Posts Tagged 'Bouvier des Flandres'

Honing Our Service Skills: Barnum Training Update (Videos)

Or, “What I Did Over Summer Break”

I announced a couple of months ago that I was taking a blogging hiatus to focus on training Barnum. What I didn’t realize was that I was also taking the opportunity to be really damn sick. So, that’s been quite discouraging.

Mostly I have discovered that I cannot bounce back in a reasonable amount of time from going out. Any minor exertions or exposures completely incapacitate me for days afterward. Thus, I’ve changed my training goals and plans for the summer. I’ve shifted our focus from public access training (which I’m just way too sick to do) and foundational skills (Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels) to training skills that I really need now on a day-to-day basis, particularly when I’m very sick.

These skills include

  • Shutting and opening doors
  • Shutting and opening drawers and cupboards
  • Turning lights on and off
  • Dressing and undressing
  • Finding my PCA when I need help
  • Pulling the covers off my bed
  • Bracing/balance assistance
  • Pulling my legs to the edge of the bed
  • Answering/bringing me the phone
  • Alerting me to the kitchen timer
  • Alerting me to my infusion pump
  • Retrieving things I drop
  • Retrieving things I need

Wow. Seeing it all written out has made me realize, that’s a long list! No wonder we don’t have it all finished yet! Good reality check for me.

Some things on this list he is already very solid on, such as bracing and shutting doors and cupboards. Other things he knows solidly in some situations but not in others. For example, he is very good with the light switch in the bathroom, but not as good with the one in my bedroom because usually my chair is parked in front of it, which makes it harder to get to. (More about that below.) He knows how to pull off my socks but is clueless about my shoes. He generally is solid on retrieving things I drop, but he still needs to learn to retrieve a wider ranger of items, such as more awkward, big, and/or heavy items. Stuff like that.

Today I decided to videotape a few of the skills that we’ve been working on as a way to show some people on my training list what I was trying to describe and also as a way of testing Barnum. They are very short, fun little videos (about a minute or less each).

Pulling Shut Bathroom Door

Shutting a door by grabbing a cord and backing up is much harder than just nosing it shut. In the winter, I use this skill a lot because I keep the doors shut to retain heat. In the summer, we don’t use it as often because I like more air flow. Here’s what he did today:

(If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video. To read a transcript of the video, click here.)

What was so interesting about today’s test was the evidence of latent learning that occurred since we last worked this skill. I shaped this skill with a focus on Barnum’s body position — having him move parallel to the door and back up so that he wouldn’t end up shutting himself into the bathroom. I taught him to grab the cord and back up.

Over time, the harder pulls, he had to really back up fast to get out of the way, so on his own, he figured out a way to “beat the clock.” As you can see in the video, he pulls the door once and races out of the bathroom and then moves into position to back up when he grabs the cord a second time to finish the pull. Very smart!

Turning Lights On and Off

This is a skill that Barnum is most used to doing in my bathroom. I trained it there because most of the wall is tile, which can’t be scratched by his toenails. He has it down pat in there. However, the place I need the skill the most is in my bedroom, particularly when I’m in bed, and I want the light either on or off (often, when I have a migraine, I want it off post-haste!).

The tricky part is that I also park my powerchair next to my bed where it prevents Barnum from doing a direct jump-up right to the switch in a centered way. Or, it makes it much more difficult. He has to launch from right behind the chair, which he does on the third cue, so we’ll need to practice that more.

We have trained this a bunch with the chair moved out of the way so that he has the idea of the best angle to launch from, but the reality is that a lot of the time, in “real world” conditions, the chair will be in the way. So, lately I’ve been having him practice it with the chair in its usual space — that’s why you see the cardboard really scraped up.

I tested him on it today, and here are the results:

(If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video. To read a transcript of the video, click here.)

Did you see our blooper? It used to be that Barnum would flick the switch up and down and up and down if he didn’t get a click at just the right moment. By now, he usually has the idea and will just do it once in either direction. When training, I don’t use the clicker and just toss the treats, so he learns to pay attention to the click of the light switch as the indicator that he’s won. However, when using the skill — incorporating it into our lives — I’m still clicking him. I didn’t get the “Yes!” in fast enough and accidentally reinforced the dark/light double-flick. Oh well. We got it on the next attempt.

Find Help!

The last quick flick is the skill we’ve been training the most because it’s the most complex. I ask Barnum, “Where’s [name of person]?” I practice this with my four PCAs and Betsy, so he has to know it applies to everyone the same.

The skill — most of which you don’t see in the video — requires him to find the person, nudge their hand or leg, and then sit. When they say, “Where’s Sharon?” He runs back to me. The nudge is to make it clear to the person that he’s not just coming by to say hello because he feels like it (which he sometimes does). The sit is so he won’t come racing back to me whether or not they’ve realized why he’s there. (He has lately started to do a “drive-by nudging” where he runs up to them, barely makes contact, and turns around and runs back to me. The sit makes sure he actually completes the behavior.) And when I hear them ask him, “Where’s Sharon?” I know that they know I want them to come help me.

Here’s what it looks like viewed from my bed:

(If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video. To read a transcript of the video, click here.)

You can’t hear it in the video, but I heard my assistant say, “Good boy,” and “Where’s Sharon?” That told me that he had nudged her (my assistants praise him when he nudges) and that she would be following him to me under normal circumstances. In this case, she didn’t because I had told her I was videotaping it. That’s why I had Barnum shut the door, which is not normally something he does after I’ve sent him to get someone.

I hope you enjoyed these videos. I felt happy watching them because I noticed how enthusiastic Barnum was with all the skills. That tells me that we’re doing things right.

I don’t know when I’ll feel well enough to post again, but we are continuing to train hard whenever I have enough spoons.

I love to hear from you, even though I am not always feeling well enough to respond.

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

What Kind of Dog Is That? Reactions to a Bouvier Service Dog

This post is for the third Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC), which is now up!

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

The Third Carnival Is Up!

There were so many tempting topics to write about for the third ADBC, the theme for which is “Reactions.” Some options were my MCS reactions and how they affect SD training and partnership, my current SDiT’s or past SDs’ reactions to various events in life, other people’s reactions to encountering a disabled trainer, etc.

However, I decided to write something fun: Public reactions to a little-known breed of service dog.

Warning: My SDs are not golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, standard poodles, mixes of any of the above, or German shepherd dogs! Yes, it’s shocking but true!

This topic is a goldmine of hilarity. Oh, the stories! The outrageous guesses! It does a former humor columnist’s heart good to remember and compile them.

Let’s start with the standard question:

“What kind of dog is that?”

If I had a dollar for each time I’d been asked that, I could probably buy a new dog!

In fact, after a few months of public access work with Jersey, my first bouvier des Flandres service dog, I created a little pamphlet that I kept in her pack, which I handed out to the curious general public.

The title of the pamphlet was, “What Kind of Dog Is That?”

It gave a brief overview: That bouviers were developed as a herding and general farm-work dog in the region that is now The Netherlands and Belgium. They herded cattle (their name is French for “cattle herder of Flanders”), herded sheep, pulled carts, drove livestock into town, and protected the humans and animals on the farm from intruders.

It mentions that they are hypoallergenic, with hair instead of fur — hair that grows until you cut it, and mats easily, and requires a lot of upkeep. It also says that they are not the right dog for most people, and as a result, they are not a popular breed in the U.S. (which is good, in my opinion).

I include some basic service dog information, such as that I trained the dog myself, and that I prefer that people not pet or otherwise distract my dog. I also say that I need to get my errands done as quickly as possible to preserve my health and functioning, so I prefer not to have to field a lot of questions.

I encourage them to learn more about assistance dogs by visiting the IAADP website.

When Jersey retired, and Gadget started working, I revised the pamphlet, changing the references from “Jersey” to “Gadget” and the “she”s to “he”s. When Barnum is trained, I’ll update the pamphlet again, although I’ve now developed  a policy of not telling people Barnum’s name (a story for another time).

Usually, when people ask, “What kind of dog is that?” the conversation proceeds as follows:

Me: A bouvier.

Person: A what?

Me: (Enunciating very clearly)  A boo-vee-ay. The full name is bouvier des Flandres. It means “cow-herding dog of Belgium.”

Person: Huh, I’ve never heard of that. A what-was-it, did you say?

Me: Bouvier.

Person: I’ve never heard of them.

Me: They’re not very popular in the U.S. They can be difficult. Some of them can be aggressive if not trained properly.

Person: (Looking disappointed and wary) Oh. Well, he’s beautiful!

Me: Thank you!

Then there are the “Guessers.” These are the people who want to play twenty questions about what type of dog Barnum is.

This starts with the stranger approaching and saying, “Excuse me, is that a [breed]?”

The most common guess is a Labradoodle. Now that I have met doodles, I see why this is such a popular guess. We met a black Labradoodle last summer who could have been Barnum’s twin.

In all fairness to the people who are way off, I give my dogs terrible haircuts. They don’t look at all like the bouviers people see on TV in the big conformation competitions, like Westminster. If I’m really trying hard to give a haircut that looks in any way fashionable, it usually comes out like a giant schnauzer cut or some sort of mutant terrier. Which is why. . . .

Other frequent guesses are giant schnauzers (which is pretty close, appearance-wise), briards (again, a good guess, a lot of similar characteristics), standard poodles (it’s the coat),  various terriers, including a wire-fox terrier (I think it’s the coat) and wheaten terriers (which are about a third the size of a bouv, so again, it’s the coat), Kerry blue terriers (again, yes, if the Kerry blue was on steroids and black or gray), a pointer or Weimaraner (when Gadget’s coat was shaved for the summer), Newfoundlands (size problem in reverse), and in more recent years, thanks to President Obama, Portuguese water dogs (which is close in many ways, except the size) and sometimes, remarkably . . .

Someone will say, “Hey, is that a bouvier?”

I say, “Yes!” And give them a big smile. I might even chat with them a couple of minutes and congratulate them on their discerning eye. Usually they have had a bouvier of their own or have a family member with one, which is why they recognized the breed. (Bouviers are much less common in the Northeast than in the Midwest and California.)

Among the Guessers, there are also the people who question my knowledge of the breed of my dog. Particularly when the doodles trend  had just begun, and people were asking me, “Is that one of those mixes between a poodle and a Lab?” and I’d say, “No,” they wouldn’t leave it at that.

“Are you sure?” They’d say. “Because it really looks like a Lab-poodle or [fill-in-the-blank other doodle breed].”

“Mm,” I’d say, and move on.

Most often, “Challengers,” want to suggest that really my bouvier is a mixed breed, and I just don’t know it:

Person: What kind of dog is that?

Me: He’s a bouvier des Flandres.

Person: Hm, well to me he looks like a mix of a [breed] and [another breed].

Me: Well, he’s a bouvier.

Person: Did you get him from a breeder?

Me: (In the case of Jersey and Gadget) I got her/him from bouvier rescue.

Person: I’ve never heard of a bouvier.

Me: Uh-huh.

Barnum, in particular, stumps people because his coat is so very curly that, even though he resembles them in no other way, poodles are the most common guess.

A recent interchange:

Man: Is that a poodle?

Me: He’s a bouvier des Flandres.

Man: Is that some sort of poodle?

Me: No.

At least all of the breed Guessers are guessing the right species. They earn cookies for that.

There is a whole subsection of people who have not realized that my dogs are, in fact, dogs.

Jersey, bless her heart, was pegged as a non-dog more often than Gadget or Barnum have been. I attribute this to four factors:

  1. Her cropped ears and docked tail. While I am not in favor of cropping and docking, when I first was trying to adopt a bouvier, it was very hard to find a bouvier raised in the US who had natural ears. That is becoming more the norm, but it’s still really rare to find a breeder who doesn’t dock the tails. The lack of doggy ears and tails contribute to the already bear-like appearance of many bouvs.
  2. Her movement. Jersey tended to shamble along, with lowered head, which, again, leant a certain ursine quality to her appearance. This gait is a bouv trait, but Jersey was particularly prone to it.
  3. Her lack of movement. Jersey was an accomplished power-napper. (Another bouv trait.) When she was in a down-stay, she went into all-out “holding-down-the-floor” mode.
  4. As with all my bouvs, I let her hair grow in the winter. This makes them look very shaggy and about twice their actual size. This means that . . .

Bouviers get mistaken for bears a lot.

I know it’s not just me, because I have met a number of people online whose bouvs are named Bear or Teddy or something along those lines.

Also, when I joined the bouvier group on Dogster, the first discussion topic bore the title, “Is that a bear?! Non, c’est un bouvier des Flandres!”

Since I live in an area where black bear sightings are not uncommon, it is both more and less understandable that people would think bouvs are bears. More understandable, because people know there are bears around, so there is more “bear awareness.” Less understandable because, when you actually are used to seeing bears (I had a recurring problem with bears invading my porch and compost bin at my previous home), you see that there are many important distinguishing features between the species, particularly size. A black bear weighs hundreds of pounds, whereas a bouv usually tops out at 100 pounds or so. All of mine have been 75 pounds or less.

The first time I experienced “the bear phenomenon” was when my roommate and I were walking down the main street of Northampton to go to Gay Pride. I was wearing skimpy, slutty black clothes because it was Pride, and that was my tradition (striking a blow against disability stereotypes and feeding my exhibitionist streak at the same time. [I was younger and cuter then; I could carry it off.])

Anyway, a carload of guys, probably college students, went by, and we heard yelling and calling, and Laurel  and I rolled our eyes  at each other, thinking it was just the usual harassment. But then, we heard what one of them actually yelled, which was, “Oh my god! Those people have a BEAR on a LEASH!”

Gotta love living in the five-colleges area. Higher education at work (probably combined with several beers.)

Another time, I was at the grocery store, at one end of the frozen food section. A small child was with her mom near the other end, moving toward us. The little girl kept saying, “Mom, is that a bear or a dog? Is that a bear or a dog?”

The mom was not answering. I’m not sure if she was busy or distracted or embarrassed that her child was pointing out the existence of the disabled woman, probably a combination.

Finally, the mother, exasperated, said, “What do you think it is?”

The little girl contemplated Jersey and me for a bit and then said, “I think it’s a bear.”

Then, there are the times it happens in reverse — to those of us with bouv-on-the-brain. One night, driving home late, Betsy was very tired. In the street ahead she saw a shape, and her first thought was,”Why is there a bouvier in the road?”

Of course, when she got closer, she realized it was a bear.

But it’s not just bears. . . .

Another fun story of a young child still “learning their animals” occurred at the same grocery store as the little girl who thought Jersey was a bear. In this case, I had Gadget with me.

I was in the produce area, which is big and hectic and teeming. I usually try to get out of there as fast as possible, because the store tends to put displays of fruit on little rickety tables at the ends of aisles, which are easy to knock into.

So, Gadget and I were making our way along when I saw a very familiar scene begin to unfold. A little boy, maybe about five years old, was shopping with his two moms. He saw me and started bouncing excitedly, pointing and jabbering to his moms.

One of them said, “Okay, but you have to ask first.”

I was all prepared with my little speech I give to children about how this is a working dog who needs to be able to focus on helping me, and that, therefore, while I appreciate very much that he was asking first — and that it’s always important to ask before you pet any dog — I was sorry but he couldn’t pet my dog.

That’s not what happened.

The boy rushed over to me, and said very sweetly and earnestly, “Can I pet your cat?”

I was so surprised that I just said, “Sure.”

Given that he lives in Northampton and has lesbian parents, I cut him some slack that he thought my animal companion must be a cat. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, think of all the lesbians you know, and tally the number that have cats.  If some don’t, there is likely a cat allergy involved.)

I’ll end with one last Jersey story.

A friend and I were at my town’s Fall Festival, where people from the town, as well as people from the surrounding area and a lot of tourists, come to eat maple sugar products, buy or sell crafts, and watch or participate in Pumpkin Games, such as relay races where little kids try to carry as many pumpkins as possible over a finish line.

My friend and I had just bought lunch and were sitting on the porch of the country store. Jersey, wearing her green pack, lay on the deck beside me.

A man walked by, nodded and smiled at us, glanced at Jersey, then, after taking another couple of steps, did a double-take and screeched to a stop.

“Oh my god!” He said. “I thought that was a stuffed animal, and then I saw it move!”

We all had a chuckle, and I told him that Jersey was, indeed, doing her rock impression. To his credit, the man had thought Jersey was a toy dog, as opposed to a massive teddy bear.

Of course he followed up with,”What kind of dog is that?”

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I was gray, so nobody thought I was a bear), the spirit of Jersey (Call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner), and Barnum, SDiT and non-poodle

P.S. Remember to go to The Trouble Is… to read the other great ADBC posts!

For information on future carnivals, visit the ADBC page here.

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

Photo Essay: Snow-Frosted Bouvier

It’s snowing, again. Last time I checked the thermometer, when I let Barnum out, it was seven degrees Fahrenheit.

As I’ve blogged recently, we fixed my outdoor, snow-worthy powerchair and got my two-way radios working. Then Barnum and I were able to go for a few walks.

Since we’re expected to get one-and-a-half to two new feet of snow fall, in addition to the four feet we already have, I don’t think Barnum and I will be doing much “roadwork” in the next day or two. What’s a disabled trainer/handler and a service-dog-in-training to do?

Enjoy the snow, of course! Bask in the memories of our recent walks!

Here are some pictures of Barnum, the abominable adorable snow-dog, getting out and about, enjoying the snow and freezing temps. (Making use of that water-repellent, Bouvier des Flandres double coat, bred to withstand harsh conditions.)

First, I have to gear up:

Powerchair covered with cold weather gear

Snow-worthiness checked? Check. Layers to put on? Check.

[Photo description: Huge powerchair with black parka, red scarf, red hat, and tan mittens draped over the seat. A green leash, attached to the chair, is looped around the left arm rest.]

Then I have to put Barnum’s gear on him:

Barnum in orange vest on ramp surrounded by snow

I'm ready! Can we GO now, please?

[Photo description: Barnum, a furry black brindle bouvier des Flandres, stands on a black metal mesh ramp with black metal railings. He is dressed in a bright orange vest with reflective strips. He gazes into the distance. The snow on either side of the ramp reaches his elbows.]

Barnum is not so patient while I get dressed:

Can we GO yet? Ive already sampled the snow, and its delicious.

What about now? Can we go NOW? I've already sampled the snow, and its delicious.

[Photo description: Barnum stands in the doorway, looking up. His beard is encrusted with snow, and little balls and flecks of snow and ice stick to his fur on his head and body.]

Okay! I’m ready to go out in the pleasant weather (defined as, “Above 10 degrees Fahrenheit”):

Sharon bundled up for a walk in the snow

Layering for warmth! Oh, and fashion, of course. Soooo fashionable....

Sharon does her pre-flight radio instrument check

Testing, Alpha Bravo Charlie... Receiving transmission? Over.

[Photo description: In the first image, Sharon wears a self-deprecating smile as she sits in her powerchair, a leash in one gray-wool-gloved hand, a walkie-talkie in the other. She is wearing heavy gray sweatpants and a bulging black parka. She has a gray wool hat pulled down practically to her eyebrows, over which is a baby-blue sweatshirt hood. Wrapped around the hood is a huge red-and-black knit scarf. In the second, Sharon holds the two-way radio up to her mouth.]

Then off we went for our walk, which I’ve detailed in the aforementioned previous post.

But Barnum did not want to come inside. After all, it was snowing and well-below freezing, and he’d just been for a walk. Why would he want to come in?

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

First, to get the lay of the land. . . .

Branaum, King of the Hill, surveys the other direction

. . . In all directions. . . .

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

Then, when the gear came off, it was time to zoom around and play! First, run away from Mom. Then. . . .

Barnum at the very end of the snow-covered ramp, running

I think Mom called me.

Running up the ramp

I'm coming, Mom!

Barnum runs on the snowy ramp, head down

Almost there!

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

So, you called?

[Image description: Four photos of Barnum running from the very end of a long, snow-covered ramp, to a close-up of his face and shoulders, his eyes hidden by his black fall, his head tilted to the side, questioningly, and the top of his nose and his beard white with snow.]

After a treat and greet, it was off to play some more!

Barnum runs to the top of a very large "snow cliff"

Run up here!

Play bow in the deep snow

And play bow!

Barnum runs down a snow bank

And run down here!

Barnum downhill playbow with snow face

And play bow!

[Image description: Four photos of Barnum playing in the snow. First, up a high cliff of snow, a paw in the air, blurred by movement. Then doing a play-bow, his front half and muzzle invisible in the snow, his eyes just visible above it. Then running down a steep snow bank. Then another play-bow in the gully, one side of his face caked with snow.]

And then, of course, a thorough roll in the snow, with lots of face rubbing. . . .

Side of Barnums face caked with thick snow

I have a little what? Where?

Barnum standing against a backdrop of snow, his legs covered with snow, and his face, especially the muzzle and the right side, totally caked with snow and ice

Why are you laughing, Mom?

[Image descriptions: The first photo is an extreme closeup of the side of Barnum’s face, which is completely caked and matted with snow, except for his eye. The second shows Barnum’s whole body, standing sideways with head turned toward the camera. His legs are full of snow balls, and his face is caked with snow, especially around his nose, where some snow balls the size of grapes cling to his fur.]

Eventually I got cold and went inside. Finally, Barnum decided he was ready to come in, too:

Barnum sits outside the storm door, a thick layer of snow on his coat, especially his face. In the relfelction of the glass, Sharon is visible holding up the camera, taking Barnum's picture

Mom! Can you please stop taking pictures of me, and let me in?

And these photos were all taken before the latest storm!

But how can I not enjoy the snow with this funny guy at my side?

Extreme closeup of Barnum's face, side view, his brown eye peeking out from under the snow and hair

My Sweet Snowy Bouvie Boy

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (polar bouv)

P.S. Readers, I’d appreciate hearing from you whether you enjoyed this photo essay, and if I should do more. (Such as some from Barnum’s puppyhood.)

Likewise, to my blind and low-vision readers, does a photo essay hold interest for you if I include the photo descriptions, as I have above, or do you just skip this type of thing? I’m happy to get comments below, or you can contact me privately at the contact page.

Thank you!

t you that winter I felt I’d have died,

but really I’d just have missed

a few more meals, water for pills, maybe pissed

myself or spil

LTD – Possession

This is the second post in my series on Sue Ailsby’s “Leading the Dance protocol for bonding with your dog and preventing or fixing behavior issues.

Today’s focus is Number Five — “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Here are the instructions:

At least once a day, handle the dog. Repeat the words, “These are my ears! This is my paw! This is my muzzle! This is my tail!” as you handle him. If he fusses, go slower. It’s important that the dog has a positive experience – that he comes to see that you will be handling him and it’s of no concern to him. When he’s completely relaxed and accepts your handling, say OK and release him.

Like “Sing a Song,” in my previous post, this is a fun exercise. And it gets funnier when I actually do it.

I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on handling Barnum since he arrived, which has sometimes been quite work-intensive. We are still not done with handling exercises, especially where veterinarians are concerned. Barnum does not like vets. Yet.

HUGS from Sharon

I practice the "vet hold" on four-and-a-half month-old Barnum. We call this behavior, "Hugs!"

But with other people, who do not “smell like vet,” Barnum’s very good. I’ve even had strangers do the “hugs” (restraint) hold on him or pick him up in the air. (This must be done by a strong person, since Barnum weighs around 80 pounds!)

With me, and other people he knows and trusts, he enjoys handling immensely, though he’s not as fond of having his ears rubbed as Gadget was, which is too bad because Barnum’s ears are so soft and silky.

We generally do handling on the floor, because it’s easiest, and because Barnum is delighted when I get down on his level and afford him the opportunity to give my face a thorough washing. I know eventually I need to get him used to being up on tables and having me handle him from above. For now, however, we’re focusing on him being relaxed and happy to be handled, including withstanding all manner of grooming.

I’ve added grooming to our LTD protocol. It makes sense to follow up a “Possession” session with a round of grooming. Raking out mats, de-gunking his eyes and ears (he has the hairiest ears ever!), and trimming the fur between his toes (which mats terribly easily), are some of the most important areas.

Our handling “last frontier” — after relaxation with vets — is teaching Barnum to be comfortable with my fingers in his mouth. It’s not an issue of him being dangerous or biting — on the contrary, he wants nothing more than to quickly spit out any fingers that find their way in, accompanied by a facial expression I translate as “Ewwww.” My goal is greater ease in removing foreign objects he has decided not to give up (I know, that’s another training area we need to firm up), and allowing me to brush his teeth (as opposed to him treating the toothbrush like a chew toy) and give him medicine.

This last has become especially important since two days ago, when — being The Dog from Mars — Barnum decided he doesn’t like pill pockets. I have never before heard of a dog (or cat) who didn’t love any Greenies product, especially Pill Pockets. But, there it is, Mr. Picky keeps trying to outdo himself in the “I can live without food, thank you” department of dog weirdness.

He doesn’t even eat around the pill, as some dogs will do — spitting out the medicine and eating the treat. Even if I give him a fresh, empty Pill Pocket, he spits it out (as if it were a finger)! One day Pill Pockets were a tasty treat, the next day — feh!

So, I have to shove the pill to the back of his throat and hold his muzzle closed while I stroke his neck. I think he’d be more comfortable with me taking his temperature (which is done at the other end of the dog).

Fortunately, in the area of tolerance for pressure or discomfort, he has lived up to his breeder’s observations and temperament tests — very mellow. This is important because of his coat and how it must be groomed.

You see, Bouviers are hypoallergenic and don’t shed; their thick outer coat keeps loose hair from their undercoat trapped beneath. This means that to prevent mats, you have to get underneath to brush out the loose hair. It’s a lot more work than with a dog with a “normal” coat. With Jersey, brushing her out once a week was enough. With Gadget, twice a week.

With Barnum, if I don’t brush him at least every other day (now that he has his long, winter ‘do), he gets so itchy that he rubs up against the chain link fence when he goes out! He has the curliest, wiriest, thickest coat I’ve ever had to wrangle. Wrangling requires hauling undercoat rakes and mat-breakers through his fur, pulling or breaking off the dead hair. Some dogs don’t like this kind of intensive brushing but Barnum enjoys the attention and isn’t bothered by the tugging.

In the summer, primarily to make tick checking easier, as well as to reduce grooming work and to provide him relief from the heat, Betsy and I clip Barnum down. These “before” and “after” pictures show the kind of serious implements needed to groom a bouvier. . . .

Haircut "Before" Picture

Even when he still had his puppy coat, serious grooming hardware was required!

(No! Of course we don’t use hedge clippers on the dog! This was a joke. Never, ever use hedge clippers to groom your dog! Very dangerous! Use appropriate dog-grooming tools.)

Haircut "after" picture

Voila! The finished product! Hard to believe we're not professionals, huh? What do you mean, "Scrawny and uneven"?

Back to LTD’s “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” The first night I was performing this little ritual, Betsy walked in on me.

There I sat on the floor, groping Barnum, whose tail was wagging happily. “This is my right foot!” I proclaimed, as I held up Barnum’s right forepaw. “I own this right foot!”

Then I moved on to his ear. “This is my right ear! I own this right ear!”

Betsy looked at me as if my cheese had slipped off my cracker. “Why are you saying those are your ears?” She asked.

“It’s part of Leading the Dance,” I said, and continued. “This is my right elbow!” I grasped Barnum’s elbow and talked in a silly voice to him, gently moving his elbow as I chanted. “I own this right elbow! I can do anything I want with this elbow!”

Because she had asked, I tried to give Betsy an explanation of why this exercise is part of “Leading the Dance.” I was vague, though, because while I knew intuitively why it was useful, I had a hard time articulating it. In some ways, it reminds me of my days as a self-defense instructor.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you? I’ll explain.

It seems to me that there are two important aspects to this “Possession” exercise. One is physical, the other, mental.

The physical, hands-on part ensures that you handle your dog all over, at least once a day. This helps build trust and bonding by making the dog comfortable and happy being handled. That’s pretty straightforward.

The mental part is saying, “This is my ear! This is my muzzle!” etc. It is not a mental exercise for the dog, but for the human. These are a form of “affirmations” — declaring something to be true in order to make it true. Affirmations, at their best, can use your intentional thoughts to create or change an internal or external reality. Thus, they have the potential to be incredibly powerful and empowering, even transformative.[1]

I experienced this transformative power when I was in college (twenty-something years ago), when I took a self-defense course. Near the beginning of the course, we were learning about assertiveness. Part of this involved practice in walking and talking like a person who was aware, in control, and centered. In other words, someone less likely to be perceived as an easy victim.

The instructor led us through three types of visualizations. The first two exercises — focusing on my breath or envisioning a powerful light emanating from my center of gravity — didn’t work for me. The last suggestion was to come up with a word or phrase that made us feel strong and centered — an affirmation, in other words — and repeat it (silently) to ourselves.

First we practiced them, standing still, eyes closed. Then we walked around, continuing our focus.

Like most (all?) young women, by that time I had experienced a fair amount of sexual harassment. Examples included stalking, a rape threat from a (former) boyfriend, being chased by a stranger on the street, and other words and actions by men (and a small number of women) that created a sense that my body was not my own.

However, the main reason I took the class — the greatest cause of my feeling of vulnerability — was that, as one of the few out queers on campus, I’d experienced quite a bit of gay bashing. This ranged from verbal assaults, such as being called a “lezzy” (among many other things) and having a science professor tell me I was a “genetic aberration,” to physical ones, including having rocks thrown at me and a piece of cement hurled through my window.

Therefore, I did not feel safe walking around school or town. Further, some part of me believed that I did not have as much right as anyone else to be who I was or do what I wanted. Though I would have vociferously denied it if asked directly, the message had sunk in that anywhere I went in public, I was asking for abuse, simply by my presence.

I tried on a lot of the positive affirmations suggested by the self-defense instructor, such as, “I am safe,” or “I am at home in my body,” or “I can take care of myself.” None got to the kernel for me. They left me feeling weaker.

I thought about how I wanted to feel when I walked on campus or in the city, how I wanted to feel that I owned public space like anyone else. What popped into my head was, “My fucking street. My fucking sidewalk. My fucking world.” Yeah, I was a little different.

Our homework was to practice our chosen method for the next week as we moved between classes or walked home from a party at night or rode the subway. My posture, my attitude, the way I walked, all changed — forever. I carried with me into my future the knowledge that I had just as much right to be wherever I was as anyone else — definitely a blessing when I became disabled a few years later.

I continued to study various martial arts and became a self-defense teacher, myself. I taught these same visualizations and affirmations to my students (though I did not offer my “affirmation” as a suggestion to the students). It was a joy to witness each student changing how they held themselves as they simply walked in a circle in our classroom, focused on their breath or chosen words or imagery.

So what does this have to do with dog training?

In my opinion, when handling your dog — if you have a good and safe relationship with your dog, full of mutual love, trust, and respect, you can more fully embody the belief that no part of your dog’s body is off-limits to you. You are letting him — and more importantly, yourself — know that you can approach him for pilling, nail-trimming, or brushing of teeth or coat, with quiet, loving assurance.[2]

Dogs respond to this. Canine interaction is much more about body language, non-spoken cues, than it is about vocalizing. They will pick up on our calm, benevolent intentionality.

Humans, on the other hand, tend to be blatherers (of which I am a shining example!). Therefore, giving us something to say while we do this exercise makes us more comfortable. Indeed, how can we help but feel a little silly saying, “This is my muzzle!” as we stroke our dog’s nose? This silliness comes through in our tone and pitch and the way we touch our dogs, creating a fun experience for them, too.

Practicing “whole dog body” possession can sound and look even funnier still. For one thing, Betsy and I name Barnum’s body parts as we handle them — we’ve been doing this for months based on a tip from a sister SDiT trainer. This has helped Barnum a lot with confidence in being handled, particularly by veterinarians and vet techs, because he knows what part is going to be manipulated — or that he can offer — ahead of time.

This planned-in silliness, combined with my tendencies for perfectionism and improvisation, leads to some rather odd pronouncements. To whit, Betsy not only witnessed me saying, “This is my left hock! I own this left hock!” and “I own this tail! I can do anything I want to with this tail!” But, also, “This is my left England!”

You don’t know that one? Betsy does.

When Gadget had an episode of weakness that might have been related to heart damage from chemotherapy, the vet told me I should monitor his pulse. When I taught Betsy how to take Gadget’s pulse, I showed her where to put her fingers: “the inguinal area,” or inner thigh.

What I didn’t realize until many months later was that Betsy thought I’d said, “the Englandal area.” Eventually we realized we were saying different words, and it became a joke. We now refer to Barnum’s inner thighs as “England.” (I won’t tell you which parts are assigned to other nations in the European Union.) Like most relaxed, trusting dogs, Barnum enjoys having “England” rubbed, so I make sure to do that.

Barnum Rolling in the Grass (7 months)

Barnum shows off his appreciation of the UK.

You know what’s coming next, don’t you? . . . After all, I’m required to handle the whole dog.

I worked my way around his underside — armpits (scratch, scratch), ribs and belly (rub, rub) and then. . . . “This is my penis!” I said.

Betsy just shook her head. “That’s disturbing,” she said.

Being a dog, however, Barnum didn’t care. Just like he doesn’t care when I trim the hair in that area that’s matted with urine. After all, it’s not like I’m up at his mouth, trying to rub his gums with my fingers or get him to eat a (disgusting) Pill Pocket. Perhaps I should tell him to just lie back and think of England.

-Sharon, Barnum, and the muse of Gadget

Your comments are welcome, as always!


[1.] Caution! Affirmations have their limits. Most of the time, when I read or hear about the use of affirmations, it is in the context of our American obsession with the idea that we can control our lives by “thinking positive thoughts.” This form of New Age thinking has been a scourge on the disability community.

Specifically, it is very popular for  people (usually those who are not seriously or chronically ill or disabled) to tell others who are seriously or chronically ill or disabled to use affirmations to “heal” or cure ourselves. Such suggestions are intrusive, ridiculous (because if affirmations worked to cure all serious illness, nobody would be chronically or terminally ill, would they?), and at their root, victim-blaming (because they imply that we do have control over our bodies, so if we fail to recover from injury or illness, it is our fault). I drew an extremely popular cartoon on this topic, in fact.

Affirmations are empowering when used to change one’s perspective or other circumstances that one can control. They are disempowering when proposed as solutions for circumstances one cannot control, such as curing one’s disability. Back to post.

[2.] Please note that this is only true if you do actually have a mutually safe, trusting relationship. The full “Possession” instructions from LTD include this warning: “If your dog won’t allow you to handle him like this without getting angry or getting away, DO NOT do this exercise. Do the rest of the exercises and use the clicker to teach the dog to allow this handling later.” Back to post.

QuickPress: Conversation with Doc Truli

Recently, my favorite online veterinarian, VirtuaVet (aka Doc Truli), wrote a blog post on How to Cover a Leg Sore on a Dog.

She focuses on preventing further licking and chewing of lick granulomas and offers a terrific solution for making a wrap to cover the legs.

I asked in the comments section what the material she suggested is made of, if behavioral modification could help prevent licking, and if she had ideas for keep an injured paw clean and dry.

She offered a terrific solution of using plastic IV bags (which I happen to own) as a sturdy paw-covering to keep the foot dry for outdoor walks and romping. If I had but known this a few weeks ago! (Scroll down to her comments in this post.)

This led to a discussion of stress behaviors in assistance dogs and why I continue to choose Bouviers as my service-dog-breed-of-choice. (Hint: They see a major part of their job as holding down the floor — or bed.)

Jersey in futon

Jersey "at work" inside her favorite futon.

We fell asleep together

Gadget "at work," making sure I get my rest.

Gadget on white sheet on bed

Barnum, still in training, carries on the grueling tradition.

She replied with some interesting studies on scent-detection dogs’ behavior with positive reinforcement versus harsh corrections.

In other words, we covered a lot of ground! (Good thing our paws aren’t sore.)

I thought the information might be of interest to readers of After Gadget. I’m also curious about your experience and opinions on stress-related behaviors in working dogs. Have your assistance dogs exhibited signs of work stress? How do you prevent stress-related health issues or burnout/washout? What do you think about what Doc Truli and I said about different types of training methods affecting performance?

Please comment! (I do read every single one, right away; lately I’ve been too sick and overwhelmed to reply quickly, but I value your comments immensely.)

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (aka “Pause or Fast-Forward Boy”)

My Sweet Jersey Girl

This post is for Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #1. The theme for this issue of the carnival is “The First.”

* * *

If you sometimes follow After Gadget, you might think that Gadget was my first service dog (SD), and that Barnum is my first successor. In fact, Gadget was once a successor, and Barnum is my third SDiT. What a disservice to the original predecessor, the one who started it all — my first SD, my sweet Jersey girl.

Before Barnum, before Gadget, there was Jersey. She was the first dog I acquired as an adult. She was my first bouvier des Flandres. She was the first dog I trained to be my assistant. This blog is dedicated to her legacy, especially what she taught me — and is still teaching me, even now, by reminding me of our training process — about patience. That goals have to be reached slowly, with the dog’s needs and timelines as the roadmap, not some arbitrary idea of what I “should” be accomplishing because someone else’s dog figured it much faster.

This blog is nothing if not a reminder to me about how, by starting with low expectations and repeatedly setting us both up to succeed, I was able to give Jersey what she needed to be my teammate. She taught me that.

Jersey in profile

My Sweet Jersey Girl

From 1999 through 2000, I wrote a series of articles about Jersey for Rescue Roundup, the newsletter of the American Bouvier Rescue League (ABRL). I decided that the words I wrote about Jersey when she was still with me, and when so much was fresh and new about SD training, would carry a much greater impact than what I’d write now, dimmed by hindsight.

There’s too much to cover in one post — it was a four-part series! — so this post will just cover the beginning of our relationship. Many seminal firsts — the first time I went grocery shopping without human assistance, the first time I realized Jersey was important to my safety, the first time she learned to fetch (which also led to her first retrieving service skills and her first realization that toys could be fun), and the first time we tried clicker training (which took place a year after the first article was written) — occurred later on and were described in later issues of Rescue Roundup. This post focuses on the firsts of Jersey’s arrival and beginning training, and an event that most dog owners probably take for granted, but that I had fantasized about for years: going for a walk.

Here are excerpts of the piece I wrote for Rescue Roundup, Winter 1999:

. . . During these years of extreme isolation and illness, I formed a plan: I would move from the city to the country, buy a mobility scooter so that I would be able to get around more and to walk a dog, and then get the dog.

Eventually I found a little house in a rural town, moved, and acquired a scooter. I fantasized about walking my dog the three-quarters of a mile to my mailbox in my scooter, enjoying the scenery and the companionship. . . .

I began researching hypoallergenic breeds. I started also to learn about assistance dogs. . . . The more I thought about it, the more I felt that a service dog could help me to lead a fuller, safer, more independent life.

Bouviers seemed an ideal choice: they had been bred as working dogs, were strong and rugged, and tended to bond well with their human pack members.

I researched service dog programs and discovered that most were totally inaccessible to me. . . . One program that [otherwise] seemed a good match was very expensive ($20,000) and was reluctant to even consider a bouvier, telling me they were “snippy attack dogs,” but I applied anyway resigned to getting a different breed. The program rejected my application.

I had also been making connections in the bouvier world — applying to Bouvier Rescue, meeting bouvier owners, and searching the Internet for other people with disabilities who had bouviers as service dogs. I decided that I could train my own service bouv.

While almost everyone seemed to agree that a bouvier could make a fine service dog, very few of the people I spoke to seemed to think that I could train one. Bouvier trainers and breeders told me that bouviers were stubborn, strong, and hard to manage, and I would need professional assistance. Many questioned whether I ought to be considering getting a bouvier at all, even as a pet. Service dog handlers told me that training a service dog is difficult and requires expertise — I should apply to a program. I called trainers to see if they would help me private train; they said that they didn’t do service-dog training.

Sometimes it was hard to tell what these “dog people” were really thinking when they gave me confusing, conflicting, and often discouraging advice. I believe some simply saw a disabled young woman and dismissed me. I was not their image of a person who could train a strong-willed breed to perform complex tasks. And, I admit, I wondered frequently if they were right. . . . There were days when it was more than I could manage just to feed myself, many more when showering or dressing was beyond me. The prospect of being responsible for exercising, pottying, feeding, and grooming a dog was terrifying enough. Where would the energy and expertise to train come from?

I spoke frequently with Bouvier Rescue. I was encouraged to focus on finding the right bouvier as a companion to me. Later on, if it worked out, I could think about getting another bouv to train as a service dog. With a mixture of excitement and resignation, I gave up on my service dog dream and prepared to welcome my new companion.

In March of 1999, she arrived: Jersey, a five-and-a-half-year-old bouv girl who was being rehomed by her breeders. She was beautiful, 65 pounds, with cropped ears and a docked tail, and a black coat. Jersey had been shown in conformation and lived primarily in the kennel.

She was very mellow and sweet, a good “starter bouv” for a person like me who spent almost all her time at home and wanted an easygoing, good-natured companion to lie around by her side.

The first few days with Jersey were wonderful and horrible. She was sweet, friendly, adorable, and easy to handle, but she was also big, clumsy, and scared of everything. It hadn’t occurred to me that every chair, table, and oxygen tank would be targets for her to bump into and knock over, causing her to skitter, panic-stricken from the room. Any sudden movement or raised voice made her cringe or flee.

Meanwhile, I made a decision: I was going to start training Jersey right away in obedience. It would be a good way for us to bond and gain some much-needed confidence, aside from being useful, since the only command that she appeared to know when she arrived was “kennel.” If it went well, we would continue and try some service skills. If we failed, then we would not be any worse off.

I joined an email list for people with disabilities who had trained (or were training) their own assistance dogs (ADs). More than anything else, I feel that the support, encouragement, guidance, advice, and experience of other people training ADs has made it possible for Jersey and me to be where we are today. There was so much against us — Jersey’s age, my inexperience, my inability to hire a private trainer, Jersey’s low drive and skittish temperament — and yet these other disabled folks kept giving me reasons why we could succeed. And, they provided inspiration (examples of people who had done it themselves), which is more reassuring than any words.

The first command we approached was “attention.” I would make a clicking sound with my tongue, and when Jersey looked at me I would praise her and give her a treat. I also praised and rewarded her any time she looked at me on her own. Jersey is very motivated by food. It took only a few days before Jersey spent almost all her time staring at me.* I felt like a human gum-ball machine, dispensing kibble and praise all day long. It was exhausting! Sometimes I went in my room or put her in her crate, just so I could take a break without discouraging the behavior.

Jersey inside a futon

Jersey gives The Stare even from inside a folded futon.

*Something dawned on me in the writing of this post: Jersey was a silent dog. She never barked or growled, except in her sleep. Her main mode of communication was The Stare. If she wanted something — attention, to go outside, food (especially food!) — she would sit and stare at me. If something or someone got in the way of her “stare beam,” she would move around them so that she could level her gaze at me, unblocked. It was only when I was reading these old articles and remembering that the first thing I taught her was “attention” and how good she got at it, that it occurred to me that maybe she hadn’t always been a silent dog, but that The Stare was a result of our training. She learned early on how to train me to give her treats by staring at me, and if it worked then, why not continue it the rest of her life? After all, it was 100 percent reliable: Every night she stared at me to remind me to feed her dinner, and every night — no matter how long it took for me to get the hint — I fed her!

Positive-reinforcement training can have a wondrous impact on a dog, especially a “soft” dog or rescued dog. Jersey is a perfect example of a dog that would have been very slow and difficult to train with compulsion (command-correction-praise) training, not to mention the effect it would have had on her psychologically. In the beginning, even the gentlest chain correction or stern tone made her jump out of her skin. It was simply counterproductive to use them. Additionally, as astounding as this may seem, Jersey did not seem to understand praise. I had never been around a dog before that did not understand that a high-pitched, happy voice meant praise. Yet, for our first couple of months together, I could praise Jersey until I was blue in the face and get no  response — no wagging tail, no interested expression, nothing. It was only after weeks of her associating praise with receiving a treat that she began to understand the meaning of praise and respond with pleasure when I praised.

Further, using positive-reinforcement training made a remarkable change in her personality. She gained confidence. She began to take an interest in her surroundings. She learned that she could follow a command and be rewarded. I afforded her little opportunity for failure, so we both felt proud of ourselves and had fun. It was fascinating, and often comical, to come to understand her learning process, especially in the beginning, when she was still learning how to learn. After she was reliably looking at me on command, in any situation and with distractions, we started on “sit.” We’d been working on “sit” for a few days when I noticed that she would frequently run up to me — while I was going to the bathroom, making dinner, watching TV, or otherwise not training her — and proudly and excitedly sit down in front of me, awaiting her reward.

Our biggest priority, aside from getting to know each other and beginning the rudiments of training, was to get her to walk next to me in the scooter. Since Jersey arrived in March, when there was still snow on the ground, my roommate, Laurel (who would move out in the summer), had agreed to take Jersey for her walks until the snow melted and I could use the scooter. However, knowing how freaky Jersey got around things that moved or made noise, I was sure that the scooter, which moved and made noise, would take some hard work to get used to. Thus, we began to work on Jersey attaining three crucial goals: building a positive association with the scooter, learning “heel,” and leaning “back up.”

Teaching “heel” was relatively easy as Jersey was very nice on the leash, especially with me. According to Laurel, Jersey felt fine about yanking her around! At any rate, I was able to get Jersey heeling in the traditional way, with me walking, with daily short sessions.

At other times of the day, I took Jersey down to the basement and talked happily and excitedly to the scooter. I dropped treats on it. I sat in the scooter and praised Jersey and fed her treats. Once Jersey knew some commands (“attention” and “sit”), we would train there, with me sitting in the scooter to give Jersey the idea that she could feel confident and get rewards while I was in the scooter, plus that the scooter was a place where commands were given and obeyed. Finally, I felt confident enough to start the scooter’s control device — not moving the scooter, but just getting Jersey used to the sound of the machine. It all went off without a hitch.

Meanwhile, I had also been teaching “back up.” The reason this was important is that my scooter is very large and has a wide turning radius. There are times I need to back up, and I wanted jersey to know how to do that with me. Teaching back up was easy. I would stand with her in the narrow aisle between her crate and the wall and slowly move toward her, saying “back up” and moving my hands in a “shoo-shoo” way. As soon as she took a step backward, I praised and gave a treat. Over time she learned to back up farther and in other places.

Sharon, Jersey, and Gadget

My big-ass, four-wheel scooter, Jersey sitting next to me. (At the time of this photo, Gadget had entered the picture, too.)

By the time I was ready to move the scooter, Jersey was already learning heel and back up. I started first just by rocking back and forth in the scooter, with the engine off, praising and giving treats. I would jiggle the basket noisily so she could get used to the noises it made without the added element of movement. She was cool as a cucumber. Then, I had Laurel hold Jersey a distance away while I used the scooter so Jersey could see me using it, but not feel threatened. I was so excited and please the first time we did this and Jersey tried to run after me! A lump formed in my throat.

From there it was a matter of slowly and carefully building up Jersey’s positive association with the scooter and using the commands “heel” and “backup” in relation to the scooter. Everything went great, and I became overconfident. On the first warm day when the snow had melted enough to leave some bare patches of grass, I tried to take Jersey out with the scooter. The bumping and jangling of the scooter and its basket over the rough ground, so different from the gentle whirring as it glided over the smooth concrete in the basement, totally freaked her out. She would not heel! She wouldn’t even come near me! She pulled at the leash and panicked at the scooter’s movement and noise.

I felt devastated. I wondered if I had ruined my chances of ever taking Jersey for a walk. But, with some thought, and encouragement from my online friends, I realized that if I took a few steps back and built up very, very slowly, we might regain the lost ground and even move forward.

I had to go back to sitting on the inert scooter, giving out extra treats, conducting extra training. Additionally, I realized I had neglected to introduce Jersey to the makeshift ramp which I used to exit the basement, a sheet of plywood that banged when I went over it. We spent many sessions of her getting praise and treats for stepping on the ramp. I also gave her more opportunities to see me use the scooter away from her.

When we were ready to test out her scooter-worthiness again, I had learned my lesson. I had Laurel walk Jersey several paces behind me as I went across the lawn and rocky dirt driveway. When we got to the smooth pavement of my landlord’s driveway, Laurel went home and Jersey and I worked there for half an hour until Laurel came back to take Jersey home. I did this a few times, and each time as Laurel walked her ahead or behind me, Jersey would strain at the leash, trying to get to me. This was very encouraging. Following Jersey’s lead, I would let her walk with me part of the way, giving her lots of loose leash so she could keep her distance, but still be by my side.

I remember the first day I took Jersey for a real walk. I asked Laurel to come along because I wasn’t sure how it would go. Would Jersey suddenly freak out and not want to walk with me? Would the scooter make it all the way to the mailbox and back, or would it die halfway up my landlord’s devastatingly steep driveway?

None of the above! Jersey, Laurel, and I had a perfectly nice walk. (We even saw an otter!) True, Jersey was a bit skittish when I went over big bumps or when pebbles spat out of my back wheels. She kept a safe distance from the scooter and needed encouragement to keep a good pace. But I was elated! We did it! we walked all the way there and back. I held the leash. The scooter made it up the driveway with no problem. Jersey seemed happy, if a little cautious, but definitely glad to be out moving with me for the first time. And, I thought, this is it. This is the beginning. Now I can walk my dog!

I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me. And enjoy the other pieces in the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival!

As always, we welcome your comments!

-Sharon, Barnum, and the muses of Jersey AND Gadget

Eye Lock Day 10 + Vote for Gadg & Barnum! + New Service Skill?…

If you’re seeking info on the upcoming Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, please visit this earlier blog.

Today and yesterday I’ve been quite ill and migrainal almost all the time, so not much got done. However, I have managed to squeeze in some training here and there with Mr. Barnum.

Suddenly, we’re making Big Progress with eye contact, and I can now get us to 10 seconds pretty fast AND (drum roll, please) I have started to introduce our verbal cue (again). My voice hasn’t been working much the last couple days, so I’ve actually been whispering the cue, and I think that has made it less distracting for Mr. B.

We continue to work on our LLW, working walk, and stand-stay, which are the other skills we need to pass Level 2, as well as incorporating more zen, sit- and down-stays, etc. Two interesting new developments:

1. Barnum wants to train more now — more often — and seems more interested in offering behaviors and shaping. He seems to be gaining confidence and not feeling quite so much need to wait for me to tell him what to do. I’m trying to be patient and wait him out, make him think for himself. Sometimes when he seems to be cruising along and I think he really knows what we’re doing, he will suddenly go into “deflated” mode and — after offering a sit or stare — will just lie down and wait. Then I wait for something clickable. Or eventually I give him something else to do to move him around, like a hand target, and wait for an accidental behavior to click.

2. Today, pretty much by accident (looooong story), Betsy ended up taking Barnum for an extremely long run/walk (because I was too sick to walk him), and when he got home, instead of being tired, he was begging for training! Further support for my theory that maturity, hunger/growth spurts, and more exercise makes him more eager to train. I am taking advantage of that as much as possible! I hope I bounce back from this crash lately so I can give him more exercise again.

In fact, we have started working on our first real service skill! It’s an easy one, and one I feel relaxed about, so we can just have fun and go at our own pace. I’m very excited about how well it’s going! I’m actually starting to consider him a service dog in training (SDiT), as opposed to a “hopefully-maybe-potential SDiT candidate”!

Please Vote for Barnum and Gadget in the Dogster Photo Contests!

Please vote for my boys! It’s fast, easy and fun. Just click on the links/logos or the three pics below to take you to each of their pages. (Barnum has two pages because of a technical glitch, Gadget has one.)

Here is Barnum’s entry for “Smiles and Grins.”

Vote for Barnum in the World’s Coolest Dog Contest.

dog photo contest

Clicking on the pic above will also take you to Barnum’s entries for “Ball or Frisbee Player”; “Naughtiest Dog”; “Sleeper”; and “Jumper.”

VOTE for Barnum in The 6th Annual World’s Coolest Dog & Cat Show!

Here’s Barnum’s entry for “Tongue/Slobber”:

Please vote for Me at The 6th Annual World’s Coolest Dog & Cat Show

Here’s Gadget’s entry for “Working Dog.”

Please vote for Me at The 6th Annual World’s Coolest Dog & Cat Show

Clicking on Gadget’s pic above will also take you to Gadget’s pic for “Car Dog”; “Water Dog”; “Patriot”; and “Costume.”

VOTE for Gadget in The 6th Annual World’s Coolest Dog & Cat Show!

Thank you!

Sharon, Barnum (SDiT??) and the muse of Gadget

When Life Gives You . . . Melon Heads?

I know I’m not supposed to think this, let alone write it on a public blog, but, as Michael Kors likes to say, “Let’s be honest.” Barnum is not as smart as Gadget.

(Don’t hang me out to dry! Read to the end, please!)

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe when Barnum gets older, he’ll surprise me. Maybe it’s because of all the training mistakes I’ve made. Regardless, Gadget was 12 months’ old when I adopted him, and Barnum is now eight months, and the distinctions become more and more stark with each passing week. These two dogs really couldn’t be more different.

There are many kinds of intelligence, so I’ll get specific.  I’m talking about doggy “school smarts”: trying to figure out what the trainer/handler wants from you, having the confidence to try out behaviors (and make mistakes), a gusto for training (assisted by a gusto for food), and a general ability to problem solve in everyday life. In all but the first category, Gadget leaves Barnum in the dust. (Barnum, however, is so anxious to give me what I’m looking for in training situations that he actually can easily become anxious and frustrated; he wants desperately to succeed, and is vociferous if he feels confused. He also is incredibly sensitive to unintentional cues, which means he’s super tuned in to me and body language. This makes some aspects of training much easier, and a lot of it much harder. All of which is making me into a better trainer — goddamnit!)

Barnum doesn’t intuitively grasp how to do what I used to think were basic doggy skills — until my first Bouvier des Flandres, Jersey, showed an astonishing lack of them. I attributed that to her not having had a very enriching first half of her life, but now I wonder if it had more to do with nature than nurture. For example, I’ve had to teach Barnum how to nudge open a door with his nose if he wants to get to the other side and how to use his paws to get at a treat inside his crate or behind an easily movable object. He hasn’t yet figured out that just by his sheer mass, he can move the (very lightweight, and thanks to his frequent full-body blows, very flimsy) screen door as he brushes against it. Instead, he waits for me to hold it open for him. If it’s partially closed, or swinging shut, he’s afraid of it hitting him. On the other paw, now that he’s learned he can nudge open other doors that are partially closed, he tries to open totally shut, latched doors (by pawing at them). And he doesn’t give up when the door doesn’t budge. Let’s be honest: he hasn’t yet connected all the dots.

Contrast this with Gadget, who, on our “gotcha day” drive home, pulled my sleeping bag out of the cardboard box in the back of my van, pawed and nosed it into the perfect nest, then curled up in it for a nap. That one act (rather, that series of complex behaviors to reach a goal he’d conceptualized from the outset), convinced me that Gadget was gifted, a natural-born problem-solver. (It’s also another example discrediting the assertion that dogs don’t think abstractly.)

I expected Barnum to become that kind of thinker. I figured if I started off with a promising puppy and did lots of clicker training from the beginning, lots of mental enrichment, I’d have a prodigy — an even more inventive dog than Gadget. But, as so many other parents have learned, babies — regardless of species — come with their own personalities.

Gadget learned cues and behaviors four or five times faster than Barnum does. In one of our first training sessions, he learned how to shut a door — in three-minutes. I had to stop teaching Barnum to shut a door because the sound and movement of the door closing frightened him (even though in general he is actually much less fearful than Gadget was). I train from one to four hours per day with Barnum, in several sessions, with breaks. We probably average about two hours a day total. I’m putting in far more work and getting much slower results than I expected, and certainly less than I got with Gadget. On the other paw, I’m also trying to build a much stronger foundation and not cut corners, like I did too often with Gadget. I’m holding on to hope that all this training now will pay off in more solid, reliable, and eager work in the future. (Please, please, please, Training Levels, let me live up to my expectations!)

Maybe it’s not so much a matter of intelligence. Maybe it’s youth and other interests. Specifically, Barnum has the distraction threshold of a paper bag because everything (except me and food) is so unbelievably compelling. He is so distractible that I can’t get him to move out of my way on the ramp once he’s crossed the threshold of the door, because he is arrested by looking at the gravel — every single time. We go out the door multiple times a day, every day, but the gravel never loses its fascinating appeal.

Gadget had his passions, and beyond them, he didn’t bother himself. Gadget loved to run and run and run, to train and learn, to eat, to chase (squirrels, cats, big game like bears and deer, and at the end of his life, pick-up trucks), to play with other dogs (if it involved running and chasing) and that was mostly it. The fact that one of his biggest passions was training (in part because he was so food driven) tends to overshadow the others. He loved me and the few other people in his family pack, in that quiet, aloof, dignified way Bouviers have, and he was protective of our home. He had no use for other people, which is also very Bouvy. He didn’t have much interest in play. He’d retrieve a ball a few times to humor me, and in return, I’d dole out some treats. (Yes, I was bribing him to play with me. It was totally not clicker training. I had to show the treats before he’d go for the ball.) He made it clear that he’d much rather be problem-solving — how to open a different kind of door or retrieve a new object or sniff out a stuffed Kong I’d hidden in a diabolically difficult place. He loved shaping, the ultimate form of puzzle-solving for a dog communicating with their handler via clicker. He loved to think, and he loved to earn his food.

And now here’s Barnum: The only dog I’ve ever had who leaves food in his dish. He doesn’t like peanut butter. (What dog doesn’t like peanut butter??) He’s not so into Kongs unless they’re packed solid with raw meat or cottage cheese, and even then, he often leaves them after a few licks. His attitude toward food can be summed up in one word: “Meh.” Of course, a dog’s gotta eat, and yes, if he’s starving or there’s nothing to distract him (and I mean nothing — no sounds, movements, smells at all), then it’s worth working for food.

Nonetheless, thanks to the magic of clicker training, he is much more interested in treats than he used to be. The power of earning the food, of training me to feed him, lends a higher value to all earned food. But he still only works for good treats. He spits out kibble if he knows I have something better. He even lets his favorite food (cheese) fall out of his mouth if his focus is elsewhere. I could hold a steak in front of him, and he’d duck around it to continue stalking a grasshopper (which, if he caught it, he would eat). I’m absolutely not exaggerating. He really would ignore the steak. He also often prefers to eat sticks and rocks to meat or other delectables.

More differences: He’s the first dog I’ve had who is happy to entertain himself, who actually likes being in the yard finding his own amusements, and doesn’t need to follow me around wherever I go (though he does keep an eye on me). It goes without saying that he loves to dig, and to destroy plants and shrubs by digging them up. So now we have a massive, ugly fence around our garden. Digging is new to me, too.

We named Barnum after the circus because he early showed his acrobatic tendencies. (I still need to post the story of how he got his name. Sorry, readers!) But it’s become more apt due to his clownishness, as well. For instance, he is entranced by watching his reflection in the glass doors. He doesn’t just stand there looking. He jumps up and down on his hind legs, catching serious air, watching himself bounce. He barks at himself. He gets a ball and holds it in his mouth as he jumps up and down. He runs back and forth between the doors, watching himself speed by. Barnum knows he is looking at himself, not at another dog. For one thing, he often watches me or makes eye contact with me in the reflection, using it as a mirror.

“What’s up Mom? Watch me!” (Grabs ball, bounces up and down, drops ball, barks, grabs ball and runs, skids, returns to original glass door, bounces more — all the while making eye contact with me through the glass.)

Here’s a short video of Barnum jumping and barking in front of the doors. Please note that usually he does less barking and much more — and higher! — bouncing. But it was late, and he was tired. I’d also recently started teaching him to bark on cue, so he was feeling quite barky. (We hadn’t established the cue yet, just the behavior.) I didn’t caption the video, because there’s no talking. Read the text description here. Access note: I sometimes tilted the camera sideways, so part of the video’s sideways, which might be symptom-inducing for some. (This includes me. I’ll know not to do that in the future.)

In fact, the first time I put a pack on Barnum to get him used to gear, he showed a Tim Gunn-esque sensibility. Once he felt comfortable in the pack (mostly, he still hates gear), he trotted over to the glass and checked himself out! He actually turned his head this way and that to get more angles. “Oh yeah, I’m a dude.”

Unless it’s hot (another difference — Barnum detests the heat, loves the snow and cold), he wants to be playing all the time. His signature move is to roll onto his back, all feet in the air, and swing his head to look at the nearest person, practically shouting, “Rub my belly! Lavish me with affection!”

Barnum Rolling in the Grass (7 months)

Barnum, at seven months, very much the playful puppy.

He even sleeps in “dead bug position” — a very relaxed, happy guy.

In fact, I think he’s actually a more well-rounded dog than Gadget was. He knows more different styles of play than Gadget did and plays better with a wider range of dogs. He has broader interests: he doesn’t limit himself to only squirrels or prey that’s turkey size or bigger, like Gadget did. Barnum will stalk and chase anything that moves, literally: bugs, song birds, laser dots, balls, toys, leaves blowing in the wind. (Oh, how he loves the wind.)

Jersey hated the van, and Gadget barely tolerated it. Barnum loves to go for rides, sniffing the air out the window and looking over the dashboard to take in the world going by. When we arrive anywhere, he is excited! Who knows what smells and sights and sounds await? Thrilling! Gadget and Jersey had to counterconditioned to numerous phobias. I’ve yet to expose Barnum to a strange noise he’s afraid of; chainsaws, airplanes, amplified live music are all just fine. The usual bugaboos for many dogs — skateboards, bicycles, grocery carts — don’t freak him out, either.

The biggest difference is that Gadget was cerebral, while Barnum is a love. A sweet, gooey, tender boy.

The telltale (pun!) sign is — no surprise — Barnum’s tail. Unless he’s concentrating hard on something (such as a moth), that tail can start wagging at any moment. I’ve never seen a Bouvier tail that wagged so much, even in videos of Bouvs excitedly working Schutzhund or herding. It wags fast. If I praise him, he curls his body with pleasure, dropping his ears and head, and wagging very fast. He will come over to me, and his little stubby tail is wagging so hard that his whole rear half is swaying to keep up. He’ll throw his head against me and press into me, and while I pet him, he wags ferociously. He shows such pure joy at receiving any kindness — praise, petting, chattering. Sometimes, he prefers praise to food, which is hard for training, but very endearing.

He is a believer in kisses. Lots and lots of kisses. On my lips, on my ears, on my nose. Anyone who gets on the floor in this house is in danger of getting French kissed or their ears cleaned or both.

Barnum at 5 months kissing Sharon on bed

He doesn’t reserve his love for family, either. It’s true that as he ages, he is getting more of the Bouvier aloofness with non-family, but he still rushes to greet anyone he sees (just lately, with a nose in their crotch) — whether they want to have anything to do with him or not. When big, strange men come into our house, he doesn’t even bark! He waggles over for some petting.

In other words, when he’s not aggravating the crap out of me by chewing everything he can find or staring at (seemingly) nothing when I want his attention, he’s enormous fun. In general what he lacks in focus, he makes up for in enthusiasm. However, when he’s playing, he is all focus and all enthusiasm. He thinks tug is the most marvelous game in the world, and fetch and balls and stuffed squeaky toys are great, too. Oh my goodness, yes — especially plush squeaky toys. He loves to tear them to pieces to extract and chew on the squeaker. While Jersey’s and Gadget’s toys lasted their whole lives, Barnum has already destroyed almost all of their toys as well as his own. I recently bought a bunch of stuffed animals at a garage sale for 25 cents each, just so I could let him dismember something for cheap.

Most of all, he’s a wonderful playmate, which I desperately need. I have few human friends these days. Indeed, because he requires a lot of heavy-duty play, Barnum is my best form of physical and occupational therapy: throwing and tugging, throwing and tugging, throwing and tugging. His favorite game is for me to hold up a toy and tell him “Get it!” so he can leap into the air and grab it, then we tussle over it. I ask him to release it, he does, I throw it, he brings it back, and we tug some more. It’s a serious workout. (Thank god for pain killers.) It’s also hilarious, joyful, and life-affirming. He makes me laugh more than any other dog I’ve ever had.

I don’t know if Barnum is the perfect service-dog candidate. Only time will tell. Lots and lots of time and effort; lots and lots of working and training. We are so far behind where I thought we’d be at this stage, I just try to focus on the little victories; otherwise despair can creep in. When I see the big picture of how far we still have to go, it’s a bit nauseating.

Yet, when Barnum wiggles up to me, cuddly and tail-wagging, a toy in his mouth he wants me to tug, and then just hearing my voice, he wags his tail faster, I rub his ears and my frustration disappears. He is clearly the perfect candidate for one job: mending a broken heart. Thank god he’s already on the job.

I miss you, Gadget.

Thank you, Barnum.



We always welcome your comments!

Level 2 Tests, Part 2

Here are more Training Levels tests videos! By now it’s been three weeks since we made these, and we are still practicing and refining the skills at these levels, as well as building the other skills not-yet-tested for Level Two.

A note on accessibility: The YouTube captioning program is, um, extremely limited, to put it nicely. Their software uses an algorithm to match captions to spoken English in the video. This does not work if, oh, say, you usually have a lot of background noise (such as wind or powerchair motor noises); or important noises that are not language (such as the sound of the clicker); and/or you’re not speaking clear English (which is true when my voice isn’t working well or at all, in which case I might also sign). Thus, it took hours of painstaking work to make some badly captioned videos, while other videos were totally impossible to caption at all.

However, the lovely and delightful Anna of Forward/FWD and Trouble Is Everywhere, pointed me toward dotSUB: Any Video, Any Language, which has software that is so much better. You can caption any ol’ damn video you like, regardless of language. Unfortunately, WordPress won’t let me embed the dotSUB video directly, like I can with YouTube.

Sooo, from now on I’m going to embed the non-captioned YouTube videos, and provide links to the captioned version and to the video description/transcript. I wish it weren’t so clunky, but there it is — if we make the internet accessible, then anyone can use it.

Also, here is the captioned version of the video from my previous post that I was not able to caption via YouTube:

On to the fun stuff!

We are still working on Level Two (L2), but I’ve moved us ahead on Zen (“Leave It”) to Level Three (L3), because, in general, we rock the Zen. (If you decide to watch only one of these videos, watch the L3 Zen test, to see Barnum clowning it up about thirty seconds in.)

Please note: Normally when we train, I make sure there are no distractions (unless they’re planned), and Barnum is really excited to train. We are both focused. This is probably the most important factor I’ve learned from Sue Ailsby’s method [scroll down to the bottom at this link] — Is the dog In The Game?

However, when we test, there’s someone else there filming — sometimes more than one person — and I have to try to remember what the criteria are for each test. I get nervous about the camera, too. Thus, I have a hard time focusing on the training/Barnum. All of these things affect Barnum’s focus, too. So, please don’t think we are normally this flaky and distracted when training! (My timing with the clicker is particularly abysmal.) Barnum has an excuse — he’s only seven month’s old — but cognitive issues or not, there is never an excuse for the trainer! Ah well.

This is the first part of our L2 Crate test — the crate in my bedroom. The criterion for Level Two crate is that the dog enters the crate with no more than two cues, allows the door to be opened and shut, with no pawing or vocalizing.  This is the crate we use the most. We had a false start, but I decided to consider it a fluke, because we use this behavior all the time. The non-captioned version is below. See the captioned version here. Read the description and transcript here.

This is part 2 — the crate in the living room. Ironically, though we use this crate a lot less, Barnum does better in this part of the test, pretty much because we had the two previous sessions in the bedroom (practice!). See the captioned version here. Read the description and transcript here.

This is our L2 Distance Test. I never taught this as a distinct skill before, but I’m loving it. I already use it sometimes when I’m sitting in bed and I want Barnum to come around my wheelchair from one side or the other. I can tell we can use this one a lot in the future. The criteria are that the dog must go around a pole or other object two feet away from the handler, with no more than two cues. See the captioned version here. Read the description and transcript here.
Finally, our L3 “Zen” Test. The dog must leave alone food in a stranger’s hand for 20 seconds, one cue only. (I wrote “40 seconds” in the description that accompanies the video, but that’s wrong.) He met my neighbor once before, but he was focused on her dog that day, so he doesn’t really know her. (Though we do still have some work to do with manners, as you’ll see when he starts to snorffle her pockets!) See the captioned version here. Read the description and transcript here.

Comments are always more than welcome!
-Sharon, Barnum, and the Muse of Gadget

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