Archive for the 'Toilet training' Category

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.)

Gotcha Day: One-Year Anniversary!

It’s our one-year Gotcha Day anniversary, February 27!

One year ago, tonight, Betsy flew home with Barnum. He was so little, he was smaller than a cat, and fit in a carrier under the seat in front of Betsy on the plane. He had piddle pads in his carrier, and after Betsy used all but the last one, he peed on it. Of course, he arrived at the airport with vomit on his little chin and paws, because he’d never ridden in a car before.

But he was still happy. Betsy and he fell in love instantly, and she let him kiss her with his vomity face, which she would never do now!

He was just an itsy-bitsy tiny little ball of fluff! As I described in the post about how he got his name, he was afraid of the snow. He climbed Betsy to avoid touching the cold ground.

Barnum on Betsy's Shoulder

His first night home, Barnum peeks over Mount Betsy

Now he is 80 pounds, he snores loudly when he sleeps, he jumps through four-foot snow drifts and sits outside in 10-degree weather on a hill of snow that almost reaches the roof of the house, just enjoying the “crisp” air, and periodically eating and snorkeling through the snow.

Barnum, King of the Hill, surveys his domain from atop his snowy peak

Winter rules!

[Photo description: Barnum sits atop an enormous mound of snow, several feet high, next to the house. He is level with the windows of the house. He wears his orange vest, and his beard is white with snow.]

Barnum's head and shoulder's, very shaggy, his snout totally white with snow, his head cocked to the side in a very adorable, questioning way

Are you seriously expecting me to go inside now?

He comes in with a frozen beard, and a frosted rump, and then he wants to go out again.

A year ago tonight, we could carry him around like a little sack of flour — a very wiggly, adorable sack of flour that constantly tried to bite and lick our hands and faces.

Baby Barnum Chews Sharon's Finger

"Mmm, Mom's finger tastes just like it did a minute ago. Yup, fingery."

[Photo description: Little puppy Barnum, black, very fuzzy, with big toes, and a white blaze on his chest. He is lying on his back, leaning forward to grab Sharon’s index finger in his mouth. The only part of Sharon visible is her hand, but from the angle of Barnum’s eyes, he appears to be looking at Sharon’s face.]

The first thing we had to do, once we brought him inside, was give him a bath. He objected wholeheartedly. He cried, as if he were being tortured. Yes, we felt horrible, but he reeked of fragrance, which was making me sick, so there was no other option.

Puppy Barnum's first post-bath pic

Aw, widdle puppy still damp from his firwst bath. (Not sure if he likes this new place.)

[Photo description: Eight-and-a-half week-old black puppy, nine pounds, curly hair, eyes still a little milky blue, damp from his first bath, with very big paws. He’s on the front in front of his crate, and Sharon’s hand is in front of his mouth, offering him a treat. Her hand looks almost as big as Barnum’s head! Barnum looks a little shell-shocked.]

I was planning on doing a much bigger deal celebratory blog and day. I was going to bake him a “Gotcha Day” doggy cake and more, but I’ve been wiped out. I spent most of today and yesterday sleeping, and the last few days resting.

Also, Barnum doesn’t seem to realize that it’s our anniversary, because he’s decided to hit a learning dip/plateau these last few days, when of course, I want to feel like we are flying high.

You’d think he could choose a more convenient time to organize and store everything he’s been learning into his long-term memory. But, no. That’s dogs for you.

It’s as if he’s not even paying attention to the Gregorian calendar and how my sense of accomplishment and self-esteem correlate to how long he can hold a sit-stay now that it’s 365 days since he arrived at my home.

(I’m making fun of myself, in case that’s not clear.)

In all seriousness, I haven’t been able to spend as much time as I’d like on playing and training with him, not just because I’ve been kind of flattened, but because I’ve been putting a lot of energy, instead, into mobility repair/upgrade so that we can achieve our training goals and he can have the life he deserves:

  • First priority, trying to get my outdoor powerchair repaired. (Since it is for outdoor use, and Medicare covers my indoor chair, I can’t go through a vendor and get it repaired the standard way.) I got it working for about a week, and then it died again.
  • Second priority, get a platform lift installed my van, which will always work with any type of chair, to replace the crane lift, which doesn’t work with some of my chairs and has become too hard for my PCAs and I to use.
  • Third priority, find used free or cheap batteries for my backup indoor chair (which is also the one I can use with my current van lift and take inside stores and clinics, but the batteries can’t hold a charge, at all).

All of this is so that I can take Barnum on walks again, and also so I can take him into public spaces more, like stores and libraries and such, so we can train behaviors in new environments and work on public access skills.

We really, really, really need to get out more. The combination of constant, massive snow and ice storms, and the unreliability of my powerchair has not been good for his exercise and energy needs, and has seriously hindered my training goals.

(If you’d like to help, check out my Why the “Donation” Button? page. Thank you!)

I had wanted this Gotcha Day post to encapsulate all sorts of changes, big and small, that have occurred over the past year, but I haven’t been equal to the task. I actually did start to write a post, many months ago, of all our achievements, big and small. I was going to make that a regular feature of the blog. But that one post, which I started when Barnum was about five months old, got so long, I never finished it! I kept adding to it. If I tried to do one now (with him fourteen months old), it would be a  book!

However, maybe I can try to get out some more short, triumphal “achievement posts,” perhaps by doing a “Gotcha Month” celebration. Then, I will feel less pressure to pack everything into one post.

Instead of a big laundry list of changes, here is just one example of how much has changed within one year: Bathing.

Tonight, when I went to the bathroom, Barnum followed me in. (I wrote in a previous post about how I like to take “toilet training” opportunities.) On his own, just for fun, Barnum decided to jump into the bathtub.

Here’s what we worked on, on the spur of the moment. We started with the following already-established behaviors:

  • Sit in tub, on cue;
  • Down in tub, on cue;
  • Default remain in tub until released;
  • “In the tub” and “Out of the tub” cues;
  • Default down and stay in tub (staying comfortably relaxed in a down in the tub);
  • Staying relaxed in a down while water dribbles in;
  • Staying relaxed in a down while I move the sprayer/hose (with no water coming out) around over him and let it clang and jangle against the sides of the stall;
  • Staying relaxed in a down while I rub him all over, as if I were shampooing him;
  • Staying relaxed in a down while I dribble water on him from the sprayer/shower hose.

Then we added in these new elements:

  • Staying relaxed in a down with water almost to his elbows;
  • Staying relaxed in a down with water on more of a steady stream (but just for a few moments);
  • Staying relaxed in a down with water switching back and forth between spigot and sprayers (but not really getting him wet with sprayer, just keeping relaxed with the sounds and vibrations associated with the change from one to the other);
  • “Bobbing for Kibble” — standing or in a down, as a way to play in the water and also get more comfortable with getting schnoz wet and learning not to snork in water through his nose accidentally;
  • Standing still to be toweled off in the tub (he’s the first dog I’ve ever had who doesn’t like being toweled off!);
  • Giving the cued paw for drying while in the tub;
  • Gentle discouragement/distraction to keep him from playing “scratch at the drain, like I’m trying to dig through the tub” game;
  • Practice other cued behaviors in tub (Watch Me, Touch, Chin-in-Palm);
  • “Tub Zen” — learning “leave it” when applied to tub means, “No, don’t jump back in the tub, please! We are done playing in the tub!”

That last one is a lovely “problem” to have, isn’t it? Needing to train him not to keep jumping in the tub? I think it’s better than cake.

This is the dog who, a few months ago, I had to painstakingly shape, for many sessions over a few weeks, how to jump in the tub. For some reason, he had a mental block about it. He would end up with three paws balanced on the tub edge, teetering, with his face almost touching the tub floor, looking down at the treats that had landed in there, whining because he wanted to get to them, but either too anxious or too uncertain to know how to take the final leap.

Now, he jumps in there even when there is no hint of a treat around. I love the power of shaping!

Happy Gotcha Day to us!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and one-year-resident of New England

“Toilet Training”? Gimme a Break!

Tonight’s post is the first of a series on How to Build Enthusiasm in your dog. You can get more speed and excitement from your dog, even, or especially, if he’s new to clicker, a puppy, low self-esteem/confidence, low food drive, and more.

And, it’s contagious! When your dog is giddy over training, you will get happy, too, and enjoy the rush of “endolphins” (my favorite fractured word from Postcards from the Edge), after using these techniques, too.

I decided to start the series tonight because I’m feeling the high of a lovely series of training sessions after a really shitty day. Well, actually it’s been a pretty miserable last few days, with today being sort of the turd on the crap-cupcake of the week, where I was feeling particularly physically cruddy, as well as emotionally flattened. (All these scatological metaphors are not just me getting literarily lazy; they are dramatic foreshadowing!)

Finally, tonight, I got some relief (no pun intended, really!) from the pain and exhaustion that had been holding me down all day, and I managed to pull myself out of bed and distract myself from the dramarama. . . .

Barnum and I did some training. Now we both feel soooo much better!

In the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to conduct at least three short training sessions a day, each one composed of several very short sessions (five or six treats), with as high a rate of reinforcement (RR) as I can give (usually a shaping session).

Then I offer Barnum the choice to stop or to continue. It’s called the “Give Me a Break” game, which can be found in Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt. McDevitt originally conceived of the idea as a way to capitalize on latent learning in her dog who was reactive, extremely distractible, and had a very short attention span.

Photograph of book, Control Unleashed, with part of the spine chewed away

Oh, the Irony! “Control Unleashed,” visibly damaged when my unleashed, out-of-control teething puppy decided it made a colorful and delicious chew toy!

[Image description: A photograph of the paperback book, Control Unleashed, lying open, spine up. The front cover is very colorful, with several dogs in a variety of poses and lots of agility equipment and toys around them. The top part of the book is shredded, especially on the spine, torn and bitten up.]

Latent learning is what happens (in any organism), between training sessions/lessons/classes. It’s when our brains sort out and store what we’ve learned.

Latent learning is also one of the reasons why it’s much more effective (as well as more fun and less exhausting), to do several short sessions a day than one or two long ones. You can experience the effects of latent learning if you take a day or week or month off from training and discover that your dog is farther ahead than where you stopped off. This is very common in clicker dogs in a session in the morning that is a leap from the previous night, or sometimes even a big leap an hour or two after the previous session.

McDevitt created the game by doing a very short (five treats), very fast (high RR) shaping session, and then stopping and giving a “faux release.” This was not her true release that meant, “Okay, we are totally done with training now.” This release meant, instead, “Go cool off, have a chill, watch the birds, play with a ball, let me know when you want to start up again.” It was a way to take the pressure off her dog, who otherwise found training too stressful.

Well, an amazing thing happened. The more often she did this, the shorter was the interim between breaks. Very soon, the moment McDevitt had gone to her chair for her “time out,” her pup was demanding to start up the training again. It became a way of building enthusiasm and focus.

As some of you know, because of my inexperience with puppy training, which led to too-high expectations on my part, and frustration and confusion for both of us, Barnum seemed to be a  “slowly dog.” He did the skills, and he seemed to overall find training pleasant (once he finally had some idea of what we were working on — poor dude!), but he wasn’t wildly enthusiastic, and he tended to perform slowly.

A very smart and supportive reader of this blog (Hi, Eileen!), suggested I use Give Me a Break with Barnum. It has worked great!

At first, it took a while for Barnum and me to develop a communication system, because the system McDevitt uses — standing in one spot to train, then going to sit down in a chair in another spot for the break — didn’t work for us. This is because sometimes I train from my bed, sometimes from my pchair, sometimes, um, elsewhere. (I’ll get to that, shortly.) And I wasn’t always able to move far from wherever we were. Not only does where I sit or lie down vary, the room does too — we go wherever there are the fewest distractions, or the most room, or the least exhausting/painful for me.

The cue I use for “break time” is to sign the ASL for “break/interruption” and say “Gimme a Break,” and then wheel elsewhere or just rotate. While “on break,” I break up more training treats while (seemingly) ignoring Barnum. If I’m working from my bed, instead of moving or rotating the chair, I just turn my body slightly. If Barnum wants to keep going, he comes around and faces me and throws a behavior. Usually it’s sit ‘n stare. If we’ve been working on down, he will sometimes platz ‘n stare.

Then I say, “Oh! Do you wanna train??” And he acts excited. Then I say, “Okay, let’s train!” I grab my five or six pieces of meat, rotate  or move to a new spot, and we do our next short session.

We work on one skill until I think he’s peaked — by which I mean that either we have gotten a teensy bit further along than the last time we worked, or we’ve made a teensy bit of progress with whatever criterion I’m looking for in that session, or I get that gut feeling that if I try to do one more rep, it will not be as good as the last one or the behavior will actually fall apart. (More on “quitting while you’re behind” in a future installment of “Building Enthusiasm.”)

Sometimes this means we do four or five mini-sessions for one behavior and then move on to several more mini-sessions for several more behaviors. Sometimes we just do one mini-session for one behavior, and that’s it. Sometimes, it’s something in between, like two mini-sessions for a behavior, another couple of mini-sessions for another behavior or two, and that’s it. I gauge it by his enthusiasm, or by what I’m up for.

Another bonus to Gimme a Break for your’s truly is that I can take the breaks to think very clearly and specifically about what I want to do next: What skill will we do now? More of the same, or switch to something else? What will my criterion be that I want us to work on? And if he reaches that, what is the next step up from that, so I am ready to add another criterion if he is cruising with the first one.

I actually say my goals to myself, in my head or, more often, out loud, to make sure I’m clear about what I’m expecting of both of us. Some examples are, “All four paws on the mat,” or “Click for front going down before rear,” or “Click during the second scratch, not at the end of the scratch, which means I need to remember to depress the clicker partway while he is eating his previous treat so I can be ‘faster on the draw’ with my click.”

I don’t know if this technique is useful to people without brain injury, as well, but I suspect it probably is. (Neurotypicals, let me know: Do you do this, too?)

Another “trick” I’ve added to my repertoire is Toilet Training. No, not house breaking the pup! Thank goodness, we are waaaay past those days by now! What I mean is training from the toilet — my toilet! Whenever I head to the bathroom, Barnum follows, and we have a session that lasts as long as it takes me to pee!

It’s a great, easy way to keep sessions short, and to squeeze them in on a day that I’m feeling lousy and would otherwise have difficulty training. Also, if Barnum’s really not in the mood to train, it’s no big deal, because I have still accomplished what I got up to do (empty my bladder). Or I might just do one or two clicks — if he is tired from a long run or something, I click him for flopping down when he gets in the bathroom, toss the treat, he (usually) gets up to get it, and then I can click again for him flopping back down.

And once a day, we have a longer toilet-training session (if you catch my drift). Also, five days every month, we have a few longer sessions, if you catch my flow. (Too much information? Well then, you’ve come to the wrong blog. I grew up in a family where we referred to the bathroom as “the library” or “the reading room,” and my dad discussed manure at mealtimes).

Barnum’s food (raw meat) is stored in my bathroom, in our extra freezer, so it’s just that much more convenient.

Dog-training bathroom: Meat freezer, dog nail file/scratching board, yoga mat for Go to Mat, wooden sppon for take/hold retrieve training, yellow foam taped to a mouse pad for paw target practice, and foam supports to put under dog nail file at optimum angle

The well-appointed dog-training bathroom

[Photo description: Barnum’s head in the foreground, looking at a large white chest freezer, next to which is a doggy nail file, and on top of which is a blue yoga mat, a yellow foam rectangle duct-taped to a mouse pad, a long-handled wooden spoon, and two odd-looking white foam pyramids held together with duct tape. These foam pieces are placed under the nail file board to provide a better angle for scratching his claws.]

Although, if I’m feeling truly lousy and not up to opening the freezer lid, I just use the kibble I keep in a sealed container on the back of the toilet. I have a clicker that I hang on the toilet paper roll. It’s all soooo convenient!

Toilet training setup

Plastic container full of kibble? Check. i-click clicker hanging off toilet-paper dispenser? Check? Plunger for added decor? Check.

[Photo description: A gleaming white toilet in a corner, flanked on the left and rear by tan tile walls. There are three plastic containers on the toilet tank, one of which is a blue and white cottage cheese container, which holds the kibble. A roll of toilet paper hangs from a metal chrome-colored dispenser. A green i-click clicker is visible hanging off the toilet paper dispenser.]

View from the throne

View from guess where? Have i-click, have dog, ready to “go”!

[Photo description: View from the toilet. On the left is a toilet-paper roll with a green i-click clicker hanging from the metal dispenser. Barnum lies on the floor at my feet looking up at me. Just visible in front of me and to Barnum’s right is the foot rest of my powerchair. Floor and wall are tiled with large speckled tan/salmon tiles.]

Anynoodle, he is now way into training, and this is what we trained tonight, all in a row, in a bunch of short sessions. (Most, but not all, of these are Training Levels behaviors. We are primarily working Level Three and Level Four):

  • File your nails. (See video of early training session of this behavior.)
  • Eye contact. (I try to do contact at least twice a day, but preferably at the beginning of any training session each day. Tonight we made it to a count of 18 with six treats!)
  • Super-fast down. (I’m rebuilding down from a stand instead of a sit, and using a lure to get him to slide sort of play-bow really fast into the down.)
  • Take/hold the wooden spoon (as seen on top of freezer).
  • Foot target a yellow styrofoam rectangle (as seen on top of freezer).
  • Go to Mat on his dog bed AND nonverbal recall (very important for him to come to me when I don’t have my voice. I cue him to go to his dog bed, then make my kissy noise to call him to me, treat, and cue to mat again).
  • Random leave it. (I try to throw in at least one or two zen exercises every day, including now I often toss some treats on the floor and then we train something else, and he has to focus on what we’re doing while also ignoring the food on the floor. This really shows his progress! Requires focus!)
  • Play break (tug with plush spider and “I’m Gonna Get You” chase game).
  • Foot (give me right foot or left foot, as requested, and also let me examine your nails).
  • Default sit/wait before going through doorways.
  • Shutting cabinet doors!

What a dog! What a day!

And that’s only what we did tonight!

Earlier today we also did go to (yoga) mat (the blue one on the freezer), eye contact, touch (nose target), “quiet,” Look at That (another Control Unleashed exercise, because he is still slightly reactive to the vacuum cleaner), and two of his most important and highly accomplished skills, “Hold down the floor,” and “Look adorable.”

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (hmm, is it possible that Barnum might actually be worthy to succeed me?), and Barnum (true business SDiT)

The Experts Are Full of It (and the Puppy Is, too)

You might have noticed there have been no After Gadget blogs in a month, which — not coincidentally — is when I got my new puppy. That’s because things like, um, sleeping, thinking, not weeping with frustration, were hard to come by for a while.

I was sobbing on the phone to my therapist (with whom I’ve been speaking much more often lately) and to my grief support list, “I hate the puppy! I hate the puppy!” Some people were just an eensy bit judgmental about this.

Even more obnoxious are all the people who have been saying to Betsy and me, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful to have a puppy? Isn’t it so much fun?” We just look at them with very, very tired eyes and mumble, “Yes, he’s adorable and sweet, but, um, it’s a lot of work.” The people who have survived raised puppies themselves tend to switch into sympathy mode.

Betsy and I each asked friends whose dogs are less than two years’ old, “How long did it take you to toilet train?” We hoped, on one hand, that they would say something like, “Six weeks,” because we’re entering week five now, so that would mean there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, we hoped they’d say, “Six months,” because this definitely would mean we are not failures because we are already at about 75 percent toilet trained.

However, what both people said was, “I don’t remember. I must have blocked that time out.” Practically verbatim.

Worse than this was when Betsy asked her employer (when our puppy had already had about 17 accidents in his first four days), how many their goldendoodle had during housebreaking.

“One,” she said. We both cried. I think they should have lied.

I tried to convince Betsy we were Not Failures. “We’ve gone 24 hours without an accident! We didn’t know what we were doing at first! We’re doing so much better now!”

I believed myself, too, until the next (inevitable) accident. About an hour later.

But despite sobbing, “I hate the puppy! I hate the puppy!” the first two weeks, to anyone who had ever showed me any kindness, I really do love him, as you can see in these two pictures of us bonding on his first day home:

Little bear - Barnum's first day.

Isn't he a snuggly little bear?

Barnum in Sharon's lap
Looking lovingly into each other’s eyes on his first day home.

Honestly, I promise, I don’t hate him. I just hate the pee and poo that appear on floors throughout the house, even when he has not been in that vicinity that we know of and he has either been in his crate or under supervision 99.96 percent of the time. (It’s that 0.04 percent that gets you.) It’s not even that I hate the pee or poo, because I’ve become rather resigned to that by now (even as the puddles/piles get bigger). It’s more the constant vigilance we’ve had to maintain for over five weeks.

This is primarily because I read — and forced Betsy to read — a book by a world-renowned dog behaviorist, veterinarian, and expert in puppy training who writes over and over how you can achieve “errorless housetraining and chew-toy training.” Errorless. His exact words. He also calls any accident “a potential disaster” and says that “you can start ruining a perfectly good puppy in one day.” So, no pressure.

The errorless chew-toy- and crate-training are to be achieved with Kongs and hollow bones stuffed with kibble and the occasional treat, such as freeze-dried liver, “the Ferrari of dog treats,” he says. No need to use anything other than kibble because puppies are “food-seeking missiles.”

Well, great idea, except if your new baby is so stressed by his life’s biggest upheaval that he refuses to eat in the beginning, and then has barely any interest in kibble, and doesn’t even LIKE freeze-dried liver, and has no idea how to get kibble out of a bone or Kong, even when there is nothing blocking the Kong, so that kibble just falls out if you breathe on it. It’s taken a month of clicker training to teach him how to get the biscuit balls and Kongs to give up their goodies by nudging them around. This has not made him, as the author promised, a “chewtoyaholic.” He would so much rather chew everything else — our flesh, our clothes, our furniture, his leash, ANY electrical cords — than his chew toys.

His favorite toy — thank God for it — is a bucket. Not a full-sized bucket. Ironically, it’s a big plastic tub, about half the size of a real bucket, that freeze-dried liver came in — for Gadget. Gadget, a dog who LOVED liver. A dog who, if you accidentally spilled a big pile of liver dust and bits on the floor next to his crate, would not have left it there for two days until you resigned yourself to vacuuming it up! Anyway, we punched holes in the bottom of this plastic bucket last year and used it as a planter. Barnum found it under the snow and fell in loooove. (Yes, his name is Barnum. I’ll have to write a second blog on how he got his name. Right now, there are more important things to focus on, obviously.) Because it was distracting him from his excretory duties, I brought it inside, and now we use it a lot as a toy.

Before Barnum arrived, I bought a bunch of organic, nontoxic, fair-trade dog toys for him — and he prefers to chew a plastic (and therefore, toxic) bucket. All I can say to that is, “Get your bucket!!! Where’s your bucket??? Git it gitit gitit!!!”

I have so much more sympathy now for parents who take their kids to McDonalds or plunk them in front of the TV.

The puppy-raising book also says that the first twelve weeks are the puppy’s socialization window, and after that, everything you do will be playing catch-up (and with rather poor results) so that you have to make sure your puppy meets 100 people in his first four weeks at home! And that the puppy should not leave your home, and all guests must remove their shoes, because they could track in a dog disease. (For the record, Barnum has met about 75 people so far, though they were not all people in our homes with their shoes off, and it was not all done by the moment of 12 weeks. Horrors!)

I was fool enough to believe all this bilge! So, you can imagine, what with the massive sleep debt, and the impossible expectations, there has been a lot of stress! Stress! Stress! AUGH!!!!

I’m able to type what you’ve read so far because I pleaded with Betsy Betsy offered to watch the puppy for the night, so I got 11 hours of sleep. The last time she puppy sat, I got 13 hours of sleep. This is because a new puppy is not only a great cure for sleep, but also for insomnia. I’m hoping this lasts. I’m hoping now for the rest of my life, whenever I want to go to sleep, all I have to do is become slightly horizontal, and I will instantaneously drop like a rock into slumberland. Yes, all the sleep disturbances caused by my many chronic illnesses that include insomnia, hallucinations, nightmares, early wakening, etc., as symptoms, might be cured just by puppy motherhood! Wouldn’t that be awesome?

I have taken up the saying my friend Julie introduced me to in high school: When all else fails, lower your expectations. We have done a lot of lowering. Now, if the accident is near the door, we rejoice, because it seems to indicate he knows he should try to head in that direction when the urge hits. Or, if we catch him in the act and interrupt him, so that he does half the poo inside the house and half outside the house, we are thrilled that we were able to indicate that pooping in the house is not what we want (poor guy looks so confused as everyone in the vicinity converges on him and says, “OUTSIDE, OUTSIDE, OUTSIDE!”) and even better, that we are able to reward him for doing the second half of the poo outside. Isn’t that terrific?!?!

Another thing to feel good about is if I’m thinking, “I should take him out right now,” or asking someone to take him out (if I can’t), or if I am actually bringing him to the door, and we’re delayed because I have get to the door, grab the pull cord, then back up to open the door but very carefully so as not to roll over him (more about that another time), and when I turn to check that it’s safe for me to back up, he is peeing! So, I was correct that I did need to take him out right then; that counts for something, doesn’t it?

So, in the spirit of lowering my expectations, I have also decided to try to get blogs out when I can. If they are not beautifully written and poignant and error-free, well, neither is life, right? It is messy and dirty and full of mistakes, but we still have to find meaning in it and love it despite its faults. Hopefully you feel some of this love and forgiveness toward this blog, even with the long gaps and the mistakes and the lack of beautiful, deep, thoughtful writing, but most especially, because of the pee and the poo.

More about Barnum, his name, pictures, etc., the next time I have a full night of sleep (or two or three or eight).

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

P.S. Please, please, please do not post any housebreaking advice! We really do know all the theory and the things we should be doing. It’s just that sometimes life happens, and then you step in it.

Getting Concrete

The new puppy is eight weeks old today and has been temperament tested, confirming all the great observations his breeder has made in the past few weeks. If the weather and airlines cooperate, he will be arriving this Saturday!

Here he is. Isn’t he the cutest thing since . . . um . . . since puppies?

Boy 1 at 6 1/2 weeks old

Face turned away from the camera! We'll take lots of pictures when he gets home.

(A short, low-quality video of him play with his siblings, and additional pictures, is available at the breeder’s website when you click on “New Arrivals.”)

Knowing he’ll be my puppy in just a few days, I’ve been preparing. I’ve been drawing up schedules and lesson plans. I’ve been getting concrete.

I mean that literally: I’ve spent a month searching for slabs of pavement and concrete to put in my yard. I’ve posted on four local Freecycle lists, “WANTED: Assorted Yard and Street Debris,” and then asked for bricks, pavers, blacktop, cement, or the like. If you are like everyone else I’ve talked with about this, you think this is entertainingly weird and unfathomable. I can explain, but first you must understand that there are two key points that underlie this whole adventure.

Point One: Assistance dogs need to be able to eliminate on command.

This is so that your dog can eliminate at a time that is convenient and comfortable for both of you. In other words, if your dog is working (e.g., guiding you or helping you balance or closely monitoring your health condition in case she needs to alert), it’s bad for both team members if she has to do this while really needing to relieve herself. It is also so that, if you are at work or in the mall or at the hospital for several hours, your dog isn’t “holding it” the whole time.

This can be such a crucial skill that inability to eliminate on cue is one of the top reasons otherwise-promising candidates wash out of guide dog school. (I’ll write a post on The Great Fear of Washing Out in the future.)

In my experience, teaching a dog to eliminate on cue, in itself, is not the hard part. The hard part is getting them to do it under any condition.

For example, I trained Jersey, my first service dog, to pee on command very well. She would go immediately, and it didn’t matter where I was in relation to her, as long as it was grass (or in winter, snow). The grass issue is key; I’ll get to that further down.

Pooping was another story. Jersey was a shy pooper. She was, in every respect, a lady — sweet, gentle, excellent manners, not an aggressive bone in her body. Unfortunately, Jersey’s Southern Belle tendencies extended to toileting. Once her recall was solid, I made the mistake of allowing her to eliminate off-leash. I lived on 50 acres of fields and forest at the time. Of course, this lady wanted her privacy! Jersey would go waaaay out into the field to poop. If she was on leash, or I was nearby, she would hold it forever. Really. It required an enormously long walk before she would relent and release, if then.

She wouldn’t even poop if anyone was watching her. This made getting a stool sample for her check-ups quite an adventure! I would let her out, then, as she headed for the field, a PCA and I would sneak out and hide, flattened against the wall, as if we were playing Charlie’s Angels. (Except, instead of guns, we held plastic bags.) We would peek out periodically to see if she had attained squat mode. Likewise, Jersey, who knew something was up, would look back now and again to check that nobody was watching.

Once she took up the telltale hunch, she was committed. My PCA would run to where Jersey was trying to finish up her business as fast as she could, and I would try to find some sort landmark to keep in sight in relation to the pooped area.

“There,” I’d yell to my PCA. “Somewhere near that brown leaf, behind that patch of tall grass.” In a big, open field, there’s not a lot to go by. The PCA would move forward slowly, trying not to step in the “sample.” We all hated stool-collection day.

I made better choices with Gadget. For one thing, I learned that the cue, “Piddle!” is very embarrassing to issue in a public place. Gadget’s cue was “Hurry up!” I also got him used to peeing and pooping on command while leashed, though given his druthers, he, too, preferred to poop off-leash in the distance. (Tangent: Are all dogs, given the opportunity, privacy poopers? Or is this a Bouvier thing? I don’t remember my first dog, a Border Collie mix, acting this way, but we lived in the suburbs, so she was on leash for all her walks. If you have an opinion, please share.)

Point Two: Dogs will only “go” (unless it’s really urgent) on the type of surface to which they’re accustomed, or after a lot of training with no other options.

Since I live in the country, the surface both Jersey and Gadget were accustomed to was grass or some other natural surface (leaves, snow, etc.). I believe all dogs prefer this, but they certainly can be taught to eliminate on pavement. (Most guide dog schools assume their dogs will be working in an urban environment and train for that.) However, if a dog has been toileting on natural surfaces all his life, you’re really asking the impossible to suddenly tell him to relieve himself on tarmac with no practice.

Now, I need to explain what I mean when I say I “live in the country” or that “I’m rural,” because one thing I have discovered is that non-rural people often think they know what rural means, when they actually don’t. I ran into this when discussing The Great Toilet Surface Search to a fellow assistance-dog partner, for example. Being rural, in my present location, not only means no cell phone reception, cable, or DSL; and unpaved, rocky, hilly roads that require four-wheel drive; it also means the nearest blacktop is at least half a mile away, and the nearest cement sidewalk (all ten feet of it), is three miles away. So, I cannot possibly expect to toilet train a pup by asking him to “hold it” until we can make it to a surface other than grass or gravel.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Since you live in the country, why not just let him relieve himself there? Why does he have to learn to go on other surfaces?”

The answer is that while I currently spend 99 percent of my time at home, I am hoping to be able to get out more eventually, and on those rare occasions when I do go somewhere now, I’m generally in a biiiig parking lot, full of pavement, with nary a blade of grass in sight. Part of being rural means long car trips to get almost anywhere. For example, even if I had Gadget pee before we got in the van if it was a long ride, or if we were going to be indoors for an extended or indefinite period, such as the ER, I wanted him to “go” right before we headed in, as well. This meant that I had to hunt down some tiny patch of scrubby grass or a pathetic shrub before Gadget and I could go in to see the dentist or buy some groceries.

I want my new little guy to go wherever, whenever I ask him, whether that be on grass, asphalt, brick, concrete, dirt, or wood chips. In order for him to be used to doing this, he has to have a lot of practice on a variety of surfaces. The advantage this time around is that I’m working with a puppy, who is not yet able to “hold it” very long and who will be willing to let go wherever we happen to be when the urge hits.

To this end, we have been constructing The Wondrous Doggy Toileting Area next to the ramp.  That way, when I take the little guy out of his crate to run him outdoors to relieve himself before a session of play or training, our “toilet” will have options of snow,  gravel, brick, “grass” (which is really frozen grassicles and dirt at this time of year), cement pavers, or blacktop. With him on a short leash, I can take him to whichever surface I want him to use, so that we rotate among different types on an ongoing basis.

There’s other stuff happening, too.

Lest you think I’m a case for a Freudian analyst, let me assure you, I do have other preparations underway that are not about excretory functions. I’ve got my stock of puppy toys and puppy food, I bought a bunch of new clickers and wrist holders for them, which I will place, with treats, all around the house. I’m rereading my puppy-raising and dog-training books and watching my dog training DVDs.

We have rearranged furniture, done a bit of puppy proofing, and set up the crates again (with divider panels), which, of course, has brought up fresh waves of grief and tears, as I’m reminded of the way things looked, smelled, felt with Gadget, and are now no longer. I’m happy and excited, then I feel sad and cry, then I focus on puppy preparations again. If I thought sitting on an actual nest would help, I’d be doing that, too.

For those who have been asking or suggesting names, no we have not yet named him. One of the most exciting anticipatory activities has been noodling with potential names. I have never named my own dog before! I’ve named cats, rabbits, fish, mice, etc., but all my previous dogs were rescues, and I didn’t have the heart to add one more change to their lives. Betsy and I have discussed scores — several dozen — names, and I’ve narrowed it down to two that seem promising. However, I won’t know his name for sure until I meet him. As my wise PCA, Nancy (who has more animal experience than I ever will), said to me, “He’ll tell you his name when you meet him.”

I am sure she is right. And once we’ve met, I’ll take him outside to his new multi-surfaced toileting area and say, “Okay, Mr.____, hurry up!”

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

P.S. Please, please, please send positive vibes for good weather and clear skies from 4AM through 8PM this Saturday in Hartford, Raleigh, Chicago, Detroit, and Des Moines! Because Betsy has several connections to make between Hartford and Des Moines and back again!


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