way to being captioned. Definitely the first one (“The Missed Cue”) is already captioned, and likely, the others, as well.

She started with “The Missed Cue.” This video shows both her dogs responding correctly to a cue (“go to mat”) many times until suddenly, neither of them understands what to do anymore. A difference of a few inches is the culprit!

Eileen continues the series with, “Missed Cue: Paw Touch.” This video shows how previous reinforcement history can affect the response to a cue the dog otherwise seems to know. (This is not exactly the same as #2 in my list, above, but it is similar.)

In “The Missed Cue: Generalization,” one of Eileen’s dogs does not responding correctly to a cue because she hasn’t generalized to a change in the environment. (A different environmental change than I mentioned in #4, in my list above, but similar, because the object in this case is acting as a sort of cue.)

Onward! Upward! Outward! But first, to sleep.

-Sharon, Gadget (the Great Generalizer), and Barnum (SDiT, still young, but with an expanding mind)

QuickPress: Change the Motivation

I’ve blogged before about the problem of Barnum jumping up on my bed (not his whole body, just his front), and the many things I’ve tried to do to get him to jump up when asked and not when uninvited. I’ve also whined about it on the Training Levels list on occasion.

I have a queen-sized bed, and he jumps up around where my calves are. (We had to do special training to teach him that when he is invited to jump up, he must not jump on my legs, as that’s very painful for me. He should land and stay next to my body, not on it.)

I felt like I’d tried everything, although I knew I hadn’t, because in clicker training there is always a solution. So, if you still have your undesirable behavior, you haven’t yet hit on a way to explain what you want (and make it worthwhile) to your dog. This has made me feel like a doofus, and it’s also created a lot of frustration for both of us.

I’d tried every form of positive and negative reinforcement I could think of, as well as positive and negative punishment, even though I generally try not to resort to positive punishment. Here’s a partial list:

  • Putting jumping up on cue,
  • rewarding being on the floor,
  • trying to make being on the bed boring,
  • leaving when he jumped on the bed,
  • teaching “sit” as an incompatible behavior — which just poisoned “sit by the bed,” and I had to re-teach “sit,”
  • c/t for lying on the floor next to the bed (capturing), which is fine in itself, but didn’t seem to relate, in his mind, to not jumping on the bed,
  • parking my powerchair to block the part of the bed he normally jumps  on (not always practical or feasible for me),
  • and most recently, LTD, umbilical cord, which has taught him to jump on the bed, but to jump off when I lean forward to pull him off with the leash, effectively teaching him that when I approach him, he should get away from me. Not what I wanted!)

There have been two main stumbling blocks. One is that we spend the great majority of our time in my room, with me in bed, so it really is not something I can train on and off, like most other behaviors. From his perspective, the lure/cue (the bed) is there all the time. We can’t train this for hours at a stretch, because neither of us can handle that!

The other problem is that there are multiple reasons why he might want to be on the bed, and they vary by situation. Sometimes he wants to be close or interact with me. Sometimes he wants to snorffle what I’m eating. Sometimes, especially during the day, he wants to look out the window.

Over time, as he has learned that he never gets food rewards while I’m eating, the food snorffling interest has backed off. I have also been trying, when my chair is blocking his usual jumping spot, to teach him to come to me up by my head. This is going well, but it will take time to undo his habit.

In training this last bit, I often have to use our “around” cue — ordistance” as it’s called in the Levels, which is that he should come around my power chair from my feet to my head. He also knows Around for the crate, which is at the foot of my bed. The narrow side of the room is where the windows are, so if he goes around the crate, he is heading toward the windows.

He is able to look out the windows without jumping on the bed, either from a distance, on the floor, or from standing at the windows. A few weeks ago, I even left a step-stool next to the windows so he could get a better view. He does use it sometimes, but he still jumps on the bed.

Today, the obvious solution finally hit me. I was thinking about Karen Pryor’s book, Don’t Shoot the Dog, where she presents a chapter on each of the different ways we can attempt to alter behavior. One of them is “Change the motivation.”

“Okay,” I thought. “He wants to look out the window from higher up than the floor. How do I get him to understand that I want him to do that by stepping on the stool, and not by jumping up on the window sill or the bed?…”

Then I realized what I should have been doing ever since we started using the stool. Here’s what we did:

I cued him to go Around the crate. c/t. We did that a few times, with him happily trotting back and forth from the window side to the chair side. Then I stopped clicking for coming to the chair side. Now that he is good at shaping — more “operant” — he didn’t just give up; he tried some different behaviors. He went back to the window side. C/t.

Then I waited. Doing nothing is a very important part of clicker training. Sometimes it’s harder than you might think! We trainers like to “make things happen.” But things are always happening, whether we want them to or not. You have to wait for your opportunity to reinforce sometimes. This is called “capturing.”

When it seemed like I wasn’t paying off anymore, Barnum got bored and got on his stool to look outside. C/t. He jumped off to eat his hot dog, then jumped back up, c/t.

Shortly, he was jumping up there, which was good, but looking at me, waiting for his c/t, which I didn’t want. I wanted him to look out the window. I wanted to reinforce what he wants to do. Then we can both have our “down time” on our own terms.

I said, “What’s that?” And pointed out the window. He knows this cue from the “Look at That” (LAT) game. He looked out, c/t. We did a few of those.

Then my PCA went outside, which is always a reason for riveting excitement at looking out the window. I c/t him a few times, and he ignored the treats sometimes, which was fine. He knew he was getting treated, and he could collect them later.

Then, he wanted to start the game again. What to do?

He went over to the windows. C/T. He looked at me. Nothing. He put a paw on the step stool. C/T! When he’d retrieved his tidbit, he wasn’t sure how to reactivate me. Paw on step stool? Okay, C/T. Scratch step stool? Nothing. Paw again. Paw harder. Use other paw. Nothing nothing nothing.

I waited.

He stepped onto the stool. C/T. We did that a few times. Then, I waited for him to look out the window before c/t.

Eventually, he had enough of that and went to lie down on the floor on the other (near) side of my bed. C/T.

It’s only taken a year, but I think he’s finally training me.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I found her pretty easy to train), and Barnum (“It’s taken me forever to get through to her. It’s a good thing she’s so cute!”)

My Operant Dog!

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival "button" - purple

Enjoy the carnival!

This post is part of the second Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, hosted by L^2 (L-squared) at Dog’s Eye View. This month, the theme is “Decisions.”

**Breaking News: The Carnival is up, and it is huge! 26 bloggers participated this time. Please visit the carnival and enjoy!**

I can’t think of a topic that is more suited to a discussion of assistance dogs. The life of a service dog (SD) partnership is one of constant decision-making. For people, there are the “big decisions”: whether, when, where, or how to get a SD; which methods to use to train or handle the dog; which skills to train; how to deal with public access issues (when to confront, when to avoid, when to gently educate); when to retire our working partner and/or when to take on a successor, to name just a few.

In daily life, both members of the team make decisions all day long. On the human end of the leash, we decide how to direct our dog, which behavior to ask for, how to respond to a missed cue, how best to explain to the dog what we want, when to give the dog a break and when to keep working.

On the canine end of the leash, the dog is making decisions: When to alert, how best to guide around an obstacle, whether to use paw or nose, whether to use one paw or two, whether to refuse a command.

But even before the dog becomes a full-fledged SD, he is making choices. And the trainer is influenced by those choices, herself. That’s what my post is about — a recent event where Barnum’s decision-making shone through, and how that moved me to make up my mind.

I use the phrase, “The other end of the leash,” above, intentionally. My decision about what to write for this carnival post was inspired by a recent blog by behaviorist, and author of The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell.

In her New Year’s blog, McConnell presents the difference between “resolutions” and “commitments.” She reveals past and current commitments she has made to herself and to her dogs on New Year’s and invites readers to do the same.

She provides terrific advice on how best to keep our “New Year’s Commitments” to ourselves and to our dogs:

We know that commitments are most often kept if 1) they are focused and specific, 2) they are attainable and 3) they are made public. Not that you have to blog about them yourself, but …. do what you can to put them out into the universe in some way.

McConnell also delivers a fascinating etymological tidbit:

The word “decision” originated from “decis,” or to “cut off” — as in, “cut off all other options”. Truly making a decision – truly – means selecting one option and completely eliminating all others.

I love words, so this intrigued me, but it didn’t seem particularly useful at the time. Instead, I got caught up in the idea of New Year’s resolutions for our dogs — her resolution for her dog, Willie, as well as the dozens of comments by readers who followed McConnell’s lead in making promises for the betterment of their dogs in the coming year — making it public by posting on her blog.

I don’t normally make New Year’s resolutions, but the more I read, the more I started to ponder, “What is a doable goal that would benefit Barnum and me, that I don’t already have in my sights?”

Here’s what I came up with and posted in the comments section. (I had so much trouble getting specific that I had to post twice):

[My first comment:] My resolution — and I wouldn’t have made one if I hadn’t read your blog, so thank you — is to teach Barnum an actual TRICK. Not a foundation behavior for service work or manners or obedience or handling, etc., but a totally useless, just-for-fun trick.

[My second comment:] Oh, shoot, that wasn’t very specific. I’m not sure what we’ll do yet. Maybe twirling? I want to see what he likes.

How about, at least once a week, we will train some sort of completely useless behavior, just for fun.

Why, when we have so much to learn that is crucial — assistance skills, obedience behaviors, manners appropriate to working in public — have I decided to waste time training something I characterize as useless? The question itself provides the answer: Barnum and I have so much pressure on us to succeed, we need to be able to do something simply for the pleasure of training. This will also strengthen our bond.

In fact, Karen Pryor‘s book, Getting Started: Clicker Training Your Dog, suggests beginning with a shaped trick — something for which the outcome is not important. That way, both dog and person can simply focus on learning and having fun, without getting weighed down by the need to “get it right.”

For people training their pets, this is important advice. If you’ve turned to training your dog to correct a problem, such as jumping on guests, counter surfing, or not coming when called, you don’t want to claw your way up the learning curve simultaneous with trying to fix an “issue.” You learn clicker by doing; it’s better to learn to teach your dog to “sit pretty” or balance a biscuit on her nose, and then tackle “jumping on guests.”

As a disabled handler training my own service dog, the pressure to train — virtually constantly — and to do it all perfectly, is multiplied by twenty. Barnum must learn all the good manners a well-behaved pet needs, plus cast-iron obedience, dozens of complicated service skills, fantastic impulse control, and to perform all these behaviors in distracting, public environments.

And who has to mold this wild adolescent into a top-notch helper and public ambassador for assistance dogs? Me! The person who needs the help!

Clearly, therefore, a great deal of pressure comes from my needs that are currently going unmet, and my hopes and expectations that someday, this will change. I remember what it was like to have these needs met by Gadget.

While Barnum gives me a great deal of love and enjoyment, there’s no denying that, for the past year, and the one to come, he also requires tons of work, without providing practical assistance in exchange.

Usually, I’m at peace with this uncertainty of when, or even if, he will start giving back. Occasionally, though, when I’m extremely ill, I think, “Can’t you just pick up that pen? It’s really not that hard.”

Or, “Dude, can’t you just open the door yourself? I’m in too much pain to move.”

I have my doubts: “Will we ever get there?”

Then, I have to give myself a mental shake and remind myself of who Barnum is and how much he still has to learn. It is this pressure to get my own needs met, that runs counter to Barnum’s needs, which I must resist — for both of our sakes.

A bit of additional pressure — completely unintentional — comes from external forces, such as from other trainers with whom I communicate, as well as from some of the people in my life. For example, when Barnum was about four months old, one of my PCAs asked when he’d be able to bring me water from the refrigerator. I was speechless, because this task was so far beyond our grasp.

My helper followed up with, “Within two months, do you think?”

She was not joking. She had seen Gadget working as a fully fledged SD. She didn’t see the years of effort that went into his training. She didn’t realize she was asking about a behavior chain that required the mastery of several discrete skills, strung together, combined with distance, distraction, and duration.

I think I said something like, “No, that is a long way off. First, we have to finish toilet training!”

Thus, my resolution to teach an honest-to-goodness, good-for-nothin’ trick!

You may have noticed I said we would do a “shaped” trick. So, what is “shaping”? What does it mean to say a skill is “shaped?”[1]

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, clicker training relies on the laws of operant conditioning, specifically, positive reinforcement. (We’ll come back to that word, “operant,” in a little bit.)

Shaping, sometimes referred to as “free shaping,” is considered the most advanced 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.

The first “trick” I shaped with Barnum was to file his nails by scratching them on a board covered with sandpaper. (To teach your dog to do this, visit trainer Shirley Chong’s nail file instructions.)

In the beginning, this meant just clicking and treating (c/t) for looking at the board, then moving toward it, then putting a paw on it, then moving his paw. Over time I start refine the behavior (giving it “shape”): I wait for a paw movement that is a tiny bit like a scratch — the front of the paw is bent forward, or he moves the paw backward as he brings it down. I stop clicking for just “paws on board” and only click for raking movements.

Eventually, I refine more. At different times, I have shaped for scratching only the sandpapered parts of the board, for longer scratches, harder scratches, and for two or three scratches in a row. Barnum also seems to be “left-pawed,” so I click more for right-paw movements to even him out.

This behavior is not yet finished, but here is a three-minute video of one of our early training sessions. This was in October, when Barnum was six months old (and looking like a very leggy, shorn black sheep!).

Note: I haven’t captioned the video, because there is no sound other than clicking, and there are so many clicks, the software is not refined enough to get the timing right. However, you can see when I’ve clicked, because Barnum looks up at me, and I throw a treat.

I also have not provided a transcript because, again, there is no dialogue, and my guess is that reading a transcript would be tedious.

But, here’s what occurs: There is a plywood board about two-thirds covered in sandpaper on the living room floor. Barnum immediately goes to the board when it’s placed on the ground and rakes a paw across it.

Initially, I click for every scratch with one paw. After a while, he ends up on the end of the board where there’s no sandpaper. When he scratches there, about three times, I withhold clicks, because we’ve already worked on this. Then he remembers, “Oh yeah, I don’t get paid over here,” and repositions.

Then, I start holding off on some clicks to get two scratches. I click even if the second scratch is very abbreviated, because my criterion is just “more consecutive scratches.” I also click more often for one scratch if it’s the right paw, even if it’s not a very good scratch.

I clicked about 25 times in this session (which is actually a very low rate of reinforcement [RR]. Higher rates are much more effective, but I’ll save that discussion for another post). However, the biggest error I made is that I went too long. Barnum tells me this quite directly by wandering away at the end of the video. His poor puppy brain was full!

Clicker sessions should be short; shaping sessions — because they are so mentally intensive — should be particularly short; and given Barnum’s age, it should have been even shorter. A one-minute or 30-second session would have been ideal.

What I hope you notice most, however, is not what I did, but what Barnum did, which is ultimately what this post is about. Through clicker training, Barnum is learning to make choices. He’s learned he’s free to guess and investigate: Will this work? No, then what about this?

Since there’s no punishment, there’s no reason not to try something. Novel behavior is usually rewarded, in fact.

In other words, it’s obvious when watching this video that Barnum was thinking. Sometimes he pauses and tries this or that part of the board, including swinging his body around to try different angles. Sometimes you can see him deciding to use one paw instead of the other, especially when the first paw didn’t get clicked. And, most importantly, he didn’t give up — he made the decision to keep trying until he got too mentally tired, and took a break. Also a valid choice, and an important communication to me.

It’s worth noting, however, that — although you don’t see this because it occurs after the tape ends — after turning and walking away, Barnum arced back around and immediately tried to continue. In fact, this “game” is so reinforcing for him that even when I have gone too long, and he clearly needs to stop, when I pick up the board, he always tries to get more scratches in. I will be lifting up the board, and he’s trying to stand on it (and that’s 80 pounds of dog — oof!).

That’s where we were six months ago.

My, how things have changed!

At that time, this skill was the only one I had trained entirely by shaping. (In most cases, I’d used a combination of shaping and targeting.) Since then, Barnum has gotten more “clicker savvy,” and we do more pure shaping. As a result, he is much more accustomed to offering behaviors.

I didn’t realize how much learning was going on inside his furry head until I embarked on our first twirling lesson. Remember that New Year’s resolution? Our useless trick?

Here’s how it went. I got out my treats (cubes of frozen beef heart), and my clicker, and shut us in the larger bathroom — the room with the fewest distractions that still provides enough space to maneuver.

My first decision was which direction I was going to teach him to spin, and more importantly, how I would remember which direction I chose. Shaping requires split-second timing; a good shaping session is a series of reactions without pauses for thought.

In fact, since no response (the absence of c/t) means, “That’s not what I’m looking for, try something else,” if I stop to think, “Now should I click that or not? Was that clockwise or counterclockwise?” I very well might be giving Barnum bogus information — telling him he didn’t do the desired behavior when he did.

Therefore, I needed a way I could keep track of which direction I’d spin Barnum without my brain inhibiting the speed and rhythm of my hands. Barnum has a streak of silver on his left, front leg. I decided to shape him to spin left, using that visual landmark to keep me on track if I became confused.

Now it was time to tell Barnum the plan.

I sat and waited. When Barnum looked to the left, c/t. I cheated slightly, by including an element of luring — I tried to throw the treats to his left. This meant, every time he turned toward a treat, I could click him again for that left-turning motion. We went on like this, with him making big, slow circles as I clicked and lobbed meat.

Did he know what he was being clicked for? No, not yet. But just like an athlete or pianist builds muscle memory by practicing moving their body in a certain way over and over, I had faith he would eventually start turning to the left on his own. At first, he wouldn’t realize why he was doing this. Eventually, he would have “a lightbulb moment” and start doing it intentionally. Then, I would shape a tighter, faster spin — maybe. Someday?

But for now, I was just trying to get him moving in the correct direction, literally. All was going well until, for whatever reason (probably due to where I’d thrown the last treat), I didn’t have anything to click. Barnum just stood perfectly still, watching me.

When no c/t was forthcoming, he offered a sit, because that is the behavior he has the longest reinforcement history with. I continued to wait. I figured eventually he would at least look left, I’d reinforce that, and away we’d go.

Instead, when he didn’t get clicked after a few seconds, he pawed the ground! First with one paw, then the other. He tried both tapping the ground and raking it. If I’d been prepared and thinking on my toes, I could have clicked one of these left-paw movements, but I was not expecting it.

I had been shaping him to hit a target on the floor with his paw, and of course he knew the scratches from the nail file, but there was no target or filing board this time, he was just trying out different foot behaviors — maybe partly because he recognized that the behavior had something to do with moving his legs.

Then he sat again. No click. He downed. No click. He did all of this facing me, straight on, so there was no clickable movement to the left!

He lay there, looking at me. Then he elaborated on his down. He put his head on his right leg. Then his left. He tried rolling partway onto his side. (Again, looking back, I realize I could have clicked him putting his head on his left leg, but I was so entranced by him offering me behavior after behavior, I wasn’t thinking small enough.)

Then he pulled himself back into a sit. He locked eyes with me and stared — eye contact, a behavior we work on every day.

Up until now, every behavior he’d offered was something he’d been rewarded for in the past. (The head-down-on-paws and laying on his side are some of the “bio-feedback” behaviors I click for when asking him to relax.)

When nothing in his known repertoire worked, he did something that totally surprised me. Staying in his sit, he scooted his butt a couple of inches to one side. Then he tried scooting the other direction.

I have never seen him do this before or since. I have certainly never asked for the behavior, “Sit, looking at me, and — staying in your sit — move two inches to the right.”

He was getting quite frustrated. He wanted the game to start again! He shifted his eyes left (probably a sign of mild stress, actually), and I clicked! He startled (“Hooray!”),  jumped up, and dove for his treat. We were off again on shaping the twirl. I ended soon after.

To someone who is not obsessed involved with clicker training, it might seem strange that I was thrilled that Barnum offered me a whole bunch of behaviors that I did not ask for. That’s because traditionally people think of dog training as meaning I tell the dog what to do, and if he “obeys,” he’s a good dog (and I’m a good trainer). If he doesn’t, he gets a verbal reprimand or a leash pop.

However, my goal since Day One has been for Barnum to be “an operant dog” which is clicker-trainer slang for a dog who has learned that thinking and experimenting, making many choices, will not only not be punished, but will be reinforcing in two ways: it will be fun in its own right, because it becomes a game to puzzle out, and because he can win this game over and over, by receiving positive reinforcements (usually food, but occasionally play, toys, physical affection, freedom, or other experiences he values).

An “operant dog” in the clicker world is one who offers behaviors without waiting for a cue, target, or lure. The dog is not passive or reactive, but instead is operating on the environment, making choices.

As a SD, Barnum will need to learn very complex skills, and this will be made much easier if he is able to problem-solve on his own. I’m currently laying the foundation for a service skill that will require him to “throw multiple behaviors at me.”

The task has to do with my sometimes falling asleep while I’m infusing intravenous medication. The IV pump has an alarm on it, but I have sleep disorders for which I take several herbal and pharmaceutical sleep aids. As a result, I frequently wake up just enough to turn off the alarm and then fall back asleep. I awaken many hours later, still hooked to the pump, and not having flushed my line — with no memory of shutting off the alarm.

I want Barnum to wake me up and keep me awake until I disconnect and flush my PICC line. I began training this skill simply by making him aware of the alarm. When the siren went off (and sometimes I set it to go off even when I’m not infusing — for training purposes) I’d toss him a very desirable treat.

After a few days of doing this, when the alarm sounded, I’d watch for any behavior I could click before tossing the treat — the flick of an ear, opening his eyes, looking up. Any movement that said, “Hey! Where’s my treat?”

I c/t his reaction because now he’s offered a behavior I can shape. Over time, I’ll wait to click till he lifts his head higher, sits up, moves toward me or the pump, etc., until he is running over, demanding his treat.

The ultimate goal is for him to wake me up when the alarm goes off and keep bugging me until he gets his treat. This will work best if he keeps offering behaviors (nudging me, jumping on the bed, barking at me), until he gets what he wants.

Almost everyone agrees that a happy, effective assistance dog has to want to work — in essence, that the dog is choosing the life of a SD.

When I see Barnum eager to offer behaviors, it shows me that he has the desire to keep training and learning. This gives me great hope and optimism at this crossroads in our training journey.

By training this way, are Barnum and I meeting Patricia McConnell’s definition of a decision — that of cutting off all other options? At first glance, it might seem we’re doing the opposite: I’m allowing (encouraging, actually) Barnum to try out many different behaviors.

However, along the way, yes, I am eliminating the choices I don’t want. When I c/t for “scratch on the sandpaper,” I’m closing the door on “scratch on the plain wood surface of the board.” Of course, Barnum can still choose to do that, but he doesn’t get anything out of it, so he makes the choice I want instead.

In the larger sense, the biggest picture of all for me right now, is that breakthroughs like we had in our first “twirling” session have set me more firmly on the road to committing to Barnum as my future SD team. For a long time, I have referred to Barnum as “hopefully my future SD” or “a potential SDiT” or “a SDiT candidate.”

I do think that many people apply the label “service-dog-in-training” too soon. How can an eight-week-old puppy be a SDiT? There is too much unknown. A puppy is a puppy, learning puppy things, like where he should pee and poop and what is okay to chew and what is not. I wanted to wait until I committed to this label.

It is a very individual decision when to switch from calling a dog a “SDiT candidate” and when to say he is a SDiT. I decided to hold off on this judgment to see if he seems to have the drive to work — the creativity, if you will — before I graduated us to “SDiT team.”

Now Barnum is starting to show more and more of the traits I look for in a service dog. I have eliminated the option of seeing him as anything other than my future service dog. I have made the decision that he is my service-dog-in-training.

All this from a little good-for-nothing trick-training session. Are you listening, Universe?

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (SDiT!)

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[1.] Clicker trainers use three other methods besides shaping to “get behavior” (have the dog do something we can reinforce). We can either lure (such as moving a treat up from her nose so that she follows it into a sit), capture (wait for the dog to sit on her own and click and treat), or use targeting (where the dog follows an object, such as your hand, into the position you want). Back to post.

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