Archive for the 'Training log' Category

Default Zen Remediation Week 2 (in pictures)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnum backs up after not getting clicked for staying put.

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

Barnum backs up more.

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

A couple more backward steps takes Barnum to his mat.

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

Next rep Barnum lies down on his mat.

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

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

Peace,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

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

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Default Zen Remediation

Or, “100 Treats Down, 900 to Go”

My current favorite dog blog is my friend Eileen’s blog (fittingly named Eileenanddogs). It’s unlike any other dog behavior or training blog I’ve read because

  1. Eileen is, like me, a training enthusiast (reads a lot, learns a lot from great trainers online, watches videos, trains her own dogs) but not a professional trainer, and
  2. she often blogs about her mistakes, including videos of her training mistakes, which is incredibly instructive AND validating, because we all make those mistakes! Well, I certainly do.

Today she posted about an idea she got from another dog blogger to train one behavior with 1,000 treats:

I love this because I tend to be a little unfocused in training and pass out treats for good behaviors, cute behaviors, behaviors I vaguely like, etc. . . . What if every trainer took 1,000 treats, really concentrated, and spent them wisely on one behavior?

Immediately I thought of the behavior I have been puzzling about how to fix lately: Zen. The frustrating thing is that Barnum can do a terrific zen (leave it) when he knows we’re training, and he will go into “training mode” after one or two repetitions, even if I use “real-world conditions,” like my dinner plate that has leftover food on it. But it doesn’t stick to the next real-world situation.

But then I thought, “What if I put all my training energy — small as it is — into Zen? And what if I required a form of Zen whenever we did any work or training for which he is getting reinforced?

So, I counted the treats I’d just gathered for the day, and added another bag for good measure. It added up to about 100. (There’s no way I’ll actually be able to keep an exact count; my memory and my math are not that good. But it’ll be close enough.)

I started with Zen from the beginning of the Training Levels and worked up super-fast. Then, I did treat-bag Zen and treat-hand Zen: No mugging the treat bag or treat hand anymore! If he was clicked for any behavior (whether Zen or something else), if he dove at my hand or the treat bag, I’d just wait (close my hand, close the bag) and treat only once he backed off. After ten repetitions of this, he seemed to get this for most of the rest of the day.

My big goal is to have Barnum stay well away whenever anyone is eating or there is any food in the room. He does sometimes go into his crate without cueing when one of my meals shows up, but just as often he doesn’t. He might hang around and ignore my food, but he also might hang around and get “nosey,” sniffing after things.

Today, when my food arrived, I cued Zen, and started with just having him move his nose back. I continued with uncued Zen, clicking for him being farther away. By partway through lunch (the first meal I tried this with), he was off the bed, across the room, lying against the wall. YAY!

We managed to replicate that, with only one or two lapses, for dinner, too.

I don’t know why it’s always such a surprise when I set out with a sensible training plan, stick to it, and discover that it works. It’s like this whole clicker training thing to which I’ve devoted a huge chunk of my life over the past dozen years actually is based on something logical, or something.

I wish I had a picture of Barnum at the beginning of lunch versus the end of lunch! Let’s see if I remember to keep it up tomorrow. (That’s part of the reason for posting about it; I tend to remember and keep up with things better if I write about them and share them with others.)

My end goal is the for the arrival of yummy-smelling food to be the cue for Barnum to go to his crate. Or if he doesn’t want to go into his crate, to go several feet away and stay away unless called.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

Beginning Training the Simultaneous Pull-and-Push Door Opening

Barnum and I have started training on opening my bathroom door from the outside. This can later be applied to several other doors in the house.

The difference between this task and others I’ve written about is that in this case, instead of pulling down and back, Barnum has to pull the cord down and then, while continuing to keep the tension on the pull, push the door inward. This is the most difficult door-opening behavior in my opinion because it’s counterintuitive — due to the opposition reflex (which dogs, people, and other mammals have), the natural tendency is to pull back — and it’s also the opposite of his reinforcement history, which is to open and shut doors by pulling down and BACK.

So, here’s how we’re approaching this behavior:

1. I tested, myself, how far I’d need to pull down and where I’d need to push the door to get it open if my hand were a dog’s mouth. I then put a sticker on the pushing spot for Barnum to use as a target.

2. I shaped Barnum to nose-target the sticker and started selecting for harder nudges.

3. I decided Barnum wasn’t nudging hard enough, and I wanted to get a hard nudge on cue. He knows “nudge” for nudging a person, but I’ve never actually put nudging on cue. I just taught behaviors that involve nudging by shaping and then gave a cue for the whole behavior, like, “Shut the cupboard.” So, I got out the Poundin’ Bed Bugs toy* and had him practice pushing in the bugs.

Plastic toy with four different colored "bugs" sticking out of a plastic "bed." A red plastic mallet hovers above the bugs. When one bug is hit down, another pops farther out.

We don’t use the mallet. Barnum’s snout is the mallet.

4. When he was getting tired of that, I switched to having him hold a pen in his mouth (it’s one of his favorite things to hold or retrieve) and do different things while still holding onto the pen. This is because eventually he’s going to need to hold onto the door pull while also pushing the door inward, and I want to get him used to holding something in his mouth while also nudging the door. He also is just in need of remedial “holding onto things until the cue has been given to release them.” He’s so used to retrieving the thing and bringing it to me that if I don’t take it he starts trying to shove it into my hand or press it into my lap or bouncing his head like, “Here it is! Here it is! Take-it-take-it-take-it!”

So we practiced a few different behaviors while holding the pen: backup, sit, let’s go (working walk), and “touch.” The one I’ll eventually focus on is “touch,” and then I’ll stop giving that cue and just shape a firm nudge of my hand while holding the pen. I’ll also start sometimes giving him a door pull (not attached to a door) to hold while doing other things.

Once he is good at both holding and nudging at the same time, and once we have a firm nudge on cue, we’ll go back to working on the door and try to combine things. Right now he’s trained enough in the skills that are the most useful to me that I don’t feel a lot of urgency on this skill. It will be useful to have it, but we can just work it when we’re in the mood.

Back to writing and resting, guys!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who somehow figured out how to do this skill even with my lumping-style training), and Barnum, SD/SDiT

*I found out about this toy as a useful service dog training aid from Barbara Handelman‘s DVD set, Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog. You can watch a video of her training a pup with this toy at her page on clicker training an assistance puppy.

Two Things Service Dogs Can Do that Assistive Technology Cannot (with a side note on brain injury)

I’m having that feeling again. That feeling of being in a partnership. Of having a service dog I can rely on. It’s been three years since I last had that feeling, and boy, am I happy it’s back.

Not that Barnum and I don’t still have plenty to work on. We do. But here’s some of what he’s done today, and I’ve only been up five hours (and he was out on a walk for one of those hours):

  • Helped me undress for my bath by removing two socks, two long-sleeved shirts, and — with coaching — a pair of sweatpants
  • Shut my bedroom and bathroom doors to keep the heat in (repeatedly because I and other people sometimes forget to shut them, see below for memory issues in humans)
  • Shut and opened both doors when I needed them opened
  • Went to get my PCA while I was in the bathroom (opening two doors to get to her)
  • Retrieved my walkie-talkie, a plastic lid, and a pen when I dropped them
  • Retrieved my slippers for me (a few times)

And other stuff which I’ll describe below.

The reason I’m writing this post is that several times today I was able to rely on him for things that I hadn’t planned on needing him for, and it reminded me of all the times people have suggested I use this or that piece of equipment — instead of a service dog (SD) — for a particular problem. And why those solutions sometimes fail me. That’s why I’ve categorized this post under “Waspish Wednesday,” even though it’s not Wednesday, and it’s mostly a celebratory post. It’s also because now that I am enjoying the partnership I have waited (and worked) so long for, I am remembering (with some bitterness) all the unhelpful suggestions of people who have told me that I didn’t need a SD for what I need a SD for.

Not that I don’t use or believe in assistive tech (AT). I do. I use a lot of AT, and I am a big believer in people having access to as much AT as they want to improve their quality of life. And I also believe that there are some situations for which AT is much better than a service dog.* And, they are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary — in my case.**

So, here are two things that service dogs can do that assistive technology (with very few exceptions) cannot:

  1. Think
  2. Move on their own

For example, one of the main things I use Barnum for is communication. I have written about this quite a bit, especially in recent posts. When Gadget died, I got a “doorbell” that became my main way of getting my PCAs, but it had a lot of drawbacks that made me miss Gadget all the more. A lot of people over the last three years have suggested a lot of equipment ideas to rely on instead of Barnum. They are a bell (already have it), walkie-talkies (already have them), and an intercom (have it but can’t use it). Even though I use the doorbell and walkie-talkies every day, I still need Barnum. Here’s why:

  1. My assistants and I are human.
  2. I have neurological damage that impairs my memory.
  3. I have MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity).

Let’s start with #3. The reason I can’t use the intercom is the same reason that for quite a while I couldn’t use the walkie-talkies or the doorbell — they are plastic, and they offgas plastic fumes when they are new. The doorbell took the least amount of time to offgas. I don’t remember now — I think it was just a few weeks, primarily because the only part I have to be near is tiny and the bigger, smellier part is away from me, in the kitchen. The walkie-talkies took a year to offgas. The intercom we have had for over two years and it still reeks to high heaven. I doubt I will ever be able to use it.

Problems #2 and #3 are just variations on a theme. I’m human and my assistants are humans, therefore we sometimes forget things. They have sometimes gone home with the walkie-talkie. They sometimes forget to bring it with them outside. They sometimes go to the bathroom or to get the mail and don’t take them with them. One of my assistants refuses to carry it because of the electromagnetic radiation it emits.

Plus (#3) I have a disability which specifically fucks up my memory, therefore I forget a crapload of things all the time. Every day, many times a day, I forget things, often the same things, repeatedly. All these ideas you might have for dealing with this? Writing things down? Carrying things with me? Velcroing them to me? Timers? Alarms? I’ve tried them all. I already use them all. And it’s still not enough. So don’t fucking suggest them. Please. (That was the waspish part. Could you tell?)

Anynoodle, what I have done in the years since Gadget’s death and Barnum becoming a reliable SD is use the doorbell, and more recently, the walkie-talkies. They certainly are much better than not having them, but there are issues. One is that sometimes I can’t speak, so when that happens, the walkie talkies are about as useful as the doorbell in that they can convey only one piece of information: “I am trying to get your attention.” This can be very limiting, whereas having Barnum bring a note is much better, as I explained in this post.

Another issue is the brain damage/memory thing. I lose these pieces of equipment. A lot. I used to lose the doorbell and the walkie talkies constantly. Frustratingly constantly. Because the problem was that when I taped the doorbell to my overbed table, I didn’t lose it, but I could only use it when I was in bed and not to call for help from the bathroom. Then I got the walkie-talkies, mostly for their portability, and I’d forget to take them with me to the bathroom. (Oh, and someone suggested — after I explained about my memory — that I keep another set of walkie talkies in the bathroom at all times, which tells me that this person doesn’t use walkie talkies because they have batteries that must be charged every night, like a powerchair. If I left them in there all the time, the batteries would be dead when I need them. It also assumes I’d be able to find and reach them in the bathroom which is used by other people. Or perhaps she thinks I should buy three or four sets of walkie talkies?)

Then, I got the brilliant idea of Velcro! I velcroed the doorbell and walkie-talkie to my overbed table where they are within reach and cannot escape. I also put Velcro on my powerchair so I could bring them with me. This has worked very well for the doorbell in that I just leave it velcroed to my overbed table all the time, so I never lose it. But for the walkie-talkie, sometimes I leave it stuck to my overbed table, and I can find it. Sometimes I lose it in my bed. Sometimes I attach it to my chair and then use it when I need it, but more often, I attach it to my chair and then can’t get to it because I’m in the tub or on the toilet and my chair is out of reach, or I have gotten back in bed and left the walkie-talkie attached to my chair, and I can’t reach it, etc. (The bathroom that has the tub is not wheelchair accessible.) Or I bring it to the bathroom with me and put it next to the tub/toilet and then forget to take it with me when I leave and then it’s in the bathroom and I’m not, and I can’t get to it. See how helpful that piece of AT is?

Ahem.

But NOW, I have a working SD. So, today when I wasn’t sure if I needed help getting dressed or not after my bath, but I really wanted my PCA to go make me lunch because our time is limited, I could send her off to the kitchen with the agreement that if I needed her, Barnum would come get her (because I had left the walkie-talkie on my powerchair and also forgotten I had it with me, whereas Barnum’s a lot harder to miss!). And when I stood up and realized yes I had used too many spoons and I needed to get to my chair FAST before I fell over, I could have Barnum open the door ahead of me and skeedaddle out of the bathroom so I could make it to my chair, as opposed to having to sit back down on the toilet, wait for my PCA to come back, help me up, and get to my chair, which would used more PCA time and even more of my spoons. And when I dropped the walkie-talkie (that I’d forgotten I’d brought and therefore didn’t think to use and therefore left it behind), Barnum picked it up and brought it to me. And when I forgot to put on my slippers and they were in the bathroom and I was already in my chair, I could send Barnum back into the bathroom to get them.

You cannot call your bell or walkie-talkie or slippers when you leave them somewhere. Well, you can, but they won’t come. They also won’t retrieve things. They also won’t open doors to get to the thing or person you want.

I love my powerchair. I would be in trouble without it. But sometimes if I am feeling well enough, I prefer to walk to the bathroom, for example. (I try to always use as much energy as I can without overdoing; it’s a very difficult balance.) Sometimes it is fine and good to walk to the bathroom. Sometimes it’s impossible and I don’t try. And sometimes my powerchair is charging or I think I’m doing better than I am, and I discover that I have used too many spoons (especially now that I’m on Clindamycin which means I’m spending a lot longer on the toilet than I’m used to!) to get back to my powerchair, my doorbell, my walkie-talkie, my bed, and I might need my service dog to help me get up and walk back, or to open the door, or to get a human assistant to bring me my chair.

Choices. Having a service dog offers me choices. Because I can choose what needs doing in the moment based on what and how I’m doing and what I need, and I can ask him to do that particular thing, and he can do it nearby or at a distance. He can get and bring the thing or person I need. Because he can think, and he can move all on his own, without a joystick. Though he does bring me a lot of joy.

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

*I believe that wheelchairs and other mobility aids are generally preferable to service dogs for ongoing mobility needs such as balance, walking, etc., because frequent use of dogs as mobility aids can be physical damaging and dangerous to the dog. If you are a full-time wheelchair user, I think it is better to use a powerchair than to have a SD pull a manual chair. If you need walking assistance frequently, a cane, walker, or chair is probably a better bet. However, sometimes you need both. For example, when I have had my powerchair break down, I have used a manual chair with a SD helping to pull it as an emergency backup measure.

**I realize that some people use human assistants or canine assistants or AT instead of one or the other or both of these, and I fully support everyone having the options to make these decisions because no two situations are the same. Everybody’s situation is unique. For example, I know a lot of guide dog partners who do not use a cane because their guide dog is a far superior navigational aid, and I also know people who use both when training a dog or when an issue arises and people who prefer a sighted aid (person) or a cane. And all of us who partner with assistance dogs have times when we cannot use our dogs — when they are sick or have died or have retired — and we have to make do with AT or people in the meantime. I know people with physical disabilities who use SDs so they don’t have to rely on PCAs or certain types of AT, and I support that, too. In my case, I rely on all three, and I am fine with that, too.

Barnum Is Now a Coupe

He is a two-door service dog. The latest model.

While I spend the vast majority of my time in bed, I also make frequent trips to the adjoining “master bathroom,” which has a difficult-to-open door. It’s actually not as bad as it used to be, but I can never fully shake off the fear of my first experiences with this door.

When I first used the bathroom in this house was when I was a potential home-buyer. I went into the bathroom, shut the door, and did my business. Then, I tried to open the door, and I couldn’t. It was stuck. It was summer, and the wooden door had expanded and become too tight. I’m not super strong. I yelled for help. Nobody heard me. I banged on the walls. I tried repeatedly to tug the door open with its obnoxiously unhelpful egg-shaped door knob.

I don’t remember how I got out. Either someone noticed I’d been gone a while and came to look for me, or — using that extra boost of adrenaline that comes with a combination of fear and humiliation — I finally managed to free myself. Forever after, I was nervous about getting locked into that bathroom.

I made changes: I changed all the egg-shaped knobs to levers and hung door pulls on them for Gadget to use to open and shut the doors. The levers were also easier for me to open. And most importantly, a locksmith friend of mine adjusted the door so that it fit better in the frame and didn’t stick in the summer.

Even with all this, that bathroom door is still the most difficult-to-open interior door in my house. It takes more torque to release the bolting mechanism than any other door does. And even though Barnum has become quite accomplished with the other doors in the house, I hadn’t yet taught him this one because it presents an additional challenge due to the size and configuration of the bathroom.

So, until I taught Barnum how to open this door, I have mainly been dealing with the problem by almost never shutting the bathroom door. This doesn’t allow me a lot of privacy when my PCAs or other people are around, but I’d rather lose some privacy than get trapped in the bathroom. It’s so undignified! (And the location of this bathroom, combined with the very thick, insulated walls mean that when I do have to yell or pound for someone’s attention in there, it’s very hard to be heard.)

The reason this door was the last bastion of dog-door-opening difficulty is that I couldn’t use the same training technique I used with others. The way to make the job of opening a door easiest on Barnum is to have him approach the handle from the side furthest from the lever’s end, as opposed to pulling straight on. This way, he uses maximum leverage with minimal force to release the bolt. (Physics is your friend.) You can see this technique in action in the video below, where it takes less than three seconds for Barnum to open and exit the door. (From 0:03 to 0:06.)

Transcript of the video is here.

However, the master bathroom has a built-in cabinet right next to the door, so Barnum’s only options are to pull from the front or to pull from the lever-end side, which is even worse.

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

Here’s the bathroom door and the counter immediately on its left that prevents Barnum from getting good leverage.

So, I messed around with it for a while. I tried partially filling the latch hole on the theory that if the bolt had less distance to travel, it wouldn’t require as much torque to release. For whatever reason, that hasn’t worked.

Meanwhile, I started shaping* this behavior with a very high rate of reinforcement so that Barnum would be VERY EXCITED to open the door. I actually began with his favorite PCA sitting on my bed and only partially shutting the door, asking him to find her (as I previously discussed here and also here). This is Barnum’s Very Most Favorite Skill in the World. He LOVES to find people, get a treat from them, and then run back to find me. This also happens to be the most likely real-world application of this skill — if I’m in the bathroom and need Barnum to go get me help. So, I was tweaking the circumstances for maximum thrill.

Once Barnum was whining with excitement every time he flew at the door and tugged, I switched to just shaping a very enthusiastic approach to taking and pulling the cord. Then I shaped for longer holds and harder tugs. Occasionally, seemingly by complete chance, the door would fly open, but most of the time, Barnum was throwing his terrific enthusiasm (and considerable strength) into the job, without success.

I did notice, eventually, that the times that the door opened “out of the blue” did have something in common — Barnum was approaching from further away. So, I went back to my frenemy, physics, to try to figure out the problem. It seemed clear that Barnum needed to pull DOWN more BEFORE he pulled back. He also needed to approach as close as possible to, and parallel with, the cabinet. And there was something about approaching from farther away that helped. Shaping him to approach from the side was easy — I could manipulate each approach by where I threw the treat from the previous attempt. I realized eventually that the distance of the approach often simply meant a more enthusiastic, energetic pull. But why that was so crucial I still wasn’t sure.

I wanted to make the pulling easier on him. Someone on a training list I’m on once mentioned that a very long pull cord works better for her SD than a short one, so I switched to a long cord. That made things worse, which helped me realize that Barnum needed to choke up HIGHER on the cord to be able to pull down more easily. This wasn’t something I’d figured out with Gadget, who naturally had a tendency to grab high and who was also a bit shorter and more naturally wild/enthusiastic in his grabs. Eventually I realized that the two key ingredients were to shape Barnum to grab higher and to pull down hard at the beginning, versus a slow, steady pull that tended to be back as much as (or more than) down. That’s why the “running start” made a difference; he naturally tended to grab higher and pull down more when he was excited.

So, today I moved the knot higher up the pull cord (or tug strap, as some call them), and I tossed treats as far behind him as possible to get him coming at the door faster/further away and as close to the cabinet as possible. Success! Once he understood that grabbing up higher was the key, he was very excited about it. I jackpotted any time the door opened, not least because the door suddenly swinging open was a bit startling to Barnum the first few times.

Then, each time he opened the door, I had him run to find my PCA. Creating this behavior chain served two functions:

1. He loves this behavior, so it added value as a positive reinforcer for opening the door.

2. Most of the time when I really will need him to open the door, it will be to go find help, so it’s good to forge the links in this behavior chain now.

After a few rounds of this, Barnum was getting mentally fatigued (he was still extremely enthusiastic, but he was starting to get cues mixed up and just throwing behaviors at me), so I ended with BOTH the bathroom door and my bedroom door shut, which — again — most closely simulates what I will need in a real situation. He also has such a strong positive reinforcement history of opening my bedroom door to find a PCA that I thought it would be exciting to him.

Well, he did it! He opened the bathroom door. I said, “Where’s [person]?” And he raced into my room, whined with excitement in his hurry to get my bedroom door open faster than was caninely possible and found her. She praised and treated, asked him where I was, and he ran back to me! I was very proud and pleased.

I wanted to pet him or thump him on the chest in celebration, but he really does not like to be touched while in training mode, so I asked him for a “high nose,” which is the behavior I have settled on for when I want some celebratory physical contact at the end of a training session and he doesn’t want to be touched. I do a “high-five” position with my hand, and he bonks it with his nose (because even though I say, “High nose!” which means nothing to him, a palm facing him is our nonverbal cue for “touch”), and he gets a treat, and everyone feels good. (I have been giving a lot more thought to how and when Barnum wants to be touched and how we can both have our needs met and respected since I read this post by Eileen and Dogs.)

Of course, we will need to practice this and get the entire behavior chain on one cue (“Where’s [person]?” leading to opening both doors, finding and nudging the person, sitting down, waiting for the “Where’s Sharon?” cue and then returning) but I feel very confident that we are close to that now.

High nose!

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

P.S. I know I haven’t been posting much lately. I have a lot of posts that are mostly done, and I hope to get back to blogging and other writing soon, which I will be filling you in on. . . .

* For those of you who are new to my blog or to clicker-training lingo, a few explanations/definitions:

Shaping, sometimes referred to as “free shaping,” is, in my opinion, the most creative, advanced, and fun form of clicker training because there is no prompting by the trainer. Instead, we use a dog’s offered behaviors and reward those that resemble — in tiny ways, at first — the end result we want. The dog has to do more thinking than in any other form of training. It is a step-by-step way for dog and trainer to problem-solve their way to a solution. In my experience, behaviors that are shaped are the strongest behaviors when they’re finished than those achieved by luring or other methods, possibly because they tend to involve such a high rate of reinforcement (sometimes referred to as RR).

Rate of reinforcement (RR) means, quoting Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training Glossary: “The number of reinforcers given for desired responses in a specific period of time. A high rate of reinforcement is critical to training success.” Here is a much longer discussion of RR and its importance in dog training.

Service Dog “Find Person” Protocol for Human Helpers

Like virtually every dog trainer I know, I find training people much more difficult than training dogs. With a dog, I have a clear goal in mind, and I have learned how to break the desired behavior down, step by step, so that I communicate what I’m looking for very clearly. With people,  it’s too easy to rely too much on our shared language which often leads to assumptions that they understand what I’m asking (whether or not I’ve explained it adequately).

If you read this blog regularly, you’re probably aware that I’ve been sending Barnum to find my personal care assistants, either to deliver messages in a pouch attached by Velcro to Barnum’s collar, or to alert them that I need them ASAP. (As discussed recently in this post and shown on video in this post.) We are at the “proofing” stage of this behavior, meaning that it’s reliable enough that I am mostly actually using it and occasionally testing it to see if there are still any weaknesses in his reliable performance of the skill.

In the course of proofing, I discovered that I was communicating much more effectively with Barnum about what I want him to do than I was with the people involved about what I want them to do. So, I typed out this instruction sheet for my PCA (personal care assistants), and it’s posted in the kitchen. They have found it helpful, and I thought you might find it useful (if this is a behavior you want to teach) or simply of interest if you want to learn a bit more about the ins and outs of training this behavior.

Barnum’s “Where’s Person?” Protocol

If you KNOW I have sent Barnum to you (known training situation):

  • Wait for him to nudge you. If he DOESN’T nudge, point to your leg and say NUDGE.
  • When he nudges (whether you’ve cued him or not), say YES! And give him a treat.
  • Ask him to SIT.
  • Let him stay in the sit for a few moments (even if you’ve removed a pouch).
  • Say YES and give him a treat.
  • Say WHERE’S SHARON? It’s important to end with WHERE’S SHARON? Because I listen for that to know whether Barnum did the behavior, and because you saying that also tells HIM that he has earned treats from me.

If you DON’T Know If I’ve Sent Him (“Cold” Practice or REAL Situations) . . .

If he nudges you or he’s wearing a pouch, that tells you I definitely sent him.

If you’re not sure, try to be aware of Barnum’s body language/the situation.

Here are some clues I probably did NOT send him to you:

  • He wanders into the kitchen
  • He seems more interested in the food prep you’re doing (especially prepping dog treats) than anything else

In this case, please come check with me, and I will call him and keep him from hanging out and begging food from you, because this is not a behavior I want him to learn/practice.

These are CLUES I probably DID send him to you:

  • You heard him OPEN MY DOOR to get to you
  • He is RUNNING or trotting in to you with EXCITEMENT/purpose
  • He is STARING at you

If the above apply, please follow these steps:

  • If he nudges you, say YES and treat. If no treats are available, say Good boy!
  • Immediately, tell him to SIT!
  • Look for a pouch on his collar. If it’s there, take the pouch.
  • Find him a treat. Tell him YES! Then give him the treat.
  • ASK HIM WHERE’S SHARON? (And if there’s no pouch, follow him back to me.)

Happy (people and dog) training!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (this was one of my favorite jobs), and Barnum SD/SDiT (this IS my favorite job!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The captioned version is here.

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

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

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

Video Description:

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

Sharon picks up a fork.

Sharon: This is clean.

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

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

Sharon: Oops. We’ll try again.

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

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

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

Sharon: Perfect!

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


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