The theme for the fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “Achievement.” Barnum and I had two very exciting outings recently — one caught on video — which I’m very excited to share with you. It’s perfect timing for the carnival.
The achievements that Barnum and I celebrate are not the successes of a graduation or a title. Rather, they are small steps that are leading us — oh, so slowly, it often seems — along the path to a working partnership. I don’t think we have a single behavior that I can say is truly finished — not just service skills, but basic obedience and manners, too. Working on so many little skills day after day, it becomes hard to observe that any improvement is taking place. That’s why a day like last week — or last month when we first went into a store — is such a big deal: the improvements are a stark contrast to previous efforts, clear enough for me to notice and revel in them.
This past Thursday I had my biannual appointment with my primary care doctor. The appointment itself was completely useless. (More about that another time.) However, I brought Barnum with me — even though he couldn’t come inside — with hopes that we’d do some training in the parking lot after my appointment. My driver and assistant took care of him during the appointment.
Barnum and I have really only started public access work in the last couple of months. He went into a store — the small village coop in a nearby town — for the first time on September 12. I had someone along who could video the event, which is very unusual. Below is the movie I made of it. (Like the combination treat pouch/leash belt I’m wearing? I got it from Mimi of sheekoo.com, and I love it!)
(If you’re reading this post as an email, click here to view the video.)
But wait, there’s more! Fast-forward to a week ago. As I mentioned, Barnum had to stay in the van with my driver while I had my appointment. In my state, there is no public access for teams in training, so where you are able to go is dependent on the goodwill of the managers of such establishments. My doctor told me that their policy is that a SD team is not allowed in unless the dog is finished training. (These policies seem much more prevalent today than when I trained Gadget or Jersey. I wonder whether this is due to the boom in partner-training SDs — and private and program trainers, too, for the record — who are not yet skilled enough trainers, or not familiar with and careful of laws and etiquette around public-access SDs, creating negative perceptions of SD teams or SDiTs.)
Anynoodle, there is still much that can be done in parking lots or on sidewalks or at the locales that are SDiT-team friendly. Thus, after my appointment, I dressed Barnum in his snazzy working gear. We had a couple of “oopses.” One, which has never happened before, and which I hope never happens again, is that Barnum jumped the gun on exiting the van. He has gotten pretty good at staying inside until he is cued to exit. For whatever reason, though, today he jumped out while leashless. This was scary because we were in “the city” (for my area), and there was actual traffic beyond the parking lot. However, my helper snagged him, I walked him back to the van, and he jumped back in. Disaster averted. First note of something to work on more!
Then, we did some automatic sits before exiting (which is what he should have done instead of just hopping out previously), and I cued him to jump out and sit, which he did. I was pleased he was so focused on me and that I got such a fast and snappy sit. I had him sit-stay while I moved around, and then we were off.
Here’s how Barnum made my day:
- Focus. Barnum kept focus on me and loads of eye contact the whole time. That is the foundation for everything else. I was thrilled by it.
- Happiness. Barnum’s tail was up and wagging. His step was springy. He showed no signs of fear or vigilance (except one startle issue, which I’ll get to shortly). He was totally in the game and enjoying himself. At one point, I said, “Back up,” and instead of just walking backward, he leaped backward. He does the bouvie-bounce/pounce/spring thing when he’s loving training.
- Loose leash. I didn’t even realize until we were on the way home that Barnum never pulled on the leash except at the end, when another dog was right nearby, whining at us.
- Positional cues. I asked for sits, downs, nose touches, chin targets, backing up, standing up, coming to my side, and Barnum was about 90 percent reliable on all cues.
- Toileting. When we were first heading from the parking lot to the sidewalk, I could tell that Barnum wanted to go sniff and mark the lawn, bushes, and flowers we were approaching. However, I kept him busy and focused on me, and he either realized that marking and sniffing was not acceptable, or he was too focused on working to care. When we were finished training, I took off his pack and harness and brought him to the grass and cued him to pee. He offered a short squirt, which I was very pleased about. It indicated to me that he probably did know the cue (as soon as I said, “Hurry up,” he started looking around the grass, circling, and sniffing) and that he was doing his best to follow it, even though he didn’t need to go. It’s possible that he was just marking, now that he had the opportunity, but I’m okay with that as a stepping stone to a more solid elimination on cue. This is the first time he has eliminated on cue in a totally new environment!
- Transferring new cues from home – Part I: Door Opener. These were the ones that really thrilled me. Barnum has never touched a door opener before. The door opener for the external door at my doctor’s office is a silver vertical rectangle — not at all the shape I thought I’d remembered! At home, we’d been practicing the moves that would apply to a door opener — the same ones as for turning on or off a light switch — but my faux door-opener was a big blue paper square! The real door button was about three feet high and placed on the pane between the glass door and window. I held my hand over the button and had him nose-target my hand a few times. He could reach it without jumping up, but only just. He had to stretch his nose all the way up. . . .
- Then I pointed at the button and told Barnum, “Touch!” He just barely bumped the bottom of the button, but that was enough; the door immediately swung outward. Barnum jumped back in surprise. I gave him extra treats and praise, along with the initial click/treat, and we did that a few more times. He hit the button every time, and he was surprised by the door every time, but with successively decreased concern. I think we’ll have to practice this many times before he is totally comfortable with the door swinging open. It’s the one area he has always had anxiety — doors swinging toward him from the front or the rear. (When he was temperament tested at seven weeks old, a solid object moving suddenly toward him was the only part of the test that scored poorly on; everything else was perfect or near-perfect, and those results were surprisingly predictive of his future behaviors and tendencies.) So, the fact that he continued to press the door opener and did not wig out — in this completely new environment, to boot — seemed like a good sign to me.
- Transferring new cues from home – Part II: The Retrieve. We have not yet achieved a complete trained retrieve at home. Barnum will take something from my hand, hold it quietly for a pretty long time, and then — on my cue — will drop it. But he hasn’t figured out that picking things up off the floor can be handled the same way as taking things from me. So, our big effort has gone into the take/hold part of the retrieve. It had not even occurred to me to try this skill away from home yet. . . .
- Then, something happened — I can’t remember what anymore — where I was holding something out, and he went to take it in his mouth! I had not been looking for that, but I was able to click and treat it. “Why not?” Says I to myself. So, I held out a pen — the object he’s the most eager and comfortable taking and holding — and we did a few repetitions of that. Well, knock me over with a feather!
I was bringing him back to the van to load up and leave when a woman parked next to me with a boxer in her car. Barnum was still paying attention to me, not the boxer, so I was eager to get out of there before he could start practicing some bad behavior, such as pulling to get to the other dog, and for all I knew, jumping up to get a sniff. (Our biggest distraction is other dogs. Our second biggest distraction is people — strangers. Barnum feels the need to greet/sniff them and inquire as to whether they’d like to give him attention or food.)
Unfortunately, this woman wanted to chat me up about my “service dog.” I had to correct her that we were in training, because Barnum was not comporting himself as a trained SD should, and I don’t like to spread any more misinformation about SDs than already exists. Then, she wanted to tell me about how her dog, the one she is leaving in the car who is wearing no gear, is a service dog, too, and perfectly eager for our dogs to interact! Usually if I say, “We’re training,” in a very “read-between-the-lines-please” voice, people back off a bit, but not this woman. Trying to focus on getting Barnum refocused and loaded into the van while not getting downright rude to this stranger meant that I lost control of the situation, and Barnum decided that, yes, it would be acceptable to pull like a freight train to get to the boxer, who had started to whine.
Somehow, finally, I managed to ignore the other person enough to get Barnum loaded, and then he settled down. On the way home, we did lots more practice with taking and holding objects, and various simple skills, and I was just over the moon.
Outings like this are extremely helpful in showing which behaviors have jelled and can be taken to the next level, and which need some remedial attention. The trip made it clear the areas we need to work on most: Leave it/zen for people, leave it/zen for dogs, more work with moving-door-related fear, and more work on default sit before and after exiting the van. But on the way home, the refrain in my head was, “Go, Team Barnum! Woohoo!”
-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and future door-opener of my world
P.S. If you’d like to learn more about the ADBC, read past issues, check out the schedule for the next few carnivals, or learn how to get involved, please visit this page about the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival.
P.P.S. You know what was really an achievement? Completing this post! I had so much difficulty creating and uploading that video — it took a week! — and then when I finally did get it uploaded, I discovered I had left out a segment in the middle and had to create and upload a new version! All future videos will be much shorter!