Archive for the 'Leading the Dance/LTD' Category

Taking Blogging Hiatus

Dear readers,

I’ve decided to take a hiatus from blogging. I don’t have a length of time in mind or any hard-and-fast rules about this at all. There are many topics I want to blog about right now: Lyme disease treatment in dogs, ticks and Lyme prevention in general, grief, the overlap between NVC and clicker, disability rights issues, and of course, training Barnum.

However, it’s hard to do things and blog. Right now it’s more important to me to train Barnum than to blog about training him. We are doing Leading the Dance right now, and it’s largely because I didn’t attend to behavior problems that started out as tiny and have now become habits. He needs a lot more foundation work and consistency. That takes a lot of energy for me, both in terms of training sessions, as well as all-day, every-day attention to detail in his behavior.

There are also a slew of things I can or need to do in the summer that can’t happen in the winter — like going anywhere for public access training or taking walks — as well as a lot of house-care stuff that I’ve been too sick to do since I’ve lived in my current home. Spring/summer has come early to New England, and I’d like to take advantage of this to get my house in order, both literally and figuratively.

I plan to continue to participate in the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. (If you haven’t already, check out the call for submissions for the April issue at plays with puppies.) I hope, if I have time and energy, to finish and post some of the many posts that are halfway written, and maybe to post if something momentous occurs.

I also hope to write for Ability Maine, as much as I’m able. We’re working on getting a blog set up for that so people can comment on the articles. I’ll try to post a link here when I have new material up at AM, and hopefully some of you will join me there. Right now, there are two excellent articles up (yeah, I’m not ashamed to say it); one by Mike Reynolds and the other, an interview I did with medical investigative reporter, Arnold Mann.

We’ll be back!

– Sharon and Barnum

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!”)

LTD: Roadwork! (Walkin’ and Talkin)’

I have a semi-working powerchair and semi-working walkie-talkies! Not since the clicker and the target stick have technologies played such an important role in dog training!

Obviously I’m exaggerating. Nonetheless, lately I’ve been on a roll.

In last week’s post, I described how I figured out what was wrong with my powerchair. I was waiting for the temperatures to climb a bit so I could finally take Barnum for a walk.

I’m pleased to report that Barnum and I have taken four walks since that post!

Walks are so important for so many reasons — exercise for Barnum, a source of bonding and a mental health boost for both of us, as well as practice for lots of behaviors such as eliminating on cue while on lead, loose-leash walking (LLW), attention and eye contact, socialization and desensitization, and the opportunity to train known behaviors (sit, down, stay, touch, etc.), in a more distracting environment (generalizing).

Vigorous exercise is also a key component of Sue Ailsby’s Leading the Dance protocol that we have been trying to follow. Previous posts focused on number five, “Possession,” and number seven, “Sing a Song.”

Here’s number 10 — “Working off Energy” (referred to as “roadwork” by many clicker trainers):

Work Off Energy – Roadwork adult dogs 4 days a week. Start small, but work up to a mile for small dogs, 2 miles for medium dogs, and 3 miles for large dogs. Many problems will disappear with no more effort than road-working. You can jog with the dog, or ride a bike, or longe him with a Flexi, or use an ATV, or lend him to a jogger who’s afraid of being mugged.

One of the behaviors that has suffered from not being able to walk Barnum has been eliminating on cue. If you’re a long-time follower of this blog, you know this is a skill I’m obsessed with concerned about. In fact, I not only blogged about it when we were housebreaking Barnum, but before Barnum even arrived.

On the Training Levels list, the consensus was that getting a dog to relieve on cue, on leash, reliably, is tremendously helped by “roadwork” — as is almost every other skill and behavioral problem. I was so frustrated! I felt like I was failing as a mom/handler and as an owner-trainer.

Now, all has changed! Callooh! Callay! Oh frabjous day! I chortle in my joy!

First of all, I was able to get Barnum to pee (and in one case, poo), in the yard, on leash, before we left for our walks. This is ideal, because then I can use the walk afterwards as a very strong reinforcer.

Tuesday, the temperature climbed from negative numbers to a balmy 22 degrees Fahrenheit. I bundled myself in layers and dressed Barnum in his Premier Easy Walk Harness and hunter-orange safety vest, and away we went.

Barnum in orange vest on ramp surrounded by snow

Barnum's suited up and ready for his walk. You can see how much snow has fallen on the patio table and next to the ramp, which is actually two to three feet off the ground!

[Photo description: Barnum, a furry black brindle bouvier des Flandres, stands on a black metal grate with black metal railings. He is dressed in a bright orange vest with reflective stripes and gazing into the distance. The snow on either side of the ramp reaches his elbows.]

In truth, before we left, I told my personal care assistant (PCA) that I planned to go for just a half-hour test drive, and which route we planned to take. I said if we weren’t back within 45 minutes, to get in the van and come look for us. The chair is working, yes, but those batteries are still not reliable and had not been tested in very cold weather, and I didn’t want to risk getting stranded in the cold and dark while temperatures dropped.

I hadn’t known if I could make it to the street at all, because my monster chair just fits down the ramp, with no room to spare. Yet once on the ramp, I turned the knob to “turtle,” and toddled safely down the walkway.

Half an hour went by much too quickly. Barnum really needs a lot of work on his loose-leash walking, and he also needs much more exercise — an hour, at the very least. Before the chair batteries went on the fritz, we were doing at least one-and-a-half to two-mile walks (at a fast clip). But you gotta turtle before you can rabbit, right?

We did manage to get some decent training in for the beginning part of the walk: I was able to click and treat Barnum many times for walking by my side. He even ate the cheese! However, when my cheese supply was gone, and I switched to kibble, he turned up his squishy, black nose at it. Still, it’s progress for Barnum to pay attention to me, at all, or accept treats, on a walk.

I was pleased with the powerchair’s performance, too. The roads were thick with two to three inches of snow muck. Yet the powerchair did excellently, overall. In fact, at one point, a car slowed down to pass us, and slipped and skidded a little as it tried to accelerate, whereas my chair motored right along. Woohoo!

We only had two problems.

I’d chosen the least hilly route I could, but since I live in the hills, there’s no way to avoid at least one major slope in any direction. The path I chose had just one serious hill. Leaving, it was downhill. Coming home, it was uphill — and at the end of the walk, near my house.

The thick sludgy snow, combined with the steep incline, made for difficult driving. I had to careen back and forth to keep my momentum and to try to find the least snowy path. My erratic movements were hard for Barnum to predict, and at one point, I accidentally hit him in the snout with my footrest. Poor guy!

But we made it up. I was ecstatic. We rolled into the driveway less than 40 minutes after we’d left, and as I was removing my leg rests to store in the van (because the chair is too big to navigate the ramp with them on), I saw my PCA’s face peek through my bedroom curtains. I was glad she knew we were home.

After I entered the yard and closed the gate behind us, I let Barnum off leash. He bounded around happily in the snow, as if he had never taken a walk at all. Then, I did something stupid. I flew down the ramp, pumping my fist and shouting, “We did it! We did it!”

I couldn’t help myself! I was having a Leonardo-DiCaprio -“I’m-king-of-the-world!” moment.

Of course, my right wheel went off the ramp. The axle came to rest on the ramp’s two-inch-high safety lip, and the wheel was buried deep into the snow that is piled several feet high on either side of the ramp. I attempted to rock the chair out of the rut, but it was well and truly stuck.

I tried getting some momentum with the wheels. At first, the one in the snow just spun in space. Then it stopped spinning. Oh dear. Neither of the wheels spun at all when I moved the joystick. I checked the controller display panel, and saw that the switch was off. I turned it back on, and the display panel simply blinked in distress.

Nooooooooo!

I bellowed to the house for help, but my home is super-insulated, and nobody heard me. I just had to hope that sooner (rather than later) my PCA would notice I was still outside.

I sat and watched Barnum playing. I tried to be patient, but I was getting a bit chilly. (Later, I discovered the temperature had dropped to 18 degrees Fahrenheit when I was waiting.) Eventually my helper poked her head out the door.

“I’m stuck!” I yelled.

She came out to help, and I tried to back the chair up to help, but it was pointless. We decided to put it in free-wheel mode so it could be pushed. (Powerchairs have a safety feature of locking the wheels unless they are released to roll. When it’s in “push” mode, the motor disengages, so you can’t drive and free-wheel at the same time.) There’s a lever on each wheel motor. Sitting in the chair, I pulled the lever on one side up, and pushed the lever on the other side down.

Then I realized what I’d just done. The levers should have both been either up or down. The lever on the side where the wheel was caught must have been pushed up by the ramp’s side when the chair went down. I pulled both levers up, which engaged both wheel motors, and wahla! The power was on again!

Left purple powerchair wheel and motor, with snow slush

A lot of the snow had melted off the treads by the time I took this. Notice the free-wheel lever, with the up arrow for "Drive," and down area for "Push," written in yellow.

[Photo description: Large, black knobbly tire on the bottom of a purple powerchair. The entire wheel well is coated in wet snow. The snow on the treads is partially melted off. Behind the tire is the drive motor — a black canister, parallel to the ground, with a lever sticking out, and yellow writing indicating that when the lever is up, its in “drive” mode, and when down, is in “push” or “free-wheeling” mode.]

With human muscle power, as well as the chair’s engaged motors, we were able to return me to the center of the ramp, and I made it home. Barnum continued to play in the snow.

However, I really wanted to be able to communicate from a distance from now on, if I’m out — especially if the chair is not working optimally, the road and weather conditions aren’t great, and/or it’s nighttime. This is where the two-way radios come in.

In an early post, I talked about how my ability to communicate with other household members declined significantly when Gadget died. Betsy’s solution was a doorbell, which had its pluses and minuses. Betsy bought us an intercom set for my birthday, last year. I was very excited about this new bit of assistive tech. Unfortunately, over a year later, we still can’t use them because they are still outgassing horrible plastic fumes. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tolerate them.

This year, for my birthday (are you sensing a theme?), Betsy bought me walkie-talkies! Ever since I’d moved to the country in 1998, I’d thought it would be a good safety precaution to have a cell phone for an emergency. However, neither town where I’ve lived in Western Massachusetts has cell phone reception.

The two-way radios were our attempt to circumvent the cell phone issue. Betsy bought radios with a 24-mile range “under ideal conditions.” Hilly, tree-filled countryside is not “ideal conditions,” but I normally only go a couple of miles at the most for my walks (my ultimate goal is to be able to make it to the center of town, which is about five miles), so we thought these would be powerful enough. Betsy assembled them Tuesday night (I was burnt-out on figuring out technological gizmos), and left them to charge overnight.

Wednesday, my PCA — who is a firefighter — very enthusiastically showed me how to use the radios. We each put one in our pockets, I donned my layers for the cold, and Barnum and I set out.

I checked in periodically with my PCA to make sure I was still within range. All seemed to be going well. I’d brought extra-large bags of hot dog and cheese cubes, and Barnum was eager to be clicked and treated for loose-leash walking for the first few minutes. Then he lost interest completely as his stomach filled and the terrain got more enticing.

We had to do a lot of stopping and starting, because any time the leash got tight, I turned to the right (his leash is clipped to the left side of the chair), and stopped. Stopping without turning is too slow in terms of giving Barnum the information, “What you have just done is causing the fun to come to an end.” Apparently, the stopping and starting, as well as the thick, slow ground, discharges batteries severely.

At one point, I pulled to the side of the road for a passing car, causing my left wheel to get stuck in a couple of feet of snow. I couldn’t tell where the drop-off was between the road and the gully, because there was so much snow. I radioed based.

“We have a situation,” I told my firefighter PCA, in a joking tone.

“Understood. A situation. What’s your location?”

“Well, um, I’m on Jennison? And um, my tire is stuck in the snow? And . . . Oh, a UPS guy has stopped. I think he’s going to help me. Hang on.”

“Standing by. Over.”

Indeed, the UPS driver very quickly and neatly popped me back onto the road. I guess if you spend all day, every day, hauling around big packages, you get strong.

Another lesson learned: Don’t drive into a hidden snow bank.

The rest of the trip was uneventful until we got to the hill that leads to my house. With the temperature hovering around 30 degrees, the snow was not just thick, but extra sludgy and sloppy. I normally have to do a lot of starting and stopping to train LLW — once Barnum loses interest in treats — but going up that hill, if I stopped, I lost the tiny bit of momentum I had. The chair crapped out repeatedly (that’s a technical term, meaning it stopped and the power lights flashed), and I had to turn it off, wait a few seconds, and turn it back on. (According to Wheelchair Junkie, the way I’ve treated my batteries constitutes abuse. Yes, I guess that would be battery battery.)

I really could not afford to have Barnum pulling in any direction but the one I was going in, and I couldn’t take care not to clock him with erratic driving. So I gave him as much leash as I had and had to let him do as he pleased while I focused on getting home.

Trainers aren’t kidding when they talk about how reinforcing pulling is, in itself, for dogs! Just those few yards up the hill with the freedom to pull, and Barnum tried to pull the rest of the way home! (Two steps forward, one step back, anyone?)

But we made it. I even managed to go length of the ramp without careening off this time. I let Barnum off leash to play in the yard, as he tends to get the “zoomies” after a walk and likes to gambol in the yard, especially when it’s so comfortably freezing outside. Pictures to come.

On the third day, God didn’t rest, and neither did I. We went for an hour-long walk. Finally! We’re approaching real roadwork. This is when I discovered that the radio’s range sucks. Past about an eighth or a quarter of a mile from my house, they couldn’t hear me back home.

We had no untoward events, unless you count that I was kind of flattened the next two days as a result. I got to take a lot of goofy pictures of this heroic conquering of the winter landscape, as well. I’ll try to get that up as a photo essay shortly.

Love and other outdoor games,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (snow-dog)

LTD – Possession

This is the second post in my series on Sue Ailsby’s “Leading the Dance protocol for bonding with your dog and preventing or fixing behavior issues.

Today’s focus is Number Five — “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Here are the instructions:

At least once a day, handle the dog. Repeat the words, “These are my ears! This is my paw! This is my muzzle! This is my tail!” as you handle him. If he fusses, go slower. It’s important that the dog has a positive experience – that he comes to see that you will be handling him and it’s of no concern to him. When he’s completely relaxed and accepts your handling, say OK and release him.

Like “Sing a Song,” in my previous post, this is a fun exercise. And it gets funnier when I actually do it.

I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on handling Barnum since he arrived, which has sometimes been quite work-intensive. We are still not done with handling exercises, especially where veterinarians are concerned. Barnum does not like vets. Yet.

HUGS from Sharon

I practice the "vet hold" on four-and-a-half month-old Barnum. We call this behavior, "Hugs!"

But with other people, who do not “smell like vet,” Barnum’s very good. I’ve even had strangers do the “hugs” (restraint) hold on him or pick him up in the air. (This must be done by a strong person, since Barnum weighs around 80 pounds!)

With me, and other people he knows and trusts, he enjoys handling immensely, though he’s not as fond of having his ears rubbed as Gadget was, which is too bad because Barnum’s ears are so soft and silky.

We generally do handling on the floor, because it’s easiest, and because Barnum is delighted when I get down on his level and afford him the opportunity to give my face a thorough washing. I know eventually I need to get him used to being up on tables and having me handle him from above. For now, however, we’re focusing on him being relaxed and happy to be handled, including withstanding all manner of grooming.

I’ve added grooming to our LTD protocol. It makes sense to follow up a “Possession” session with a round of grooming. Raking out mats, de-gunking his eyes and ears (he has the hairiest ears ever!), and trimming the fur between his toes (which mats terribly easily), are some of the most important areas.

Our handling “last frontier” — after relaxation with vets — is teaching Barnum to be comfortable with my fingers in his mouth. It’s not an issue of him being dangerous or biting — on the contrary, he wants nothing more than to quickly spit out any fingers that find their way in, accompanied by a facial expression I translate as “Ewwww.” My goal is greater ease in removing foreign objects he has decided not to give up (I know, that’s another training area we need to firm up), and allowing me to brush his teeth (as opposed to him treating the toothbrush like a chew toy) and give him medicine.

This last has become especially important since two days ago, when — being The Dog from Mars — Barnum decided he doesn’t like pill pockets. I have never before heard of a dog (or cat) who didn’t love any Greenies product, especially Pill Pockets. But, there it is, Mr. Picky keeps trying to outdo himself in the “I can live without food, thank you” department of dog weirdness.

He doesn’t even eat around the pill, as some dogs will do — spitting out the medicine and eating the treat. Even if I give him a fresh, empty Pill Pocket, he spits it out (as if it were a finger)! One day Pill Pockets were a tasty treat, the next day — feh!

So, I have to shove the pill to the back of his throat and hold his muzzle closed while I stroke his neck. I think he’d be more comfortable with me taking his temperature (which is done at the other end of the dog).

Fortunately, in the area of tolerance for pressure or discomfort, he has lived up to his breeder’s observations and temperament tests — very mellow. This is important because of his coat and how it must be groomed.

You see, Bouviers are hypoallergenic and don’t shed; their thick outer coat keeps loose hair from their undercoat trapped beneath. This means that to prevent mats, you have to get underneath to brush out the loose hair. It’s a lot more work than with a dog with a “normal” coat. With Jersey, brushing her out once a week was enough. With Gadget, twice a week.

With Barnum, if I don’t brush him at least every other day (now that he has his long, winter ‘do), he gets so itchy that he rubs up against the chain link fence when he goes out! He has the curliest, wiriest, thickest coat I’ve ever had to wrangle. Wrangling requires hauling undercoat rakes and mat-breakers through his fur, pulling or breaking off the dead hair. Some dogs don’t like this kind of intensive brushing but Barnum enjoys the attention and isn’t bothered by the tugging.

In the summer, primarily to make tick checking easier, as well as to reduce grooming work and to provide him relief from the heat, Betsy and I clip Barnum down. These “before” and “after” pictures show the kind of serious implements needed to groom a bouvier. . . .

Haircut "Before" Picture

Even when he still had his puppy coat, serious grooming hardware was required!

(No! Of course we don’t use hedge clippers on the dog! This was a joke. Never, ever use hedge clippers to groom your dog! Very dangerous! Use appropriate dog-grooming tools.)

Haircut "after" picture

Voila! The finished product! Hard to believe we're not professionals, huh? What do you mean, "Scrawny and uneven"?

Back to LTD’s “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” The first night I was performing this little ritual, Betsy walked in on me.

There I sat on the floor, groping Barnum, whose tail was wagging happily. “This is my right foot!” I proclaimed, as I held up Barnum’s right forepaw. “I own this right foot!”

Then I moved on to his ear. “This is my right ear! I own this right ear!”

Betsy looked at me as if my cheese had slipped off my cracker. “Why are you saying those are your ears?” She asked.

“It’s part of Leading the Dance,” I said, and continued. “This is my right elbow!” I grasped Barnum’s elbow and talked in a silly voice to him, gently moving his elbow as I chanted. “I own this right elbow! I can do anything I want with this elbow!”

Because she had asked, I tried to give Betsy an explanation of why this exercise is part of “Leading the Dance.” I was vague, though, because while I knew intuitively why it was useful, I had a hard time articulating it. In some ways, it reminds me of my days as a self-defense instructor.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I’ll explain.

It seems to me that there are two important aspects to this “Possession” exercise. One is physical, the other, mental.

The physical, hands-on part ensures that you handle your dog all over, at least once a day. This helps build trust and bonding by making the dog comfortable and happy being handled. That’s pretty straightforward.

The mental part is saying, “This is my ear! This is my muzzle!” etc. It is not a mental exercise for the dog, but for the human. These are a form of “affirmations” — declaring something to be true in order to make it true. Affirmations, at their best, can use your intentional thoughts to create or change an internal or external reality. Thus, they have the potential to be incredibly powerful and empowering, even transformative.[1]

I experienced this transformative power when I was in college (twenty-something years ago), when I took a self-defense course. Near the beginning of the course, we were learning about assertiveness. Part of this involved practice in walking and talking like a person who was aware, in control, and centered. In other words, someone less likely to be perceived as an easy victim.

The instructor led us through three types of visualizations. The first two exercises — focusing on my breath or envisioning a powerful light emanating from my center of gravity — didn’t work for me. The last suggestion was to come up with a word or phrase that made us feel strong and centered — an affirmation, in other words — and repeat it (silently) to ourselves.

First we practiced them, standing still, eyes closed. Then we walked around, continuing our focus.

Like most (all?) young women, by that time I had experienced a fair amount of sexual harassment. Examples included stalking, a rape threat from a (former) boyfriend, being chased by a stranger on the street, and other words and actions by men (and a small number of women) that created a sense that my body was not my own.

However, the main reason I took the class — the greatest cause of my feeling of vulnerability — was that, as one of the few out queers on campus, I’d experienced quite a bit of gay bashing. This ranged from verbal assaults, such as being called a “lezzy” (among many other things) and having a science professor tell me I was a “genetic aberration,” to physical ones, including having rocks thrown at me and a piece of cement hurled through my window.

Therefore, I did not feel safe walking around school or town. Further, some part of me believed that I did not have as much right as anyone else to be who I was or do what I wanted. Though I would have vociferously denied it if asked directly, the message had sunk in that anywhere I went in public, I was asking for abuse, simply by my presence.

I tried on a lot of the positive affirmations suggested by the self-defense instructor, such as, “I am safe,” or “I am at home in my body,” or “I can take care of myself.” None got to the kernel for me. They left me feeling weaker.

I thought about how I wanted to feel when I walked on campus or in the city, how I wanted to feel that I owned public space like anyone else. What popped into my head was, “My fucking street. My fucking sidewalk. My fucking world.” Yeah, I was a little different.

Our homework was to practice our chosen method for the next week as we moved between classes or walked home from a party at night or rode the subway. My posture, my attitude, the way I walked, all changed — forever. I carried with me into my future the knowledge that I had just as much right to be wherever I was as anyone else — definitely a blessing when I became disabled a few years later.

I continued to study various martial arts and became a self-defense teacher, myself. I taught these same visualizations and affirmations to my students (though I did not offer my “affirmation” as a suggestion to the students). It was a joy to witness each student changing how they held themselves as they simply walked in a circle in our classroom, focused on their breath or chosen words or imagery.

So what does this have to do with dog training?

In my opinion, when handling your dog — if you have a good and safe relationship with your dog, full of mutual love, trust, and respect, you can more fully embody the belief that no part of your dog’s body is off-limits to you. You are letting him — and more importantly, yourself — know that you can approach him for pilling, nail-trimming, or brushing of teeth or coat, with quiet, loving assurance.[2]

Dogs respond to this. Canine interaction is much more about body language, non-spoken cues, than it is about vocalizing. They will pick up on our calm, benevolent intentionality.

Humans, on the other hand, tend to be blatherers (of which I am a shining example!). Therefore, giving us something to say while we do this exercise makes us more comfortable. Indeed, how can we help but feel a little silly saying, “This is my muzzle!” as we stroke our dog’s nose? This silliness comes through in our tone and pitch and the way we touch our dogs, creating a fun experience for them, too.

Practicing “whole dog body” possession can sound and look even funnier still. For one thing, Betsy and I name Barnum’s body parts as we handle them — we’ve been doing this for months based on a tip from a sister SDiT trainer. This has helped Barnum a lot with confidence in being handled, particularly by veterinarians and vet techs, because he knows what part is going to be manipulated — or that he can offer — ahead of time.

This planned-in silliness, combined with my tendencies for perfectionism and improvisation, leads to some rather odd pronouncements. To whit, Betsy not only witnessed me saying, “This is my left hock! I own this left hock!” and “I own this tail! I can do anything I want to with this tail!” But, also, “This is my left England!”

You don’t know that one? Betsy does.

When Gadget had an episode of weakness that might have been related to heart damage from chemotherapy, the vet told me I should monitor his pulse. When I taught Betsy how to take Gadget’s pulse, I showed her where to put her fingers: “the inguinal area,” or inner thigh.

What I didn’t realize until many months later was that Betsy thought I’d said, “the Englandal area.” Eventually we realized we were saying different words, and it became a joke. We now refer to Barnum’s inner thighs as “England.” (I won’t tell you which parts are assigned to other nations in the European Union.) Like most relaxed, trusting dogs, Barnum enjoys having “England” rubbed, so I make sure to do that.

Barnum Rolling in the Grass (7 months)

Barnum shows off his appreciation of the UK.

You know what’s coming next, don’t you? . . . After all, I’m required to handle the whole dog.

I worked my way around his underside — armpits (scratch, scratch), ribs and belly (rub, rub) and then. . . . “This is my penis!” I said.

Betsy just shook her head. “That’s disturbing,” she said.

Being a dog, however, Barnum didn’t care. Just like he doesn’t care when I trim the hair in that area that’s matted with urine. After all, it’s not like I’m up at his mouth, trying to rub his gums with my fingers or get him to eat a (disgusting) Pill Pocket. Perhaps I should tell him to just lie back and think of England.

-Sharon, Barnum, and the muse of Gadget

Your comments are welcome, as always!

Footnotes:

[1.] Caution! Affirmations have their limits. Most of the time, when I read or hear about the use of affirmations, it is in the context of our American obsession with the idea that we can control our lives by “thinking positive thoughts.” This form of New Age thinking has been a scourge on the disability community.

Specifically, it is very popular for  people (usually those who are not seriously or chronically ill or disabled) to tell others who are seriously or chronically ill or disabled to use affirmations to “heal” or cure ourselves. Such suggestions are intrusive, ridiculous (because if affirmations worked to cure all serious illness, nobody would be chronically or terminally ill, would they?), and at their root, victim-blaming (because they imply that we do have control over our bodies, so if we fail to recover from injury or illness, it is our fault). I drew an extremely popular cartoon on this topic, in fact.

Affirmations are empowering when used to change one’s perspective or other circumstances that one can control. They are disempowering when proposed as solutions for circumstances one cannot control, such as curing one’s disability. Back to post.

[2.] Please note that this is only true if you do actually have a mutually safe, trusting relationship. The full “Possession” instructions from LTD include this warning: “If your dog won’t allow you to handle him like this without getting angry or getting away, DO NOT do this exercise. Do the rest of the exercises and use the clicker to teach the dog to allow this handling later.” Back to post.

QuickPress: LTD – Sing a Song

I have so much fun and interesting Barnum training news, I’m trying to do more, and shorter, posts to celebrate and keep you updated.

Leading the Dance (LTD), as I mentioned in my previous post, is Sue Ailsby’s protocol for problem-solving and building a better relationship with your dog. Overall, it’s going very well.

LTD consists of 12 daily activities you do with your dog. This will be a series on how these various activities are going. Today, I thought I’d introduce one of the most fun and easy, which is number seven:

Sing a Song – make up a silly song using the dog’s name. It doesn’t have to rhyme, only make you smile and get the dog’s tail wagging. Sing it to him (he won’t criticize, I promise).

Barnum is actually extremely sound-oriented[1] and enjoys music, so I thought this would be a fun and rewarding behavior for both of us.

I tried out three songs before landing on the one that made us both the happiest. He wags his tail a lot and spins in circles. I would love to video and post it, but then you’d hear my truly terrible singing in this song that often goes beyond my range. You’ll just have to take my word for it that he enjoys it almost as much as I do.

It is Sing,” from Sesame Street. Here is my slightly altered version of the song:

Sing (Barnum, Barnum, Barnum)
Sing a song (Barnum, Barnum, Barnum)
Sing out loud
Sing out strong
Sing of good things, not bad (Barnum, Barnum)
Sing of happy, not sad

Sing (Barnum, Barnum, Barnum)
Sing a song (Barnum, Barnum, Barnum)
Make it simple
To last your whole life long
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
For anyone else to hear (Barnum, Barnum)
Sing (Barnum, Barnum, Barnum)
Sing a song

Barnum-Barnum-Barnum, Ba-Ba-Barnum-Barnum
Ba- Ba- Ba- Ba- Ba- Ba-Ba
Barnum-Barnum-Barnum, Ba-Ba-Barnum-Barnum
Ba- Ba- Ba- Ba- Ba- Ba-Ba

Yes, it’s a grueling business, this service-dog training. . . .

Do you sing to your dog? What is “your song”?

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (whose song was Ruth Brown’s “A Good Day for the Blues” — amended to “A Good Day for a Bouv, and Barnum (musical SDiT)

[1.] We have actually started pre-training for sound alerts to various devices and alarms, and he’s picking it up very fast! Post forthcoming on that topic. . . .  Back to post.


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