Posts Tagged 'canine intelligence'

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!

Retreat! Click, treat, repeat.

Due to my disabilities I’ve only gone away three times in the last fifteen years, and never in the last seven. I was doing “staycations” long before the media coined the term. I love going on vacations and retreats, even when I never leave home.

Others — friends or writers (often one-and-the-same) — join me to talk, eat, write, watch movies, and read our work aloud at my home. Inevitably, connecting to others I care about leads me to connecting more deeply to myself, which in turn strengthens my connection to my writing. Since writing, for me, grows out of self-connection, when I am adrift from who I am, I cannot write well. In fact, I usually cannot write at all.

In the past three years, I haven’t had a writing retreat. I’ve been too sick, among other reasons. However, Betsy and I have had wonderful vacations; she takes time off from work, and we do what mood, weather, and disability allow. Even though I’m always at home, and Betsy often is, and our vacation activities might seem mundane to others — playing cards, watching movies, talking — there’s something different about setting aside a chunk of time and marking it as special. Time together is intended, however ordinary the activity, to be a source of connection with each other.

We also devote some individual time to personal projects. Last year, Betsy focused on gardening. I dedicated myself to taking Gadget for daily walks at the pond.

In 2008 and 2009, picking blackberries was one of our most enjoyable activities.

Sharon picks berries.

A berry nice summer staycation.

Gadget loved berries and picked them, too. One of his all-time favorite treats was blueberries, which he picked off the bush with gusto. However, he was fond of raspberries and blackberries, too, and would brave the thorny brambles to get at the fruit. Last year at this time, Gadget was in remission from lymphoma; he looked and acted particularly robust and happy. He joined us in the berry picking (though nothing he picked ever made it into a pie).

Gadget searches for raspberries

Gadget searches for end-of-the-season raspberries.

When Betsy or I found a particularly bountiful spot, Gadget would wade in, knocking off the ripest berries with his big frame, and indiscriminately devouring large clusters, both black and green. I couldn’t begrudge him the berries — neither those ready to eat nor those that would have been good to pick in a few days’ time. Who couldn’t laugh and rejoice in his being with us, so very Gadget — out for all he could grab from life? I also deeply enjoyed the three of us being able to take part in this activity together as a family.

Gadget eats ground blackberries

These ground-vine blackberries are so much easier to get one's muzzle around!

This week I’m enjoying a retreat of a different kind. Betsy is away, visiting family. Before she left, she planted two organic blueberry bushes, in honor of Gadget (and because we like blueberries). It felt like just the right time to plant something beautiful and practical that will be with us forever, we hope — just like Gadget and our memories of him. Also, appropriately, Barnum helped to dig the holes for the bushes, and then partly dug one of the bushes back up.

Along with Betsy’s absence, I’ve had less time with my PCAs around due to illness and car trouble. As a result, a lot of the time, it’s just Barnum and me. I’m really enjoying it.

I’ve written about how hard his first couple of months were for me. I floundered with the newness of puppy raising. My grief over missing Gadget was so overwhelming, I didn’t even see it; it simply engulfed me. I felt guilty, ashamed, confused, and scared because of my puppy-raising ineptitude — what I perceived as failing Barnum and setting us up to wash out as a service-dog team. I also allowed myself to get jangled by the discouraging and patronizing voices of other dog trainers I met online.

A lot has changed, thank dog!

First of all, after Barnum turned four month’s old, when much of the stress of babyhood wore off, I fell in love with him. This isn’t to say I didn’t love him before; I did. But I wasn’t in love with him. There’s a big difference.

Secondly, as we started to have little training victories, and Barnum developed an attention span and the ability to go longer periods without peeing (in the house), we were able to communicate better. This, too, helped me relax and appreciate him more.

Most recently, I have seriously dedicated myself to working Sue Ailsby’s training levels, which have given me step-by-step directions for ways to explain things to Barnum. I’ve discovered a lot of the bumps in the road we had hit in previous months were due me not knowing how to translate what I wanted to teach to a puppy. I was more used to explaining how to build a behavior in an adult dog. As a result, I was asking for mental leaps I wasn’t even aware were there. This created anxiety for Barnum and frustration (and feelings of inadequacy) for me.

It just keeps getting better: This week, not only do Barnum and I have a quiet, peaceful house to work in for extended periods, I am also functioning better physically than I have in three years!  Suddenly, Barnum and I are particiating in our own unplanned bonding, training, and play retreat!

Gadget rolls in clover

First, a festive roll in the clover. . . .

High-Speed Chase

Then, a rowdy game of "tag."

Barnum in pool, 6 mos old

Finally, a refreshing dip to cool off. (Every time I was about to take a picture, Barnum would turn tail!)

With this breathing space for both of us, and the Training Levels’ step-by-step directions, I find that my enjoyment and skill as a dog trainer is coming back to me! When Barnum is confused, or a skill isn’t being shaped just how I’d like, I’m able to think it through and say to myself — sometimes in the split-second necessary to change tacks in mid-training stream — “Ohhh, I need to back up and do it this way!” And lo and behold, it works! It’s just about the best feeling in the world.

I don’t know which is better: Barnum’s total happiness and obvious gratitude for me finally being able to communicate to him what I want, or my tremendously improved self-confidence and attitude about training.

Like most dogs, Barnum is not big on hiding his emotions. This is part of dogs’ wonderfulness. Thus, Barnum is quite willing to let me know whether he is pleased with what’s happening in his world at any given time. When he is not pleased, he will tell me — emphatically. However, when he is happy, he wags his whole body. For example, ever since I switched him to raw food, after finishing a meal, he comes over to me, grinning and wagging like mad.

“Thank you, thank you!” His body language gushes. “That was awesome!”

Now the same thing happens at the end of a training session. We are both concentrating very hard, but there’s also the rush of learning, teaching, communicating. Often, at the end of a particularly sharp session, Barnum runs to me and nearly knocks me over to enthusiastically lick my face. He never used to do this after training; it’s new, since our little “training retreat” week.

Some might call it anthropomorphizing, but I know what I’m seeing: not just happiness, but gratitude. After several confusing months, where sometimes we were communicating well, and sometimes we were both frustrated, we have achieved a solid communication and trust in ourselves and each other.

“Thank you, thank you!” He kisses me, wags, and grins, after a clicker session. “Now I get it! I get it! I wish you had just said so before!”


I love you, Mom!

There are all sorts of paradoxes here: That we made big leaps in progress when the pressure was off. That working with very definitive goals within a rigid structure — and even knowing that I will be testing myself on them — forces me to focus, which helps me relax. As with writing, the more connected I am to my task (teaching a skill), the more I connect to others involved (Barnum), and the more I’m connected to myself.

That just going hog-wild with clicking/treating (being super generous in clicking even the smallest hint of the behavior I want or doing rapid-fire or jackpots of treats) almost always gets us to a more advanced form of the behavior than being stingy with the rewards is a typical paradox of clicker, too. (And sometimes, lately, has gotten us farther and faster than I expected.)

I’ve also been trying to incorporate additional types of games into our play, especially “mind games” that help Barnum problem solve. I use them as breaks in between training sessions, or as rewards for progress, or I combine them with a training exercise. For example, to teach loose-leash walking, you put a “distraction” — something the dog really wants — at the end of your destination, and then you proceed toward it. If the leash gets tight, you go backwards. I used the muffin tin game, shown in the captioned video below by Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs, as Barnum’s distraction/destination. He really wanted to get to that muffin tin!

Click here for a transcript of the video.

With “time off” and the Training Levels as my guide, all I’ve had to do is put my head down and work on what’s right in front of me. With much of the guesswork removed, I am actually more able to “think on my feet” and be completely in the moment. All this means is that I’m attuned to Barnum’s needs, which is the name of the game, not just in training sessions, but in the rest of our lives. It’s about connection.

Pushing Buttons: My Love/Hate Relationship with My Doorbell

For most people, the relationship between their doorbell and their dog is this: Someone rings the doorbell, their dog barks and runs to the door.

I didn’t have a doorbell before Gadget died. People either knocked or just came on in. I don’t know if he would have barked at it.

We got the doorbell because Gadget died.

Gadget’s death has meant a severe decline in my ability to communicate with others in my household. I miss this help every day, several times a day. Very soon after he died, I was beside myself with grief and frustration over my increased isolation and decreased ability to communicate.

This is how Gadget helped me communicate with people in my home: When I needed one of my personal care assistants (PCAs), Gadget opened my bedroom door and flagged them down. If he didn’t show up with them, at least now my door was open and they’d be more likely to hear me ring my bell again, or I could hear if they were washing dishes or had the fan on and that was drowning out my attempts to ring for them.

On occasion, if I was in the bathroom alone with the door shut for privacy, and I didn’t have my bell with me, I’d call Gadget. He’d open the door. I’d send him back out for a PCA, then call him back again. My PCA would realize we were trying to get her attention.

What’s been harder is not being able to communicate with my human partner, who is in a sound-buffered room on the second floor, when she’s home. When I wanted to tell her something, I’d write a note, stick it in Gadget’s collar and tell him, “Find Betsy!” It didn’t matter if I could voice or not because Gadget knew both signed and spoken commands. He would gallop upstairs, open Betsy’s door, and run to her (sometimes run into her).

He demonstrates this skill in the video below.

Click here for a captioned version of the video.

Click here for a text description and transcript of the video.

If he came back to me without the note, I knew he’d delivered the message. If he came back with the note, I knew Betsy was asleep or outside or otherwise beyond reach. If I needed him to wake her up, I’d tell him to go back, and he’d bark and paw at the door or nudge her or generally make himself a nuisance till she responded.

Gadget lays his paw across Betsy's arm

Gadget makes sure he has Betsy’s undivided attention

Sometimes Betsy would write a reply for him to deliver to me. He loved that, particularly.

When I lost Gadget, I suddenly lost part of my relationship with Betsy, too. Betsy came up with the great idea of using a doorbell to bridge this gap. When she showed it to me, I cried with gratitude.

I love the doorbell.

Here’s how it works: It’s a wireless doorbell with two separate parts. The button is taped to my over-bed table, and the chime can be plugged in anywhere there’s an electric outlet. Usually, it lives in the kitchen. I push the button, and my PCAs hear the chimes ring throughout most of the house. My PCAs were thrilled with how much louder and easier to hear it was than what we’d been trying before (the puny “beep” of the “horn” on my powerchair or a bell I rang by hand).

I was so relieved that it was working. Yet, I also worried that people would think I didn’t need another service dog because now I had this doorbell that worked so well. It felt almost disloyal to Gadget. I told my friends I felt guilty that I was replacing Gadget with technology.

My friends said, “You’re not replacing him. You loved Gadget. He was so special. That can never be replaced with a doorbell,” but it felt like they were talking about the loss of love, the heart-dog loss. I wasn’t just talking about that. I was talking about that and the Gadget who was my arms and legs and voice. I didn’t know how to explain the wholeness of Gadget as my partner, and the essentialness of that partnership beyond finding a solution for any one task — my longing not to make do in life any more than was strictly necessary.

Still, here was this wonderful doorbell, and initially, I was so happy with it. I let go of my fears of how others would interpret my “replacement” of Gadget.

The doorbell has its limitations.

Sometimes I press it, and I can’t hear it ring. Sometimes, nobody comes right away. Then I don’t know — are they in the bathroom? Outside? Did I not press the button hard enough? Should I press it again, or will that cause annoyance?

Also, if Betsy is upstairs asleep, the chime in the kitchen won’t wake her. The doorbell is also a totally one-sided and “one note” form of communication. All it can convey is, “I’m trying to get someone’s attention.” Generally, that’s the most important point, but I can’t indicate whom I’m trying to reach or tell them, “Before you come to my room, can you please grab such-and-such?” Or, “The phone’s for you. You didn’t hear it ring because I was on the other line, and I picked up call waiting.” Or, “Help! I need you now!” Or, “You don’t have to come now, just when you get around to it.”

I also can’t reach the button to ring for assistance if I’m not in bed. If I’m on the commode — just a yard away — or in the bathroom or even in my powerchair right next to the bed, it’s beyond me. If I’m stuck on the toilet, and my voice isn’t working, I can’t call the doorbell to me, no matter how appealing I make myself. I cannot entice it with cheese or liver or belly rubs.

The doorbell is better than the nothing I had after Gadget’s death, but it is still just technology, and technology is always limited. It can’t adapt. Gadget and I trained so that he would look for Betsy whether she was upstairs or downstairs. He could look for her or listen for her. He could use his nose and sniff her out if he didn’t see or hear her. He could get creative: One time, when she didn’t unlock her door for him after I’d sent him up with a message, he got frustrated and barked. I didn’t teach him to bark when she didn’t let him in; he escalated his behavior because what he had been trying wasn’t successful. His new strategy worked! Betsy came out and said, “Don’t tell him to bark for me because I’m making calls for work.” I said that I hadn’t, that he’d done it on his own, but I did reward him for it. I didn’t know when I might need her urgently and he’d need to use persistence.

My PCAs learned how to interpret Gadget’s behavior and generally guessed correctly why or whether I was sending him to them. We were all part of a team; I was captain, and Gadget played center.

I hate the doorbell.

A chime, at best, is neutral. It’s an alert.

At worst, it’s irritating. It can feel like nagging. I’m starting to sense a slight undertone of annoyance in the household when I ring frequently.

It’s nobody’s fault. People enjoy being summoned by a dog. They feel sought out and special, and they get to be part of the reward. “Does Sharon want me? Good boy!”

A doorbell doesn’t wag its tail. It doesn’t get excited at the prospect of a treat and go galumphing past the person it has summoned to get to me first. It doesn’t feel satisfied at a job well done. It’s just a piece of hard plastic that I’m grateful for and resent.

It would have been impossible to resent Gadget. Even at my most exhausted, frustrated, sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden, overworked, and done-in over his being sick, I loved him. Even when he was young and difficult and drove me to tears, and I’d say things like, “That’s it! I’m making dog burgers tonight!” I loved him. I loved him far beyond my ability to express it in a blog.

The intercom.

Betsy and I are both dissatisfied with the limitations of our intra-house communication. Thus, Betsy ordered an intercom for my birthday. She told me ahead of time that it was coming; I was losing it over our communication breakdown, and she knew it would be a while before it arrived because it was on backorder. I was so grateful that she recognized my frustration and aloneness that I burst into tears and hugged her. It finally came today. I opened the shipping box and just made goo-goo eyes at it. I can’t wait until she installs it. It’s taking all my willpower not to nag her about it incessantly.

I’ve learned my lesson, though. I’m preparing myself for this new technology’s limitations: The intercom might be “smelly” (offgassing new plastic fumes), so that I won’t be able to use it until it has aired out for several months. Even then, at times when I can’t produce intelligible speech, the intercom won’t be as helpful as we’d wish. Finally, like the doorbell, if I am not next to it, I won’t be able to activate it.

In short, I will be grateful for it when it works and frustrated by its limitations.

Despite all this, it will be a big step up from the doorbell. But it will always be miles and miles away from replacing Gadget, my partner.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

As always, we welcome your comments.

P.S. Another “About” page is up, about how multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) affects me and my service dog partnerships. Click here to read the MCS page.

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