Archive for the 'Tips for Tired Trainers' Category

Don’t Worry, I Don’t Starve My Dog

I sometimes comment in posts here or on my Facebook page that Barnum earns his food via training sessions. Thus, he doesn’t usually get “meals,” as such.

I’m also aware that some days I post or tweet that we haven’t been able to train that day because I was sick. Other days I say things like, “Barnum was really eager to work because we haven’t been doing much training, so he was bored and hungry.”

I have wondered if maybe I should include a note to reassure readers that I’m not starving Barnum, but then I thought, “No, nobody would think that, would they?” But recently someone asked me if I fast Barnum on days we train, so I thought I better explain the details and nuances of the situation better to put your minds at ease. I also wouldn’t want anyone to think that I am advocating starving an animal to make them hungrier to work. That would be cruel and counterproductive.

So, what I mean, usually, when I say that we did “no training today” is that we didn’t have a formal or lengthy training session or series of them. Nonetheless, every single day Barnum earns treats just for incidental things throughout the day. For example, almost every time I go to the bathroom (several times a day), Barnum follows me in and I reinforce behaviors like eye contact, cooperation with handling (holding still for petting, cleaning out eye boogers, tick-checking his ears or pulling out excess ear hair or wax), or other simple behaviors like targeting parts of my body with his chin or nose. He gets food (kibble, hot dogs, cheese, raw beef, or a trout-and-potato biscuit) for almost every repetition.

When I am too tired, sick, or in pain to train more actively, and I want him to learn to respect my need to rest, I put the MannersMinder on his mat or in his crate; I set it to dispense food on a variable schedule to reward him for staying put and getting out of my face. Depending on how often its set up to dispense, this can add up to a meal’s worth of food.

He’s also starting to do a lot of incidental service skills throughout the day — bracing when I transfer to and from the toilet, turning on and off the bathroom light, getting my slippers if they slide under the bed, opening and shutting my door, and things like that. Again, each of these behavior is rewarded.

Sometimes there are days, though, where I’m too sick to do even some of these behaviors, and then I usually do something that will both give him some nutrition and some mental activity. This is generally giving him a knuckle bone to chew in his crate, or his Buster Cube or IQ Treat Ball to nudge around the house. The Buster Cube, in particular, holds an entire day’s worth of food, so I try to only use it if I think we’re not going to be doing any substantial training for 24 hours.

Barnum does actually get something every night that he clearly thinks of as a “meal,” although I consider it a “snack” because it’s a very small quantity of food. He gets several squirts of salmon oil, and a dropper full of Lyme-prevention tincture, usually mixed with two scoops of canned dog food. Sometimes instead of the wet food, he gets a small amount of table scraps — a bit of leftover rice or veggies — or some cottage cheese or raw liver or kidney. I say that Barnum perceives it as a meal because it’s in his bowl, it happens at about the same time every night, he is absolutely thrilled about it (and looks forward to it all evening, once it’s set up on his crate), and he always needs to go out to eliminate after. So, it has the routine of a meal that dogs seem to love.

If Barnum were a total foodie, or if he did not eat primarily a raw meat diet, I would probably make sure to give him more meals. Raw food is digested much more slowly than cooked food, so a raw-fed dog can go a day or two on one large meal and not be overly hungry. Barnum is also a self-regulating dog. When he gets full, he stops eating, even if there is more food available. In the case of his MannersMinder, he’ll just walk away from it and lie down somewhere else. If he had a piece of raw meat that he doesn’t want, he will “bury” it by wrapping it inside the sheet on his dog bed! (I take it out and put it back in the freezer.)

Still, it’s true that if we go a few days with very little training, Barnum might start acting ravenous, and then I’ll give him an actual meal, which is a big hunk of raw meat, usually a partial chicken carcass, but sometimes raw fish or pork. He’s usually only hungry enough for a real meal once every one or two weeks.

Anyone who has seen Barnum in the flesh knows that there is plenty of it (flesh, I mean) on his bones. He’s not fat, but he’s definitely not skinny!

So, have no fear, dog lovers, Barnum is well fed!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t get all this gourmet food my whole life!), and Barnum, well-fed and pampered SD/SDiT

P.S. I still consider myself to be on blogging hiatus, but I am trying to do short posts as issues arise that I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.

Product Review & Tip for Tired Trainers: The MannersMinder

I’ve heard about the MannersMinder for years, but I put off buying one until now for two reasons.

The first reason is money. While I am usually quite willing to try out promising, positive-reinforcement training gear, this product used to sell for over $100, and that seemed like a lot of money for something that would be an experiment for me. (It’s still pricey, but not that much.) I also wasn’t convinced it could really be that much more useful than clicker training the way I’ve been doing for the past year-and-a-half.

The second reason is that it can only be used with kibble or other mass-produced, uniformly sized treats. Barnum generally will not work for kibble, and I also don’t believe kibble is the healthiest way to feed my dog.

However, another partner-trainer I met online (Hi Robin!) encouraged me repeatedly to get the MannersMinder. She was convinced it would help solve some of my training conundrums, so I did a bit of research and discovered it was created and tested by Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and behaviorist whom I greatly admire. Feeling a bit desperate for an easier way to train when I’m unable to toss treats repeatedly, and reassured that it was not the result of a silly fad, I set out to find a kibble that might work.

One of my main issues with kibble is that it is made using an extrusion process that requires extremely high heat. This not only strips the food of much of its nutrient value and flavor, but this super-high-heat processing also makes kibble carcinogenic. Because Gadget died of mast cell cancer after finishing treatment for a first cancer, lymphosarcoma, I am very wary of exposing Barnum to any carcinogens, especially a daily dose of them.

Fortunately, someone from the Lymphoma HeartDogs Angels list I’m on told me about Flint River Ranch, which makes kibble that is baked, not extruded. I bought some samples of their different kibbles and taste-tested them on Barnum. Only some of their kibble is in “nugget” form — uniformly sized and shaped — the rest is “freeform,” like what you’d get if you baked actual food without a mold. So, I was only interested in the nugget varieties. Fortunately, Barnum loved it all! Definitely a step up from regular kibble, in his opinion.

I took the plunge and ordered the MannersMinder. When it arrived, I tested the remaining sample kibble to see if it fit in the machine. It did, and I invested in a couple of bags of very pricey Flint River Ranch dog food.

So what is the MannersMinder? It’s a remote treat delivery system. It’s basically a combination clicker/food dispenser. You have a remote control, and when you press it, the machine beeps, signaling to the dog that it is about to deliver a treat, which it does. (Here is a FAQ.)

One use I had in mind for the MM is to work through some separation anxiety. Barnum did not used to have SA. I put in effort, when he was a pup, to prevent it, and that was successful — until I stopped working to maintain the behavior. Now, if I leave him behind at home, or if I’m out with him and leave him with another person, he barks and howls and whines. Because you can use the MM to deliver reinforcements from a distance (of 100 yards, I think? Maybe 100 feet? I don’t have the booklet in front of me to look it up), I’ll be able to give him something to focus on when I move away and out of sight, and reward him for being calm and quiet.

There is actually a setting on the machine which allows you to select for reinforcement intervals (uniform or variable), so that it will pay off without you needing to press the remote. This is great if you want to focus on something else while your dog practices their “go to mat” or “down stay” or “remain quietly at home without mom.”

I have primarily been using the MM to train Barnum to go into his crate or to lie on a towel against the wall when I am about to eat a meal. I eat in bed, and we spend almost all our time in my bedroom, so there isn’t a clear environmental cue meaning “clear out” of a dining table or kitchen table like there is for most dogs. We spend a lot of time together on my bed, but I want him to understand that when I’m eating a meal, he has to be somewhere else. “Somewhere else” is a pretty vague concept. It’s one that Gadget understood, but I haven’t been able to convey it to Barnum.

Here’s a very short video of us putting the MannersMinder to work. It’s a quite unusual example of how we use it because normally Barnum is staring very hard at the MannersMinder, willing it to deliver a treat. In the beginning, after he understood what it did, he’d actually rest his chin right in the machine’s bowl! I think he was probably not that hungry when we made this video clip for you, so he wasn’t concentrating his Stare Beam at the machine.

(If you’re reading this post in an email, you can see the video by clicking on this link.)

Here is a transcript of the video.

And here is the captioned version.

If your dog is already clicker-savvy, if he is “operant,” he will probably do what Barnum did when I first placed it on the floor — run over, check it out, and start trying out behaviors! It was very funny. He pawed at it. He walked around it. He hovered over it. He tried pawing it from different sides. He nudged it with his nose. He nudged it from different sides and angles and with differing intensity. (Yes, he was playing, “101 Things to Do with a MannersMinder.”) He nudged it with such increasing vigor and frequency (an extinction burst), that he actually shoved it across the floor and into my wall. I was very impressed with the design of the machine — obviously made to withstand exactly this treatment — that it did not tip over and spill out a ginormous jackpot of treats!

Barnum has occasionally whined and groused at it, though he’s not a barker, so he didn’t go into a barking fit. Because I didn’t press the remote when he tried out these undesirable behaviors, he gave them up. He has learned, over time, that the machine only pays up when he is lying down in front of it.

This is obviously a great tool for training static behaviors, but I can also see how it can be extremely useful for someone with a disability or a fatiguing condition to make training a number of behaviors easier, whether static or dynamic. Here are some examples.

  • Exercising your dog when you aren’t able to take long, vigorous, or regular walks or throw a ball around can be difficult. You can play a variant of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels’ “Come Game using the MM as your second person. You’re on the couch. The MM is at the opposite end of the house. You call your dog and give him a treat. Then you ask for a sit, and when he sits, you press the remote. The beep is his “click” for giving you the sit. He runs to the MM to snork up his kibble, and you call him. He runs back. Click/treat, ask for sit (or down or whatever). Beep him, he runs to get the treat. Lather, rinse, repeat. You combine training, exercise, and dinner.
  • Training when you’re at a distance or need to move the dog around but are unable (due to pain, exhaustion, or mobility issues) to toss treats over and over. For example, if I want Barnum to work on sit, down, crate, or other behaviors while I’m lying in bed, I can put the MM on the floor or in his crate. I can “beep” behaviors when I want him to move to or stay where the MM is, and/or I can click and hand him treats when I want him moving toward me. This would also keep up the excitement level for him, because he wouldn’t know what type of treat was coming next, and where it was coming from. But I wouldn’t have to throw a variety of treats repeatedly to achieve this effect.
  • You can even get a “treat tossing effect” using the MM if you put it at the edge of a high surface (like a counter, table, or appliance) and remove the bowl/rim. Then, when you beep, the treat will slide down and bounce of the floor. It won’t land in exactly the same place every time, so the dog will have to run after it, which most dogs find exciting.
  • Giving your dog some mental exercise when you are too tired to train. Once she knows what she has to do in order for the MM to pay off, you can have her doing a long down-stay to earn her dinner, or repeated sits. If the behavior is established enough, and she understands the MM well enough, you can set it to dispense without having to use the remote.
  • It can act as a second pair of hands. If you want your dog occupied and happy and standing up while you groom her, put the MM so it is dispensing treats at snout level and set it to dispense without the remote. She will have something to focus on, and a reason to maintain her stand, while you focus your energy on brushing or buzzing her coat or clipping her nails or whatnot.
  • You could even use it as a “zen enforcer” by teaching your dog that something that is usually extremely reinforcing and an encouraged behavior sometimes must still be resisted anyway (that sometimes what seems like an available reinforcement is not available), and she should listen for your cue first. You could do this by telling your dog to leave it (or giving whatever your zen cue is) and then calling her over for a treat from you. Switching back and forth between your cue to take an available treat (I use “go ahead”) from the MM, and then cueing zen and clicking and treating for backing off the MM and coming to you for the treat. (For example: MM is on the floor five feet away from you. You are sitting in a chair. Dog naturally goes to MM to see if it will pay off. You say, “go ahead,” then press the remote. The MM beeps, and the dog takes her treat. She stares at the MM, waiting to see what happens next. You cue zen — “Leave it.” The dog is not expecting this. “Huh?” She says, turning to look at you, and you click and hold out a treat. She looks at the MM to make sure it’s not also offering a treat. It’s not. She trots over and takes the treat you are offering.)

Anyway, there are a lot of different uses you can put the MM to if you already are an experienced clicker trainer. You may very well already know several I haven’t mentioned that would be good as energy-savers for trainers with fatigue. (Please comment! I’d love to hear how other service-dog trainers use it!)

If you are not an experienced clicker trainer, I recommend carefully watching Dr. Yin’s DVD that accompanies the machine, and following the plan she has created, outlined also in a booklet. Then, when you are solid on all that, you can start getting creative.

Even if you are an experienced clicker trainer, watching the DVD is necessary. We only went partway through Dr. Yin’s MM protocol (very quickly, because Barnum already knew the behaviors) before I started freestyling a little to work on “leave Sharon alone while she is eating,” but I do plan to go back and finish up the protocol because I think it will help me get the most out of the machine.

The remote control is very easy to use. It has a hole that you can put a string or loop through, much like a clicker, but it fits very ergonomically in the hand, and requires very little pressure to use. It requires much less pressure than a box clicker, and even less than an iClick or similar button clicker. Also, because it lies flat on a surface, you can put it on a table or tray and just press it much more easily than you can with a clicker. (I have accidentally beeped a couple of times, but not as many as you’d expect.)

The machine also comes with a telescoping, standing target stick. I already had one of these, but you can never have too many good target sticks! (I have six now, plus two that I made when the Alley-Oop was off the market and the MM hadn’t yet been invented.) This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. For some service skills, such as bringing groceries in from the car, where the dog has to do different behaviors at different distances, it’s useful to have “stations” marked by target sticks so the dog can run between them. I would imagine that the same is true for some dog sports, like agility.

One note of warning to those with disabilities or conditions causing fatigue or weakness — the MannersMinder is pretty heavy, bulky, and awkward to lift and carry. The same properties that make it wonderfully “dog proof” in terms of preventing a dog from breaking into it or dumping it over also may make it challenging for some trainers. Eventually you could probably leave it in the same location for most training, and then carrying it won’t be an issue, but when you first start using it, it’s a consideration. It’s not horrible (for me), but depending on your needs and abilities, it’s something to consider. It’s a bit under three-and-a-half pounds, and it’s about the size (and shape) of an extra-large motorcycle helmet. I can lift it okay now some of the time, but a couple of years ago, I couldn’t lift anything ever, over two pounds. Often I couldn’t lift one pound.

If you’re noise-sensitive, or if your dog is, fair warning on that, too. This machine is loud and pretty unpleasant sounding. Barnum is not at all bothered by strange or loud sounds, so I didn’t even have to acclimate him to it. And I am able to tolerate the sounds fine, myself, most of the time now. However, again, from much of 2007 through 2010, I probably could not have used this machine because of the beeping, grinding, and other sounds it makes.

I hope this was useful. If you have a disability or fatiguing condition, do you use the MannersMinder? For what skills? What makes it better or worse than standard click/treat?

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I didn’t get to use these cool toys!), and Barnum, SDiT and Dog Who Stares at Goats Machines

Tip for Tired Trainers: KPCT Podcasts

There are a lot of ways to handle dog training and stewardship when you have a fatiguing illness. I have generally focused my tips on training. But sometimes you are just too sick to train. In fact, taking training breaks is not only inevitable, but useful and necessary for both human and dog. More on that another time.

You may have noticed that it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted a Tuesday Tip for Tired Trainers, and that my posts have been less frequent lately, overall. This is due to a dip I’ve experienced in my health and functioning. I hope I will pull out of it soon. Meanwhile, though, Barnum and I train when I can, and I try to support our efforts even when we’re not training. How? By keeping ahead of him in my learning.

I have a feeling I’m not alone in this. Have you gone through times where you have not been able to do much training, and you are feeling restless? If you’re training a service dog, a lot is riding on your training, and you’re probably fighting impatience as it is. While latent learning can help both you and your dog — that’s the learning that occurs when you’re not actively training/studying, when your brain is organizing all the information you’ve taken in, so resting is actually a form of learning — you may also find ways to support your sense of accomplishment by other forms of passive learning.

It’s a fact that people have to learn a lot more and work a lot harder to train their dogs than the dogs do. Every time I ask someone to help me train Barnum, I describe in detail exactly what they should do. They almost always respond, in a surprised and joking way, with something like, “This is really human training isn’t it? You’re training me more than him!”

I usually say, “Yes, of course!”

In fact, when it comes to dog training, I find people much harder to train than dogs! The hardest person to train is me. I’ve learned the same lessons dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and I still do the wrong things sometimes! Sometimes even while I’m doing it, I will say to myself, “Why are you doing this?” Or after I’ve done it, and it has failed, predictably, I’ll ask myself why I didn’t see that coming. Well, that’s just human!

So, what if you’re in a position like me? Training is important to you, but you are too darn sick to do much of anything. If you don’t have a lot of mental fatigue or cognitive issues (whatever you want to call it — brain fog, chemo brain, fibro fog, CFIDS brain, Lyme brain, etc.), you might be able to read a dog-training book. I find re-reading my dog training books very helpful, especially because of my memory problems. The same holds true for watching dog-training DVDs.

However, most fatigue-related conditions also seem to affect mental acuity. And chances are good that if you’re reading or watching a dog-training program, it’s important to you to remember it. You might be following a structured program, such as Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels: Steps to Success, in which case you are trying to follow each “recipe” exactly. That’s not very restful! Too much pressure for a tired brain and body.

Recently, I’ve been listening to the podcasts on Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT). These are usually podcasts by individuals or groups of trainers who have graduated from the Karen Pryor Clicker Academy (KPA). They cover a wide range of subjects, from typical dog-training issues (fear, aggression, games) to training other species (cats, fish, marine animals, other people, and oneself), as well as theories of training and behavioral psychology. Benefits of the podcasts are that they are available anywhere and any time you have a computer, and they don’t require a fast internet connection (the way video does). They are also free, which is a real benefit over buying a gazillion training books or DVDs. You do have to be a member of the KPCT mailing list to listen to them. If you aren’t already, it’s a relatively short, easy process to sign up, and the monthly articles you receive in your email are more than worth it.

I found this episode on the Power of Context Cues to be especially relevant at my current stage in training Barnum as a service-dog-in-training. Even though they weren’t saying anything I didn’t know, there are a lot of lessons it helps to learn repeatedly. This was a great reminder of the importance of keeping contextual cues in mind, and manipulating them to my benefit. Indeed, among examples relating to veterinary visits and aggression issues, examples are also presented that relate to guide dogs. (These comments came from guide dog trainer and KPA graduate and international freestyle champion, Michele Pouliot.)

The most recent podcast is this one on “Wow!” Moments by ClickerExpo Faculty. This page also contains a listing of all the podcasts to date, so you can start here and work backward, or pick and choose what interests you most.

These podcasts provide entertainment and education that is not too mentally taxing for me (usually). So far, they have not been on topics I felt I needed to take notes on, so I can just let the information wash over me and feel like I am still doing something to support my work with Barnum, even if we can’t shape behaviors.

If there’s a podcast you particularly like, please mention it in the comments!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and lately lead latent learner

Good, Clean Fun: Compulsion-Free Bath

I’ve written before about how I train my dogs to enjoy baths. I used treats, including “bobbing for biscuits” to make baths more enjoyable. With training, both Jersey and Gadget were accustomed to get in the shower with me and even to help with the rinsing aspect of the job by lying down in the water.

They both had frequent baths because any time we went somewhere that involved a chemical exposure — to a store, a doctor’s appointment, or anywhere we were around people — it was necessary for me to shower and change my clothes when I got home, and to bathe my dog, as well. The chemical residues in their hair was no more tolerable for me than those on my own skin, hair, or clothing.

However, I must admit that Jersey and Gadget didn’t so much enjoy baths as put up with them. They enjoyed the treats that I used to make bath time more pleasant, but they still didn’t relish the overall experience. And while there was no struggle and physical force involved, there was an element of psychological compulsion. They were not offering behaviors; they were complying with cues because they knew there really was no other option.

Until today, I thought that bathing Barnum was always going to be more difficult and unpleasant than training Jersey or Gadget. Barnum is not one to submit just because I am the human and I say so. He had several baths when he was a little puppy, and they were far from fun and relaxing for anyone involved. The problem was that we did not have the opportunity to build up slowly and positively to happy bath experiences.

Barnum had been shampooed repeatedly, and recently, with scented dog shampoo before we brought him home. The fragrance chemicals made me very sick, so we had to wash him often. Further, because I was doing my best to “super-socialize” him in his first 16 weeks of life, he went to a lot of smelly places (including puppy kindergarten) that required post-adventure scrub-downs.

Barnum After His First Bath, First Night Home

Barnum recovers from his first bath after his looong trip.

[Photo description: Barnum as a tiny puppy, at eight-and-a-half weeks old, still damp from his first bath. He sits at the entrance to his crate, looking a little dazed. He is black with ringlets of fur, with the characteristic big paws and slightly cloudy eyes of a young puppy. Sharon's hand is in front of his mouth, feeding him a morsel. Her hand is almost as big as his head!]

It took months of bathing to get the scented shampoo out of his coat. In fact, it was not until we gave him his first severe haircut and cut off all the hair that had absorbed the scented stuff that I could put my face to his without sore throats, headaches, coughing, and my face turning beet-red.

Inevitably, these baths were stressful affairs. I was being made sick by the increased offgassing of the fumes when his hair got wet. I had to wear gloves and a carbon filter mask during the process, and we tried to make it as quick as possible. I tried to bribe and/or sooth him with treats, but he was having none of it. He didn’t want cheese or hot dogs or broccoli, he wanted out. Barnum was completely pissed off about being bathed against his will, and he kicked, flailed, scratched, and shrieked the whole time.

So, that was the background I had to work with to train Barnum that baths were actually terrific fun. I doubted I’d ever succeed. Between the numerous negative experiences I had to counteract and the fact that we didn’t get a lot of bathing practice, I thought we were at a severe disadvantage.

I was wrong. The fact that Barnum had few baths while I’ve been training him to enjoy being in the tub has meant that I wasn’t working against myself.

I mentioned in one of my “toilet training” posts that I started with tossing treats into the tub whenever Barnum followed me into the bathroom. The first unexpected hurdle was, well, literally a hurdle: Barnum couldn’t figure out how to jump in the tub.

He used to know how to jump in the tub, so I think it was more of a “mental block” than anything — an approach/avoidance conflict. He wanted the treats in the tub, but he was anxious about being in the tub. I spent a couple of weeks — many, many sessions — simply shaping him to jump in the tub: one paw on, two paws on, hind foot raised, etc. Finally, he learned to jump in the tub, and I clicked/treated for jumping in and out, attaching the cues to the behaviors as we went.

I faded the c/t from jumping out pretty quickly and focused on c/t for being in the tub. I treated it mostly like the shaping exercise for “Go to Mat” in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. I lured the beginning of a sit, and from there, shaped for sitting and then lying down. Over time I shaped for longer periods of lying down and for relaxed body posture while lying down.

Sometimes, instead of clicking (operant conditioning), I used classical conditioning — just tossing treats between his paws while he was lying down so he could stay relaxed and simply associate being in the tub with happy things. Eventually, whenever I went into that bathroom, he’d jump in the tub and wait to be clicked. Soon, he began offering behaviors: Being in the tub not good enough? What if I sit? What if I down?

Once he was truly relaxed lying in the tub for extended periods, I started adding elements that he’d associate with baths, such as the ventilation fan being on, grabbing the hose (hand-held shower), opening and shutting the drain, rubbing him all over with my hand (but no soap or water) to mimic being shampooed, and moving the shower head over his body (without the water turned on).

These environmental cues were mostly visual, auditory, or tactile — my body position as I leaned over him to rub him; the sound of the metal shower hose clanging against the fiberglass tub, etc. I clicked for staying in position and staying relaxed, and also continued to toss treats without clicking just to add classical conditioning to the mix. Also, sometimes it was too hard to perform this physically exhausting maneuvers and also time my clicks properly, so it was easier just to toss treats or use a verbal marker.

Finally, I started adding water. The way I’d want to add water — and the way I’d suggest to anyone else — is to let a tiny dribble into the tub of lukewarm water. Unfortunately, my faucet is very strange. It’s a knob, and you adjust the temperature by how far you turn it (turn it a little, and the water is cold; turn it all the way, and it’s scorching). But, unless you want very cold water, there is no way to start with a trickle, then work up to a stream, then full-blast. Since ice-cold water can be quite aversive, this was a challenge to train.

So, I would turn the knob just enough for the sound of water to start, and turn it off again before any water actually hit the tub. Or sometimes, after it was off, a dribble would come in. It took several sessions for Barnum to stay truly relaxed at the sound of the water starting.

Eventually, I was able to get water going in the hose and spray it at the drain, so it wasn’t hitting him, and he was okay with that. But we had not yet gotten to the point where he would stay, relaxed in the tub, lying down, beyond his front paws getting wet. I thought we still had a long way to go.

This is a dog who refuses to walk through puddles. He likes to drink water from the garden hose, and he will run into the pond and moving streams, but he really does not like to get his feet wet unless it’s part of some fun activity. Even on scorching-hot days, he refuses to wade in the kiddie pool in the yard.

Then, a few days ago, Betsy and I were tick-checking Barnum, and we saw something we thought might be a flea running through his hair. We didn’t find any evidence of flea bites or flea dirt, but we decided we better bathe him, just to be on the safe side. Also, he really needed a bath.

I got together the treats and went and sat in the bathroom. Even though I’d tried so hard to simulate all the “forerunners to bath” cues in our training — getting the dog shampoo, turning on the fan, taking off my pants, etc., Barnum knew it was bath time! I was surprised. He is so sensitive to environmental cues; he’s really quite a genius at it.

But I just stayed calm and ignored him, and eventually he decided, “Hey, maybe this is a training session!” So he hopped into the tub! I said the cue while he was in the air, clicked and treated when he was in the tub, and we did a few more cued “in-and-outs.”

He sat, he downed, I kept c/t (I actually was using a verbal marker — not enough hands to hold a clicker) for the things we usually did. I stoppered the tub, I turned on the water, pointing the spray away from him. He stayed in the tub!

“Well,” I thought, “I’ll just see how far I can take this until Betsy gets here to help.”

I started spraying his lower legs, figuring that would be less likely to trigger a jump out of the tub than if I went for his back or butt or head. He stayed in the tub, eagerly participating in this “training session.” Soon, I had all of his legs, including feet, sprayed down and was moving up to his belly.

I yelled for Betsy and she came in. “He doesn’t know it’s a bath!” I told her. “He thinks this is a training session! Don’t let on that it’s a bath!”

We did the entire bath without any holding, demanding, gripping, or body blocking! He was smiling and enjoying himself. It was completely unlike any other dog bathing experience I’ve had. There were two times he decided the training session was going in a way he didn’t like, and he jumped out (soaking the floor). We just waited.

He paced and dithered. He wanted to keep getting the treats! He wanted the training to continue, but now the tub was half-full of water. Yet, training won out, and he — on his own — jumped back into the water. This happened twice! I did not touch him or cue him until he had already decided he wanted back in.

It was the fastest bath we’ve ever done! The most remarkable part of it, for me, was observing his body language. His tail was up and sometimes gently wagging. His head was up. His mouth was relaxed and smiley. His eyes were sparkling. He did not have that slumped, defeated look I have come to associate with any dog in a tub. He actually started playing in the water near the end — scratching at the tub drain (which I discouraged) and bobbing for treats, sticking his nose under the stream of water.

One of the youtube channels I subscribe to is MultiAnimalCrackers. She clicker trains her own dogs, horses, donkeys, and other animals. She says all the animals are trained “at liberty,” which means that they offer behaviors willingly; they are never forced to do a behavior they don’t want to. Bathing Barnum “at liberty,” though it did mean a soaking-wet floor from the two times he jumped out and we had to wait for him to decide to jump back in, was a remarkable experience.

I’ll post a photo essay separately of Barnum in the bathtub, just for kicks.

It’s only been a decade. I think I’m starting to get this clicker training thing now.

Give me liberty, or and give me bath!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (mooo!), and Barnum, sparkling clean SDiT

P.S. I am a finalist in today’s 5 Minute Fiction challenge again. I told you I was addicted! It’s a great group of finalist stories this time. I like them all. Please read, enjoy, and vote! (Preferably for me, but whichever one you like best, really.)

Tuesday’s Tip for Tired Trainers: #6 Verbal Markers

Preface: No One Right Way

With the last tip, about clickers, there were comments about what did and didn’t work for people. That is terrific! I definitely appreciate readers chiming in with suggestions and modifications. In fact, some of the suggestions were things I knew about and had forgotten to include, so that was really helpful.

However, I was concerned that I might also be giving the impression that if one of these tips doesn’t work for you, that you are training “wrong.” i.e., that there is one right way to train, or one right tool, etc.

I absolutely do not think that. I’m doing this series to try to expand the options for those of us with limitations (which is really everybody, to some degree, but some of us have more limitations than others) so that we feel less like we are doing it “wrong” when we can’t train a behavior the way it is traditionally taught. In fact, in today’s post, I describe the ideal verbal marker, and then explain why I use one that does not meet the ideal!

I thought I’d already posted the intro below on here or on Facebook, which explains my approach, but maybe I didn’t. So, here it is (again?). My essential message is, “Take what works, and ignore the rest. (Although if you have suggestions for what works for you, please comment, because they will likely help someone else.)”

Intro: Make Your Own “Family Recipe”

This is intended as a sort of dog training “cookbook” — but not just any cookbook. Imagine a cookbook for people with food allergies: The recipes all assume that the people using them have some food intolerances, but that these will vary widely. Some recipes will not work for some people, but that’s okay because there will be an entire book to choose from. Other recipes will include ingredients substitutions (if you can’t use milk, use soy milk. If you’re allergic to soy and dairy, use rice milk or hemp milk, etc.).

Like food allergies, chronic conditions and disabilities that cause fatigue affect people very differently. A terrific solution for one is totally unusable for another. Therefore, although I do my best to include a range of options in each tip, I know that some tips just won’t work for some people. For example, I know someone who is training her own service dog very successfully who tried a variety of clickers and found that it was more trouble than it was worth. She is doing all her training with verbal markers (today’s tip), instead of clicks, and it’s working great. I will also eventually post tips that don’t work for me, but that have worked for others I know. (This is where your comments are particularly useful!)

Thus, if one of these tips doesn’t work for you, just go on to the next one (the next week or the previous week). I also very much welcome suggestions of ways you modified my tips to work better for you.

Tip #6 — Verbal markers

While clickers offer the most precise and efficient way of communicating to your dog what behavior you’re paying for, there are other tools. One tool is a verbal marker.

Verbal markers have several advantages. If you have difficulty holding, manipulating, clicking, or otherwise using clickers, or if you have memory issues that make it difficult to keep track of where your clickers are, a verbal marker is a good alternate solution. As long as you can speak one word or make a repeatable sound with your mouth that your dog recognizes, you have your marker with you at all times.

I also use verbal markers when I can’t easily hold a clicker because my hands are both occupied with something else, or when I’m concentrating a great deal on what I’m doing with my hands. I use verbal markers almost exclusively for grooming tasks, such as tick-checking, hair clipping, brushing, toenail trimming, and tooth brushing. With hands on the dog, there’s just no easy place to put a clicker, and I also find that my spoken word creates less of a “bounce up in excitement” response than the clicker, which is desirable for grooming training, when the object of marking behavior is usually to teach the dog to relax and let you do what you need to do to his mouth, paws, ears, etc.

I also usually use verbal markers when going for a walk, because it is often difficult to drive my powerchair, watch Barnum, dispense treats, and click, all at once. Similar issues can arise when using other training props, such as target sticks, light switches, dumbbells, and the like. While the Clik-Stik provides a potential solution for target stick fumblings by placing a clicker in a target-stick handle, most homemade training tools don’t allow for this convenience.

Of course, having an assistant hold props for you while you concentrate on clicking and treating is ideal – assistants are often the easiest way to skirt fatigue issues in training – but we don’t all have this luxury. Or, even if you have people who can help sometimes, it’s useful to be able to work independently when your energy is best, regardless of whether a helper is available.

Introducing a verbal marker follows the same path as any other secondary reinforcer: Make your sound at the moment the dog is doing what you want to reinforce, and deliver your treat as quickly as possible after. After a few repetitions, your dog will get the idea.

There are a lot of opinions about what the best sound to use is. One universally agreed-upon criterion is that it be a short sound. For example, “Good dog” or “Good girl/boy” take much too long to say to mark the behavior with any precision.

Other than that, in the best case scenario, a verbal marker follows these guidelines:

  • It’s a word you and others don’t often use in other contexts, such as everyday conversation
  • It’s said in relatively the same tone, pitch, and volume each time;
  • It’s a quick, staccato sound, such as “Yip!” or “Yep!”;
  • It’s a word or sound that comes naturally to you and is easy to remember.

In my experience, the last criterion has been the most important. Since mental fatigue very often accompanies physical fatigue, and since a marker’s effectiveness is based on its timing (marking the behavior you’re reinforcing), if you have to search around in your memory banks for the word you’ve chosen, it’s not terribly useful. For example, I use the word, “Yes!” This does not meet two of the criteria above: “Yes” is used often in daily conversation and it is not a sharp, staccato sound. However, when I tried using “Yep!” I just couldn’t get it out in time or remember what I’d chosen. My natural instinct was to say, “Yes!” So I went with it.

For the same reason, some people use, “Good.” We say “good” to our dogs a lot anyway: Good dog, good girl, good puppy, who’s-a-good-boy? If you can shorten the “Gooboy!” to just “good,” it will be a better marker.

I am much more of a stickler about not using “everyday words” for other cues than I am about my secondary reinforcer (marker signal). I am particularly uptight about the release cue. A lot of people use, “OK,” but everyone I know, including me, says, “OK,” frequently, to and around your dog, because it’s just ubiquitous in any conversation.

If you have your dog in a stay as a safety measure – while you are approaching to put on a leash near a road, or if you are relying on him to stay while you use him to brace as you transfer – this is a very bad time for someone to say, “OK,” and have your dog bounce up. I’ve had dogs jump up in inappropriate circumstances upon hearing “OK,” even though it wasn’t the release word I’d taught them, because so many people around them had inadvertently taught them “OK” as a release — just out of instinct. I have had to train my dogs to ignore the word, “OK.” Nurses frequently start their interactions with, “OK, Sharon,” and I don’t want my dog to stop what he was doing because of that.

A verbal marker doesn’t carry the same price if it’s used accidentally. In my experience, the fact that “yes” is a commonplace word is not usually a problem, because the way I say it when training is not the way most people say it in conversation.

However, every once in a while, someone in my household (including me), will utter a jubilant, single-note, emphatic, “Yes!” Often, we only realize this has happened because Barnum whips his head around, looking for his treat (and acting surprised because he didn’t know he was doing something “click-worthy”). I always give him a primary reinforcer (food, toy, play) when this happens. A click (or a verbal marker — any secondary reinforcer) is a contract. If you break the rules, the dog won’t know if you can be trusted. So, you might have to offer a toy, treat, praise, or belly rub if your marker gets used unintentionally, thereby tragically forcing you to make your dog happy.

Another reason your verbal marker should be a word or sound you can remember and deliver quickly and easily is that verbal markers are particularly useful for unplanned training situations, also known as “capturing” behavior. For example, say you’ve been conducting training sessions to teach your dog to lie down on her bed when the doorbell rings, with a friend or family member ringing the doorbell for you at predetermined intervals. Then, one day, you get an unexpected package and the delivery person rings your doorbell. Much to your shock and delight, your dog heads to her bed. That’s when you say, “Yes!” (or whatever your marker is) and toss her whatever toy or treat is handy on your way to the door. If that’s not possible, quietly praise and then after the delivery person has left, you can shower your dog with affection.

As with clickers, verbal markers are not the perfect tool for every person or situation. There are times I can’t speak, and there are even more times it’s too tiring for me to speak a lot, which is required if I must repeat a word, over and over. (And making a clicking sound with my tongue over and over would be even more exhausting, as well as painful.)

Verbal markers also tend not to work well over distances; the sound of a click or a whistle carries much better. Sure, some people could  yell their marker, but I have found that most people with fatiguing illnesses aren’t up to a lot of shouting. You also lose a lot of your precision timing if you yell.

What to do if you can’t use a clicker or a verbal marker? That would be tip number 7: visual markers. If you have a deaf dog, you probably already use them!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who was a bit hard of hearing), and Barnum, SDiT (“Yes!”)

Tuesday Tips for Tired Trainers: #5 Clickers at Hand

Quite a while back, I said I wanted to do a series of Tips for Tired Trainers. I didn’t realize it was going to be so hard to keep the notes visible and updated on Facebook, so I’ve decided to try to do a regular feature on my blog — just short posts of tips. Since I already have a Wednesday and Thursday feature, I thought I’d do Tuesday Tips for Tired Trainers. As with the other features, I probably won’t manage to do it every week, but I’ll do my best.

I already posted several tips as a page here, but I have so many now (I’ve been working on a document on my own), that I think breaking it up and doing it as a series will work better. I am actually hoping to eventually turn this into a book.

I really encourage comments and feedback. If you have a chronic illness or an intermittent or time-limited source of fatigue (such as migraines or chemotherapy), I’d really like to hear from you: What are the most challenging skills to train when you’re exhausted? Or general dog-stewardship issues affected by the limiting effects of fatigue?

Here is one of the tips that was not included in the tips page I link to above.

5. Have clicker, will travel — or stay put!

I try to have clickers wherever I go. Searching for clickers uses valuable physical and mental energy. I have one or more on a wrist coil on my powerchair joystick, and then I also have them in every room of the house (including bathrooms) and in the car. You can also keep one on a cord around your neck, around your wrist on a coil, or in your pocket (see below about potential issues arising from i-Clicks in pockets). This makes it easier to do short sessions on the fly and to capture behaviors.

Which Clicker Do YOU Click With?

It’s good to try out different styles of clickers to see which work best for you. I usually use a box clicker on a wrist coil or on a finger loop for most of my training, but if I’m doing something near Barnum’s head/ears, I might choose the Clik-R or the i-Click because they’re quieter.

The box clickers works best for me (as long as they have either a finger loop or a wrist coil attachment) because…

  • I’m less likely to lose them.
  • They seem sturdier and last longer/put up with more abuse.
  • My timing is better with them. I don’t know why, but I find myself clicking late more often with the i-Click. This doesn’t just reduce effectiveness of training, but it causes me physical and mental stress, which adds up to more fatigue.
  • If I have an i-Click in a pocket, on my lap, or on my joystick and I accidentally bump into it or bend over onto it, etc., it clicks! Then I have to pay up, even though there was not necessarily any desirable behavior occurring at that time!

That said, not all box clickers are created equal. The ones from ClickerTraining.com or Clean Run are the best, in my experience. I once got some from PetCo, and they are much bigger and it takes more force to make the sound (depress the metal part).

Large bright red clicker with keychain loop.

I do not recommend the PetCo clicker.

They are also very loud – and have a particularly concussive quality, which can be useful if the dog is at a distance, but for people with neurological issues, might be intolerable. The difficulty of depressing the metal part (and the delay this causes in clicking) make them my least favorite clicker. I use them as backups, only.

There are also many benefits to push-button clickers. The most well-known is Karen Pryor’s i-Click.

Circle of red, geen, blue, and black i-Clicks. These are oval-shaped clickers with a yellow button sticking out at one end, and a thin molded plastic loop at the other end. There is an indentation below the button to rest your thumb between clicks.

The i-Click is immensely popular, especially with novice trainers and those who like to use it as a foot clicker to keep their hands free.

The other external-button clickers I’m familiar with are the Clik-R (made by Premier) and the StarMark clicker.

The i-Click and Clik-R are quieter than most box clickers, which might be helpful for people with neurological conditions who find loud clicks jarring. They are easier to use and manipulate for some people with hand coordination or strength issues. (The Clik-R is particularly sensitive to a light touch.)

Purple clicker, a fat oval around a small green external button and then a thick rectangular "neck" below with a molded loop for attaching a string, coil, or key-chain. On the back is a thick green elastic loop. Below the button, in neon green are the words "Clik-R" and in smaller letters, "Premier."

The Clik-R by Premier.

The StarMark clicker is larger and louder than the i-Click, and may fit better into the palm of the hand for some who want something more substantial and grippable.

A large royal blue, egg-shaped clicker with an orange button at the fatter part and a sturdy plastic loop at the bottom for attaching a cord or loop.

This clicker is good if you want a large and very loud button clicker.

The button clickers also have the advantage of being easily usable with body parts other than the hands. They can be used in the mouth, under foot, taped to an armrest and whacked with the heel of your palm, etc. It all depends on what works for you.

Sue Ailsby turns her box clickers into toe clickers by cutting off part of the top so she can put her big toe in the clicker. If you have better foot than hand control, this might be a good option for you, although most who have good foot control like to tape an i-Click to the floor or a wheelchair footrest and click it by pressing their foot down.

You can also modify a box clicker by gluing a “button” (a peg of some sort, such as a one-half inch piece of dowel or the end of a wooden spoon) where you would normally press with your finger.

The main thing is to test out what works while training. Don’t be afraid to tell your dog “Gimme a break” (see tip #2 in previous post) while you switch clickers to see if a different type will work better for you.

Also, even clickers made by the same company will vary slightly in sound and ease of clicking; like dogs and people, while the “breed” may give you a sense of what to expect, individuals always vary. Test them out to find which one is the easiest for you. I have a particular favorite box clicker from Karen Pryor Clicker Training that makes a nice “pop” with very little pressure, which is not as true of the other clickers I got in that same batch.

There are also finger clickers — which just have a little elastic loop on one end of a box clicker, that make it easier to have “in hand,” which you can get from Clean Run.

A box clicker, blue on top and white underneath. The bottom has a cartoon of a dog creeping toward a starting line and the words, "Clean Run" underneath with the company phone number. At the top end of the clicker is a blue elastic band, the same kind as a hair elastic.

I am fond of my finger clickers.

The Clik-R has an elastic loop for your finger to go in, but I find it cuts off my circulation unless I use a really small finger or just a finger tip. If you have particularly thin fingers, this might not be an issue for you. If you are crafty — and have the energy! — you might even want to make one for yourself that does fit your fingers, as Michele  Fry explains, here. This is the solution if the Clik-R doesn’t fit your hand or finger, but you want an elastic loop on the back of a standard size and shape box clicker.

The cheapest way to keep clickers wherever you need them is to buy several at once (such as from ClickerTraining.com). The more you order at once, the cheaper they are. If you have friends who train as well, you can go in on an order together and save on shipping, too. If you can’t afford to buy several clickers, and you are able to go to stores or dog events, you can ask test out various clickers and see what works for you before you buy or order new ones.

I hope you find a solution that clicks!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and clicker aficionado


Receive new blog posts right in your email!

Join 501 other followers

Follow AfterGadget on Twitter

Want to Support this Blog?

About this Blog

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

Read Previous After Gadget Posts


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 501 other followers