Archive for the 'Dog training' Category



Crowdsourcing: Which Vest Would Keep You Away? UPDATED

In a recent post, I commented on the problem that all assistance dog handlers face: distraction from the public. In my case, there’s a slightly different twist.

While Barnum’s work at home is zipping along beautifully, we have a long way to go with his public access skills. This is because I so rarely go anywhere. However, now that it’s summer, and I’m a little more functional, I’m more often able to take Barnum to public venues to train.

One issue we face which many other service-dog-in-training (SDiT) teams don’t face is that since I am so obviously disabled (I am in a wheelchair and use oxygen) and in a public space, people generally assume Barnum is my working service dog (SD) no matter how he’s behaving. (In fact, people generally assume he’s working even when he’s running around, off-leash in the woods, in his orange safety vest!)

When we’re training in public, I always put the “In Training” patches on his vest under the “Service Dog” patches, but I don’t think anyone sees them. I think even if they were ten times larger, the sight of a woman in a wheelchair with a dog with gear on would automatically translate to “service dog” in most people’s minds, and people would still not really “see” the “In Training” badges. The poor visibility of the “In Training” patches raises two concerns.

One of my concerns is that if we’re in a store, and Barnum’s comportment is far-from-perfect, I’m not comfortable with people believing he’s a SD because I worry that we will give other SDs a bad name, or that we will support the myth that partner-trained SDs are not as well-trained as program dogs. Even worse, because I know that some individuals try to pass off pets as SDs (which is illegal as well as unethical), I worry that people will become used to seeing a badly behaved dog as a “service dog,” and that will support the efforts of those who commit fraud.

The second problem is people wanting to talk with me. When I am working Barnum in public, I am unable to communicate with other people. I can’t split my focus. When I try to tell them that I can’t talk, I think I usually end up coming across as very rude because it’s just impossible for me to answer questions, chat, or anything else when I am trying to use my limited energy and focus on extremely demanding training. People who want to talk to me or who want to interact with Barnum are equally big problems in this stage of our training.

I recently came across two products that are designed to tell strangers not to interact with your dog. They are in the DINOS (dogs in need of space) resource section of Notes from a Dog Walker. They are both primarily intended for dogs who are reactive to people or other dogs. DINOS can include fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, or overexuberant dogs (which Barnum was sometimes in the past with other dogs). Barnum is not reactive to people or dogs, however I think this gear could be really useful to Barnum and me as an SDiT team in public.

I’m not sure which to get. I’d like your opinion.

Option A: The TACT Training Vest from Clean Run

Side view of a red corduria vest covering the dog's chest and shoulders. A rectangular black patch with white capital letters says Training Do Not Distract with a red Stop sign. On the back is a smaller round patch which says Training Stop Do Not Pet.

These colors are very eye-catching.

You can read a description of the materials and see additional views of this vest at Clean Run.

Pros

What I like about this vest is that it has the message very forcibly on both sides, and to a lesser degree, from the top. It also looks like it will last well, and it looks professional, so I could keep using it as we improve our public manners. Red and black help get across the “Keep Away” message, I think.

I’m also wondering if I’d be able to remove those patches and put them on his working gear when he’s no longer training. A very large “Do Not DISTRACT” patch is definitely preferable to the smaller “Please Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working,” patch that we have now.

Cons

I’d like something that I can fit over Barnum’s pack, if possible, because I’m using the pack as a cue to teach him that a certain standard of behavior is required. I’m not sure if that would be possible with this. But the tradeoff might be worth it. I also wish it covered more of the dog, because between my big self and my big chair and Barnum’s big self, I would want to make sure the message didn’t get lost.

The biggest drawback, in addition to the minimal size of the vest, is definitely the price: $100+. I could also pay extra for a badge for me to wear that says “In training, do not distract,” but I doubt that would be useful. Most people seem to have trouble seeing me inside all the assistive equipment anyway. Plus, being in a chair means I couldn’t put this badge anywhere close to eye level for a standing adult. For those who know me and want to be friendly and chat, my presence as a familiar face would probably override a little badge. Most people look at the dog, anyway.

Option B: Dog In Training Vest from The Pawsitive Dog

A tan vest that covers from shoulder to waist with very large purple capital letters that says Dog In Training and below that in smaller letters Give Me Space.

This covers more of the dog.

There are more pictures of this vest on different sizes and breeds of dog at The Pawsitive Dog, including the option for a harness hole in the back. It has the same text on both sides of the vest.

Pros

It covers more of the dog. There is just one message, and it’s pretty straightforward. The size of the lettering is huge; there’s not much to distract from the message. At $38, it’s also less than half the price of the other one. This seems most likely to fit over Barnum’s working pack.

Cons

It doesn’t look as professional. My biggest concern is that I’m not sure if medium purple on tan is bright enough and has enough contrast to get the message across.

UPDATE: Cricket Mara, the maker of this vest, replied to my questions with this very helpful information:

The Dog In Training vest is made of a poly/cotton blend fabric with cotton straps and “Soft Touch” Velcro.  It is durable and washable, but still not heavy or noisy.  To use it over his pack, I would measure his chest with his pack in place.  I do suggest air drying to preserve the screen printed lettering.

UPDATE: Option C: Design Your Own Vest

Therapy-dog-style vest in dark blue with large yellow embroidery that says YOUR TEXT GOES HERE on both sides.

This might be the winner, if I can contact them….

Notes From a Dog Walker — the creator of the term, DINOS — commented below and suggested this online store.

Pros

Much more reasonably priced than either of the other options. I can choose the color of the material. (Not sure if I can choose the color of the text.) This means I can choose colors AND a message that I think will be the clearest and the most obvious!

Cons

I think this is least likely to fit it over his pack. I’m emailing them with questions about sizing, colors, etc.

What do YOU think?

I’d particularly like to hear from members of the general public who do not have assistance dogs: Which vest do you think would more likely keep you from approaching a person and dog and trying to engage either the person or the dog? If you knew the person or dog? If they were strangers?

I’d also like to hear from other assistance dog handlers. Which do you think would be more effective, based on your own experiences? If you were going to buy one, which one would you get?

I look forward to everyone’s responses! Please feel free to cast your vote (and offer your reasoning, if you’re so inclined) in the comments to this post. You can also tweet me on Twitter at @aftergadget.

Thank you!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t like strangers), and Barnum (Strangers are fascinating!) SD/SDiT

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Service Dogs & Friends: Familiarity Breeds … Confusion? BADD 2012

This post is in honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) and the spring issue of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC).

The graphic for BADD. Along the top, in yellow letters on a dark green background, it says, "Blogging Against Disablism. Below that is a multicolored square comprised of twenty smaller squares with one stick figure in each, mostly standing, some wheelchair symbols or with canes.

BADD 2012!

Every year on May 1, bloggers from around the world post about some aspect of disability oppression. This is what’s known as a blogswarm. Check out the huge number of excellent posts — entertaining, emotional, or educational — at this year’s BADD!

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

Effects on others

The topic for this quarter’s ADBC is, “How has a working dog in your life affected other people and/or the relationships in your life?”

Lately, I’ve been forced into the realization that, in many ways, raising, training, and handling my own service dogs (SDs) has a negative effect on my IRL (in real life) human relationships, and likewise, my human relationships make raising, training, and handling my SDs much harder. I have many rich, rewarding relationships with other assistance dog partners and trainers online, but when it comes to people I see in the flesh or talk to on the phone, I have no SD partner friends. Ironically, the biggest challenge comes not from those who dislike or are indifferent to dogs. No, the biggest challenge comes from those in my life who are fond of or have some sort of relationship with my dog(s) or who feel a connection to the SD world.

Here are some of the common problems, many of which overlap with each other:

  • Some perceive me as an extension of my service dog. They often prioritize their interactions with the dog over their interactions with me. They may or may not have any problem with me, but still may only want to be around me to interact with my dog.
  • Some see my SD as just a dog, a pet, and are either unwilling or unable to see that my SD’s role in my life is much more complex, and requires much more upkeep and care, than that of a pet dog. They want to do what they want to do with the dog because it’s fun, and it makes them feel good. The effect that their behavior has on me and my working dog is either unclear to them or less important to them than the pleasure they derive from doing what they enjoy with my SD.
  • Some misinterpret behavior that I allow or encourage with my own SD as giving them special privileges to interact with other people’s SDs in similar ways. They don’t seem to understand the difference in acceptable behavior with a dog who is at home, not working, and with whom they are interacting as a house guest, with acceptable behavior with a stranger’s dog or even my dog when he is working or training.
  • Some have their own relationship to my SD and feel hurt or angry if I put restrictions on their interactions because of choices I make for the good of my working partnership or training. They may or may not intellectually understand or agree with the behaviors I am requesting or enforcing, but they still find them emotionally difficult. They may also think I’m being “mean” (or capricious, or dictatorial) to the dog or to them by disallowing behavior that disrupts my dog’s manners, obedience, or ability to work but which they find pleasurable (or which they believe the dog enjoys).

Here are some recent examples of how these situations have played out. I have altered some details to preserve anonymity.

1. “I saw a service dog and thought of you.” The story I relate below has happened with other people, in similar circumstances, over the last 13 years.

A recent acquaintance who met Barnum, my service dog, at my house a couple of times mentioned in a phone call that she met a miniature poodle SD while at the grocery store. She then said, “I bent down — because I wasn’t allowed to pick her up — and she gave me many kisses. I thought of you and Barnum.”

I didn’t know the particulars of the situation, so I didn’t know the service dog handler’s policies, comfort level in asserting her needs, the dog’s job, or my acquaintance’s relationship to the handler, but hearing her say this, I felt very uncomfortable. It is a universal experience for assistance dog (AD) partners that wherever we go, our dogs attract attention. Some partners enjoy a certain amount of attention from the public as an opportunity to educate or to feel less isolated. However, almost every AD partner I know — and I know a lot of people with guide, hearing, and service dogs — hates the constant intrusions, interruptions, and distractions of members of the public asking them about their AD or talking to, petting, or otherwise distracting their AD from its job. We find the work involved with constantly interacting with people we have not chosen to interact with exhausting.

The overwhelming majority of the people who cause us so much distress do it unwittingly, with only good intentions. This is part of what can make it so hard to deal with. These kind-hearted, dog-loving people usually feel happy and excited to see a working dog and may feel a connection to that team because of their relationship with me or Barnum. They may want to connect with that person or their dog, thinking that they are offering support by way of understanding. What they often don’t realize is that the partner/handler’s experience is quite different. We deal with comments, questions, and distractions all day. We generally don’t care if your friend or niece has a SD, or if you puppy-raised once, or if you follow a hearing-dog blog.

Within an hour or two of being in public, I can have a dozen people stop me to ask, “What kind of dog is that?” “What’s his name?” “What does he do for you?” “Where did you get him?” “Can I pet him?” “How long have you had him?” “He’s so handsome!” “I have a dog, too, but he’s not nearly that smart!” “What a wonderful friend he must be to you!” “Aren’t you lucky to have him!” “I wish I could have a service dog,” and on and on.

The questions and comments are difficult enough, but at least we have some control over how we choose to answer (or ignore) the questions. What we cannot ignore, and what can often be dangerous to our safety and well-being, are people who interfere with our canine assistants. Any of the following constitutes interfering:

  • Talking to the dog (or talking “about” the dog to their handler using a high, squeaky, excitable, baby-talk voice)
  • Petting the dog
  • Extending their hand for the dog to sniff
  • Thumping the dog on the back as they walk by
  • Clapping
  • Whistling
  • Shouting or making other sudden or unexpected movements to “test” the dog
  • Stepping on, kicking, or running into the dog with a shopping cart (yes, people do these things)
  • Leaning down to get kisses

Part of the problem seems to be that some people, like my acquaintance, are trying to be respectful and “follow the rules” but they don’t get the overall concept of what good “assistance dog etiquette” is. They see the dog’s “Don’t Pet Me” patches, so they don’t pet the dog, but they talk to the dog instead. This can be even more distracting to many dogs. This is why many of us are switching from patches and signs that say, “Don’t Pet” to “Do Not DISTRACT.” For example, my guess as to what happened in the case of my acquaintance who got kisses from the miniature poodle is that they asked to pick the dog up (which shocked me in itself! Fortunately this is something nobody ever has asked me, since I have an 80-pound dog), and when the handler said, “Sorry, no,” they either asked if they could “say hi” or they just went ahead and did it.

Note: Just because an AD partner tells you it’s okay to pet their dog or talk to their dog doesn’t mean it actually is. They may be so worn out by saying “no” all day, or they may have received enough hostile reactions to their “no,” that they just give up and allow it, hoping it will make things faster and easier than trying to explain why it’s really not okay.

I was particularly concerned when I heard the miniature poodle SD story because small breed SDs are almost always used for some sort of health alert. They may alert or respond to seizures, changes in blood sugar, or psychological states, such as panic attacks, PTSD episodes, depersonalization, dissociation, or other states that require the dog to be completely tuned in to their partner at all times. They are likely on the watch for a change in their partner’s smell, gait, facial expressions, or other behavior. A dog that is busy kissing someone or being petted is not going to notice these things. You cannot necessarily tell by looking at an AD whether it is “on duty” or not. It is safest for the team if you assume the dog is on duty.

I have heard, over the years, from my friends, health care workers, family members, and others that they approached strangers with assistance dogs because they “thought of you and Jersey/Gadget/Barnum.” I’m always shocked, and I’m almost always tongue-tied. I know they are acting out of fond feelings for me or my SD, but I want to tell them, “The kindest and most supportive thing you can do for any working or training team you see in public — the best way you can honor me and my 13 years of training and partnering with service dogs — is to completely ignore the dog.” It goes against human nature, I know. But it’s really what the vast majority of us want. It is certainly what I want when I’m in public, training or working my dog.

I feel very uncomfortable not knowing how to educate people when I hear these kinds of comments. They pop up out of nowhere, and not usually in contexts where I can stop what I’m doing and go into gentle-assistance-dog-handler-education-mode. So I often say nothing. Then I feel guilty that I am contributing to the problems other handlers are facing with these people who likely think I approve and support their choices to interact with strangers with working dogs.

2. A person’s relationship to my dog — as a dog, not as my working dog — is more important to them than their relationship with me.

Someone recently ended a relationship with me because we had differing desires for how he would interact with my dog and what we saw his role as being. This was someone whom I perceived as “a friend who really likes my dogs.” I thought he was interested in helping me out with them in part because it was useful to me, and in part because he enjoyed his time with my dogs. I discovered, however, that his interest was entirely in having fun with my dogs, and that he did not consider me a friend. This has been a painful discovery for me.

I thought we were friends with a long history of a shared love of my dogs. I knew that there were sometimes conflicting desires about how he wanted to interact with my dogs versus how I wanted them to interact together, but I thought we had the same goal of me having healthy, happy, good working partners. In a recent interaction where this person explained his perception of our relationship, he said that his only sadness was that he would not be interacting with my dogs anymore. He did not feel sad that we had ended our relationship with conflict.

In this conversation, he referred to my service dogs as “your pets.” To me, this explained a lot.

Our disagreements always involved my requesting him to require certain standards of behavior from my dogs. Not to jump up to greet him was one. Not to pull on the leash was another. To sit before and after exiting the vehicle. These rules were for my own and the dogs’ safety, for the dogs’ sense of stability in knowing what was expected of them in all situations, and for their ability to retain the behaviors I needed in my canine assistants.

However, this person and I had different agendas, and it’s only now that I realize how big that difference was. When I saw him allowing, or encouraging, my SD to jump up on him in greeting, I thought that he just didn’t understand why that was a problem, that I hadn’t explained it fully enough. So, I would explain again. I learned, eventually, that he did know that I didn’t want this behavior, but he wanted it, so he “snuck it in” when I wasn’t looking. It was their little secret, between them. This worked alright with my previous SD, Gadget, who was able to distinguish what behavior was allowable with this person only, and what was required with everyone else. However, Barnum, whom I’ve raised from puppyhood, doesn’t make these distinctions as easily and generalizes more. Therefore, it’s very detrimental to his training to have jumping up allowed or encouraged, ever.

Similarly, for the past two years one of my helpers and I have spent hundreds of hours working on loose leash walking with Barnum. I have worked with everyone in my household who ever has Barnum on leash for a split second about how to preserve this training. I couldn’t understand why we could never maintain our progress. Then I discovered that this guy was allowing, or even encouraging, excited behavior which involved, or led to, pulling on leash. I explained again, as I had so many times, why it was important not to let Barnum pull. That was the end of our relationship. He let me know that his interest was in having fun with my dog. Having fun did not involve having to follow my rules for interacting with Barnum.

Of course, everyone has different needs and desires in a relationship. I can understand that some people just want to have fun with a “pet” and not worry about the impact their behavior has on that dog’s person. At the same time, none of the dogs this man knew were pets. They were all working dogs. Canine assistants. The equivalent, for legal purposes, of assistive technology. My SDs make my life safer, less physically painful or exhausting, assist with my communication with others, and provide me with more independence. I almost never leave my house. I am confined to bed almost fulltime. I don’t get to socialize with anyone IRL, except my PCAs and part of my family. In other words, my life is extremely confined, constrained, and limited. Any tiny drop of increased energy, decreased pain, or increased freedom is unbelievably precious to me. And anything that interferes with my dog’s ability to provide this assistance is very painful — sometimes unbearably and heartbreakingly so. I have been without a fully trained assistance dog for three years — since Gadget’s cancer went out of remission in 2009. Sometimes I just can’t stand how long it’s taking, and how unbelievably hard it’s been, to train Gadget’s successor. Knowing that someone I considered a friend doesn’t care about that at all really hurts.

To know that someone I thought of as a friend prioritized their unalloyed fun with my dog over my ability to finish training my dog to improve the quality of my very limited life is quite painful.

3. A person’s relationship to my dog is often intertwined with their feelings about, or relationships with, their parents, their children, their inner children, their own animals, etc., and when I don’t allow them to interact with my SD in ways they find emotionally comfortable, soothing, or pleasurable, they sometimes get very upset.

Sometimes these people are aware of the emotional triggers taking place and can talk to me about it. Then we can talk about what’s going on for them. I can try to empathize with them while also taking care of my own need for my dog’s behavior to be under my control. I hope they will be able to hear me when I explain the practical reasons why I’m asking them not to talk to or pet the dog, let him jump on my bed, beg for food, get treats, etc. Sometimes we can understand and support each other. Sometimes I end up feeling very lonely and exhausted by having to defend my methods. I worry that people in my life think I’m being “mean,” or that I’m just making up rules because that’s fun.

The bottom line in all these situations is that I wish people would understand that my service dog is not a pet. He is not a toy. He is not in their life for their entertainment. Yes, very often my dog and the people in my life share play, love, and affection. I really enjoy when people in my life love and respect my dogs. But, foremost, I want them to recognize — and act accordingly — that my dog is in my life to help me lead a safer, more independent, healthier, richer life. Lately, I look back with longing on the days when I trained my previous two dogs pretty much in isolation. When I lived alone and did not have assistants and carers in my home most of the time. The lines of communication were much clearer with my dogs.

However, back in those days, I was not nearly as sick and disabled as I am now. I no longer have the option of relying primarily on my service dog and my self to survive. For better and for worse, I have people in my life much more of the time, and for better and for worse, these people interact with my service dogs or dogs-in-training, and I have to do constant training and management not only in training my SD, but with these people in how they interact with my dog.

– Sharon, the muses of Jersey and Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My bathroom door pull and two cupboard pulls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnum’s Accomplishments at Two Year’s Old

Not only is this the beginning of another calendar year, but because Barnum was born on December 30, this is also the beginning of a new year of his life!

7 newborn Bouvier puppies in pile on floor

One of these tiny, damp wiggling one-pound puppies will be my Barnum!

Then, he became my fuzzy little bundle of joy. (And a pee and poo output machine.)

Barnum in Sharon's lap

Looking lovingly into each other's eyes on his first day home.

And a bit of a mouthy monster. . . .

Nine-week old fuzzy black puppy with white chin and chest has his mouth swung open and wide toward a hand that is tickling his belly. His pointy puppy teeth are quite visible.

Aw, isn't he, um, adorably vicious?

Well, I’m sure he’ll outgrow it. . . .

Barnum prepares to launch Shark Attack.

Sure, it's all fun until someone gets bitten in the arm. Then it's only fun for Barnum, not so fun for the person who belongs to the arm.

But no, he doesn’t do that anymore. Now he is much more relaxed. In fact, he has become a Zen master. . . .

Barnum lies on the floor, his head cocked, with a square brown biscuit resting on each paw. He is looking at the camera, not at the biscuits.

He knows they're there. But he has to strike a cute pose for the camera, too.

Not just liver treats, but pies, too. . . .

Barnum lying very relaxed, legs spread out, with the pumpkin pie between his front legs, and surrounded by the other three pies.

This is a piece of cake. I mean, pie.

And his “take” and “hold” skills are part of his zen mastery. . . .

A low black table (the same coffee table as in previous pictures). The right side of the table is set with a tangerine-colored placemat and an asian-style wide bowl, with a pair of chop sticks sticking out of the bowl. A takeout menu for a restaurant called "ZEN" stands behind the place setting. Barnum sits on the left side of the table, holding a metal dumbbell in his mouth, from which hangs a printed sign. It says, "ZEN is not just a Levels behavior. They also make great sushi. (Hint, hint.)"

That's a "hup," "take," "sit," and "stay," ladies and gentleman!

Furthermore, in the last couple of months, Barnum’s drive to train/work and be active has increased. This maturity has meant that his skills as a service dog are coming together! It has also meant that some of the natural bouvier des Flandres temperament is coming out in him, which I am less happy about. He is developing a habit of barking at strangers when he goes for walks, and barked his head off at a visitor for my birthday, which is extremely unlike him. He’s usually very quiet. So, socialization efforts need to be stepped up.

It’s a day for celebration, and having been extremely ill for much of the last two weeks, when he does help me, I really notice the difference! Sure, I could post about all the things we still need lots of work on, but not today. Today, we focus on feeling good!

Here are some of our accomplishments of the past year:

  • Reliably shuts kitchen and bathroom cupboards, drawers, and refrigerator door
  • Reliably braces for transferring (used mostly to/from chair/toilet)
  • Most of a retrieve (it still needs work, but the basic foundation is there)
  • Shuts my bedroom door on cue reliably and my bathroom door extremely reliably
  • Turns on bathroom light on cue reliably
  • Alerts to infusion pump alarm reliably and to some kitchen timers reliably (others are more spotty)
  • Has learned how to open my bedroom door; now we’re establishing the cue
  • Has learned the motion of turning lights off, but hasn’t yet figured out how to apply it when he has to jump up
  • Has learned to open fridge door (but not the cue, and not far enough open yet)
  • Knows the names of all my PCAs and Betsy
  • Has basics down of carrying an object from a PCA or Betsy to me or vice-versa
  • Is partway to knowing the word, “Slipper”
  • Urinates on cue; pooping not yet entirely on cue
  • Very solid sit and leave it and crate
  • Good progress on mat, down, come, stay, stand, back-up, side, behind
  • Excellent loose-leash walk with people who pay attention to the leash (for people who tighten the leash, he responds in kind)
  • Very good car (van) manners
  • Excellent progress on bathing manners (will get in tub on cue and even sometimes sit or down in water on cue; will not exit tub until cued)

Well, I’m sure I’ve forgotten stuff, but I have a migraine, and I’m exhausted, so I just wanted to pound out this celebratory post.

He is the love of my (and Betsy’s) life. Family, friends, and PCAs love him. He is a dear, sweet, affectionate boy, very sensitive to my moods, but with a rock-solid temperament — almost nothing phases him.

We are well on our way to finishing his skills with doors, light switches, and basic retrieve, and then moving on to more complex retrieves (items by name) and to solidifying his public access skills and other basic obedience, manners, and positioning. From there, we will move to new skills, such as helping pull off socks and other clothing, bed covers, and more!

I think 2012 will be a great year for Team Barnum! Here’s hoping it’s a great one for you, too!

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

The Light Switch Goes Down, Too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retrieve vs. Fetch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A captioned version of the video is here.

Transcript of the video is below my signature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Description:

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon: Barnum, sit.

Barnum sits.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum starts eating the food on the floor.

Sharon: Leave it.

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

Sharon: Barnum, platz.

Barnum lies down and looks up at Sharon.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum begins eating the meat.

Sharon: Leave it.

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

Sharon: Good dog.

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

Sharon: Touch.

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

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

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs up.

Sharon: Go ahead.

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

Sharon: Alright, foot!

Barnum gives Sharon a front paw.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

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

Sharon: Leave it.

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

Sharon: Watch me.

Barnum makes eye contact with Sharon.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

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

Sharon: Barnum, platz.

Barnum lies down.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum gulps down the first two pieces of meat.

Sharon: Leave it.

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

Sharon: Good dog.

Barnum lies down and looks at Sharon.

Sharon: Good boy. Yes!

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

Sharon: Yes!

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

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

Barnum rests his chin in Sharon’s palm.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

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

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

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

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

Barnum gives Sharon a paw.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats the last piece of meat on the floor.

End.


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