Posts Tagged 'clicker training'

SD Training: “Bad Days” Provide Evaluation Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red hemp leash torn in two

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

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

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

Broken clasp on pink service-dog leash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barnum Officially Proclaimed Awesome

It’s official. Not only do I think Barnum is awesome, but so do Carin and Trixie at VomitComet and Brooke and Cessna at Ruled by Paws!

Awesome Blog Award

It's official. We're awesome.

[Image description: Square with black edges and a pale gray-striped interior. In the upper left, inside a hot pink rectangle, it says, “This blog has been given a…” Below that, on the regular background, it says, “Awesome Blog Award!” There is a horizontal straight-line ribbon graphic with the words “AWESOME” repeated over and over as form of wallpaper, with a black seal-of-approval on the lower right, inside which it says in hot-pink and white letters, “Nominated for being so damn Awesome.“]

It’s nice to get some recognition from your peers, isn’t it? Especially all the fabulous things that Carin said about After Gadget.

Barnum is already told on an almost hourly basis how wonderful he is by anyone in his presence, so I don’t think he thinks this is anything new. I, on the other hand, have been having a rough time, emotionally, lately, and will take all the ego-boosting I can!

To read who else is awesome and get some inside dirt on Trixie and Cessna, visit VomitComit’s Somebody Else Thinks We’re Awesome post and Ruled by Paws’ Awesome Blog Award post.

To accept this award, we have to reveal seven unknown fascinating tidbits about ourselves, and we have to choose 15 other blogs upon whom to bestow the honor.

I’m going to write the seven revelations about me, because you probably already know almost all there is to know about Barnum!

Sharon’s Secrets, Revealed!

1. I love to dance. Before I became disabled, I learned swing and ballroom, a little bit of modern, and whatever else I could. As a kid I took jazz and tap. I sucked at jazz and didn’t like it. I really liked tap, but none of the other girls did, and I had no self-esteem, so I didn’t pursue it because it wasn’t cool. Sigh. Once I was old enough (actually, thanks to a fake ID, well before I was old enough), I went out clubbing as often as I could. I even did some go-go dancing. After I got sick, I occasionally tried to do some wheelchair dancing for special events. Of all the things I miss about being able to move my body however I want, I miss dancing the most.

2. I was the graduation speaker for my class at my commencement at Tufts University. I won this honor by being awarded the Wendell Phillips Award, which is given to one student every year at both Tufts and Harvard University who display oratory skill and community leadership. The award is named after the abolitionist preacher. The president of the university tried to find a way to prevent me from speaking, because he was afraid of my scary radical militant lesbian ways. [Eye roll.] The irony is that, because he tried to silence me, I revealed his dirty deed in my remarks. I played Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” on a boom box at the end of the speech and got a standing ovation.

3. I have paradoxical reactions to many medications, including antihistamines and tranquilizers, such as Sudafed or Valium. Instead of making me sleepy, they make me shaky, anxious, sweaty, and wiiiiiiide awake.

4. I used to have a pet snake named Falstaff. She was a garter snake. She liked to curl up in my hair on the top of my head. She ate live goldfish for her meals. I discovered she hunted by smell when she twice bit my thumb after I’d poured the goldfish into her bowl. After that, I always washed my hands after touching the goldfish, and she never bit me again.

5. I am a total Harry Potter fanatic. When I am going through a hard time, I listen to the entire set of CDs over and over. I have most of the books memorized by now. I wish I didn’t feel so compelled to watch the movies, because they have messed up my previously well-established imaginings about exactly what each character looks and sounds like.

6. Some day, when I am well enough, I would like to foster and train hypoallergenic rescues as assistance dogs for other PWDs who have dog allergies and don’t have the fanatacism interest or ability to train their own assistance dogs. Or, even better, I’d like to work with people to train their dogs, themselves.

7. I  have several books in my head or on my computer that I hope to polish and publish eventually. They range from poetry for children, to a compilation of my Sick Humor essays, to an anthology of disability erotica, and more. I have ideas for three dog-related books, too.

I’m supposed to list fifteen other blogs I think are awesome. I’ve decided to include some non-blogs, as well, mostly youtube channels, because 15 is a lot, and I already passed on the One Lovely Blog Award to a bunch of blogs, previously.

I’m focusing my list on blogs and sites that are either new to me (and may have nothing to do with disability, dogs, or training) and/or blogs that are related to the themes of After Gadget. These are in no particular order.

1. Adoption Paradox. This is one of the blogs I stumbled across when dealing recently with “the unpleasantness,” and then I just happened to get sucked into it. Why? It’s extremely well-written and compelling, and if you are new to the issues adoptees face, and the social-justice implications of adoption, it will be an education.

2. Through a Guide’s Eyes. This is a relatively new blog by my long-time friend, Karyn. Karyn was my mentor when I started training Jersey, and over the years, we have both experienced great changes in our disabilities and lives (and have gone through the process of loss and training of successor dogs). Karyn’s posts are impressively frequent and packed with information. Almost everyone can learn something from Karyn’s perspective, as she is in the unique role being a handler/trainer of combo dogs who act as guide, hearing, and service dogs.

3. this ain’t livin’. This is the personal blog of writer s.e. smith (aka Meloukhia), one of the founders of my favorite blog ever, FWD/Forward. Meloukhia posts at least daily, on subjects ranging from pop culture (especially Glee!), class, feminism, book reviews, disability, food, and uh, lots of interesting stuff. It sort of  defies definition. If you don’t want to think, don’t read this blog, cuz you might be forced to think.

4. Remembering Niko. One of the loveliest people I met online due to Gadget’s lymphoma diagnosis is Bettina, who lost her (pet) dog Niko to canine lymphoma. Her site has terrific resources, support, and information on pet loss, including pages on anticipatory grief, what to expect from euthanasia, and common symptoms and signs of grief. I’m still working on my grief support pages, but if you are grieving a dog (or other animal), you will find much you can relate to at Remembering Niko. Reading the story of Bettina and Niko’s life together is also quite remarkable and touching.

5. & 6. BZ Training. This delightful blog is well-written, humorous, and has great photos. Kathleen is another Training Levels fanatic, so she writes a lot about the Levels, but even if you’re not interested in clicker training, golden retrievers, or dog photography, her writing is natural and compelling. She gets two slots, because her clicker videos, username, BZFischer, are outstanding! If you want to learn how to shape a training enthusiast, check out her youtubes. Yes, I am jealous of her. She’s so damn good.

7. & 8. Here’s another woman who’s so talented, she earns two slots. Her awesome blog, Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs has been on my blogroll since the beginning. VIAD teaches people with disabilities to train their own assistance dogs. It is an informational/instructional blog. Even better than the blog are Donna’s videos; find her on youtube as supernaturalbc2008. They are captioned, and some also have voice narration. She breaks things down into easy-to-understand steps and concepts. Some of the best clicker videos ever made are her “9 Habits of Highly Effective Clicker Trainers” series. She covers foundation behaviors, mobility assistance, hearing alert, diabetes alert, and more. (Again, totally jealous.)

9. The Angry Black Woman. This is actually a blog with three contributors (but don’t worry, they all identify as angry, black, and women), but I like ABW’s posts best. The blog’s subtitle is “Race, Politics, Gender, Sexuality, Anger,” and it does contain all of that, as well as a lot on speculative fiction (SF/F), writers/writing, and dealing with People Who Don’t Get It in a refreshingly straightforward, enjoyably angry manner. I came across ABW when I was looking for links I could put up for some commenters here who Didn’t Get It, and I felt all my knotted-up muscles relax when I started reading ABW, especially The BINGO Project and its comments.

10. Marge and her Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Terrific videos of the happiest-looking dogs you’ll ever see. Oh, and thy just happen to be rescues with awful pasts. Oh, and they just happen to be doing fabulous, often funny skills, like “Ridgeback Cleaning Service,” or holding a raw egg in their mouths, or sitting on their person’s head (on cue).

11. Eileen is another clicker trainer who has a lot to teach humans. She’s been very generous with her advice to me and posts here. Helpful, kindly, and humble, she has some great videos (included in my previous blog) on why dogs may fail to understand cues (commands) that you think they should. She also has Levels videos and various other good dog training fun stuff. Her youtube channel is eileenanddogs

12. Writer in a Wheelchair. I just discovered this British blogger thanks to the latest disability blog carnival. Disability rights activism, humor, culture, and general life-about-town as a person with a disability. Good politics, and informative for me about life with disability on the other side of the pond.

13. Ham Blog/Annaham. Annaham is another one of the founders of the blog formerly known as FWD/Forward. At its previous locale, Ham.Blog had the best subtitle, ever: “Ruining feminism, one pain pill at a time.” The new subtitle is “Promoting disability since 2008 or so.” It should be obvious that this blog includes humor, disability, and feminism. There are also various social justice themes, but mostly, lately, she’s doing cartoons, drawings, and other artwork, often related to chronic pain, but not necessarily. Another one that sort of defies description. What can I say? She’s good. I like her.

14. Wheelie catholic. This is a great blog that I often forget to read, and then, when I do, I think, “Yeah! OMG! I’m dealing with just that same thing!” It’s well-written, thoughtful, and real.

15. The Fibrochondriac. Another friend of the blog! (Hi, Kathy!) Kathy was on of the first bloggers I “met” online, and she helped me believe I could do this blogging thing. I’ll be honest, when I first saw the name of her blog, I thought two things: 1. “That’s witty and clever!” 2. “Uh-oh.” I mean, I knew she didn’t discount the reality of fibro or other chronic illnesses, but I didn’t know if her take on fibro would be some sort of falsely peppy, cheerleaderish sort of roses-and-sunshine blog (which seems to be popular among women blogging about chronic illness) that would downplay the realness of her illness. But no, her blog is very real and readable and fun. She’s got backbone! (Which probably aches.)

Whew! It took me a long time to put this together!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (SDiT with one actual service skill in place! Will try to video and post eventually!)

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

An Alert Pup!

Even when Barnum was a tiny puppy, I knew he had great potential for sound alert. He’s very sensitive to, and inquisitive about, noises. He also seems to have terrific hearing, which is a nice change of pace. (Gadget, I believe, was hard of hearing, and I think Jersey’s hearing was fine, but she just didn’t care much about sounds that were not food related.)

Why, as a hearing person, do I want Barnum to respond to certain sounds?

  • To alert me to sounds, such as timers and alarms, that I don’t hear because I’ve fallen asleep;
  • To alert me to sounds that I’ve forgotten I heard (timers and alarms), because of my cognitive impairment and memory problems; and
  • To make him faster and more effective at retrieving the telephone when it is ringing, and I can’t get to it.

My plan was to train Barnum to perform the sound alerts that Gadget did, primarily alerting me to the stove timer going off. This was a very difficult skill for Gadget to master; it took several months of intensive training. Nonetheless, I’ve been confident that Barnum would learn this alert more solidly and quickly because he is much more attuned to sounds than Gadget was, and because I am a better trainer now.

I trained Gadget to alert to the stove timer as part of my effort to stop burning my meals to cinders.

However, a couple of years later, this skill became useful for an unexpected reason: I got Lyme disease, and for many months, I had to take antibiotics at 12-hour intervals. It is very rare for me to be awake and coherent for both ends of a 12-hour shift, every day.

Thus, Gadget became my medicine reminder. After taking my dose, I’d reset the timer for 12 hours. If I happened to be asleep when it went off, Gadget would hear it, open my bedroom door, run to get his orange squeaky “alert balls” and bring one back and wake me up with it. (You can see a [poor] demonstration of this skill in the second video in this previous post.)

Barnum Takes the (Sound) Stage

In a very laid-back way, I have been encouraging Barnum to pay attention to sounds ever since he was a little puppy. The sounds I’ve focused on are the ring of the cordless phone and the beeping of two timers: the stove timer and my digital “personal timer” (which lives on my overbed table, and which I use to remind myself of phone appointments or other happenings I’m likely to forget).

By “laid back,” I mean that I hadn’t set up training sessions to work on this. I just took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves (also known as “capturing,” in clicker parlance). In other words, if Barnum and I happened to be near the cordless phone when it rang, I’d  act excited, and say, “It’s the phone!” Then I’d toss him a treat. If he oriented to the phone (i.e., if he looked at or moved toward the phone), that definitely earned a click/treat.

I used the same approach with the kitchen timer.

I didn’t really consider this training; more like “pre-training.” My primary goal was to prevent Barnum from becoming so acclimated to these sounds that he stopped noticing them when the “real” training began.

A few weeks ago, because it was convenient, I decided to get slightly more proactive with building a foundation for sound alerts. Whenever my personal timer went off, I’d toss Barnum a high-value treat. He soon was leaping up and running over whenever he heard my timer, and I thought, “Huh, I should probably do something useful with this behavior.”

This urge was strengthened when we were in the living room a couple of weeks ago, and the phone rang. Barnum turned toward the phone and barked at it! I never taught him to do that. I was pleased and impressed.

Barnum Responds to Infusion Pump Alarm!

That’s when I realized I could — and should — train Barnum to be my infusion-pump alarm back-up.

Those of you with chronic Lyme disease or who have had chemotherapy or other long-term intravenous medication are probably familiar with the ins and outs of infusion pumps. For those who aren’t, here’s a crash course in home-infusion therapy, and how a service dog can be of use.

First, there’s the PICC line. PICC stands for “peripherally inserted central catheter.” It’s a flexible little tube that goes inside a vein from your upper arm to your heart, delivering medications into your bloodstream much more efficiently than by any other method. (Here’s a site on PICCs if you want more information.)

Closeup of Sharons arm with PICC line coming out of biceps

I know it looks weird, but it doesn't hurt, and I'm quite used to it after 18 months.

[Photo description: Sharon’s inner upper arm and elbow with PICC line and dressing. The PICC line is a very thin white plastic tube coming out of a round “biopatch” — which looks like a nickel-sized styrofoam disk — in Sharon’s biceps. The biopatch covers the entry site of the line. Several steri-strips hold the biopatch and line in place. A hypoallergenic clear sterile dressing that looks like a piece of plastic covers the PICC area, with two pieces of hypoallergenic medical tape holding down the dressing. The line emerges from under the dressing to a red clasp, which is opened when flushing or infusing. A white plastic cap connects the line to a clear extension tube, which is a port into which syringes of medication or saline can be inserted for infusing or flushing.]

The above photo description tells you the rest of what you need to know (or maybe more than you wanted to know!). The only unusual thing others with PICCs might notice is that this is not a typical PICC dressing. Most of the stuff normally used for cleaning and dressing PICC sites makes my skin erupt and blister in a nasty way. (Thanks, MCS!)

At any rate, I do two infusions a day, 12 hours apart.

To do an infusion, I have to clean the port with a disinfectant, then flush my line with saline (the smaller white syringe in the picture below). Then I hook up an extension tube between the antibiotic and my PICC line. Infusing the antibiotic (the really big syringe attached to the pump in the picture below) takes about 45 minutes. The pump ensures that all the medicine goes in at a slow, steady rate.

When the tube of antibiotic is empty, the pump alarm sounds, which is a loud, grating, “Beep, beep, beep,” and a red light flashes. The I unhook my line, clean it, and flush it with saline again, and finally with heparin (the yellow syringe below).

Infusion Pump with extension tubing, saline flush, heparin flush

The red light on the pump indicates the alarm is going off, and it's time to unhook the extension tubing and flush my PICC line.

[Photo description: two 12 millilitre syringes, without needles, one yellow, one white, lie on a red background next to a 60 millilitre syringe which is attached to a rectangular, brown Bard pump, about nine inches long and three inches wide. Extension tubing comes out of the big syringe. A red light is on at the bottom of the pump, next to the word, “Alarm.”]

Rather, that’s what’s supposed to happen, and most of the time, it does. However, on occasion, I fall asleep while I’m infusing. When this occurs, I wake up many hours later, my line still connected to the pump, the flushes laying nearby, unused. Tellingly, the pump switch has magically been moved from “Alarm” to “Off”!

Actually, I’m pretty sure no magic is involved. The only reasonable explanation is that I wake up just enough to switch the alarm off and then fall immediately back to asleep. I have no idea how long the pump is alarming before I turn it off in my mostly unconscious state. In the morning, I almost never remember waking up and turning off the alarm.

This is less than ideal! The line should really be flushed immediately after infusing. Also, if I were to ever startle awake and move quickly, I could potentially pull the line out of place (particularly because my dressing does not allow for as secure an attachment as is standard practice for PICCs).

Sharon Falls Asleep while Infusing

Exciting reenactment: I fall asleep while infusing.

[Photo description: Sharon lies asleep in bed, propped up with pillows. She wears gray sweatpants and a purple sweatshirt over a pink nightshirt. On her left side the sweatshirt has been pulled up to expose her upper arm, where the PICC dressing and tubing are visible, attached by a long, thin, clear line to the infusion pump, which rests against Sharon’s thigh. On her legs, the saline and heparin flushes lie, waiting to be used after the infusion is over.]

I realized that a really useful skill, and one that would probably not be hard to teach, would be to train Barnum to wake me when my infusion pump goes off.

I started out with classical conditioning, just tossing Barnum one of his favorite treats each time the alarm went off. He made the connection very quickly — within a few days.

Then I moved to operant conditioning, shaping Barnum’s behavior. Once he showed any reaction to the pump alarm, I clicked for the response. As always when shaping, I started with whatever small behavior he offered, such as cocking his ear toward the sound, or turning his head toward it, or just looking up from a nap. Eventually I withheld the click until he was trotting over.

My plan had been to keep upping the ante to get him to jump on the bed, nudge me, etc., until I woke and reward him.

Sunday morning was the first, and only, time I cued a behavior — jumping on the bed (“Paws up!”) — before clicking and tossing the treat.

That night, as usual, I flushed with saline, connected the pump and began infusing. I had my clicker and Barnum’s special treat ready for when the alarm went off. About half an hour into the infusion, I got the suddenly sleepy, struggling-to-stay-awake feeling. I thought that knowing I had to be awake to capture and click Barnum’s response to the alarm would keep me awake.

I was dreaming — literally!

The next thing I knew, I was awakened. All was confusion. The bed was moving, and I didn’t know why. There was a strange noise.

I struggled to orient myself.

The first thing that registered was that Barnum was on my bed, panting and smiling at me. Then, the strange sound resolved, as well — it was the infusion pump alarm.

Amazing dog! Barnum had jumped on the bed of his own accord and woken me when the alarm went off!

I praised him as I scrambled for the clicker, and tossed him his prized treat. I continued to praise effusively, tossing a large handful of other treats I happened to have in my bed.

Barnum "Paws Up" on Bed
I’m here! Wake up! I want my treat!
[Photo description: Barnum, a shaggy black brindle bouvier, with only one eye peeking out from under his hair, has jumped partway onto the bed, with his front legs and chest resting on a dark raspberry-colored comforter. He looks relaxed and slightly expectant. Sharon’s powerchair is visible in the background.]

I was so excited! With Gadget, I had had to spend weeks just on feigning sleep during timer-alert sessions. I will plan to train this way with Barnum — pretending to be asleep when the alarm goes off. He’ll have to really work for that treat by jumping on the bed, nudging me, licking me, etc.

However, I had thought that if I actually did fall asleep while Barnum was at this stage of training, he would have popped up from the floor, looked for his treat, and when he didn’t get it — when I just lay there, conked out — he would give up and go back to bed.

Instead, Barnum made a mental leap that required not just thinking (i.e., problem solving), but self-confidence, too.

I believe our recent focus on lots of free-shaping sessions (as I described in a previous post) led to this breakthrough.

Now, saying that Barnum is a service-dog-in-training feels more legitimate. The pay-off for our training is no longer just fun or incremental steps in increased obedience and communication; the real-world application of practical service skills is becoming apparent.

Barnum’s increased exuberance and eagerness to offer behavior in the absence of a cue or other encouragement from me is thrilling!

An Alert Pup . . . and a Groggy Human

Any assistance dog partner will tell you that there are two members of the team, and both have to do their jobs. Sunday night, Barnum rose to the occasion, while I fell asleep on the job!

After I shut off the alarm and finished fussing over Barnum, I turned my attention to unwrapping my saline and heparin flushes and looking for my sterile wipes and line caps — the supplies necessary to finish the infusion process. . . . The next thing I knew, it was morning, my left arm was still out of my shirt sleeve, and my PICC line was stretched down to the pump!

These are the times when both the pros and cons of being a disabled person training my own service dog come into sharp focus.

On the down side, I had underestimated my functionality. I had thought that being awakened by Barnum, and being forced to interact with him, would keep me lively enough to finish the infusion process. I had not factored in how my cognitive impairment (in this case, memory and concentration issues) would intersect with my sleep disorders. I had not given enough weight to how hard it is for me to “stay on task” when my body and brain switch from “nothing you do will allow you to fall asleep” to “nothing you do will allow you to stay awake”!

On the upside, I now know that I have to build in back-up systems after the initial wake-up, to keep me awake, or to wake me repeatedly, until I finish flushing my line. This is perhaps the biggest bonus of partner-training: I can trouble-shoot and adjust skills as we go along, because nobody knows my disabilities better than I do.

Another bonus to doing all this practice with him is that I am also training myself.

This was the unexpected perk to training Gadget to alert me to the oven timer. People who don’t have brain injury often don’t understand that their suggestions of seemingly straightforward solutions to memory problems, such as “write a reminder note” or “set a timer” require the cognitively impaired person to remember to write the note or set the timer, and also to remember where the note is, to remember what the timer going off means, or to remember to jump up the instant the timer goes off and go do the thing the timer is reminding one of. I write notes all the time to remind myself of what to do, and then I misplace and forget about the existence of the note!

Indeed, before training the memory alert with Gadget, the biggest impediments to using a timer to prevent me from burning my food had been:

  1. Forgetting to set the timer in the first place;
  2. If I did set the timer, not responding the moment the timer went off (e.g., if I was writing an email, I’d think, “I’ll just finish this sentence,” and then forget that the timer ever went off) and keep on keyboarding; and
  3. If I did get up to go to the stove as soon as I heard the timer, I usually became distracted by something on the way (even though the stove was only a few feet from my desk), and forget the original reason for getting up.

However, when I worked for months on training a complex timer alert with Gadget, I spent a lot of time focused on setting the timer, remembering to keep clicker and treats handy to respond when the timer went off, etc.  It became a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy for me. The end result was that I was much more likely to remember to set the timer when I put something on to cook, and I was also more likely to respond to it when it went off, sometimes because Gadget alerted me, but sometimes simply because my mind was better trained to hone in on the timer.

Thus, I’ve decided that the best way to address this added dimension of the infusion pump alarm with Barnum is to train us both to following this protocol:

  1. When the pump goes off, Barnum bugs me (jumps on the bed, nudges me, licks me, etc.), until I wake up.
  2. The instant I wake up, I hit my personal timer (set for six or seven minutes).
  3. I turn off the infusion alarm, and reward Barnum for having alerted me.
  4. I attempt to stay awake to unhook, infuse, and put things away.
  5. However, if I do fall asleep before I’m done, the other timer will go off, and Barnum will alert to that, leading us to repeat steps one through four.
  6. If I do get my line taken care of, and the timer goes off before I’m done, I reward Barnum for alerting to it anyway.

In other words, I’ve had to add a step. Or a step that repeats itself. So, it’s really just more of the same. Which is sort of the essence of clicker training: once you build a foundation, it’s all variations on a theme, requiring flexibility, creativity, and knowing the rules by which you’re playing.

This is also the essence of a service dog partnership.

And of life.

I’m so proud of my dog! And I’m not feeling too bad about myself, either. Nice change of pace.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I’d have done better with the timer alert if you’d trained it better!), and Barnum (What’s that sound?!) Medical-alert-dog-in-the-making!

The Dance Begins Again

Barnum is one year old now, and I am constantly pleased and impressed with his progress, and mind-boggled and discouraged by discovering new (and seemingly bizarre) problems. (Yesterday, Barnum refused to walk through mud, which he has walked through many times before in his life. So. . . . Huh?)

I love Barnum for who he is. (He is exceptionally lovable.) I probably won’t know for a very long time, however, if he will ever approach service-dog readiness, let alone Gadget-ability.

So, what worked so well with Gadget? What made him my yardstick?

He was a training machine, for one thing, and then we worked together so well as a service-dog team. We really had “the dance” down-pat. Not that we were perfect. We had our rough edges: Skills I trained at the end of his career, as new needs arose, were not 100 percent. I never shed my “clicker dependency” of not trusting that if I didn’t have it in a novel situation, I wouldn’t get what I needed from him. Gadget hated my van, etcetera.

Now I have introduced a different dance — Sue Ailsby’s “Leading the Dance” protocol — with Barnum; because I foresee trouble if I don’t change our routine. In a nutshell, he’s in that bratty, teenager stage where he will try to get what he wants, when he wants it, how he wants it. Which is a typical teen thing, and a typical dog thing, and a typical, um, living organism thing, too. So, who can blame him?

Unfortunately for him, that lifestyle doesn’t fit in with my plans.

Part of the problem is that he is bored and under-exercised. I’m working on that. It will really, really help a lot when I get my bad-ass powerchair working, too, so we can go on long, winter walks.

Pchair with headlights

Since my chair is made of used, recycled parts, it hasn’t been clear how to proceed with replacement parts.

You’d have thought I’d have had it fixed by now, but there always seems to be some new minor crisis to contend with that prevents me from wrapping my head around the chair repair issue.

What does “The Dance” Barnum and I are doing now entail? Keeping him leashed to me throughout my waking hours (“the umbilical cord”), singing him a silly song (really!), practicing eye contact, obedience, and downs (all stuff we were already doing) and various other odds and ends. One key factor is to make my PCAs less exciting to him, and to make me the center of his universe — more than I already am.

That’s the nuts and bolts. The feel of it, though, is actually quite a bit like trying to drag an awkward teenage boy onto the dance floor: He doesn’t want to dance, it’s stupid. Why can’t he just hang out with his friends? Oh, well, actually, maybe this is fun. Maybe I’m an interesting dance partner. But no. “This is so weird, do I hafta? Oh, now that I’m focusing on the steps, actually, this is pretty cool. I’m awesome.”

Gadget was more like one of those young ‘uns who runs out onto the dance floor and has no idea that he is a hot mess. He yanks you here and there and flings you about, having a great time, with no idea that you’re not. But, he’s also got the rhythm in him, he just needs some tutoring, and he’s willing, very willing, if there’s something in it for him. He discovers he likes to move and that his partner is actually quite cool.

Over the years, “dancing” together every day, Gadget and I were like an old, married couple. We anticipated each other’s moves and moods. Was the relationship perfect? Of course not, but it worked.

To see how Gadget and I worked together — the smoothness of our dance as well as our stumbles — video is the best. I’m incredibly grateful that Betsy and I were able to make a video of Gadget and me showing off many (but not all) of his skills. My friend and former PCA, Ryan, put the video on youtube for me, divided into two parts.

In this captioned video, Part 1, Gadget retrieves the phone, brings water from the fridge, helps with falls, and more.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Now, for the exciting conclusion: Part 2! In which Gadget alerts me to the oven timer, turns off lights, opens and shuts doors, delivers messages, and more.

Here is the captioned version.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Will there come a day when Barnum and I can waltz as well, or better, than Gadget and I did? It’s possible. I’m listening for the music. . . .

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mm, chewy.

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

What? You said I could have it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your comments are always warmly received.

Peace,

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


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