Archive for the 'Sue Ailsby’s Levels' Category

Default Zen Remediation Week 2 (in pictures)

We’re progressing with Zen training even though I have not managed to do a solid training session every day. We do at least a bit every day, though. We’ve probably used another 300 treats or so out of our 1,000.

How I’ve been starting it is when my PCA brings me a meal, I usually still need to cue Zen (either “Leave It” if I’m verbal or “Eh!” if I’m not) and then after one or maybe two cues, we move to the food and my eating being the cue.

Barnum will now look up with anticipation for a training session when he hears me chewing. This would seem to be counterproductive, and I admit that I feel on the knife edge of creating a behavior chain, so I’m trying to head that off at the pass. I can pretty quickly now get him from sniffing at me or the food to backing up and ending up on his mat across the room.

I’ve reduced the number of repetitions — lowered rate of reinforcement in going for longer durations — and this means that sometimes he gets up from the mat and comes over. I’ve decided that if he wants to get on the bed to look out the window while I’m eating, that’s fine. Anything that maintains “ignoring food” as the goal behavior is OK. But if he comes back on the bed, looks out the window for a while, and then sniffs my food, he gets (as Sue Ailsby puts it), The Big Prize! Which is that he gets to go and lie in his crate for a couple of minutes and then be released. (No treat.)

Here are some pictures from a session a three days ago. This was after we had taken a break from formal sessions for a few days.

Sharon sits in bed with a plate of food on a tray in her lap. Barnum stands next to the bed, looking intently at Sharon's plate.

Beginning of Zen training session with lunch as the cue for “back off.”

Same image as above except Barnum's legs are blurred as he backs up away from the bed.

Barnum backs up after not getting clicked for staying put.

Same picture as above except Barnum has backed up so he's almost out of the frame.

Barnum backs up more.

Barnum stands on a blue and white rag rug next to the wall on the left side of the room. The bed is not visible except as a shadow on the floor on the right edge of the picture.

A couple more backward steps takes Barnum to his mat.

Same view as previous picture, except this time Barnum is lying on the rag rug, his head up and looking toward the bed, which just has a little corner visible on the right edge of the picture.

Next rep Barnum lies down on his mat.

Same picture as above except Barnum's head is resting on his front paws.

While not actually relaxed, Barnum is offering a more relaxed pose (and he sighed after putting his head down, earning a click).

Peace,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

P.S. I’m keeping my blogging to a minimum and trying to do less typing in general, including alt tags for the pictures, because I’m having repetitive strain issues with my hands. That’s scary because I spend all my time on the computer!

Retrieving a Fork with Food on It (Zen + Retrieve = Yippee!)

I’ve said all along that I wanted to train Barnum more and better than I did Gadget and Jersey. I wanted him to learn skills they didn’t know because I now need more types of assistance than I used to. And I wanted Barnum trained better because there were skills Gadget had that were good enough, but that were never really perfect. For example, Gadget was good at retrieves but lousy at combining the “hold” with other skills, like heeling or sitting or sometimes even waiting for the release (instead of just dropping the item in my lap).

One thing I never trained Gadget or Jersey to do is pick up silverware that had food on it without tasting the food. I just didn’t know how to communicate that part, because I didn’t know about doggy zen. Since dropped utensils often have food on them, this was a hole in our training.

Thanks primarily to all I’ve learned from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels and the Training Levels list, I am a much better trainer now. I also owe some credit to Barnum for being harder to train than Jersey or Gadget, which made it impossible for me to be sloppy and take shortcuts like I did with them.

One of the ways Barnum is much better trained is with his “leave it.” I used the “puppy zen” approach to teaching this, and it’s an awesome tool to have in your dog training toolkit. (I’ve posted about zen plenty in the past. If you want to read some zen-related posts, click on the relevant tag or search “Zen.”)

We have been working on a default zen, which means that I don’t have to cue “leave it” for Barnum to know that he should not eat/sniff/touch/grab that thing/person/animal unless I tell him to. I wrote this earlier post on zen which includes a video (a captioned version and a noncaptioned version and a transcript of the video at the end of the post).

Recently we’ve also been working on combining zen and retrieve.

In general, I’ve been trying to widen Barnum’s repertoire of things he understands how to pick up, like big (wide) things, long things, heavy things, bulky things, flat things (e.g., paper), etc., as well as circumstances in which he picks things up (different rooms, outside, with other people around, with background noise like a video playing, over longer distances, with me moving, etc.).
I’ve also started combining zen/distraction with retrieving. I started leaving a treat on the floor and asking him to retrieve something while ignoring the treat. Over time I’d add more treats and/or put them closer to the retrieve items. Eventually I could put several treats under and around the item and still have him pick it up. The challenge was not with him snorking up the treats but with him being afraid to pick up an item that was within “the zen field.” (You can see the zen field at work in the video referenced above. If a treat was next to another treat that was also “zenned,” he wouldn’t eat it unless specifically cued to do so.)
Last Saturday he was doing really well with something we were working (I don’t remember what anymore) and for his treats I was using leftover cooked fish and fish skin that was very smelly and exciting to him. I was delivering the treats on a fork. I thought, “Hmmm.”
I got a clean fork and had him retrieve it. Then I smeared some fish juice on it and repeated. Then put a piece of fish UNDER the fork. And finally I used the fork I’d been feeding him from with a piece of fish speared on the end, and he retrieved it! (Without touching the piece of fish, I mean.) We did it a few times, including the fork ending up in different positions and having fish flying off it, etc.
In the following days, I tried it with pork and hot dogs. Each time, if I didn’t begin with review, he’d start toward the food end of the fork and I’d tell him leave it. But once I reviewed and he realized we were working zen AND retrieve, he’d switch to carefully picking up the handle end of the implement and leaving the food on the fork.
Today I finally made a video of him doing this, and I tried to show some of the steps leading up to it. It’s kind of a clumsy video. My voice wasn’t working, so we did it all without voiced cues, and he was not the most “in the game” he’s ever been, but hopefully you can understand what’s happening. (For the record, when I say, “Oops,” it’s not because he’s eaten the food, it’s because of the sloppy way he retrieved the fork which resulted in a piece of hot dog falling onto my foot plate, which he then went to eat, so I had to cue him to leave it.)
I am “signing” in this video, not speaking. I use the term “signing” very, very loosely because I am so out-of-practice signing that a lot of it is kind of incomprehensible mumbling from an ASL perspective, so the captioned version is as much for hearing folk as it is for Deaf or hard of hearing people.
You can watch the video (uncaptioned) below. . . .

The captioned version is here.

There is a transcript of the video below which might be of interest even to those who can watch the video, because there are some things you don’t see very well in the video that I explain in the description, like where the meat is, and that in the last retrieve the fork is right next to a piece of hot dog on the floor, etc.

Comments, critiques, questions, etc., all welcomed!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she didn’t do this stuff with me! Boo!), and Barnum SD/SDiT

Video Description:

Sharon: I’ll show you how Barnum and I train zen (self-control) and retrieving.

Sharon picks up a fork.

Sharon: This is clean.

Sharon holds out the fork and Barnum takes and holds it in his mouth. Sharon grabs the fork in Barnum’s mouth and clicks and he lets go and gets a treat. Sharon tosses the clean fork on the floor and Barnum retrieves it for a click and treat again.

She spears a piece of hot dog onto the end of the fork and tosses the fork on the floor. Barnum moves around the fork warily. He picks it up but at the food end, so although he doesn’t eat the hot dog, when he hands it to Sharon, the hot dog piece falls onto her footrest. He moves to eat it. Sharon voices something that sounds like “Leave it,” and Barnum retreats from the hot dog piece.

Sharon: Oops. We’ll try again.

She holds up another fork that has a beef cube on it and throws it on the floor. This time Barnum picks it up by the handle. Sharon shows the fork to the camera so viewers can see that the meat is still on the fork.

Sharon takes two more hot dog slices and puts one on the fork that has the beef on it and tosses the other on the floor. Barnum doesn’t attempt to eat the one on the floor. When he turns and looks at Sharon instead, he gets a click and a piece of hot dog from her hand.

Sharon holds it for him to take, and then give back to her. She tries to hold it for him out to the side, but drops it instead. Barnum picks it up by the handle and gives it to her. Sharon shows the camera the pieces of meat still on the fork.

Sharon: Perfect!

Sharon throws the fork with the meat on it over next to where the hot dog is lying on the floor. Barnum retrieves it while ignoring the hot dog on the floor. Sharon clicks and treats him.

SD Training: “Bad Days” Provide Evaluation Opportunities

There’s a quote I like very much in Sue Ailsby’s books, Training Levels: Steps to Success*. It’s by Steve White:

“Failure” is just information. Thank your dog for revealing a gap in your training plan and get to work plugging it.

Taking this attitude makes me a better trainer, a happier and mellower person, and a more pleasant person for my dog and other humans to be around. Learning to actually adopt this philosophy has taken me many years. (Not that I am always able to have this perspective even now — sometimes I do get frustrated — but certainly I can see things this way much more often than I did in the past.)

This quote is in the explanation of testing. The Levels are a set of behaviors, divided into Steps, and each builds on the other. (Sort of like math, but much, much more fun.) So, before you can go to the next Step or Level, you test the one you’ve trained to make sure that you and dog are moving on with a firm foundation.

I have not been able to proceed quickly and efficiently through the Levels because I’ve been too sick, so we have done very little formal testing of Levels behavior. Instead, I have decided to focus on training these behaviors:

  • The behaviors I most need from Barnum on a day-to-day basis (service skills), and
  • The behaviors I can train most easily from bed or the toilet (or wherever I might be during the course of a day).

I’ll write more about how and why I’ve decided to focus on training like this in my upcoming post for the July Assistance Dog Blog Carnival which is being hosted by Brooke at ruled by paws. (And she will be giving a prize to one of the bloggers who submits an entry, which is another reason to go read the call for entries and write a post!)

Meanwhile, I thought I’d catch you up on how and what Barnum and I are doing by telling you about last Saturday (a week from yesterday). Saturday was a lousy day in some ways and a terrific day in others.

The lousy part was that I was in a very bad way, physically. It was probably one of the worst pain days I’ve had in a long time. It was the kind of day where I had to take several prescription painkillers in order to be able to sit up or move my limbs at all. Without pain medication I would have been reduced to lying in bed, crying, and unable to move all day. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t brush my teeth. I needed help to eat.

It was terrific in that it was a chance to “test” where Barnum and I are in his ability (and interest) in assisting me. Here’s what I learned.

  • Barnum was very eager to work. Every time I called (using my “kissy noise,” which is how I call him when I can’t speak), he rushed over in eager anticipation of working (and thus, earning treats). Even though it was 90 degrees out, and he has a thick, black coat and hates the heat.
  • He retrieved my slippers for me about a dozen times because I take them off when I get in bed and then want them on each time I get out (even just to transfer to my chair to go to the bathroom).
  • I also learned that he seems to have learned my hand signal for “Take,” which surprised me because cues are Barnum’s weak point, and this hand signal is one I only introduced recently.
  • He opened and shut my bedroom door many times. He responds with the same level of reliability to the hand signal as to the spoken cue. With opening the door, he knows both and is eager and efficient regardless of where I am or what else is going on. With shutting the door, either he absolutely knows what I want and runs and slams the door (always if I’m out of bed and sometimes if I’m in bed). If I’m in bed, sometimes he is confident and runs to slam the door, while other times he’s unsure and requires shaping to go around the chair, get behind the door, and shut it. We are continuing to practice this one so that he becomes more certain of this behavior and cue. I still haven’t figured out the variable that makes the difference to him.
  • He picked up several things I dropped — pens, an empty saline flush syringe (no needle), dog treat bags — satisfactorily, including sometimes needing to go around my chair to get it, and then jump on my bed with it in his mouth to hand it to me.
  • He turned on and off the bathroom lights for me several times. He is very solid on turning on the light when we enter the bathroom. Exiting the bathroom, he still sometimes turns off the light and then immediately turns it back on again. So, “off” needs work.
  • He can hear me blow the dog whistle in my room when he is in the kitchen even with the water running and the vent hood on, but he doesn’t yet know the whistle means “come.” Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. We need to continue to practice the whistle as part of the “Come Game,” reteaching it from Level One Come.
  • He is completely solid on stand-stay/brace; he assisted with transfers from chair to toilet many times and with toilet to chair and bed to chair a few times.
  • He carried messages to, and went to get, two PCAs at different times. He is solid on the cue to get them, opening the door, and finding them. With one of them, he is solid on the whole behavior of open door, find person, nudge them, sit, wait to be sent back to me. With the other, he needed to be cued to nudge her on the first find. I am discovering that not all my PCAs are consistent in their responses to him — sometimes forgetting to ask for the sit or to ask “Where’s Sharon?” at the end, so I have now written up a step-by-step “how to” that they can refer to for “cold” retrieves (when we are not in an official training situation and neither Barnum nor they are primed to expect it). During a training situation, everyone already knows their jobs, but randomly using or testing this skill when neither dog nor person were prepared has given me important information on tweaking behavior for both people and dog. (You can see a video of this skill in this earlier post.)
  • He removed my socks a couple of times while I was in bed, which is a different behavior chain than removing my socks when I’m in my chair. It requires several positioning cues that are different — a lot more communication is required than for sock-removal while I’m sitting.
  • He opened and shut the refrigerator and shut cabinets and drawers. This all went very smoothly. Both cues and behaviors are well established. It tells me it’s time to start hanging pull-cords on some of the cabinets and drawers I might want him to open so we can start working on that behavior, too.
  • I realized that while he has learned most of the behavior for pulling down my big, heavy comforters, we have never worked on him pulling down my lightweight summer blankets or sheets. It would also help a lot if he could learn to help me pull off long pants. These are new items on the “to do” list.

There are probably a few other things I’m forgetting because by now it’s been a week, and I can usually only retain this type of information for a few hours. But, my overall point is that now, on a day when I really need him, he is actually helping me. We really are a team now. There are some skills he doesn’t know yet, or some situations in which he is still inconsistent, and those are more obvious to me on my “bad days,” too.

Not only do I now want to thank my dog for the information when he “fails,” but I can also thank my body on the days it “fails.” Sometimes it feels like there are three of us doing this training process: Barnum, me, and my body. The challenge is to coordinate the needs and abilities of all at once.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, home-style SD/public SDiT

*Should you want to buy the books, which I highly recommend, you can purchase the paper version here or the electronic version here.

The Little Things in Life (and Dog Training)…

…are not free, but sometimes they feel like “Amazing Free Gifts!!” when you forget how hard you worked to get to something “easy.” Lately, I’ve seen how the foundation training I’ve done with Barnum (via Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels) has increased our team repertoire, allowing me to communicate more easily with Barnum and request behaviors my previous SDs didn’t know.

Spending so much time training and longing for the day when I can definitively take the “iT” off of “SDiT” sometimes leads me to lose track of the point of it all: the end product. Yesterday was one of those days when I was able to marvel at my dog actually doing the shit I’d trained him to do! Not Big Impressive Service Skills (that’s a post for another time), but “little things.”

You see, yesterday was “Doggy Spa Day” here at Chez Wachsler. All those handling sessions — holding his paws, messing with his muzzle and tail, digging in his hears — certainly came in handy when I had to clip between his toes and when Betsy buzzed his tail and butthole and I debouverized him (removed his bouvier beard).

The positioning cues like stand and stay are gold when you need a duration stand for clipping. After all, there is a lot of dog to clip, and with my very limited stamina, time is of the essence.

A crucial skill for grooming is a targeting skilled I call “chin.” Chin means, “Rest your chin in my palm until you are released.” Or, “Rest your chin on the surface I’m pointing to until you are released.”

When I need Barnum to hold really still — such as when I am clipping his ears, which is anxiety-producing for me because I once nicked Gadget’s ear, and it bled profusely — I have him put his chin in Betsy’s palm. Then I lay his ear flat in my left hand or over the top of his head and carefully guide the clippers with my right hand.

It was also lovely today to be able to easily brush his teeth and to do some touch-ups with my curved, blunt-tipped scissors of the hair between his toes. Having him cooperate — not pull away or get antsy — uses less energy and is more pleasant for both of us.

But the most exciting moment was when we needed to do some cleaning and reorganizing mid-haircut yesterday. I have a large enough bathroom that I can easily turn my powerchair around in it, but it is still, after all, a bathroom. When it contains two large people, one large dog, a coffee table (which is what I use as a grooming table), and all the grooming paraphanelia (clippers, sheers, brushes, combs, broom, dustpan, bag to collect dog fur, hedge trimmers, etc.), it can feel rather small. Betsy usually does most of the clipping from the floor, and then to do the trickier parts (his feet and head, especially), I take over, with Barnum standing on the table.

So, we were moving the table out of the way and needed to sweep up the hair before repositioning the table (and dog). We slid the table to the side.

I said, “Hup!”

Barnum jumped onto the table.

I said, “Sit,” and he sat on the table. I decided I wanted him to stay right there, out of the way, while we swept up and got the blades ready for the next assault phase of the haircut, so I added a “stay.”

And he just sat there on the table while we did what we needed to do. I thought of the introduction to “Stay” from the Training Levels:

There’s a wonderful sense of freedom that comes when you can “park” your dog on the grass while you spread the picnic blanket, park her off the bike path while you dust off your kid, or park her on the front step while you carry in the groceries.

I would add that it is even more convenient to be able to park your dog on an elevated surface, if need be, which is also something I learned from the Levels list. When we had the “sit” contest, I taught Barnum to jump onto the coffee table and sit on it. (Here’s a post with some of our fun sit contest photos.) Now sitting on the table is one of his favorite behaviors.

You might not think that training your dog to sit on a coffee table is such a terrific idea, but you never know when it will come in very handy.

– Sharon and Barnum, (bald bouvier) SD/SDiT

Training Update, Plus Where Is My Shark of Yesteryear?

Training Wrap-Up/Update

Barnum’s training moves apace. I try every day to do some handling (brushing teeth, coat upkeep, nail filing), some New Levels training (Sue Ailsby’s books), some service skills training, and/or some manners/basic obedience training. Most days we do not manage most of this! Still, almost every day we do some training.

The New Levels training is hard to track because a lot of it is review, and some of the “comeafters” require criteria that I’m not always able to do — like retrain it outside, or with another person, or in a different room. So, we speed through some of it, and then we stall out and wait on some until the weather or my pain level or whatnot enable me to do things in other rooms or outside, etcetera.

In preparation for future doctor’s appointments and things like that, we’ve been working on mat duration, down-stay, and relax. I’m loving combining shaping relax with down-stay and mat. These also mesh well with training default going to mat or crate when I’m eating, with which the MannersMinder has been very helpful. And we’ve also been adding new aspects of zen (“leave it”) into the mix, such as having my PCAs teach him zen when they’re doing food prep.

Most of the service skills we’ve been working on are doors (opening and shutting), light switch, and “Where is [person]?” He has made excellent progress on all of these. He can now turn on or off my bathroom light on one cue — the same cue (Lynn!) — pretty reliably, without flicking them on or off additional times. The most important light switch is my bedroom one. That’s still a challenge because the switch is right behind where I park my powerchair next to my bed, and that makes it hard for him to jump up and get it from the correct angle. We’ll get there, though.

Door shutting is, in some cases, completely reliable — such as if I’m in my powerchair — and in other cases, still not attached to the cue. He seems to know what I’m asking if I ask for him to shut my bedroom door when I’m in bed, but he still has some discomfort with it because of one time when the door bonked him in the butt when we were training that. Even though we’ve done it a hundred times (not exaggerating) since then, he hasn’t entirely gotten over that incident. Bouviers are like elephants: they never forget. They develop phobias at the drop of a hat.

With the bathroom door, he has no “issues,” he just doesn’t know what the cue is yet, and there are not as many obvious physical cues because I’m far enough away that he can’t tell if I’m pointing to the door, his crate, his mat, etc.

Where he is really shining, and what turns out to be one of the most useful skills, is finding the person. He loves this, and I’m very pleased with how I’ve trained it. I started teaching him when he was a baby to learn the names of my PCAs and Betsy, and my name, and that it was excellent fun to run to that person when he was asked, “Where’s Sharon/Betsy/PCA?” etc. What I’ve been working on lately is creating a behavior chain where he will open the door to get to that person, no matter where we are, and then nudge them until they ask him, “Where’s Sharon?”

I have discovered I most often need this skill when I’m in the bathroom, and I haven’t brought my walkie-talkie with me. So far, he will eagerly run and open my door and find and nudge the person if they are in an obvious location downstairs. It’s good training for both of us that we have to practice this skill with five different people, each of whom does it a bit differently.

Next I’ll be raising the criteria. It will become much harder if he has to open two doors (my bathroom door, which is probably the hardest door to open in the house, and then my bedroom door, which he does easily) or if he has to find the person in an unexpected location. When we have the entire behavior really solid, and he is nudging people in a totally obnoxious way, I will go back to teaching him to bark on cue so that he can bark in situations where he can’t get through a door, such as if I’m outside or if he needs to get Betsy, and she’s upstairs. I put bark/silence training on hold a few months ago because he was getting too barky (I started calling him, “Barkum”), but now that he’s had an attitude adjustment, I think it will go better.

Mais où est mon requin d’antan? (But where is my shark of yesteryear?)

One skill that is really important that we’ve had to return to basics on is his trained retrieve. He is great at picking up small things like pens, clickers, baggies, silverware, and even paper. He doesn’t chew or lick things. He doesn’t bat them around. He’s very purposeful about it. He usually remembers to hold things until I cue the release, even if my hand is on it.

The problem is that he somehow has learned that he can only open his mouth a leetle bit. Obviously I must have taught him this, because when he’s playing, and certainly when he was a pup, he had no problem opening his mouth very wide, as these pictures and this early post show.

Barnum prepares to launch Shark Attack.

Sure, it’s all fun until someone gets bit in the arm. Then it’s only fun for Barnum, not so fun for the owner of the arm.

Barnum chews bucket lid

“Mm, the lid to the bucket tastes as good as the bucket, itself.”

Barnum chews hose.

Now its a hose and a sprinkler all-in-one!

But somewhere along the way, when I taught him to take things from my hand and hold them, he got into the habit of opening his mouth just enough to bump his teeth against the thing, and then a bit more to hold the thing behind his canines. If I hold up something that is larger and requires a more open-mouthed grab, he is used to opening a bit and then a bit more, and then a bit more. So, he is sort of going, “nibble?? nibble? nibble,” until he has carefully and gingerly taken the item. However, the sequence occurred so quickly and seamlessly that I didn’t notice that’s what he was doing, because the end result was that he was holding the item the way I wanted.

It’s an excellent approach for helping me to dress or undress, a skill we recently started with sock removal. He’s very careful to avoid my fingers or toes. With removing a sock, you want a dog that will start with a careful, gingerly nibble. But for grabbing and pulling the front of a sneaker, it doesn’t work at all because he won’t open his mouth wide enough to take the front of the sneaker!

Further, when it comes to picking things up off the ground, this method fails miserably for anything that requires a wide, firm grip. What happens then is that he ends up pushing the thing around because he’s not lowering his mouth over it wide enough to grasp it with the first attempt. Round or slippery things roll away as he tries repeatedly to nibble at them. He ends up getting frustrated and giving up.

So, I have stopped most of our retrieve work and gone back to the beginning. I decided I needed to mark the moment when his mouth is open and to keep shaping him to open it wider. This is easier said than done. For one thing, I use a verbal marker (“Yes!”) for this work, and it’s harder to be precise with timing with a verbal marker than with a clicker. For another, he is a bouvier des Flandres, not a Lab or Weimaraner — in other words, he has a lot of hair obscuring his mouth. Even though he has a very short haircut for a bouv, it’s still not always possible to see whether or how much his mouth is open from the side.

Also, my original idea had been to do the training the way we’d started, but use fatter objects, but he just did the nibblenibblenibble thing with the bigger objects, so I knew we had to go further back to kindergarten. Instead, I’ve been using items he is very familiar and comfortable with, such as pens, and very high value treats when he’s very hungry and eager to work. Then I wave the item around in front of me and a little high for him so I can see when his mouth is opening. A lot of the work has just been me learning how to time my “Yes!” — which involves anticipating when he is about to open and trying to say it right before his mouth gets to its widest point — and how to position him so I can see his open mouth. I actually ended up training a little hop because he was having to jump up to grab for the item. That went away as soon as I lowered it a bit.

Once we both got used to the idea that he didn’t actually have to take the item, he just had to open up and grab for it, we started to make some progress. Last session, I had worked him up to grabbing — opening wide enough to take it in his mouth on the first grab — a wide handle of a dog brush. That’s where we are now. I am trying to regain my shark of yesteryear. If anyone had told me a year ago (or two years ago!) that I’d have to put lots of effort into getting him to open his mouth wide and grab willy-nilly at things, I’d never have believed it!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I liked grabbing things!), and Barnum SD/SDiT and reformed shark

Kvelling: I Can Haz Service Dog!

I’m writing a short post because I have a lot of other stuff I need to do before my brain shuts down for the day. (Yeah, I’ve been awake two hours, and already I’m at low brain. Oh well.)

This is a celebratory post!

I can see my way forward with Barnum as my best service dog yet! He now can open my bedroom door on cue (with much enthusiasm) and the refrigerator door (with less enthusiasm), neatly retrieve most things I point to, and is well on his way to pulling shut (much harder than nudging shut) my bedroom door and bathroom door — two very important skills for me — and going to a named person for help after opening the door to the room we are in. I also, so far, am managing to prevent him from realizing that he has the power to open doors for his own means; so far I’m making it worth his while to only do it on cue.

Yes, we still have a long way to go before all established skills are really solid, and we have a buttload of obedience and public access to work, and various service skills he has not been introduced to. But we are now at the point where he is helping me in small ways, every day!

I give tremendous thanks and acknowledgement to Sue Ailsby and everyone on the Training Levels list who has provided tips and encouragement. You have made me a much, much better trainer and also helped me realize that I wanted a much higher standard of training for Barnum than I had for Gadget (let alone for Jersey).

Barnum just shut the bathroom door behind me for the first time, which is a tricky door because the latch sticks. He is now chomping on a well-earned knuckle bone. Meanwhile, I need to apply myself to an essay that is due soon.

I just wanted to share my joy and my thanks with everyone who has helped me along this journey. I do feel a tinge of sadness that Barnum is truly stepping into Gadget’s footsteps for the first time. I still miss my Gadgamonster, but I am so happy to have my Barnum, too.

My heart is full of love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My bathroom door pull and two cupboard pulls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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