Today was a day of hope on some fronts and tangible improvement on others. I thought I’d share with the class.
I have been working with the consumer affairs division of the district attorney and attorney general’s office for my region to try to get some help dealing with my purple powerchair nightmare.
(If you’re new to this blog, just click on “Assistive Tech – Powerchairs” in the Dogegory cloud in the menu bar on the right, and you’ll find scores of posts. The upshot, though, is that I bought a specialized wheelchair in order to be able to walk Barnum in my rural area, and it has been dead most of the time I’ve had it, no matter how many times it gets “fixed.”)
It was not going well, and I was resigning myself to the likelihood that I’d have to hire a private attorney and sue. I’ve never filed a suit in my life, and the idea of the mental and emotional work it would take, not to mention the physical effort, is extremely unappealing. I really don’t want to spend my precious energy that way. I also just never thought of myself as the kind of person who files lawsuits, you know?
Today, however, I heard from someone at the business where I got my chair who is new to the organization and is coming on board to “put out fires.” Apparently, I’m one of the larger fires, and having the state’s AG involved seems to be issuing more smoke on my behalf. He listened and was sympathetic, which was a really nice change of pace. He also let me know that they are having a lot of internal problems that are interfering with them responding to my demands.
So, I don’t know what will come of this, but it was the first time I have felt like somebody at their end cared and remotely “got it” about the situation. I’ll be emailing him some documents, and we’ll speak again. I’m afraid to get my hopes up, in case this doesn’t work out, but at least there is a glimmer now that there may be some sort of resolution I can work with.
I have finally decided to take my own advice and only do retrieve training (work with the dumbbells) for extremely short sessions. This had been my plan for a long time, but I’m so desperate to get our trained retrieve, that if he was enthusiastic and showing progress, I always wanted to do “just one more.” That is a very common pitfall among clicker trainers. I know this, and yet, I kept doing it!
It’s just crucial that a service dog is excited and eager to do the tasks that you need, because you can’t force a dog to help you, especially if he has to choose between doing a requested behavior versus playing, eating, or napping. Since the trained retrieve is the basis for the great majority of service skills, the foundation is supremely important. The ideal is to train for demand, meaning the dog isn’t just willing to work, but is demanding it. This is something Gadget often did, and I appreciated it, but I didn’t have to work for it with him; he was just naturally eager. With Barnum, oh yes, I am working for it!
My ideal was three sessions a day with the dumbbells, of three to five reps each session; but I was doing seven or 10 reps instead. This sometimes led to Barnum becoming frustrated or bored, and his performance would suffer accordingly. So, I finally stopped that and decided to follow my own rules. It’s going great!
Today, we have done two sessions so far (hope to squeeze in at least one more), and each time he held the dumbbell, on his own, without dropping it. I have also started doing distracting things like tapping the top of his head or his lips (very annoying to him) or waving treats around in front of him, and he is keeping his hold. Hopefully I’ll get some video soon to post. GOOD BOY!
I have to go back and read the Training Levels for retrieve, because we are past where I’d read for Level 3 and Level 4, and I need to find out what comes next.
Barnum and I had another walk today, almost an hour long. Ideally, I’d like to get us doing two hours, but I’m working my way up slowly. (My body won’t be up to that every time, at any rate. But, fall is coming, so I want to get in as much walking as possible before I’m grounded again.)
He got all excited when he saw me putting on shoes — something I don’t do unless I’m going out. (Hand factoid: one of the bonuses of being inside and in bed most of the time is very soft feet!) When I got into a wheelchair with extended leg rests, his hopes were confirmed. Recently, he has not shown enthusiasm at being told he’s going for a walk, so this was a harbinger of things to come.
He was very bouncy and perky for most of the walk, and he still managed to keep a loose leash almost all the time, even though I tried us going at a faster pace (something that used to flip his “charge ahead” switch). Throughout the walk he gave me tons of eye contact and almost constant focus. I actually allowed him leeway to wander and sniff on the rare occasions he was inclined, even permitting minor leash tension, because I want him to enjoy the walks, and not just have them be an endless work session.
He also peed, on cue, before we left, and pooped during the walk, which he will not do if he’s stressed out, so that’s all good! We stopped periodically to practice sit, down, chin, touch, come by (come around to the left side of the chair), and side (stand parallel to the left side of the chair), and some very brief stays!
I used hot dogs for most of our work, and for the first half hour of the walk, not a single car passed us. When a truck appeared, I got out my cheese (unfortunately, I forgot the tube of pureed cottage cheese — doh!), and we played “look at that.” He is finally catching on to the LAT game.
During the rest of the walk, two more cars, a motor scooter (new for him, I think), and a bicyclist all passed by, and he was increasingly relaxed about them. He did less looking over his shoulder, but I also c/t him for doing that, and that gave him confidence that it was okay to check the environment. He is now getting in the habit of looking at the car, turning to me for his cheese, looking again, back for the cheese, and then when the car is gone, he gets c/t for focus on me.
I think we will only need a few more walks before his automatic response after seeing a car is to look at me for treats. From there, we will move to (an eventually cued) behavior of going to the side of the road and sitting quietly till the car has passed.
I also started incorporating some Zen (leave it) training during the walks, which he sorely needs. (More about that another time.)
There were two very exciting moments during the walk. The first was when the bicyclist, a neighbor, stopped to chat, and . . .
- Barnum went to sniff his shorts, and I said “Leave it,” and he did!
- Barnum eagerly performed sit, down, touch, and chin while I talked to the neighbor (a distraction, especially because Barnum knows his dog — and Barnum remembers everyone).
The second was when another neighbor was out walking her dog and walking right towards us. In the past, Barnum’s behavior with this dog has been obnoxious. He wants to play with every dog he meets, whether or not they want to, and whether or not his style of play is one they like. With this dog, he learned early to mount her, and she just put up with it. Bad scene. Neighbor did not like that!
So, when my neighbor saw us approaching, she asked if I’d like her to stop, which I answered, very gratefully, “Yes!” Barnum, amazingly . . .
- continued to keep focus with me most of the time and
- maintained a loose leash, though he was Very Excited to see this other dog.
- When we got close, he did do a few lunges, and I’d back up, and he’d get under control, and we’d move forward again.
- The most miraculous part was that he stayed by my side while I talked to my neighbor and —
- with a gusto I cannot adequately do justice to — threw himself into sits, downs, chin and nose targets,
- and even held a short sit-stay while I rotated around him,
- with another dog just a few feet away!
My neighbor asked if they could greet, and I said yes, but I realize now that was a mistake. I think I will start teaching Barnum that he is to ignore other dogs unless it is officially off-leash play time. He’d start out with a friendly nose-sniff greeting, and then he’d start jumping around in a frenzy, trying to induce play. I’d back up, he’d get under control, etc.
Overall, I was terribly proud of us both. I’m sure my neighbors — and most people in town — think I’m a complete weirdo, and that I have a wild, out-of-control dog, and that all I do with him is randomly shove food at him. I’ve come to realize that if someone doesn’t understand clicker training, and that the “behaviors” you’re clicking for can be so minute (not pulling, or a flick of an ear or eye indicating the briefest awareness of my existence) or even counter-intuitive (clicking for sniffing the ground or for looking at a car), that it’s really hard for them to understand.
Fortunately, what with all my disabilities and my “unique” personality, I think most people think I’m a weirdo anyway. But this is a town that is exceptionally tolerant (even welcoming) of weirdos, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. After all, it’s Barnum’s and my process and ultimate results that matter; it’s not a popularity contest.
So proud of Team Barnum tonight!
– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she was a lot less strict with me!), and Barnum, SDiT and *maturing young bouv*?!?!