Archive for the 'Puppy Raising' Category

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #6 Seeking Entries!

It’s ADBC time again, folks! (If you’re not familiar with the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, you can read all about it here.)

The host for this edition is Cait at Dogstar Academy. The theme she’s chosen is “Obstacles,” and she has some nifty thoughts to ponder on the topic.

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.

There should be no obstacles to a great carnival!

I didn’t see a deadline in her call for entries, but she indicates she plans to publish the carnival on January 29, so assume you have to get your posts to her before that date, at the very least. (If she posts an update, I’ll modify this post to give the deadline.)

Check out her call for submissions!

And please share, tweet, and generally spread the word about this carnival so that anyone who might like to participate has time. For those who are planning on posting, may you find no obstacles in your path.

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


Signal Boost: Auction to Sponsor Guide Dog Puppy

The generous and talented L-Squared of the blog, Dog’s Eye View, has been trying to raise money to sponsor a puppy for Guide Dogs of America, the 501(c)3 non-profit organization through which she received her current guide dog, Jack.

She recently put together a fantabulous online auction, all the proceeds of which will go toward the $5000 cost of raising a puppy to be a future Guide Dog of America. When you see all the work that has gone into this site — how beautiful it all is and how many things are offered — you will be blown away.

There is a lot of dog stuff, not surprisingly! Toys, treats, collars, and leashes, etc. There are also baked goods, jewelry, hand-knitted and crocheted hats, mittens, purses, and more, including a gorgeous afghan! Art, photography, cards, T-shirts, etc.

There are various one-of-a-kind items and things you can personalize, such as a photo of your choice on stretched canvas, or individually made postcards. How about getting a T-shirt with a message of your choice in Braille? (Real Braille, raised dots, so to read it, you will have to be felt up!) You can have a short story written about a topic of your choice!

If you like dogs or cats, there is definitely something there for you! And even if you don’t, there’s probably something. So, please stop by. Some bids start as low as $3, and there are many items that have not yet received bids. L-Squared gives so much of herself to the blogging, blind, and assistance dog community. This is a great way to give back!

Here is the link once more: Guide Dog Puppy Sponsorship Fundraiser Auction.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I would have eaten those banana cookies), and Barnum, SDiT (I want the Kong!)

QuickPress: Little Miracles

(Shallow) Background

Friday, I took Barnum to the vet for some blood work. When we arrived, he ran around inside the van, whining with excitement. (Anytime we go anywhere, he’s thrilled.) I probably should have taken steps to attempt to calm him, but I was negotiating for the reasonable accommodation of having Barnum’s blood draw in the van, since I can’t go inside the clinic. (I have a cargo van, not a minivan, so there is a big, empty space inside. It’s not like I was asking them to do the blood draw in the parking lot or inside a regular little car.) I doubt I could have gotten him relaxed and focused enough to accept food treats, anyway.

Barnum was fine when the first vet tech came to the van. When the second one  joined us, he freaked out. Don’t know why. He allowed us to hold him only because I’ve taught him, “Hugs!” for restraint, and I was doing most of the holding. But he was really anxious (and thus, uncooperative)!

I thought, “Am I living in a dream world to think this dog will ever be a service dog? I can’t even get him to focus on me at all or take his favorite treats (chicken feet!) if we are outside our yard!”

I still haven’t managed to do much about getting my (outdoor) powerchair mobile again, but I thought since I was already bundled up for cold weather, Barnum already had his “Easy Walk” harness on, and I didn’t have a personal care assistant (PCA) physically capable of walking him, I would try to take him for a short walk in my “indoor” power wheelchair. It actually went pretty well, and I was thinking, “This wasn’t as hard on me as I expected. Why aren’t I doing this every day?”

Little Miracles

1. By late that night, I had barely eaten that day, was exhausted, shaky, weak, and had a headache rolling in. I was two hours late in starting my infusion. I’d forgotten to ask my PCA to set up my electric menorah (which I love), on my window sill. Barnum, fortunately, seemed to be conked out.

I wobbled over to my menorah, plugged it in, and sat on the edge of my bed, singing the first blessing, which is the blessing over the candles. I turned on the candles for the third night. Despite feeling physically crappy, the warm glow of the lights and the familiar blessings washed over me, relaxing me, imparting a sense of well-being.

As I was singing the second blessing, thanking G-d for miracles, Barnum suddenly bounced up from his crate. He wiggled over to me, his stump of a tail wagging as fast as possible, and turned circles around me, bopping into my legs.

This is how I interpreted his body language: “I’m so happy! I love you! I like it when you sing! Pet me, and pay attention to me, and love me up! Aren’t I fabulous?”

Yes, fabulous — I had to agree with him. I still felt like crap, but I didn’t mind. I had that “everything will be okay” feeling. It takes a lot of work to be utterly miserable when there’s someone wagging his whole body at you, radiating joy and sheer pleasure in being in your presence. I slogged my way through infusing, heating up the food my PCA had prepped, and treated Barnum and myself to a round of nose-touching a variety of objects. This is a building block to the trained retrieve in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, and it’s a skill that Barnum enjoys and is good at.

Overall feeling for the night: Good dog! Good medicine.

2. Of course, healing for the soul only does so much towards healing for the body. In this case, not a hell of a lot, as it turned out.

I went to sleep at 5 AM, even though I’d been wishing since 8 PM that I was asleep. Three hours later, at 8:00 AM, I woke up because I had to pee. (I have to pee very frequently. This is true for everyone I know with CFIDS/ME.) I was in severe pain and very weak. Partway through peeing, I had to stop to vomit. Not a great start to the day.

The rest of the day wasn’t any better. Although it was not as bad as a stuck day, it was pretty close. I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t move much beyond minor hand/arm movements, such as typing while laying down in bed. I was in a lot of pain. The best part was that I slept most of the day.

My evening PCA came to feed me and help me attend to basic personal care needs. I have a “doorbell button” that I use to call my PCAs from another room. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the worst functional losses for me due to Gadget’s death has been that I can’t send him to get someone for me, and this button is my main “replacement” for this help.

For example, last night, my PCA helped me transfer out of bed to my chair, and then from my chair to the toilet. I brought the doorbell button with me to call her when I was ready to do the process in reverse, which we did. When I was back in bed, she went to the kitchen to continue working. At some point thereafter, I realized I needed her. I looked for the button. I’d left it on the footrest of my powerchair, out of reach.

I tried using my reacher/grabber against my chair’s joystick to move it around enough that I could grab the button. No good. Too far, and the wrong angle. I tried beeping my chair’s horn, but it’s pathetically quiet, and not surprisingly, my PCA never heard it.

“Well,” I thought. “Barnum and I have been working on cues for barking and shushing, so maybe I can get her attention with some barks.”

I had my doubts because (a) Barnum barks for fun, still — at his toys, at his reflection in the glass doors, etc., so I figured she’d probably ignore him, and (b) Barnum and I had never practiced “Bark!” with only the hand signal (ASL for “speak”), nor with me in bed.

I got his attention and gave the cue for “bark,” and out came a very nice, distinct, sharp bark! I clicked and treated, and we did it several more times. Sometimes they were more like whines, as barking on cue is a different ball of wax than doing it as the urge strikes, but occasionally I’d hold off clicking, and he’d work his way into a loud, strong bark.

Did this bring my PCA running to check on me? No. I did eventually manage to get her attention another way (see below). The barking had not raised suspicion because she assumed he was just barking at his knuckle-bone or something. However, I was then able to tell her, “In the future, if you hear him barking repeatedly when I am alone with him, please come check on me.” I plan to tell all my PCAs this, and . . . voila! A service skill is born! (Or, is gestating. I still need to extinguish his other barking behavior, and we need more practice to get many strong, clear barks in a row as an “attention bark,” but it’s a very strong beginning! And he loves it!)

Good dog!

3. When the barking failed to work, I once again tried to reach the doorbell button with the reacher. Barnum now was “in the game” for clicker training. When he saw me fiddling with the stick, trying to manipulate the button to lift it (and utterly failing), he naturally became interested in this thing. After all, it could be a toy that needed demolishing!

He reached for it, and I made encouraging, happy noises. I thought I might be able to get him to drop it closer to me (he does not yet know a formal retrieve, but he will play fetch sometimes), or he might chew on it and accidentally press the button.

What happened was, as I held my breath and watched, he reached down and touched the button with his nose! I heard the “ding-dong” of the bell in the kitchen. Good dog! I clicked and treated and made lots of happy sounds and invited him onto the bed for petting.

Do I think Barnum knew what I was trying to do, and jumped in, Lassie-like, to save me?

No, I don’t. We have been doing lots of nose-touch training lately as a step in teaching a trained retrieve, and that has meant me holding up every conceivable object for him to nose target. Therefore, it’s possible he was nose-touching the button to see if it would earn him a c/t.

However, I think that’s unlikely, too, as he has not yet learned to touch things on the ground. In fact, the cue for nose targeting at this stage is just my holding an object in front of him.

The most likely explanation is that he was curious. He is still on the mouthy side — liking to explore things with his snout and mouth — and he saw me messing with a strange new object and decided to see what he could learn about it. In doing so, he probably accidentally pressed the button.

But I don’t care! The result is that I needed to call my PCA, and Barnum did it! Curiosity is good, because it’s part of the desire to learn and test out new behaviors that is such a part of clicker training a service dog. In fact, his outgoing, curious nature was a major reason Barnum’s breeder chose him as the best SD candidate.

Another important aspect of the behavior is that once I c/t him for touching the button, he stopped nosing it, and I was able to get him to focus elsewhere so that he didn’t decide to chew, stomp, or otherwise maul it. We are learning to communicate, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Will he ever be an “all-around service dog” who has the manners, focus, and obedience required for public access? I have no idea. Nevertheless, I am gaining confidence in us as a working team. I feel more and more that he will be able to help me out at home, to be an assistance dog to me in the house. Since I spend over 98 percent of my time at home, that is a really big deal.


Barnum age 11 months

I'm the shit!

Good dog!

Happy Hanukkah!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (“The Nose”)

Eye Lock Log Day 5 – QuickPress

The value of the treats makes a difference! Ran out of cubes of beef heart before our eye contact training session today, and Barnum was NOT In the Game. Chicken cubes and lamb/beef miniballs didn’t cut it.
I switched to tastes of “goop” (pureed beef heart, liver, and kidney) I fortunately had defrosted, and that worked to get us up to 2 or 3 reps of 10 seconds, then quit. I do have beef heart ready for tomorrow!

A Red Letter Day in Other Areas….

We passed Level 2 sit-stay (handler walks 20′ away and back while dog remains in sit).

Since instituting “Sharon leaves room when Barnum nibbles powerchair armrest ONE time last night, the number of incidents of armrest mauling in the following 24 hours? ZERO!

For the first time ever, tonight, I ate dinner with Barnum in his crate the entire time, and there were NO whimpers, no whines, no pacing, no shredding his bedding; he just went in, laid down, and relaxed. (And I take a while to get through a meal.)

Oh, bliss!

Next post up: Assistance Dog Blog Carnival announcement!

Level 2 homework

If you’ve been reading my blog, by now you know that Barnum and I are hard at work on Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. In addition to mastering a set of behaviors, the trainer/handler has a written homework assignment for each level. Here is Level Two’s question and my answer, which I have livened up with some Barnum photos. Shortly I hope to put up a page with short videos of Barnum and me getting tested on eight of the L2 behaviors. (There are 16 behaviors to master in L2.)

Handler describes, in writing, the four “legs” of operant conditioning, and the definition of “reinforcement” and “punishment.”

The first leg is positive reinforcement.

On the training and behaviorist lists, abbreviated “R+.” Positive reinforcement is giving something to the learner (adding something to the learner’s environment) that the learner needs or wants. A positive reinforcer makes the behavior more likely to happen again because the learner wants to get that reward again.

Note: ALL forms of reinforcements and punishments are intended to alter future behavior, however, their success varies depending on which “leg” is used and also on other factors, especially whether the reward or aversive is effective/relevant/appropriate to that particular dog/learner, and also whether the timing makes it clear what is being punished/rewarded.

For Barnum, R+ are food, play with other dogs, playing tug, being let outside, chasing a ball, praise, belly rubs when he is lying on his back, walks, being let off leash to run, or being allowed to dig in soft dirt or climb into the tub when it’s only partly full.

The nice thing about R+ is that there is no “fallout.” If you screw up and accidentally reward when you didn’t mean to, or miss an opportunity to reward, it might create or strengthen an undesirable behavior that will have to be extinguished, but it doesn’t tend to cause distress for the learner, inhibit further learning, damage trust, etc.

I will use the same three real-life examples of applying these forms of reinforcement or punishment (sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional) with Barnum for each of the three legs.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Behavior: Jumping on my bed. (Undesirable)

R+ responses:

  • Click/treat (c/t) for getting off the bed (four on the floor) with hand and/or voice cue or lure of food treat.
  • C/t for standing, sitting, lying next to bed. C/t for going into kennel. C/t with stuffed Kong or meal for lying quietly in crate or next to bed for extended period instead of jumping on bed.
  • Barnum jumps onto bed and won’t get off, so I get up and leave as an attempt at positive punishment, forgetting that I left chicken salad on bed; Barnum eats chicken and is positively reinforced for being on bed. (Oops!)
  • Being on the bed seems to be both self-reinforcing as well as a means to an end: Getting on the bed brings attention (I stop eating or working at computer to get him off), food (see above), closeness to me, and also seems to be enjoyable in itself as a soft, high location. (Nevermind that he has four dog beds of his own, Barnum still wants to get on my bed or the couch, even when I’m not on them.)
  • Since it’s impossible to launch a clicker session every time Barnum’s around my bed (that would be all the time except if we are out playing, training, or going for a walk), I try to notice when he seems like he is about to jump or wants to jump, and then I praise, play, or c/t him for having “four on the floor” and try to initiate a game or give him something (appropriate!) to chew.

Behavior: Walking on a loose leash. (Desirable.)

Why is pulling on leash undesirable? Exhibit A:

Broken leash clasp

"There's Lucy! I want to play with her! I'm coming, Lucy!" CRACK! Ka-PING!

R+ techniques for getting a loose leash:

  • C/t any time leash is loose.
  • Praise when leash is loose.
  • Walk toward desirable food or other source of pleasure (another dog) when leash is loose.
  • Offer a walk or game as reward for loose leash.

Behavior: Letting himself out by jumping against the screen door. Desirability: It’s complicated.

While it was never my goal for Barnum to learn this neat trick (ahem), it was more desirable to have Barnum let himself out than for him to have accidents inside — when we were still doing toilet training — since I have not always been good at reading his (to me) often subtle indicators that he needs to go out.

However, now he has bladder/bowel control, and we have better communication, so it’s not necessary. It’s bad for the door and screen, especially now that he’s so big and strong and doing damage; it’s bad for our communication and working relationship (too much freedom without earning it); and when winter comes and he can’t let himself out that way, I don’t want him to have accidents inside again (although I don’t think he will because toileting outside has become so ingrained, and we have worked out other options).

This behavior was born when Barnum one day scratched on the door to indicate, “I want out,” and the door swung open. That was very reinforcing: the power! The control! He learned that if he exerts enough force (jumping up with both legs and really putting his weight into it works almost every time!), he didn’t need to wait for me. Having the ability to let himself out at will is a very powerful reinforcer, not just for offering bladder/bowel relief but for playing in the yard, greeting people coming in the gate, freedom, change of scene, etc. This behavior is self-reinforcing.

R+ I’m using to change the situation:

  • Don’t allow him access to the screen door, thus cutting off the self-reinforcement of him being able to let himself out.
  • C/t him for any behavior other than jumping/swiping at the screen door (when the screen door is available to him).
  • Trained him to ring a bell (by targeting the bell with his nose and earning c/t for successively harder nudges till he is ringing it loudly enough to be heard) which I then hung by the door. Whenever he rings the bell, I ask him if he wants to go out (R+); I toss the treats outside for him to eat (R+); and I let him out (R+), even if I know he doesn’t need to eliminate. (At this point, I’m just working on communicating, “If you want to go out, slamming into the door won’t work, but ringing the bell will.”) It’s a long process because any time anyone (my four PCAs, my partner, or I), forget and allow him access to the screen door, there is the possibility of him letting himself out, thus putting that behavior on a variable schedule of reinforcement, making it über hard to extinguish.

The second leg is positive punishment.

I assume this is abbreviated P+, though I have not seen it on the lists. Positive punishment is adding something to the learner’s environment that s/he dislikes in order to stop an undesirable behavior. P+ might make behavior less likely to occur again because the learner wants to avoid the punisher.

Positive punishment has the most likelihood of causing fallout. Not only is it always unpleasant for the learner, it is often also unpleasant for the trainer (although, if people were honest about it, a lot of the time it is really just venting anger or frustration on the dog in the name of changing behavior, when it is actually more like revenge). The learner often associates the aversive experience with the trainer, which might teach the learner to avoid the trainer or to only do the behavior in the trainer’s absence, as opposed to extinguishing the behavior altogether. It’s also hard to time correctly, and an ill-timed punishment often creates more problems than it solves, as it can punish a desirable behavior that happens after the undesirable one has ceased.

Examples of Positive Punishment

Behavior: Jumping on my bed. (Undesirable.)

Muddy Bouv Face

"I see no reason at all why I shouldn't be allowed on your bed whenever I want. What's the prob, dude?"

  • Yell at him for jumping on bed. (Doesn’t work, he doesn’t care and is often glad of the attention. Potential fallout: Barnum learns to dislike being around me or learns to tune me out.)
  • Try to push him off the bed. (Doesn’t work, he thinks it’s a game, like tug, and can therefore be R+ instead!)
  • Get up and leaving the room. (Works if his goal in jumping up was being closer to me or getting attention; doesn’t work if he just wants to be on the bed to get a better view out the window or a change of pace or to get at my dinner.) He also doesn’t seem to learn from this.

Behavior: Walking on a loose leash. (Desirable.)

Positive punisher: Accidentally run over his toes when he is walking very close to the chair, giving me good eye contact, and we are both so focused on clicks and treats that we lose track of his paws and my wheels. (Aagh!) The result is that, until I counteract this mistake, he walks farther from my chair, hangs back instead of walking next to me, and enjoys himself less. Not intentional!

The traditional punisher for pulling on leash is using choke chains, prong collars, etc., when the dog pulls, but I don’t do that.

Behavior: Letting himself out by jumping against the screen door. (Undesirable.)

Positive punisher: Mildly scold (Eh!) him when he jumps on door. (Sometimes works if I catch his attention and he stops before he goes out, but usually I am too late — there’s that timing thing again!)

The third leg is negative reinforcement.

Abbreviated R-. Negative reinforcement is removing something from the environment that the learner dislikes (finds aversive) in order to make the event that comes with the removal more likely to occur again. Although negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment, using R- necessarily requires an aversive. In other words, until the aversive is removed to reward the change in behavior, whatever came before was being punished.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

Behavior: Jumping on my bed. (Undesirable.)

  • While Barnum is on my bed, I silently turn my back to him, giving no eye contact. When he gets off the bed, I shower him with praise, petting, c/t. (The aversive is me ignoring him, the removal of it = negative reinforcement/R-.)
  • I make grumbling/growling noises when he’s on the bed. When he jumps off, I smile and stop grumbling. (Grumbling = aversive; stopping grumbling = R-.) This worked the first two times I tried, and then he realized I was silly and no actual threat, thought it was a great game; in other words, not effective because it did not alter the behavior and very briefly, was actually probably R+!)
  • I get up and leave the room, shutting the door behind me. Barnum is alone in my bedroom. (He doesn’t like to be apart from me — or alone in general. Social isolation is usually a big punisher for dogs.) When he jumps off the bed, I come back into the room, smiling warmly, and give him eye contact. (Social isolation = aversive; ending social isolation = R-.)

Behavior: Walking on a loose leash. (Desirable.)

Why is pulling on lead undesirable? Exhibit B:

Torn Leash

"I want to get to the pond NOW!" Pffft-BOING! "Ah, that's better!"

Any time Barnum pulls on lead, I walk backwards from whatever is desirable that he’s pulling toward (food, another dog, an interesting smell). When he comes back to my side, and the leash goes slack, I stop pulling him away from the desirable smell/object/dog and begin walking toward it again. (The aversive is having to retreat from desirable smell/dog/food; discontinuing the march backwards = R-.)

Behavior: Letting himself out by jumping against the screen door. (Undesirable.)

Don’t let him out when he flings himself against the door:

  • Hold the door closed.
  • Block the screen door with the winter door.
  • Put him on a leash that’s too short for him to get outside even if he manages to open the door.)

All of these efforts are aversive because they are frustrating his desire to 1. have control over going out, 2. go out and play, and/or 3. relieve himself. When he stops trying to slam the screen door and/or rings the bell instead, I give him access to the outdoors. (The aversive is inability go out; the removal of that restriction is R-.)

The fourth leg is negative punishment.

Again, I presume this is abbreviated P-, although I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it discussed outside of theoretical discussions. (Since I’m on R+ lists and read R+ blogs, that’s mostly what I hear about.) Negative punishment is taking away something the learner wants/needs in order to reinforce the opposite of that behavior.

Behavior: Jumping on my bed. (Undesirable.)

P- responses:

  • Turning my back/looking away/ignoring him when he is on the bed. (This actually does work, though slowly, in combination with R+ when his feet hit the floor.)
  • Can’t think of anything else except maybe moving any food away from him so he doesn’t get to sniff and/or eat it, but I try not to let that happen in the first place.

Behavior: Walking on a loose leash. (Desirable.)

Any time Barnum pulls on the leash, I back away from our focal point, which is something he wants: A bowl of pungent food, another dog, something he wants to sniff. This is slow going, but combined with R+ of c/t when leash is slack and of eventually getting to the object of his desire, it’s effective.

Behavior: Letting himself out by jumping against the screen door. (Undesirable.)

Eliminating access to the yard has been an effective P-, in combination with R+ for ringing the bell to indicate he wants to go out instead of slamming into the door.

Barnum flopped on the lawn on his side

"Lying in the grass feels soooo good! Why wouldn't I want to get out here and enjoy it whenever the whim strikes me?"

* * *

Oy! That felt like I was back in psychology class, taking an exam! My brain hurts! Also, a lot of these overlap so much that some of it seems to be engaging in a bit of (as my college academic advisor once shocked me by saying), “mental masturbation.”

This cognitively impaired, hard-trainin’ chick needs a rest!

However, we have tested and passed and videotaped(!) several of the L2 behaviors. I just need to do the closed captioning and transcripts, and I will post those, too. Then you can see the practice, and not read so much theory.

Retreat! Click, treat, repeat.

Due to my disabilities I’ve only gone away three times in the last fifteen years, and never in the last seven. I was doing “staycations” long before the media coined the term. I love going on vacations and retreats, even when I never leave home.

Others — friends or writers (often one-and-the-same) — join me to talk, eat, write, watch movies, and read our work aloud at my home. Inevitably, connecting to others I care about leads me to connecting more deeply to myself, which in turn strengthens my connection to my writing. Since writing, for me, grows out of self-connection, when I am adrift from who I am, I cannot write well. In fact, I usually cannot write at all.

In the past three years, I haven’t had a writing retreat. I’ve been too sick, among other reasons. However, Betsy and I have had wonderful vacations; she takes time off from work, and we do what mood, weather, and disability allow. Even though I’m always at home, and Betsy often is, and our vacation activities might seem mundane to others — playing cards, watching movies, talking — there’s something different about setting aside a chunk of time and marking it as special. Time together is intended, however ordinary the activity, to be a source of connection with each other.

We also devote some individual time to personal projects. Last year, Betsy focused on gardening. I dedicated myself to taking Gadget for daily walks at the pond.

In 2008 and 2009, picking blackberries was one of our most enjoyable activities.

Sharon picks berries.

A berry nice summer staycation.

Gadget loved berries and picked them, too. One of his all-time favorite treats was blueberries, which he picked off the bush with gusto. However, he was fond of raspberries and blackberries, too, and would brave the thorny brambles to get at the fruit. Last year at this time, Gadget was in remission from lymphoma; he looked and acted particularly robust and happy. He joined us in the berry picking (though nothing he picked ever made it into a pie).

Gadget searches for raspberries

Gadget searches for end-of-the-season raspberries.

When Betsy or I found a particularly bountiful spot, Gadget would wade in, knocking off the ripest berries with his big frame, and indiscriminately devouring large clusters, both black and green. I couldn’t begrudge him the berries — neither those ready to eat nor those that would have been good to pick in a few days’ time. Who couldn’t laugh and rejoice in his being with us, so very Gadget — out for all he could grab from life? I also deeply enjoyed the three of us being able to take part in this activity together as a family.

Gadget eats ground blackberries

These ground-vine blackberries are so much easier to get one's muzzle around!

This week I’m enjoying a retreat of a different kind. Betsy is away, visiting family. Before she left, she planted two organic blueberry bushes, in honor of Gadget (and because we like blueberries). It felt like just the right time to plant something beautiful and practical that will be with us forever, we hope — just like Gadget and our memories of him. Also, appropriately, Barnum helped to dig the holes for the bushes, and then partly dug one of the bushes back up.

Along with Betsy’s absence, I’ve had less time with my PCAs around due to illness and car trouble. As a result, a lot of the time, it’s just Barnum and me. I’m really enjoying it.

I’ve written about how hard his first couple of months were for me. I floundered with the newness of puppy raising. My grief over missing Gadget was so overwhelming, I didn’t even see it; it simply engulfed me. I felt guilty, ashamed, confused, and scared because of my puppy-raising ineptitude — what I perceived as failing Barnum and setting us up to wash out as a service-dog team. I also allowed myself to get jangled by the discouraging and patronizing voices of other dog trainers I met online.

A lot has changed, thank dog!

First of all, after Barnum turned four month’s old, when much of the stress of babyhood wore off, I fell in love with him. This isn’t to say I didn’t love him before; I did. But I wasn’t in love with him. There’s a big difference.

Secondly, as we started to have little training victories, and Barnum developed an attention span and the ability to go longer periods without peeing (in the house), we were able to communicate better. This, too, helped me relax and appreciate him more.

Most recently, I have seriously dedicated myself to working Sue Ailsby’s training levels, which have given me step-by-step directions for ways to explain things to Barnum. I’ve discovered a lot of the bumps in the road we had hit in previous months were due me not knowing how to translate what I wanted to teach to a puppy. I was more used to explaining how to build a behavior in an adult dog. As a result, I was asking for mental leaps I wasn’t even aware were there. This created anxiety for Barnum and frustration (and feelings of inadequacy) for me.

It just keeps getting better: This week, not only do Barnum and I have a quiet, peaceful house to work in for extended periods, I am also functioning better physically than I have in three years!  Suddenly, Barnum and I are particiating in our own unplanned bonding, training, and play retreat!

Gadget rolls in clover

First, a festive roll in the clover. . . .

High-Speed Chase

Then, a rowdy game of "tag."

Barnum in pool, 6 mos old

Finally, a refreshing dip to cool off. (Every time I was about to take a picture, Barnum would turn tail!)

With this breathing space for both of us, and the Training Levels’ step-by-step directions, I find that my enjoyment and skill as a dog trainer is coming back to me! When Barnum is confused, or a skill isn’t being shaped just how I’d like, I’m able to think it through and say to myself — sometimes in the split-second necessary to change tacks in mid-training stream — “Ohhh, I need to back up and do it this way!” And lo and behold, it works! It’s just about the best feeling in the world.

I don’t know which is better: Barnum’s total happiness and obvious gratitude for me finally being able to communicate to him what I want, or my tremendously improved self-confidence and attitude about training.

Like most dogs, Barnum is not big on hiding his emotions. This is part of dogs’ wonderfulness. Thus, Barnum is quite willing to let me know whether he is pleased with what’s happening in his world at any given time. When he is not pleased, he will tell me — emphatically. However, when he is happy, he wags his whole body. For example, ever since I switched him to raw food, after finishing a meal, he comes over to me, grinning and wagging like mad.

“Thank you, thank you!” His body language gushes. “That was awesome!”

Now the same thing happens at the end of a training session. We are both concentrating very hard, but there’s also the rush of learning, teaching, communicating. Often, at the end of a particularly sharp session, Barnum runs to me and nearly knocks me over to enthusiastically lick my face. He never used to do this after training; it’s new, since our little “training retreat” week.

Some might call it anthropomorphizing, but I know what I’m seeing: not just happiness, but gratitude. After several confusing months, where sometimes we were communicating well, and sometimes we were both frustrated, we have achieved a solid communication and trust in ourselves and each other.

“Thank you, thank you!” He kisses me, wags, and grins, after a clicker session. “Now I get it! I get it! I wish you had just said so before!”


I love you, Mom!

There are all sorts of paradoxes here: That we made big leaps in progress when the pressure was off. That working with very definitive goals within a rigid structure — and even knowing that I will be testing myself on them — forces me to focus, which helps me relax. As with writing, the more connected I am to my task (teaching a skill), the more I connect to others involved (Barnum), and the more I’m connected to myself.

That just going hog-wild with clicking/treating (being super generous in clicking even the smallest hint of the behavior I want or doing rapid-fire or jackpots of treats) almost always gets us to a more advanced form of the behavior than being stingy with the rewards is a typical paradox of clicker, too. (And sometimes, lately, has gotten us farther and faster than I expected.)

I’ve also been trying to incorporate additional types of games into our play, especially “mind games” that help Barnum problem solve. I use them as breaks in between training sessions, or as rewards for progress, or I combine them with a training exercise. For example, to teach loose-leash walking, you put a “distraction” — something the dog really wants — at the end of your destination, and then you proceed toward it. If the leash gets tight, you go backwards. I used the muffin tin game, shown in the captioned video below by Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs, as Barnum’s distraction/destination. He really wanted to get to that muffin tin!

Click here for a transcript of the video.

With “time off” and the Training Levels as my guide, all I’ve had to do is put my head down and work on what’s right in front of me. With much of the guesswork removed, I am actually more able to “think on my feet” and be completely in the moment. All this means is that I’m attuned to Barnum’s needs, which is the name of the game, not just in training sessions, but in the rest of our lives. It’s about connection.

Level One: Two Paws Forward, One Paw Back

Hi. I know it’s been a long time. I also know I said in my previous post about canine Lyme, that my next two posts would be about Lyme disease. I do still plan to do those, but I have been writing various other posts (all half-finished, of course, with many waiting for pics), so I decided to go ahead with some new stuff in the meanwhile. I will definitely do the promised Lyme Awareness Parts II and III eventually.

Instead, how about a “Sharon-and-Barnum Update”?

I know those have been severely lacking at After Gadget. And, of course, I’ve written several half-posts about why they’re lacking. Sigh.

[Also note: All photos in this post are outdated. Barnum is now HUGE in comparison to these itty-bitty-puppy pics. Probably close to 60 pounds, and growing. He is six months old, and the most recent pics that have made it onto my computer are from early May. So, just imagine him now as tall as me (5’6″) if he stands on his hind legs, and his head is now about the size of his whole body when he arrived. Okay?]

Anynoodle, soon after I got Barnum and joined a training listserv, several people pointed me toward Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.

The Level Book is a system of clicker training every foundational skill a sports/performance dog (and therefore, a service dog), can use. Sue, herself, has trained herding, agility, obedience, and all sorts of other dog sports, as well as training her own service dogs after she acquired a disability. She also trains other species, especially her own llamas, to do some remarkable stuff. The Levels provides a systematic, detailed, and kind structure.

I thought I’d been “working the levels” pretty much since I discovered them, soon after I got Barnum, but I realized recently that I had mixed up the Introduction and Level One (L1), with L1 and Level Two (L2). So, I thought I’d looked ahead and seen the next steps on the next level, but I was wrong! (Or maybe I did, but I forgot it all, which is also possible.)

As it turns out, many of the next steps are not what I thought, so we have missed some things and gone farther ahead on others. The Levels don’t forbid doing some things out of order, but it was a surprise.

We also had not tested any of the levels. I did ask another trainer in town if she would judge me on the levels — there are few of us in my very small town who do advanced dog training, so I was thrilled to find a neighbor who used to work an SAR dog — but she never got back to me.

Finally, Sunday night, I decided to start using the training log I’d set up before Barnum arrived, but which I hadn’t written in since, except to put in his name. I thought it was high time we tested ourselves, one way or another, on L1, and officially moved on to the behaviors of L2.

Here’s my first log. I hope to post periodic logs (the interesting ones) on After Gadget.

6/20/10 – Barnum’s six month’s old, and I’m getting ready to test him on the L1 skills. In the course of our walk today, we did some recall and loose-leash walking practice, but that’s pretty much it, and neither of those are really tested in L1. I’m going to ask Betsy to judge us.

I’m nervous! Even though I think we should do fine, and have in general surpassed the requirements by quite a bit, you never know where your weak spots are. Rather, I do know where our weak spots are. Down (“Platz!”) is a big one. He is really dependent on a lot of body language for that one. There is also his low frustration threshold and nervousness — when he will get anxious and whiny about doing a behavior.

Part of L1 is that I have a homework assignment.

Handler lists, in writing, five things s/he hopes to accomplish by working the Levels.

1. Making sure each skill, especially foundational skills, are truly solid, without any gaps that could require remediation, retraining, or god-forbid-wash-out, later.

2. Having concrete goals. I’m a very concrete, goal-oriented person. I do very well with detailed instructions. The more detailed the lesson plan, the better.

3. On the flip side, it’s always necessary, and it’s my joy, to be creative — to adjust to the situation and the dog. There are a lot of interesting suggestions for “Advanced Education” at the end of each behavior for each level.

The specifics of the levels do concern me, though, and I have to make sure I don’t ignore the cardinal rule, “Know thy Dog,” at the expense of the instructions. Already it’s been clear to me that The Levels assume a level of sustained attention that is often not possible — or enjoyable — for Barnum.

3. Dividing behaviors up into their component parts so that I don’t either (a) overwhelm Barnum by raising criteria too quickly or in “lumps” (more than one criterion at a time) or (b) miss opportunities to raise criteria in ways I hadn’t thought of. (Novel splits.) [Note: For an explanation of what I mean by “splitting” and “lumping” in this post, please go to The Level Book Intro and scroll down to “The Levels.”]

4. Having a sense of accomplishment and community. I have been depressed, grieving, overwhelmed much of the past seven months (Gadget’s death, my own health problems, the loss of multiple friends to death or abandonment, etc.). I have been responding by either retreating/isolating or by being overly judgemental and harsh with myself whenever I make a mistake with Barnum, which can’t be good for his self-esteem, either. For the first couple of months, I was overly frustrated by, and critical of, Barnum, as a result of feeling so inadequate in puppy raising (and without an adequate guide for what it would really be like to have a baby dog). I’ve just joined The Levels listserv, hoping it will provide positive suggestions and information, without the patronizing or harsh attitude that can sometimes be present on training lists (even positive reinforcement lists!).

5. Becoming a better trainer! There are always new ways to train any given behavior, and I’m hoping this will add to my flexibility. More tools in the toolbox.

6. OK, one extra: A sense of accountability. Because, due to my disabilities, I can’t go to classes or be in training groups like others, having someone judge Barnum and me at each level will provide some form of outside validation that we are achieving what I think we are.

The Results Are In. . . .

I followed Sue’s advice and tested Barnum/myself on a day when we had not trained any of these behaviors. Also, it was late at night, and Barnum was hot and tired. He was lying on the floor, panting. He really is a snow dog, not a summer dog.

Tired Puppy Asleep across Betsy's legs

Oy! The heat! I'm shvitzing! I could platz!

So, we were definitely not operating with any unfair advantage. In fact, it was a challenge to get him interested in anything other than lying on the floor, feeling sorry for himself in the heat!

Betsy agreed to act as our judge. I read her the criteria for judging overall, as well as for each behavior as we got to it. Here’s how it went.

1. “Touch” (or Targeting)

We started with this one because Barnum normally loves it and knows it extremely well. He generally shows a lot of enjoyment and confidence in doing “touch.”

The other reason is that I couldn’t get him up off the floor any other way without practicing a behavior to be tested, and I’d need him to stand to ask for a “sit” and for a stand or sit to ask for a “down.” Can’t ask for a down when he’s already lying on the floor!

I put my hand out — far enough away so he’d have to stand — and said “Touch!” He looked at it and tried to reach it without getting up. Realizing that wouldn’t work, he grudgingly streeeeetched out and touched. It was lackluster, but it met the criteria. Then, since he was “in the game,” I asked him for two more touches, just so he’d feel some sense of accomplishment. And so he’d focus a bit. Those were more peppy.

One down!

2. Sit

The criterion here is that you can only give one cue — either an oral or a manual cue. I usually use both, and I think he’s stronger with the hand signal because it grew out of the lure. I decided to challenge us and go with just the spoken word.

“Barnum,” I said, with my hands behind my back, “Sit.”

He looked at me hesitantly — I think he realized something “big” was going on — and sat. Yay!

Later, I asked him for a sit with just the hand signal, and he sat for that, too. Good dog/trainer!

3. Down

Down is allowed to be cued from a stand or a sit, and any two cues are allowed, including one oral and one manual.

I actually don’t use the word, “Down,” as my cue, because a few weeks after I taught him “down,” he started displaying anxiety with the command. (I’d say “Down,” which he previously did quickly and eagerly, but — in certain locations — instead of lying down he’d wander away, start sniffing, sometimes scratch himself.) I’m still not 100 percent sure why this seemed to have turned into a poisoned cue, though I have a couple of strong suspicions, mostly relating to the area in the yard where I think the “poisoning” occurred. [Note: “Poisoned Cues: The Case of the Stubborn Dog” is my favorite article on poisoned cues, but you have to be signed up for the Karen Pryor Clicker Training newsletter to read it. However, if you have any interest in dog behavior or training, you really should be, in my not-so-humble-opinion, subscribed anyway.]

Regardless, I decided to start over from the beginning with a different oral and manual cue, and instead of luring with food, I used the hand targeting he’d already learned, shaping the down from a “touch.” The oral cue I chose was “Platz,” which is the standard command for “down” among Schutzhund trainers. I picked it because it didn’t sound like any of our other commands, and I knew it would come easily to me. Betsy found it hilarious every time I said, “Platz!” for the first month or so, because of its Yiddish associations, but she’s over that now.

Back to the judging: Barnum was already sitting — sit and stare is his default behavior during training — though he will down from a stand, as well. In fact, he downs from a stand with more zest than from a sit. Go figure.

I said, “Barnum, platz!” and lowered my arm (palm up), and he slid into a relaxed down.

Three for three!

4. Puppy Zen (AKA Zen, AKA “Leave It”)

The criterion is that Barnum must stay away from a treat in my closed hand for five seconds. This one I knew we would pass with our paws tied behind our backs. (I wouldn’t actually do that to him, of course. However, if there were a way I could remove his fangs, er, teeth, just for short periods, that would be tempting.)

Puppy Zen is the best thing since the invention of the clicker. If you have a dog, you must, must, must play Doggy Zen with him. You can read about it on The Levels site. (Hint, hint.) The idea is that the dog learns she will get what she wants by not trying to get it. Then you can apply this self-control awareness all over the place in other areas of training/life.

Barnum and I could have passed a L1 Zen test two days after I taught it to him, probably. We progressed pretty rapidly from him leaving the treat in my hand alone to him leaving alone pieces of meat on the coffee table a good distance from me (with the table closer to him than to me). [Yet, I have had much less success teaching him not to eat the coffee table, itself.] My preferred default for Zen is sustained eye contact. If that goes on too long he’ll add a sit, then backward scooches, for good measure.

Baby Barnum first week home

See? I even knew how to sit and make eye contact when I was a little, little, little guy.

I put a few treats in my hand, said “Leave it,” and shut my hand. I held it down to nose level.

He looked at me like, “Huh? Seriously?”

I think he was confused that I was using something so easy and non-tempting as homemade beef jerky in a closed fist, whereas lately I have been working very hard with him to “Leave It” shoelaces on moving people’s sneakers.  (Soooo much more enticing to get the shoelaces! They move! The more you bite, the more they jiggle and squeak and yell! Especially when you move up to the ankles!)

Anyway, he sat, looked at me, continued looking, scooched back against the wall, still looking, now getting concerned something was wrong. I looked at Betsy, and she said, “That was way more than five seconds.”

I had forgotten to look at my watch, so I hadn’t been sure. I’d wanted to be sure.

Passed that with flying colors! Whoo!

Last, we had to move out into the living room to get enough yardage for . . .

5. The Come Game.

Two people stand twenty feet apart, calling the pup back and forth. They start by using something that will not be the pup’s future/official recall command. (We use, “Puppypuppypuppypuppy.”) Then, when he is on his way, we switch to the future official recall, “Barnum, come!” We did this a few times just for fun. We have been playing variants on the Come Game for months. The photo below shows Barnum doing the Come Game between me and Betsy at The Pond.]

Puppy Barnum in Mid-Air at Pond

My favorite picture of us. Barnum flying high!

Definite pass, according to Betsy.

We passed Level One! Woohoo!

Goooooo Team Barnum! I gave him a hug, and an extra squirt of homemade “dog pâté,” and we did high-fives all around. (True confession: Barnum can’t do a real high-five yet. He is too exuberant. It starts out as a paw, then turns into him raking your arm with his claws, till he’s standing against you on his back legs. But it’s the thought that counts.)

We were very happy. We let him out to pee, then Betsy and I tick-checked each other. While we were tick-checking, Barnum started chewing a chair leg, after I thought he’d stopped chewing furniture a couple of weeks ago! Now he is doing it again — aarrgh!

I tried several toys to distract him until we settled on one that was the right hardness for his chewing needs. It was a chew stick he’d never shown interest in before, and I was so pleased to see him carrying it around in his mouth, wagging his behind as we got all our dog-grooming gear together to tick-check him.

“Look,” I said, pointing to the area where we were about to tick-check him. “He’s going to lie down and chew it over there!”

He did lie down. Then he stood up. And peed. I’d thought the accidents were over! AAARRRRGGGH!

Four Legs to Stand On

So, on one paw, Team Barnum did pass our first level, and we are proud of that. (Dammit!)

On the second paw, Team Barnum is still very much in puppyhood and has not 100 percent “got” the “only pee and poop outside” concept and is nowhere near getting the “don’t chew on people/furniture/shoes/books/everythingelseontheplanet concept.”

On the third paw, we have now officially started working on Level Two skills, and that has turned out to be fun (for both of us — yay!), enlightening (I was lumping some things I was unaware of before — oops!), and remedial (this deserves its own pawagraph — see below).

On the fourth and final paw — for tonight — I see that there were, indeed, “lumps” in the way I was teaching, which I now am sure is the reason for skills where Barnum is nervous or frustrated (whines, acts slowly, etc.). The chance to go back and fill in these gaps, by “re-splitting,” feels like such a gift to Barnum and to me. It will make the behaviors, themselves, much stronger, but that’s really the small picture. That’s just the trees.

The forest is that now that we are truly on this path in a focused way, the training will be so much more fun for both of us, and therefore rewarding (for both of us), which will make him faster, more enthusiastic, and more “operant” (not so hesitant and waiting for me to cue him, but willing to experiment and risk and think on his own). All of which will be vital to both his learning and his desire to train/work. It was desire/confidence that was becoming a concern for me as the only possible reason I can foresee, aside from unexpected health issues, that he could wash out.

If I had to write the homework now, after having worked on L2 for a few short days, I would change what I wrote for number 3. [Note: I mean the first number 3. After proofing this blog, I noticed I wrote two of them. But sometimes I think it’s good for you to see my cognitive impairment at work.] I’d say that by doing the levels and filling in the gaps where I should have started with lower criteria, I will make Barnum feel more in control and successful, and help him back to full confidence. This will probably, eventually (along with increasing maturity), allow us to do more reinforcements of each behavior.

I’d also say that what I hope to get out of the levels is renewed confidence and faith in myself as a trainer, which naturally leads to increased confidence and pride in Barnum. All of which leads to us enjoying each other a lot more.

A couple of nights later — Tuesday — we’d done a bit of bell ringing, some introduction to nail filing, L2 sits and downs, uncued leave-its, and default eye contact. I finished our training session by singing “We Are the Champions” to him and then playing a long, rousing game of “hedgehog tug.” I’d say that counts as enjoyment, wouldn’t you?

Puppy Air Barnum at the Pond

Barnum literally leaps to get to me!

We are the champions, my friends.
And we’ll keep on fighting — till the end.
We are the champions.
We are the champions.
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions — of the world.

As always, we welcome your comments.
Sharon, Barnum, and the muse of Gadget

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