Posts Tagged 'communication disorder'

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

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

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

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

And other stuff which I’ll describe below.

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

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

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

  1. Think
  2. Move on their own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The captioned version is here.

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

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

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

Video Description:

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

Sharon picks up a fork.

Sharon: This is clean.

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

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

Sharon: Oops. We’ll try again.

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

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

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

Sharon: Perfect!

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


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