Posts Tagged 'loose leash walk'

Video: Pivot Left with Wheelchair

Barnum and I have been making tremendous progress in his training. All of a sudden, his learning has accelerated, and several skills are coming together. It’s very exciting.

One of the challenges we’ve had all along is keeping him in position when I turn left.* He generally works/walks on my left, so when I turn left, I am turning into him. His (very natural) response has been to backup — to avoid getting hit — and wait until I am perpendicular to him, when he will then step forward until he is eventually parallel to me again.

The problem is that I don’t want him perpendicular to me at all, ever, unless I have specifically cued that behavior. I want my service dog parallel to me, at my side, for several reasons:

  1. When he’s wearing a pack with items I want to access, it will be easiest to do so if he is at my side.
  2. Service dogs should be as unobtrusive as possible. We already take up a lot of space because I am a large person in a large powerchair with an oxygen holder on the back, and he is a big dog. When we add the pack, we’ll take up even more space. If his butt is sticking out, we’ll take up unnecessary room.
  3. He is most likely to get bumped into by a person or shopping cart or other things, or to back up, himself, into store displays, people, or other objects if he is not lined up next to me, where I can better protect him and shield him with my body/chair.

I didn’t have a problem teaching Jersey or Gadget to turn left, because with both of them I started with a four-wheeled mobility scooter. It had a very long base — as long as they were. So, when turning left, they were forced to stay parallel to me; there was nowhere else to go. Turning right was trickier — that is when they usually swung wide. I taught them right turns by using natural barriers — walls — and making right turns with the dog between me and the wall.

When I switched from a scooter to a powerchair with Gadget, he already knew how to move correctly with me, and it was never a problem to apply what he knew of walking with a scooter to walking with a chair. I didn’t have to do any retraining.

I’ve tried using natural barriers with Barnum to teach left turns, but there really aren’t many available. There are no accessible outdoor structures (like the garage I used to teach Jersey and Gadget, when I lived elsewhere), and in my home, there are very few walls or pieces of furniture that provide enough room for making turns.

I came up with a new way. I used the method that many trainers use for teaching hind-end awareness or for heeling training — having the dog place their front paws on a thick book or low stool, and then clicking them for taking steps with their hind legs. Eventually, they learn to pivot.

Barnum and I have been doing this pivot training for a few months, though not very frequently. Since one of the first shaped skills I taught him was to scratch his nails on a filing board, it took a while to extinguish scratching the book. Another issue we had to contend with is my problem with spatial awareness and cognitive mapping.

I’ve never had a good sense of direction, and the multiple insults to my brain from chemical injury and neurological pathogens hasn’t helped matters any. There are several posts I want to write about how brain injury affects my life, especially my two most important and beloved activities — dog training and writing — and this is one example. Before Barnum and I did a session, I had to cue him to walk with me in his “service dog walk” to figure out which way his butt should swing. I’d find a landmark in the room and circle my finger again and again in the direction I wanted his butt to spin in relation to that landmark. I didn’t want to accidentally shape him to spin right! Sometimes I just wasn’t mentally with-it enough to train this behavior.

Even after I’d captured and reinforced hind-foot steps to the left, he was pivoting without any seeming awareness that he was, or that that was what he was being clicked for. I think he has just recently become aware that his hind-end movement is what earns the treats.

The video below (which has no sound, except clicking, so it is not captioned), shows how the skill is now coming together. First I give him a few practice clicks spinning on the book, and then I slowly join him in the exercise, trying to click for him moving his hind feet when I move my chair — or even just to catch up and put himself parallel to my chair.

We still have a ways to go. The pivoting is not a default yet, but he’s incorporating the movement more often when we do “working walk” than he used to.

For those who are wondering about a cue — I did not attach a cue to this behavior. The cue will simply be my chair turning left.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (left, left, left, right left) SDiT

* This discussion pertains to “working walk” or “service dog walk,” not just simple loose-leash walking. If we are going for a casual walk, for recreation, he doesn’t have to stay in position. What I call “working walk” requires Barnum to be at my side, parallel, and giving me brief eye contact at least every three seconds, but usually more like every other second at minimum while moving, and more sustained eye contact when we’re stationary. Most people would think of what we’re doing as “heel,” as I used to. However, “heel” is actually a precision drill-team-like movement, used for obedience competitions. There aren’t many real-world applications to “heel,” especially because it can’t be maintained for long periods; it’s too demanding.

The Difference!

Clichés are clichés because they’re true, usually, and “What a difference a day makes” is my truism for the day. Barnum was a much happier dog on our walk today than our last walk on Monday.

But first, another difference: The new Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is up, and the theme this time around is “the Difference.” Each carnival has been different, with more people getting involved each time.

Kali at Brilliant Mind Broken Body did a terrific job pulling it together and presenting the extremely diverse topics and posts. There are several topics that have not been broached before in the ADBC, as well as some classic themes.

Please make sure to read the summer 2011 issue of the ADBC!

If you want to learn more about the ADBC (what a carnival is, what the ADBC focuses on, who can participate, links to past issues, etc.), please check out its home page. The next carnival will be in October, hosted by Cathy n’ Bosley at Life with a Hearing Dog. Please check out Cathy’s blog in September, or tune in here, to find out the theme, deadline, and other details for that edition.

Secondly, what a difference it makes to have a reliable powerchair again! Sure, it’s no great shakes at speed or power, but at least I feel fairly secure that when I leave for a walk, I will be able to come home on my own steam, and not be stranded in the road, waiting for someone to discover me and get a helper to drive my van out to pick me up!

Barnum and I had our first real, “normal” walk today, after many months of difficulties. I took him for a walk when there was no PCA or anyone else at home! I didn’t worry about getting stranded, the chair losing power, etc. So, that was lovely.

My dog was quite different today, too. Laura, you were right in your comments about my last post, Barnum did have more of a spring in his step after just one walk with me!

Last time, his loose leash walk was about 80 or 90 percent. I had wondered how much of that was him being slow and uncertain. I wondered if, when he pepped up, he’d start to pull again.

Nope! His LLW was practically flawless today! Maybe once or twice the leash got tight, and then he would automatically pause or take a couple of steps backward. It was the most effortless walk I have ever had with any dog! Yeehaw!

When we started out, he still seemed a little concerned, but a bit less than last time. I used lots of very animated happy talk, and clicked/treated for “looking happy.” I’m sure this is the kind of thing that would make a traditional trainer or someone who doesn’t think animals have emotions roll their eyes, believing that what I’m doing is “not scientific.”

But, it’s really pretty obvious, if you’re paying attention, whether a dog is confident or scared, relaxed or nervous, mellow or angry. I clicked Barnum for sniffing interestedly at the ground or roadside, for walking with a bounce in his step, for smiling (open, relaxed mouth), and for other tail, head, and body indicators of calm or enjoyment.

The most obvious difference was his overall body language. That improved very quickly as soon as I used my happy voice and started doing lots of clicks and treats. But he still had a bit of a concerned look in his eyes, though the rest of his body language looked relaxed. Eventually, he was bopping along, his eyes were bright and open, and he seemed engaged in earning his treats and being out in the world.

My initial guesses as to what was worrying him were cars, the loose dogs that rush out and bark a ways down the road, or getting swarmed by biting insects. The insects were not bad today, so that was not an issue. To make sure the dogs weren’t the problem, today and Sunday, I turned us around before we got near the territorial dogs. One thing at a time, after all.

I am now thinking the issue most likely is cars. Some of his worried look returned occasionally on the way home, after a couple of cars had gone by. As I explained in my post on rural living, cars are rare enough that when one goes by, it is a minor event (we have to get to the side of the road, if nothing else), but not so rare that we don’t usually have three or four pass us on a walk. And I took him out today at “rush hour,” from 5:30 to 6:15, so we probably had six or seven cars go by. (Sometimes we can take a walk, and no cars will go by, but that has to be at a lazier time of the day.)

He has always visually tracked cars, and I had hoped that over time he would learn that they are neither prey nor predator, and that he’d grow used to them. I used to try to play the “look at that” game from Control Unleashed with him, but of course, it’s been months since we’ve had consistent walks.

Today I was ready with not just hot dogs and cheese, but a tube of pureed cottage cheese, which is his favorite thing in the world. When he saw or heard a car, we played LAT. By time we were nearing home, and the last truck went by, he was almost exclusive focused on me and the cottage cheese.

I think I will just work on desensitization and counter-conditioning, because we don’t seem to do well with LAT. I want to find someone to sit in a car at a distance and creep up on us a few sessions, using cottage cheese as my counter-conditioning tool. I have a feeling that with enough desensitizing sessions, combined with happy walks, he will get over his car concern. It will also help if I can take him to the city, where there are so many cars, they won’t be such an event (flooding).

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Carnival, especially Kali. I have a lot of reading to do in the next few days!

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


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