Posts Tagged 'assistance dog training'

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.

SD Training: “Bad Days” Provide Evaluation Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woot! Do I Have a Working Dog?

Barnum and I just had a very exciting walk!

I haven’t even been able to attempt a walk recently because I haven’t felt up to it. But I slept on and off till 4:00 PM today, so I started gathering our walk things as soon as I woke up.

I really wanted to try to go farther than we have been, despite that my outdoor chair is still in the shop, so I found my elevated leg rests for my indoor chair.  I’m hoping the walks will whomp me less the next day if I have more physical support and stability.

And . . . we’re off!

First, I took him to his toileting area, and I asked him to pee, and he did! Click!

Before we left the yard, I clipped the leash to his collar, and didn’t put on the Easy Walk Harness because I thought he’d probably generalized loose-leash walking (LLW), and we wouldn’t need it. I was right! He showed no more inclination to pull on his collar than on the harness. Click!

He was also very interested in taking cheese for clicks, which he earned for

  • being in the right position, or
  • making eye contact, or
  • being about to go too far ahead and then remembering to keep the leash loose and returning to position!

Click!

We wandered along at a sedate pace (because that’s what he’s used to; going at faster speeds makes him excited, and then he forgets what he’s supposed to be doing) with a nice loose leash. Then, when passing my neighbor’s front yard, we saw they had a very bright, dark pink, plastic thing propped up next to the road. I think it might be a toddler’s sled?

Anyway, Barnum looked at it with deep distrust. He’d never seen one of these before, and who knew what it was capable of?

So I backed us away from it until he seemed comfortable, and we watched it for a bit. I c/t for looking at it relaxedly. Then I started playing the “Look at That” game (from Control Unleashed).

I’d say, “What’s that?” and point to it, he’d look, I’d click, and he’d turn to me to take the treat. We did that a bunch, moving slowly forward.

Eventually we got close enough that he just wanted to give the whole thing a good sniff and not take any cheese, so I just clicked for sniffing. BUT, he was keeping track, because after a round of sniffing, he came back to demand cheese! I obliged of course; the click is a contract.

Since he was already sniffing it, I thought we might as well add nose targeting, so I pointed to different parts of it, saying, “Touch!” and he’d get a c/t for each.

Then we did some sits and hand targets and eye contact cues, right in front of the pink thing, and he was very happy to get c/t for all of that. I decided that the pink thing was no longer a source of anxiety, and we moved on.

We continued out LLW, including the opportunity for me to cue a poop. I have learned now that when he reaches for a treat and then wrinkles his nose and turns away, it means he has to poop. Very useful information. I can then take him to my preferred spot and cue just as he starts to circle.

Unfortunately, the bugs were terrible, attacking us both relentlessly, so I decided to speed up to try to lose them. This triggered the desire to run for Barnum, which resulted in some leash pulling, so I turned us toward home.

This was a tricky place to turn, because we had gone partway up an extremely steep hill, which also was very loose (dirt roads here, keep in mind) with gulleys and gravel from the snow and rain, so I had to go down it very slowly, with my back-rest reclined as far as possible, otherwise I could easily have tipped over. (This chair is too lightweight to safely maneuver a hill like that.)

I would not have felt safe to do that at all with the Barnum of two months ago, because I would never know when he’d pull and I’d do a face-plant into the rocky road. But he walked very slowly and deliberately next to me, while I crept along on “turtle.” Good dog!

On the way home we passed the pink thing, which was no longer an object of interest. What was an object of interest was my neighbor using his riding mower, which is the kind of fascinating sound and movement that usually plays havoc with Barnum’s focus. So, first I let him just observe for a couple of moments, and then he made eye contact. C/T!

Then we did more uncued eye contact, and I segued into cueing sits, downs(!), stand, touch, eye contact, and “chin” — the first time we’ve done chin away from home. He was game for all!

Then I decided to see if I could get him in working walk position with my two cues I use at home, “come by,” which means, “swing around on my left rear,” followed by “side,” which means, “stand next to me on my left, parallel to my chair, with your face next to my knees.” Often, at home, I can just say, “Side,” without “come by,” but I wanted to make things easy for him.

Not only did he do it — which we, again, had never done away from home before — but when I asked him for Side the second time, he actually did a BOUNCE into position, which is incredibly cute. (He leaps into the air and lands in the right spot. He bounces from a down into a stand sometimes, too, and gets serious air.) He bounces into position when he is feeling confident and happy to be training.

I really have to get these working bounces on film some time. They’re wonderful.

All this, in front of the mower driver!

Then we moved on, and a formidable opponent presented itself to us: birds! Not just one bird, but two or three small birds, scrabbling in the dust in the road and on the roadside, looking for seeds or insects. Bouncing, scratching, hopping birds!

I stopped when we were a good distance away to think about how to handle it. I backed us up, hoping to get him under threshold, which — with birds — has generally not been possible in the past. But, when we were about seven car-lengths back (that’s how I measure distance — I imagine how many cars would fit in that space, because I have no concept of feet or yards or meters, etc.), I just sat and waited for him to notice me. He looked at me, c/t.

Then I did “What’s that?” with him to get him looking back and forth between me and the birds. Two of the birds (too far away for me to identify, maybe wrens?) helped us out by flying away, so there was just a single robin left.

After we had grooved on the Look at That game, I cued eye contact and got it, and we slowly proceeded forward, with me c/t very frequently for keeping LL and for eye contact. Then, when he seemed he wanted to chase, I said, “Leave it,” which is our Zen cue, and — while he did not actually back off or look at me, which is the response I train for — he did STOP in his tracks.

The robin hopped right into the middle of the road, taunting us, the cheeky little twit, and I said, “Leave it,” again. Then, [cue clouds parting, sunbeam shining down on us, choir of angels singing] Barnum SWUNG HIS HEAD TOWARD ME AND LOOKED AT ME, INSTEAD OF THE HOPPING BIRD!!!!

I clicked and gave him about half-a-pound of cheese and squealed with delight, and other dignified dog-trainerish-type things. I told him how proud I was of him, and he waggled around a lot. It was a very nice moment. We proceeded forward, and I got to practice my zen cue with the robin a couple more times, each of which went great — because now we were on a roll, see?

Then we went into our driveway, which put us even closer — despite a few intervening trees — to my neighbor riding his mower. So, I went right up to our border so Barnum could watch, and then we did more zen, sit, touch, etc., despite the mower distraction. Very satisfying!

Inside the gate, I took off his orange safety vest and his leash, and we romped a bit, but he really was not so into it because he wanted to get inside, away from the bugs. He was way ahead of me when I saw him pick something up from the ramp and chew it. I thought it was a flower at first, but then it started crunching. I asked him to drop it, which he was not inclined to do until I reached for the cheese (still need to work on that), and when he did, I saw it was a piece of plastic flower-pot. Not edible!

He took his cheese and turned back to slurp up the shard of flower-pot. His nose was on it when I said, “Leave it,” and he backed right off of it! We really ended on a high note!

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT?!?!??!

P.S. Several of you have commented on recent posts, and I haven’t yet had the chance to reply. Your comments are really important to me, in some cases quite touching. I just wanted you to know that I definitely plan to respond to them.

life w/lyme, mcs, cfids: a different kind of typical atypical

for an MCS, Lymie, CFIDSer blogger training her own service dog.

i’ve been trying to post every day, partly bec i have so much to say and partly bec my stats go way up when i do, and that’s just so reinforcing!

but when u have lyme and cfids and u overdo by blogging, tweeting, posting on FB, etc., and/or train your dog, then u crash.

this is the other side of the typical atypical day coin. a typical day when i’m super super sick, which is not my typical day anymore.

today is not quite a stuck day but it’s damn close. it’s the kind of day that often follows a good day, like the ones i wrote about yesterday and the day before.

can’t get out of bed (move legs) on my own/transfer/go to bathroom, feed myself, brush teeth, etc.  also can’t speak.

this used to be my typical day, when my lyme was bad. now it’s what happens if i overdo or have chem exposures or don’t get enough sleep, and i have done some of all of that in the past week. then i way overdid it and shaved barnum down last nite w/betsy. i knew i was ovverdoing, as the pain and jelly legs and vertigo set in during and after, but the ticks have  been so bad, it needed doing and this was the only time, so i just hoped i could bounce back.

so i was long overdue for a slapdown. and here i am blogging, which i shdn’t be.

but i have a lightweight cordless keyboard in my lap, my elbows bolstered, and reclining. i can’t lift a  fork of watermelon into my mouth, but i can type.

i can’t say, “blog,” but i can type.

i’m blogging because it’s hard to be stuck in ur brain, unable to speak, surrounded by people who don’t know asl, in pain, etc. i’m blogging because i want you to know what it’s like to have these illnesses, which you never will as long as i blog because that gives a fall sense of how functional i am. the act of blogging belies that i’m too sick to blog.

but i want you to  see wha hppens on the days i don’t blog,or i do but i shdn’t. in fact, when i was writing this i kept abbrev and making typos and fixing it but i have decided now as i finish this up (have  done several sessions w/rest between,jumping around) to leave them bec its so much harder for me if i have to move my fingers off asdf  jkl;

i have already fixed so many typos, so many wrong word choices because my brain doesn’t always connect to what my fingers are typing (e.g., if i think “taller” and right “father”). it’s so hard fo rme to leave the errors — i keep fixing them! – but i want u to see the reality.

my pca fed me watermelon and my protein drink, which we did in shifts, over sevaral hours — it is exhausting bec of chewin g and swallowing, bec if she doesn’t put it right directly into my mouth w/out pausing or waiting for me to make minute stretches forward, it’s even more exhausting. and i can’t tell how to do it diff bec i can’t  talk and it’s too exhausting to try to explain bec nobody who has ever fed me has understood these nuances anyway.

and typing or swallowing or chewing gives me palpitations, makes me dizzy, makes me pant. and breathing becomes more of an effort — the diaphragm moving, the rsise and fall of chest, those are all muscles working.

this is lyme and mcs awareness, too (and  cfids, even if it’s not cfids awaereness month)  — the days when u can’t do most things at all and what u do is a huge struggle. this is so much better than what used to be a typical day, where i wdn’t be able to write this blog at all. when i couldn’t  move my hands sometimes. today i can flop them around a bit, i can click, and i can type , as long as my arms are supported.

being a lyme survivor who is also an assistance dog trainer means overdoing it to try to protect barnum and myself from ticks, from further infection, which means making myself sick, doing too much.

these reminders are good for me because last night in the glow of my overfunctioning adrenaline rush, i thought, ” i really don’t need to be teaching barnum to shut and open cupboards or the fridge or all sorts of other skills i’m planning because i’m doing so well now. but it’s better if he’s overtrained just in case.”

then, today, i needed to pee, and my pca was shopping, and i wished so much that barnum knew how to help me with transfers. and he needed to pee, and i couldn’t let him out, and i wished he knew already how to open and shut doors on cue. but not yet. so we waited 45 mins for my pca to get back.

and i ran out of toilet paper after my pca left, and i knew it was in the cupboard five feet away, but barnum doesn’t yet know how to open and retrieve things from cupboards, and there it is — skills i want to teach for the days i need them, all while hoping i never need them, some part of me believing i will never need them and some part of me remembering all the things i needed gadget to do, some of which i’d trained him for and some of which i hadn’t, when i got lyme. reminding me that i can never trust that i will never  have a day liek that (liek this) again.

he did something interesting today. my pca came in and asked him if he wanted to go for a walk, and instead of bouncing around all happy and heading right fo rthe door like usual, he just looked over at me, which was odd. and i thought, does he know i’m sick, and he’s weighing how much he wants this walk against worrying about me?

i don’t know. i could be projecting. but i’ve never seen that before. sure as heck gadget would  never have done that! but barnum is a very sensitive guy, so i’m not sure.

unfortunately, the nurse had to come today to change my dressing. we were supposed to do a blood draw, but i guess even my blood is too exhausted to move because we couldn’t get blood return.

having CFIDS means i’m too exhausted to have facial expression, so i look like i’m angry or don’t care, when really my facial muscles are too tired and weak.

having lyme means i’m in so much pain that i can’t move 90% of my body because the pain and weakness just takes away my ability to move. it’s hard to get this across:

the nurse (photos below) said, “ur in a lot of pain, huh?” and i nodded, and she said, “u haven’t taken your pain meds today?” and i moved my mask so she could read my lips and said/mouthed, “no i did take them, that’s how come i’m able to be out here” (not in bed), but i don’t know if she understood me bec sometimes when people don’t understand they just nod and act like they do bec they don’t want to make u repeat.

but i always desperately want to be heard and understood, so i signed, “understand?” but of course she doesn’t know asl, but she nodded, so i have no idea if she understood my question.

Barnum lies on a black yoga mat next to Sharon, who is in her powerchair with the back reclined all the way and her feet slid off the footplate. She's wearing a large white mask covering all of her face but from her eyes up. One arm is hanging over the side of the armrest, the other is outstretched on the table where a nurse in a medical mask and gloves is changing Sharon's PICC line dressing.

Nurse visit

i sepnt most of the appt w/my eyees shut and reclining as much as i could, but of course i also wanted to use it as training oppty so i clicked and dropped cheese onto barnum’s mat, but then that was too exhausting so my pca stood in front of mat and dopped cheese after i clicked. i have a box clicker with a light touch.

having MCS makes nurse visits a really big deal. u might notice i’m wearing a mask and a black air  filter on a cord around my neck. that’s because even tho my nurse tries to be fragrance free, she lives with people who use fragrance, so it gets on her. and she sees other patients in their fragranced homes. after she leaves, the whole house reeks, and we keep all the doors shut we can so it doesn’t get into the bathrooms or my bedroom. she sits on a wood chair, never on the sofa or putting her stuff on the sofa, because it would absorb the smells. and i can’t let her into my room bec she would contaminate it, and i need a place i can rest and breathe.

now my pca has brought me “lunch” even tho it’s evening bec i forgot to talk to her abt food until the end of her shift, bec i’m so out of it, and now she’s gone and i’m doing better but not well enough to really be able to food myself, so i try to prop the plate on my chest and overbed table and eat with my fingers a few pieces then put plate on bed and rest.

barnum was on my bed, which he’s not supposed to be when i’m eating. the rule is he gets ignored while i’m eating unless i ask him to do something or he alerts to something, but i have no way to tell him to get off, so i just let him be there. besides, it feels comforting. but this is another reason why i am not the consistent trainer i  wld want to be: sometimes i’m not able to be consistent. i know what i’m doing wrong and there’s nothing i can do about it.

i just realized something. i want u to know this bec it’s  important.

i don’t want u to feel sorry for me. i hate pity, honestly. I want to be KNOWN.

because actually,in this moment  i’m happy. maybe that sounds  hard to believe, but really, despite being so sick today, it’s not a bad day. i’m enjoying watching and listening to the birds ouside my window (have a blog post i’ve been working on about birdwatching and lots of photos.)

i feel content. the pain is not as bad now. i have had help mos to fthe time i needed it today and my night pca will be here later.  barnum has been adorable and actually did a few desirable behaviors. i’mnothaving bad payback (reaction) from the nurse visit exposures, partly bec i have all the windows open bec it’s warm today.  a barred owl has started its strange call (they are active during the day – strange birds).

i feel satisfied and glad i was able to do this blog.

i got to listen to a  phone call  (it’s a class — NVC — and i couldn’t say much but i was included, nonetheless; theyh’re my community, everyone else is chronically ill, and i can just listen and be part of it and know i have companionship). i got to tell a friend i love her.

and iknow this will pass. this is my body wisely saying, “sharon! chill the fuck out! stop doing so much! lie around and do nothing! stop thinking! stop training! stop  blogging! stop tweeting! rest and sleep as much as u can. dammit.” after i post this, that’s what i’ll do. because lyme and mcs (and cfids) awareness means people knowing that those of us who enter thepublic sphere in any form, including internet, are making a CHOICE to do that and not do other things, or to suffer physically as a result.

and it means trusting u all, which i do, ur wonderful, to still be there when i get back when i am not posting everyday and trying to be someone i’m not, someone who doesn’t have cfids, lyme, and mcs. and trusting u to know that i love ur comments, but it’s an effort to reply to them, bec that takes work so if i’m slow or don’t reply, that is why. because i have cfids and lyme and mcs. i treasure them. i smile with almost every one.  my heart is full, thanks to ur support and sue eh’s support and barnum and others.

the migraine is setting in now; my body is pissed that i’m not heeding its call. do me a favor, will u? pls post and fwd this link to everyone you think could stand to know about lyme, cfids, and/or mcs. because i’m not up to it, and i know you get it now, because you’ve  seen me at both ends of my spectrum. thank you.

this is me. radio silence.

love,

sharon, the muse of gadget, and barnum, quietly concerned sdit

Left, Left, Left! The Bittersweet Tweak of the SD Working Walk

I’ve been writing about Barnum and me practicing our service-dog walk, or as I call it, “working walk” (WW). (For example, here and here and here, among others.)

I have decided to try to focus on fixing our left turns. With Gadget and Jersey, they were most likely to maintain correct position in left turns, and going forward, and particularly right turns, needed the most work.

I’m not sure why the difference. I think in Jersey’s case, it was pretty straightforward: she did not grow up around chairs, and I had to introduce her to my four-wheeled mobility scooter very slowly. I only used it when I went out of the house. I didn’t need it indoors.

A scooter has a much longer base than a powerchair, so the dog has a natural barrier to line up with already. Then, with Gadget, he learned WW both with me walking and with me using the scooter, and then I switched to a powerchair, after he’d already learned the scooter. So, he had the advantage of that long base to learn on, too.

Barnum, however, has grown up around me using my pchair full-time, and he has had to learn how to stay out of its way to keep safe. Therefore, his natural tendency with a left-hand turn is that when I start turning into him (he’s on my left), he usually walks forward, out of my way, so that we are then facing each other, and then he “catches up” and gets back in line after I’ve turned.

If we are in a tight space, he will back up, instead.

So, he problem-solved this, himself, while he was growing up, and now I am trying to figure out how to tell him, “While what you’re doing was a good strategy for not getting your toes rolled over, if you want to get clicks and treats, you have to trust me that I am paying attention to your toes, and keep following next to me.”

I decided the reason I haven’t been getting this message across is that it’s very hard to do a high rate of reinforcement while also steering, moving, keeping track of his head and his feet, treating, and clicking!

Really, I need to be able to shape this by clicking every time a front or rear paw moves  with my chair when I am starting to turn, in the middle of the turn, and at the end of the turn. It’s impossible to click that often and turn, at the same time!

I’ve tried using my verbal marker (“Yes!”), but that’s not precise or fast enough, and it’s pretty exhausting, too.

I tried going super slow, but even super slow is too fast to be coordinated enough.

Tonight, I asked Betsy to click Barnum’s position, while I steered us verrrrrry slooooooowly around the living room, dispensing cheese, like a big, cheese-dispensing part-human, part-vehicle. My hands were very sticky, and I was dropping cheese on my footrest, my lap, the floor, and even into the dog’s mouth!

He started just trying to lick and chew all the cheese out of my hand as we moved, so I had to pull it back a bit.

Nonetheless, after fifteen minutes of this — which is quite long for such an intensive session — Betsy and I decided to see if I stayed put, if he would get himself back into position. A little free-shaping, in other words.

I sat there, and Barnum looked at me, waiting for me to move. I acted boring.

He sat. No click. He downed. No click. He stood up. At that point, I would have clicked, but Betsy was doing the clicking. I said I would have clicked that, and next time, she did.

Which was soon, because he did another sit, down, stand. Click!

I waited to see if he’d line up again. Eventually he did start to do that, but, Betsy pointed out, “He seems to think he should stare at you and sit, down, and stand when you stop.”

I agree. Here again, I have unwittingly taught an undesirable behavior chain! Barnum is such a master at learning the unintentional cue and the unintentional chain!

I take back what I ever said about him not being that smart. He’s smart, but in a different way than Gadget. Gadget and I had mind-meld. Barnum is a body-reader.  (Jersey, alas, was not all that smart, but she was very eager!)

Anyway, we made some progress, and now I’ll keep tweaking it. And, oh yeah, I’ll untrain that behavior chain. Argh.

The friend who made me the service-dog leash I wrote about yesterday has offered to make me new gear. I hadn’t thought of that, because that leash is actually in excellent shape. Part of the reason for that is that I have only now started using it with Barnum. It was kept safe from him during puppyhood and teenagerhood.

Here’s what happened to the leashes I used while Barnum was growing up. . . .

This is an organic hemp leash, dyed with nontoxic dyes, that I bought especially for widdle baby Barnum, to match his widdle organic hemp collar.  (Next time I’ll know better.)

Red hemp leash torn in two

Notice the teeth marks all along the leash (even where it's not completely severed).

[Image description: A dirt-stained, six-foot, brick-red soft leash, one inch wide, of a thin cotton-appearing material (which is actually hemp), with a heavy brass clasp at one end, arranged on a waffle-pattern beige blanket. One foot from the clasp, the leash is torn apart, frayed, with a couple of longer strands trailing from the torn part. There are small holes and rips in the rest of the leash as well, giving the impression other parts of the leash may not last long, either.]

Below is the service-dog leash I bought for Gadget, near the beginning of my partnership with him. I also had another, forest green, that I originally bought for Jersey, that I also used sometimes with Gadget, and then with Barnum. Both the green and the pink leashes survived all those years of use, and now they each look like this:

Broken clasp on pink service-dog leash

This is one of two service-dog leashes that used to have clasps at both ends, and now have functioning clasps at only one end.

[Image description: Two ends of a hot-pink nylon webbing leash each with a silver snap at the end, lying on a white background. The clasp on the right looks fine, the clasp on the left is broken, with only the stem and a half-crescent of the outside of what was formerly the clasp still attached.]

By the way, all three of these leashes met their doom in the same manner: Barnum was out for a walk. He lunged after something exciting (in all cases, I think, it was another dog he just had to play with, right that very instant!), and the leash went “Ping!” (in the cases where the clasps snapped in half) or “Pffft!” (in the case where the leash ripped in two), and away Barnum ran, to play.

So, yes, I could use some new leashes, especially for attaching to my outdoor powerchair. I got all excited at the possibilities, then confused by a mixture of feelings.

I feel quite bitter-sweet about Barnum starting to fill Gadget’s footsteps in a literal way. There he is, by my side, as we practice what it will be like when we are in crowded, close corners in grocery stores or doctor’s offices.

Sometimes, now, he’s even wearing Gadget’s old harness or pack or leash. It’s very exciting, and it also causes what was initially an unnameable twinge. When I paid attention to the twinge, it blossomed into recognizable heartache.

Maybe it’s good that it’s taking us so dang long to become a SD team. It gives me time to adjust to Barnum doing the job differently than Gadget.

I think I might want a different colored leash for Barnum, just to help me emotionally transition from Gadget. Whatever their color, they need to be very, very strong.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (and you thought I was strong!), and Barnum, SDiT and Reformed Leash Destroyer

One Step Closer: The Service Dog Leash

A lot of exciting activity yesterday. As I posted yesterday, for a few days, Barnum was not getting his usual amount of attention because I had [gasp!] other things I needed to deal with. So I tried to keep him entertained with his Kong Stuff-a-Ball.

Periodically, during my writing flurry, I’d call Barnum, just to work on his recall and remind him that good things happen when he comes to me. (Good things in this case are food, some lovin’ up (but only if he’s in the mood), and a release to go back and play with his toy.) But he did miss training. He got quite cranky about no training, actually.

Thus, I knew he had focus and motivation, so yesterday, for the first time, we used my service dog (SD) leash. While using a different leash might not seem like a big deal, it was to me, because:

  1. It attaches to my waist, so pulling would be a real problem.
  2. It is much shorter (unless I let it out for going behind me) than our practice working leash (it has two lengths of about 32 inches each, so normally it’s 32 inches from my waist to his collar, except if I adjust it to make it longer)
  3. I want him to associate that leash, along with his other working gear, with him being totally focused on me, so I waited to use it until I was sure I was at nearly SD working-walk competency before we used it in training.

In other words, symbolically, it was of much greater importance to me than to him. I had to know we were both really up to the task before I started using it. Yesterday, I felt confident that we were, and we lived up to expectations! Gooooo, Team Barnum!

We practiced “working walk” (WW) around the house and on the ramp, and he was really excellent. WW is something between loose-leash walking (LLW) and “heel” (as it’s used in competition). For WW, I require not just a loose leash, but eye contact at least every three seconds (preferably more), attention focused on me and my movements at all times, no elimination or marking or sniffing the ground, no eating anything he comes across unless it’s a treat he’s been clicked for that’s fallen, and I tell him “go ahead,” and he has to maintain parallel position with my chair on my left side (unless I ask for something else).

We were about 80 percent to a perfect WW (in very familiar surroundings — I’m under no delusions we can achieve this in the wide world). The only parts that were off (the 20 percent that was unsatisfactory) were the following:

  • He took left turns much too wide, still haven’t come up with a fix for that — I didn’t have this problem with Gadget or Jersey;
  • His butt swings out a bit too far sometimes, especially when making eye contact (i.e., he’s not as parallel as I want);
  • He hasn’t totally figured out the correct way to get back into position when we’re in a really tight spot, like a close corner;
  • He does not 100 percent know his cues for sit and down with one verbal cue only while on the move, in positions than facing me, etc.

That probably seems like a lot that’s “off”, but please compare it to all the stuff he was doing right!

  • Great eye contact;
  • Overall consistency in staying in position;
  • Maintaining default stand-stay when we come to a stop;
  • Knows the cues for getting back into position if he’s facing me and I want him to get back in heel position (“come around,” and “side”), and often did them default (without cueing);
  • Loose leash all the way
  • Performed other skills I tossed in (shut cupboard, shut drawer, touch, watch me, leave it, sit-stay, stand-stay, down-stay when chair moves)
  • His “back-up” is a thing of beauty — I’ve never had a dog who backed up next to my chair so well — and he does it as a default whenever I back up (without cueing), and he does it almost equally beautifully if I cue him to back up while I stay still

I was very excited!

We also had some interesting little bonuses during our session. At one point, while we were doing WW indoors, he rested his chin on my thigh and looked up into my eyes, and I laughed, because it was so cute, and without thinking, clicked it.

Then I thought that chin-on-knee/thigh in public might actually be a useful skill, for instance, if I need him to check in with me because the environment is distracting/overwhelming for either of us, or to signal that yes, he’s working and paying attention, or if I want him to take my agitation-calming behavior “on the road.”

So, while he was in that mode, I cued and clicked “Chin” a few more times. Then we made our way to the driveway, to practice in a more distracting environment, because he is used to the driveway leading to the road (excitement!), which leads to a walk (unbelievable excitement!).

As I’ve learned from Sue Ailsby, whose Training Levels I’m following, whenever anything changes in a behavior, especially something that’s such a big deal as a more distracting environment, you make everything easier. Therefore, from the gate onward, I loosened criteria for everything except these behaviors, which I still required:

  • Loose leash
  • Relatively correct position (on my left side, but he didn’t have to be parallel or really close, etc.)
  • Eye contact/noticing me (it didn’t have to be really good eye contact, but he had to at least flick his eyes up to my face on a pretty consistent basis)
  • Taking treats (because if he can’t take treats, he’s too distracted to think and pay attention to me, so there’s no point in continuing until things get boring enough that he can think again).

If he was paying attention to me, taking treats, etc., we went forward, out onto the driveway and toward the road. Anytime he started sniffing the air or staring off into the distance or otherwise not paying attention to my being on the other end of the leash, I’d back up.

It took him a while, but he caught on. We didn’t make it to the street, but that was fine with me — it hadn’t been my goal. (Although I’m sure, given the chance to think about it, it would have been his goal.) He also made no attempts to sniff the ground or to mark!

Then we did a working walk back into the yard, he did a sit-stay while I closed the gate and took off our very special leash and I gave him a release, and we played chase and fetch.

I enjoyed another bonus surprise behavior during our play. He was bringing me back the ball!

He used to have a very nice play fetch as a puppy (which I know is common for puppies, but not so much for bouviers, so that was something the breeder and I actually looked for), then it lost steam in adolescence (again, pretty typical to lose that type of behavior in adolescence), and I had started training a strong play retrieve, but then winter and snow made that impossible. (The tennis ball needs hard ground to bounce and roll on, and the bigger balls that can be used in the snow got buried. I also couldn’t get around in the yard because of the several feet of snow to keep training fetch.)

Therefore, this was our first time playing ball in many months, and without my even asking, he was bringing me the ball! To earn treats!

Such a good day!

Then I let him have some free time in the yard to dig in the mud. Hey, he earned it!

By the way, to anyone training their dog who feels guilty if you miss a day (or a week) of training, I say, consider it a strategy. We went the previous few days with the bare minimum of training. A couple of times, I did a little with him because he was just begging me for it, and I felt he needed it for his mental health, but it was very brief. Otherwise, because I was on a deadline, I was either writing or resting or sleeping. Even though he was getting physical exercise, he would cover over and be like, “Train me, dammit!”

So, that was actually good for us. I think it is good to take a break sometimes and get the dog really demanding training.

Peace,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I will never divulge the secret of the crisp left turn!), and Barnum SDiT (and looking dapper in the gear)

Love for My Service Dogs

The Patients for a Moment (PFAM) carnival is up right now at Chronic Babe. The theme, appropriate for Valentine’s Day, is Show Me the Love.

If you follow After Gadget, you know I deeply loved my last service dog, Gadget, and all the aspects of our relationship that made him so special and important to me. However, I have never written specifically about what was unique and lovable about each of my service dogs (SDs).

It may seem stunningly obvious that most service dog partners are passionate about their SDs. For not only do they provide us with the companionship, comfort, and fun that pet dog owners experience, they also contribute to our freedom, independence, and safety. Still, not all SDs are created equal, and not all partnerships click as well as others. Every dog, like every human, is an individual.

I think most SD partners probably try to keep it to ourselves, out of a sense of guilt, loyalty, or a fear of being judged and misunderstood, but in my experience, we don’t usually love all our SDs in quite the same way; each dog has their strengths and weaknesses, in harness and out. Many might say, “I love all my dogs equally, if differently,” which I’m sure is true. It feels true for some of my dogs, but not others. Quite simply, there are some I’ve loved more (or the most).

It’s not that they haven’t each been equally deserving, but that we all have our quirks, and what makes us happiest is so subjective. There is the heart, and there is the mind, and no matter how much the mind may argue, the heart knows what it knows.

If you’ve seen my new About Sharon’s Dogs page, you know my history with each dog. That page is filled with a lot of facts about my first pet dog, my two service dogs, and my current service-dog-in-training, Barnum.

For this post, I’ve decided just to focus on Jersey and Gadget — my service dogs whom I have loved and lost.

Barnum is not yet my service dog, although I feel confident that he will be, eventually. I love him so much, I can’t imagine life without him, but I also know we have so far to go. Knowing that, having been on similar journeys in the past, I cannot predict in what ways our love will grow and transform. I only know that it will.

Barnum and I are a work in progress. The curtain has already come down on Jersey’s and Gadget’s stories, yet there’s always more to tell.

Act I: Jersey

Scene I: Arrival

Jersey was my first service dog, my first dog that I owned and trained as an adult, and my first bouvier des Flandres. As such, she will always be special.

Part of our love was forged by how hard it was for me to acquire her — how I had to convince the people involved in bouvier rescue that, despite my disabilities, I could handle the responsibility of a bouvier (or any dog). To say that she was therefore a sort of trophy does neither of us justice; it dehumanizes her, and it diminishes the very real relationship we had.

Nonetheless, the fact that we did so well together, that I did train her as a service dog, despite all the dire warnings I encountered and discouragement I received before I got her, was a vindication. Because this was my first time training a dog in a serious way, each little achievement was a joy. Therefore, a lot of my love for Jersey stemmed from my pride in both of us.

Scene II: Sit

I remember when Jersey “got” sit. We had been practicing sit, for a couple of weeks, a few training sessions a day, when one day, out of the blue, Jersey ran up to me and . . . sat! If she had been a human child, as her butt hit the floor, she would have thrown back her head and flung wide her arms, shouting, “Tada!”

I thought it was funny that she was offering the behavior before the command. This was before I started clicker training, and although I used food rewards, I was used to pairing the cue with the behavior as I taught it. I didn’t know yet that dogs learn behaviors first, and that attaching the cue comes later. I thought Jersey was a little silly for offering a sit without being prompted.

Nevertheless, I was thrilled. Fortunately, I knew enough to reward her for the sit, and to keep rewarding her for “throwing sits at me,” until I started discriminating and only rewarding those that were paired with, or preceded by, the cue for sit.

Jersey sitting outside, after finishing a walk

Jersey sits in the snow after a walk.

[Photo description: Jersey sits outside, her paws wet from a walk in the snow.]

This was the beginning of our working relationship, and the joy we both had in training — and succeeding — was a very strong bond.

Scene III: Nibbles

Bouviers are typically extremely devoted to their own and rather standoffish with strangers. However, even with their people, they are not terribly demonstrative. Typical bouviers are Velcro dogs who want to be with their person, no matter where their person is, following them around the house, just keeping an eye on them or being near them, but not needing a lot of physical affection, and even less often, soliciting it.

This description fit Jersey to a T. She was certainly friendly to everyone, dog or human, in a gentle, quiet way, but she didn’t really care about anyone but me and a few select people, such as her dog walkers. She was truly a “one-woman dog.” She followed me everywhere in our small apartment, and although she rarely sought out affection — she preferred to have her subjects come to her — when I did scratch behind her ears or under her chin, she would close her eyes and “purr.” Sort of a quiet moan of happiness.

The only time she showed outright affection was in the morning. Upon waking, I’d often find Jersey sticking her nose in my face to sniff me while I lay in bed, then “nibbling” my arm. Her other favorite nibbling location was the bathroom, when I first got up to pee in the morning.

Fortunately, I had read about nibbling on a bouvier list before Jersey did this the first time, or I might have thought she was trying to hurt me. It’s a show of affection where the dog, with their mouth almost closed, chatters their teeth against your skin, as if flea-biting.

Nibbling is quite a lovely behavior if you’ve got clothing or a blanket between the dog’s teeth and your skin. However, if she nibbled my arm in the summer, when I was in short sleeves, my skin got pinched between her front teeth, and it hurt! I tried not to exclaim with pain or surprise, because I could tell it startled her and hurt her feelings.

However, on one memorable occasion, the morning before I was to have a first date with someone I met through a personal’s ad, I was giving Jersey a hug as I sat on the toilet. Wagging her little stump of a tail, Jersey reached up and nibbled my neck — leaving a mark! I had told my date that I wasn’t seeing anyone else. What would she think if I showed up with a hickey? Somehow, saying, “It’s not what you think. My dog gave me this,” sounded worse! I wore a turtleneck.

Scene IV: The Stare

Jersey was a prototypical bouv in some ways, but in other ways, she completely defied the breed standard. For example, bouviers are supposed to be “fearless,” and were bred partly as guard dogs. Jersey didn’t have a protective bone in her body. She didn’t bark. She didn’t growl. If anything startled her — such as my falling down — her motto was, “Run away first. Investigate later.”

She was truly “the silent partner” in our relationship. That didn’t mean she didn’t know how to communicate with me.

Jersey eyes Sharon

Jersey keeps close to Sharon and keeps her eye on her

[Photo description: Jersey sits in profile, her head turned toward Sharon. Jerseys fall covers where her right eye would be.]

Jersey used “The Stare.” If she needed to go out, she stood near the door and stared at me. If it was time to eat (which was any time between when I woke up and she ate breakfast, and then again, any time after 3:00 PM or dusk, whichever came first), she sat and stared at me.

If I had friends visiting, and one of them moved between Jersey and me, Jersey got up and repositioned herself to make sure her Stare Beam was unimpeded.

Her stare was very intense and completely focused. She knew that if she just stared long enough, eventually I would feed her. Of course, I always did.

Having one eye — even when vision in that one was clouded by cataracts — did not make one bit of difference. If anything, it seemed as if Jersey’s stare was all the more concentrated, coming from that single orb.

Jersey peers over the futon

Jersey directs her stare beam at me.

[Photo description: Jersey peers over a green futon, her chin resting on it, one eye peeking out, her two black pointed ears in stark relief before the maroon wall.]

When I think back on my relationship with Jersey, my love for her is mostly that of gratitude for her forgiveness in all I didn’t know, her absolute devotion to me, and the smile that still comes to my lips when I see that one brown eye, staring at me.

Scene V: In My Dreams

After Jersey and I had been partners for a while — I don’t remember how long it took — I realized that she accompanied me not only in all my waking activities, but in my dreams, too.

When I try to explain what it’s like to be a service dog team, this is sometimes how I explain it. That the dog is truly an extension of me. This goes so deep that my subconscious knows it, too.

This is a kind of love that’s hard to convey, that of being two parts of one whole, physically and mentally.

Act II: Gadget

Scene I: Love at First Sight

I recently wrote at About Sharon’s Dogs how I fell in love with Gadget pretty much instantly.

Black and white of Sharon and Gadget looking into each other's eyes

Love at first sight.

[Photo description: Black and white photograph of Sharon and Gadget, ten years ago. Sharon sits on a wooden bench of a back patio, smiling down at Gadget, who stands looking up into her face. The sun highlights Sharon’s long, dark hair and Gadget’s curly, gray brindle coat. There are trees and shrubs in the background, beyond the wood railings.]

While Jersey was beautiful — she had, after all, been a show dog — Gadget was just too cute.

Despite the uneven color of his coat, due to digestive and allergy issues that had caused rusty-brown patches where he’d been licking and biting himself most of his life, and his chopped-off beard (which had been a straggly mess, apparently), Gadget was absolutely adorable.

He had that bright, inquisitive spark that animated every aspect of his facial expression: his brown eyes, his twitching nose, his ever-adjusting eyebrows, his long, expressive ears. His ears were soft and silky, and when he ran — which he did at any and every opportunity — they flew up and down, making him seem just that much more alive.

Black and white photo of a young Gadget, staring into the distance

A young Gadget stares into the distance from my porch.

[Photo description: Black and white photo of Gadget from the neck up. His ears perked, he looks alertly into the distance, birch trees blurred in the background.]

Jersey’s ears had been cropped, which always seemed cruel to me, not only for the pain she endured as a puppy for this pointless fashion statement, but also because every summer, the deer flies headed right into her exposed inner ears. Mostly, though, I just loved the feel of Gadget’s ears, how much he could communicate with them, and how much he enjoyed having them rubbed.

Gadget was very photogenic, and it was my good fortune that soon after I adopted him, I dated a photographer. I sent some photos of Gadget to a friend who lived across the country.

My friend’s emailed comment, upon receiving the pictures? “How can you get anything done with that face around the house?” (She’s so much more tactful than I am. When she emailed me a photo of her newborn baby boy, I said, “He looks like a baby!”)

Scene II: Energy

Yes, he was very cute. But even more than his appearance, it was Gadget’s energy that thrilled me.

For one thing, he had so much of it! One of the traits that made Jersey “easy” in so many ways was how gentle and laid-back she was. Gadget, super enthusiastic and uncontrolled, was therefore much more difficult — and much more fun!

Gadget jumping over a pole across two kitchen chairs

All four off the floor! Indoor agility, anyone?

[Photo description: Gadget in mid-air jumping over a thin, yellow plastic stick about three feet above the ground, held up by a kitchen chair and a step-ladder. In the background are a kitchen counter and a refrigerator.]

I’d say I’m falling into sexist stereotyping in feeling that Jersey’s sweetness and manners were not as captivating as Gadget’s bad-boy charm, except that my first dog, Lady — as her total misnomer of a name makes clear — was female and also full of smarts and energy (and an aggressive attitude toward other dogs).

Gadget’s characteristics were due to his personality, not his body parts. Everything he did, he did with gusto: Training, thinking, eating, running. He was so hungry for life.

He wore me out, but I often laughed through my tears. I took him for walks that exhausted me, but they weren’t nearly enough for him. We went to my mailbox, three-quarters of a mile away, with me going at my scooter’s top speed (about seven or eight miles an hour) the whole time. Gadget ran back and forth all the way, so he really got more like three miles in than one-and-a-half. Yet, when we got home, and I was ready to hit the sofa and collapse, Gadget ran laps around the outside of the house!

Scene III: His Mind

Gadget was fleet of foot, yes, and he showed such joy in running I liked to say he must have been a greyhound or a thoroughbred horse in a former life.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house

[Photo description: Gadget runs down a black metal wheelchair ramp, his ears flying, with a white cloth grocery bag in his mouth. Sharon is behind him, at the end of the ramp, with her big green cargo van behind her. It’s a bright, summer day, with lots of sun and a green lawn on either side of the ramp.]

His mind was just as quick. Training with him was thrilling. He took to it so easily, and our communication was so effortless, that it is only now — when I have worked my butt off for a year to completely relearn how to clicker train — that I realize how intuitive and brilliant Gadget really was.

There are two myths about service dogs that cause a lot of anxiety, misunderstanding, and broken hearts: 1. That any dog can be a service dog, and 2. That only one-in-a-million can be a service dog. I’ll leave discussion of these myths for a future post, but I can understand why a dog like Gadget could make people believe that any dog can be a service dog.

Clicker training is a step-by-step process. To have a fruitful session, I, as the trainer, have to know ahead of time what my goals are for the session — what criteria I am looking for and reinforcing, and if those criterion are met, what the next step — the next set of criteria — will be.

Gadget on ramp with bag in his mouth, lowering it onto ramp

Gadget prepares to drop the bag in the right spot.

[Photo description: Gadget holds a white cloth grocery bag in his mouth, which he is lowering, ready to drop it on the ramp on which he stands. The presence of the railings on the ramp show he is near the house now. Sharon is on the ramp about four yards back.]

Training Jersey had accustomed me to following this slow, orderly process. Gadget, however, quickly taught me that it wasn’t enough to know what my criteria were for the first step or two of the behavior before a session. I had better know how the entire skill would be built, from steps A through Z, because frequently, after one or two reinforcements for the first step, he would move right to the next step, and then often skip several steps altogether, seeming to intuit, on his own, what the entire purpose of the session was.

I frequently started sessions with the idea that I was introducing the foundation behaviors for what would eventually be a highly desirable service task, and within a few minutes, he would already be performing the finished skill, with nothing left to do but put a name on it (so I could cue the skill in future), and generalize it to other locations or objects.

Because we were training service skills, these sessions were immensely gratifying in several ways. One was that I knew he would be making my life easier with these tasks very soon; this offered tremendous relief and hope. Another was that it made us both feel so good about ourselves and each other; I thought I was a great trainer and he was a great learner, and he loved to problem-solve and earn treats and have my undivided attention.

It also forged a connection that would be critical to us for the rest of his life: communication.

Scene IV: Communication

The adage about communication is that it’s a two-way street, but this metaphor is too simple for the kind of communication that took place between Gadget and I. A lot of people think that communication between dog and handler is about commands, but that’s such a small part of it. And when the handler is also the trainer, the communication goes even deeper.

It started with training and living together, with all that we learned about each other and how to ask and answer each other:

  • “What next?”
  • “Is this what you wanted?”
  • “I’m waiting for you to do this thing before I do that thing.”

Then, in our working partnership, communication involved all of the above, plus how to move together in a huge variety of spaces (familiar and new) and with a great variety of assistive equipment. Not least of this was how much my functioning in a range of areas (voices, legs, arms, stability, coordination) changed drastically, and fluctuated even within new “levels.”

We were so able to predict each other’s intent that I really took it for granted. I remember, after Gadget died, emailing with someone whose heart dog had also died of cancer. They were not a service dog team, but they were a working dog team — her corgi herded sheep. She was the first to point out to me how obvious it was from the videos of Gadget and me working together that we had had a long, deeply connected partnership: how we moved together, how we communicated, “the dance.”

Gadget Watches Sharon Read Poetry to Elementary School Kids

Gadget even paid attention to me when surrounded by a group of rowdy small children. (He seems to be paying closer attention to my poetry than they were...).

[Photo description: Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen cannula, leaning forward with her mouth open, as if reading or talking. Gadget lies on the ground next to her in a green pack, looking up at her. In the foreground are several first-graders, looking in many different directions, some of them obviously moving around.]

Scene V: Part of My Body, Part of My Dreams

The caretaking Gadget did for me when I got Lyme disease rose to a new level. When Gadget got sick, our bond became that much stronger. The caretaking I did for him when he got lymphoma rose to a new level, too.

We spent every waking moment together, and a lot of the non-waking ones, too. After he died, I continued to dream about him.

We fell asleep together

We fell asleep together.

[Photo description: Sharon lies sprawled, asleep on her bed, turquoise T-shirt and pink pajama pants. Her head lolls to the side off her pillow. Between her legs, with his head resting on her abdomen, lies Gadget, also asleep. One foreleg stretches across Sharon’s knee, the other is bent against her thigh. They lie on a bright red comforter, with a large beige cushion propping Sharon’s upper body against the wall. An overbed table on the left side of the frame shows paper, pens, water bottles, and a jumble of other indistinct items, making it clear Sharon spends her days and nights in that spot. Sharon and Gadget both look completely relaxed and unaware that they are having their picture taken.]

I still can’t believe he’s gone.

Just like Jersey, when Gadget and I were working together full-time as a service dog team, he entered my dreams. Wherever I was, and whatever I was doing, in my dreams, Gadget was there, too. There was never an “I,” there was only a “we.”

After he died, I talked about feeling like I’d suffered an amputation, and having a sort of psychic phantom-limb pain. It’s not as metaphorical as it sounds. Just as one might reach out a hand to open a door and realize the hand is no longer there, I often turned to Gadget to open the door, to carry a message, to pick up something I dropped, and then realized he wasn’t there. The action was as instinctive as lifting my own hand would have been. It was a shock, over and over, that simple things were now so much more complicated.

At a pet loss bereavement chat online, a met a woman who lost her pet dog to cancer around the same time as I lost Gadget. She knew she would never get another dog. She told me her father, a widower, understood. It was how he felt about her mother. She’d been his one true love, and he didn’t feel the need to ever have another. That’s how she felt about her dog who had died.

I knew I would get another dog. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone having a service dog and then choosing not to have another, although I suppose it must happen. Still, that’s why we use the term “successor,” and not replacement.

Barnum will be Gadget’s successor, but no matter how great our love or our teamwork, no dog will ever be Gadget’s successor.

My love for him always feels too big to fit into this little blog space, no matter how many posts I write.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, the spirit of Jersey, and my current clown and acrobat, Barnum, service-dog-in-training

QuickPress: Little Miracles

(Shallow) Background

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

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

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

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

Little Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good dog!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Barnum age 11 months

I'm the shit!

Good dog!

Happy Hanukkah!

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

QuickPress: Barnum’s First Service Skill! (Well, sorta.)

This was not at all planned. Today I am having another “stuck day” like I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Today was not as bad, in that I have more range of motion (ROM) in my arms, but still cannot pull myself up into a sitting position to transfer or to prop myself up to use the computer. Problems with legs and torso (especially abdominal muscles).

Unfortunately, the PCA working today has injured her back and is currently unable to help with transfers. What to do?

Before she arrived, Barnum was hanging out with his front half on my bed, looking out the window, enjoying the fact I was awake. I tried to lure him toward me, but we were not communicating. Note to self: Teach Barnum how to come closer to me on the bed, put behavior on verbal and nonverbal cue.

Anyway, when the PCA got here, by writing notes, I was eventually able to ask her to give me one of Barnum’s tug toys, which we seldom use (to keep it special). It’s not one of his favorites (which is surprising, because usually there are few toys Barnum doesn’t love), but having kept it from him most of the time still makes it interesting enough for the occasional tug game. It never occurred to me I could use it as an assistive device, but I needed someone to help pull me forward, and Barnum loves to tug and is very strong!

So Gloria handed me the toy. It’s a yellow slightly-stuffed “tuff” toy, about two feet long, called “Ultimate Tug-o-War” made by mydogtoy.com. I got it as part of my quest for toys that Barnum could not destroy in five minutes of aggressive chewing. (I’ve been working on a post about Barnum the Destroyer for quite a while, with ratings and pictures of which toys I suggest for other large, aggressive chewers, and which toys I don’t recommend, and why.) This one’s rated nine-out-of-ten on the toughness scale of “soft toys,” with many, many layers of fabric and stitching to make it hard to shred. It has a ring on each end and a bar in the middle. Below are some pics of Barnum with the toy.

Barnum chews on the center bar of his yellow-and-black tug toy, decorated with black and white bones. He is sitting on a tan dog bed, with his head down.

Mm, chewy.

Barnum lies on tan dog bed, looking into the camera. The yellow tug toy is laying between his front legs. His right paw sits over the ring on one end of the toy, while the other end lies across his upper left leg. He has a "caught in the act" startled expression on his face.

What? You said I could have it.

Anyway, Gloria gave it to me. I showed it to Gadget, who got very interested. I held it out. He gripped on. I pulled. He pulled. He thought we were playing tug first thing in the day. How lovely! His favorite game! I used his counter weight of pulling to pull my upper body into sitting position.  Yay!

I wanted to hug him and praise him and give him treats, but I wasn’t able to. I put down the toy, too, and didn’t continue to play, which I realize was a mistake, in hindsight. However, at the time, I was in pain, and I really had to pee. I just wanted to get into my powerchair and get to the bathroom.

So, that was very exciting. Obviously, this is not a finished service skill in any way, shape, or form, but it gives me some ideas of what may work as a service skill in the future. Later, I tried to interest him in the toy again when I had clicker and treats and was functioning a little better. But he didn’t want to take it.

I think there were a few factors causing this unusual desire not to grab a tug. One is that it’s not a favorite. If I had held out his spider, I’m sure he would have pounced. Another thing is that earlier he got no reinforcement for tugging with me. He tugged, and then afterward, we didn’t keep playing, he got not praise (because I couldn’t make a sound), no clicks, no treats, etc. Also, now I did have the clicker and treats, so he went into training mode, meaning he kept targeting (nose touching) the toy.

He was also not getting the usual cues for tug. We don’t normally play in my bed. I’m not normally lying down. I wasn’t making any of the noises he associates with play. For example, I couldn’t say my usual cue for tug: “Git it!” Another note to self: Teach tug in bed and nonverbal cue for “Git it!”

Finally, our default for me holding anything out to him is for him to gently touch it with his nose. So, that’s what he did. I tried to shape it into a grab, but I wasn’t up to it, physically.

Nonetheless, there we have it. Barnum has helped me in a useful way for the first time! I still don’t know if we will make it as a service dog team, but I hope so! It felt really, really good to have faced that problem, figured out a way he could help, and then put it into action.

Planned upcoming posts (not necessarily in this order, and not necessarily on time!): Barnum videos of food versus games; memorial to Gadget on the anniversary of his death; and intersection of Lyme and my other diseases — which cause what?

Your comments are always warmly received.

Peace,

Sharon, Barnum (SDiT), the muse of Gadget, and the spirit of Jersey (who never played tug a day in her life)

stuck day

today is a stuck day. i haven’t had one in a long time. i thought i was done with them. that’s lyme for you. once you think you’re doing better, it returns and kicks your ass.

you probably can’t tell today is different from my writing, except that i’m not using caps. if i tried to use caps, i wouldn’t be able to write/post. that’s because all i can move right now are my hands, my facial muscles, some minor head/neck movement like small nods, and the lower part of my right arm. with great exertion and pain, actually, i can move more of both arms, but that’s only for necessities, like signing, typing, positioning. i’ve also reread this later when i was more functional and corrected the huge number of phrases that made no sense.

here’s what a stuck day is like: i wake up and think, “oh, i have to pee.” i realize that i’m in a lot of pain and feel weak, and the idea fleetingly crosses my mind that i might need help to get out from under the covers. “nah,” i tell myself. “don’t be such a drama queen. once you get going you’ll be fine.”

So (oh look, i did a caps! the drugs are kicking in!), I roll onto my side, and i get stuck. i can’t get the blankets off me. i can’t even move my arms or my legs, i realize. i can’t talk. ohshitohshitohshit.

then, i have to find my call button. this is the doorbell i wrote about in a previous post. no, i’m sorry, i can’t put the link in right now. maybe later, when i can move. [note: i’m doing a bit better now, so i’ve put in said links.]

anyway, i need to hit the button which is now loose on top of my overbed table. with great effort i get my left hand up onto the table, and it crawls around like a crab, searching. i hit my “clik-r” clicker button, and i hear barnum pop up. sorry buddy. bad trainer. no cookie. eventually i find and press the doorbell button. thank god!

here’s the problem: i’m lying on my side with my back to the door. i can’t talk or really make any sound. i can’t move at all except my left hand. so when i hear carol, my pca, open my door, i know she is waiting for me to say something or indicate something. and i appear to be all snuggled up, asleep. i try to sort of flap my left hand, opening and closing it, hoping she can see it from where she’s standing, but apparently she can’t, because I hear the door shut. DAMMIT!

“well,” i think, “i’ll just have to ring again. eventually she’ll realize i wasn’t ringing by accident in my sleep.”

yeah, right. cuz i can’t find the fucking doorbell button this time. i press the clicker again another couple of times — barnum’s really curious as to what’s happening now — and i can’t find the button. through tremendous effort i pull myself up a few inches to better search the table and find the button. i grab it — not letting it go anymore today — and ring it repeatedly.

i try to roll onto my back so i can communicate better, but can’t. fortunately, betsy comes to the door. yay! I had assumed she was asleep. she asks if i rang. i sign “yes.”

she asks what’s going on. i sign, “stuck,” which is a v-hand shape, finger tips on either side of adams apple.

her sign is rusty. she can’t remember that word.

“is it your heart?” she asks.

I shake no, then fingerspell S-T-U….

“You’re stuck!” she announces.

Relief. Nod.

“Do you need to go to the bathroom?”

Affirmative.

Thank god, betsy knows the drill. carol does, too, but she has back issues and is getting over the flu, and betsy understands me when i’m nonverbal better than anyone else does. also she’s strong as a power-lifter. she pulls the heavy blankets off me. she pulls my legs toward the side of the bed. she moves my pchair into position. she grabs my hands and pulls me into a sitting/slumped position. I take a moment to rest, then she lifts me onto the chair. i’m no lightweight. i’m always surprised how strong she is.

barnum is overjoyed to see betsy — and me out of bed — and he throws himself between us, wriggling, wagging, kissing, pressing against us. he is soaking up betsy’s attention primarily, because she’s more capable of good butt-scratching than I am. i ask her to stop so i can give barnum some attention, have him just focus on me for a bit.

refreshed by puppy love, we get back to business. i take the call button with me to the bathroom. once there, betsy picks me up off the chair while i pull down my pants (fortunately the muscle lock has eased enough now that I can do this), and i pee . . . for a long time! (you know the scene in A League of Their Own when Tom Hanks pees endlessly and Mae/Madonna takes out a stopwatch to time it? it was like that, except i wasn’t all hungover and gross.) we chat a little, mostly consisting of me mouthing/signing, “this sucks. why is this happening?” and exchange more dog love. Betsy helps me back onto the chair and then settles me in bed (without the quilts, which are too heavy, and even when i’m doing better, could immobilize me just by their weight alone). i just keep my light organic cotton sheet and blanket.

then she leaves me to go do other things and carol steps back in. my first priority is getting pain and muscle relaxant meds in me, so I can function better. i do a lot of mouthing and miming to get across what i need. carol and i get my laptop computer open and readjust my position, overbed table, and screen so i can communicate with her by typing.

one of the worst parts about stuck days is when they are apparently caused for no reason. i have no idea why today i’m doing so much worse than yesterday. i don’t know if this is my fall crash, and now i will be wrecked for weeks or months to come, or if this is just a blip. i don’t know if this is a result of the new Lyme treatment drug i started Thursday. fortunately, i am too exhausted, painful, and crappy feeling to care much about what it all means. i’m just focused on getting through, minute by minute — or actually, task by task. i feel relief that i have carol and betsy here to help me. it feels so much better to have peed and have the right bolsters supporting me in bed. writing this blog gives me something to occupy my brain, other than worrying what the cause of Mystery Stuck Day is and whether it will stretch out into weeks or more from here.

(the meds are really kicking in now, which is good because i can move better and feel less crappy. but it’s bad because i took them on an empty stomach, so i’m getting sleepy and dopey, and i want to finish this blog before i go back to sleep.)

several times since waking up, i have missed Gadget so bad it was a physical ache. if i’d had the energy to spare, i would have cried. but that would have wrecked the small physical gains i’d made, and i don’t even think i have the lung capacity for deep breaths, so i just locked those feelings in. in my heart, i was crying. it’s 20 days till the anniversary of his death, and i feel so heavily the weight of his absence today. he could have helped me transfer — to and from the bed, chair, and toilet. he could have gone for carol or betsy so i wouldn’t have had the stress of not being able to indicate i needed their help. he could have carried messages to them telling them exactly WHAT i needed. he could have opened my door again and again so that i wouldn’t have had to endure what i did to find the call button the second time.

the only “help” barnum provided was licking my face a LOT. i certainly appreciated that, even more than usual, but a little emotional boost and distraction only gets you so far on a day like this.

there’s also the hindering Gadget would NOT have done. (For the record, Jersey wouldn’t have helped me much on a day like this, because she was trained and worked when I was much more functional, but she also would have been very easy — no demands.) gadget wouldn’t have jumped up with his forelegs landing on my legs after i was back in bed, causing severe pain. he could have let himself out to pee and then come straight back in. he wouldn’t have stepped on my burning feet when i was sitting on the toilet. and then. . . .

when carol left me after i was resettled and typing this post, barnum started The Barking. Lately, once a pca (especially carol, his favorite) leaves, he tries to demand their return. after all, i am Boring Lady, stuck in bed, not playing or giving love or attention, while he could be following carol around the kitchen, watching her prep my meals. hearing lovey-dovey talk. getting rubbed behind the ears. etcetera. so, the second they leave my bedroom, he sits at my door and barks.

which is why the pcas all have to ignore barnum until i get up for the day. but i am still dealing with the extinction barking while barnum tries his damnedest to change my tyrannical rule.

lately, i’ve been dealing with this by working on “bark” and “quiet” with him, but being nonverbal, i couldn’t say quiet. HOWEVER, having learned from the past, he knows 3 cues for quiet: ASL for quiet, the word “quiet,” and the sound, “shhhh.” I taught, “Shhh,” because it’s a sound i can make even when i can’t speak. the ASL for quiet requires lifting hands to mouth height, which I can’t do right now.

so, after he has started the very loud, very sharp barking, it occurs to me that i can actually do something about this. i try to call him over to put his front end on the bed near my upper body, but he really only knows all the many ways i have of telling him “off,” for all the times he tries to get on the bed, because normally he wants on and I want off. of course, today i am patting the bed and making kissy noises and he just stands there, waiting for me to make my meaning clear. I can’t communicate “up” nonverbally. something to remember for later: need to teach signed cue for “paws up!” but i have my clik-r, which, despite its other faults (not my preferred clicker), is good for a day like today for two reasons:

  1. it takes very little pressure to depress the button, so even on a weak day, i can usually manage it
  2. it’s very, very quiet. barnum has excellent hearing, so he can hear it even if i click during one of his ear-splitting barks.

fortunately, i always have treats close to hand, so i click and treat for a silent moment. then we start practicing “shhh,” which goes well. he’s bored, and now i’ve given him something to focus on. occasionally i throw in the cue for “bark,” just to keep things interesting.

i am having trouble pitching the treats onto the floor, so i hold my open hand, palm up, on the bed, a treat on it, and barnum takes it that way. much easier. also, interesting note: he was ignoring most of the treats i threw on the floor, because they weren’t “good enough.” But when i offered them in my palm, he took them. could it be the energy expended was not equivalent to the value of the treat if he had to chase it? Or that, love-bug that he is, the contact involved in taking from my open hand added value? or that he liked the chance to “eat off the bed” which he normally isn’t allowed? the novelty?

at any rate, this gave me an idea. i do want him to learn to have paws/front up on the bed when i need his help, when invited, but not to have any part of his body ON my legs or feet — or other body parts — as that’s too painful. so i moved my hands back, closer to my body, for treating, and he jumped up and settled his torso parallel with my legs. actually warmly just barely touching them. felt good, physically and emotionally. perfect.

then i c/t him for making eye contact, for being quiet and still, and started shaping him to rest his chin in my palm. i mostly used luring. usually i try to use targeting or shaping more than luring, but if there’s anything a stuck day teaches, it’s that you use what you can. when i offered the treat in my palm, i’d click when he put his chin in my palm to eat the treat. i did this many, many times. eventually, i pretended to put a treat in my palm, and when he went to get the nonexistent treat, i clicked for contact and treated in my palm. c/t for that, continued. sometimes actual treat in palm, sometimes luring with motion that suggested treat. after a while i shaped the beginnings of a chin target in palm.

as his eye contact got more frequent, i started introducing my hand signal for eye contact, which is ASL for “look into my eyes.”

it felt really good to be accomplishing something when i was able to do so little. i had gone to sleep with all sorts of schemes and plans to work on recall remediation, using the great outdoors and Premack principle stuff i’ve been learning on the training levels list, because barnum’s recall (meaning, coming when called) ranges from great to eh to abysmal/nonexistent. but today’s physical and communication issues put the kibosh on that.

sometimes, actually, it seems like the best training occurs without plans, without grand expectations, but just by using my instinct, my thumb on the raised clicker button, and whatever the dog’s willing to offer. life with disabling chronic illness is unpredictable, and as wheelie catholic put it in a blog recently, that’s the thing about access — it isn’t a problem until it is. much the same as with everything with a severely fluctuating disability — it isn’t an issue until it is.

suddenly, nothing could be taken for granted, and it forced me to get back to the fundamentals of clicker training: see what the dog is offering, and shape it using just a click and some food. no target sticks. no body movement. no voice. it granted me a great feeling of power and control, of communication and making things happen, on a day when i otherwise was pretty well powerless and struggled to make myself understood by the people around me.

i still missed gadget terribly, because we already had a working language, and because he could have actually helped instead of just offering a challenge to overcome. On the other hand, i did tell barnum’s breeder i like a challenge. be careful what you ask for.

Please comment, if you feel inclined.

-Sharon, Barnum, and the muse of Gadget (and Jersey)


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