Posts Tagged 'operant conditioning'

Tip for Tired Trainers: KPCT Podcasts

There are a lot of ways to handle dog training and stewardship when you have a fatiguing illness. I have generally focused my tips on training. But sometimes you are just too sick to train. In fact, taking training breaks is not only inevitable, but useful and necessary for both human and dog. More on that another time.

You may have noticed that it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted a Tuesday Tip for Tired Trainers, and that my posts have been less frequent lately, overall. This is due to a dip I’ve experienced in my health and functioning. I hope I will pull out of it soon. Meanwhile, though, Barnum and I train when I can, and I try to support our efforts even when we’re not training. How? By keeping ahead of him in my learning.

I have a feeling I’m not alone in this. Have you gone through times where you have not been able to do much training, and you are feeling restless? If you’re training a service dog, a lot is riding on your training, and you’re probably fighting impatience as it is. While latent learning can help both you and your dog — that’s the learning that occurs when you’re not actively training/studying, when your brain is organizing all the information you’ve taken in, so resting is actually a form of learning — you may also find ways to support your sense of accomplishment by other forms of passive learning.

It’s a fact that people have to learn a lot more and work a lot harder to train their dogs than the dogs do. Every time I ask someone to help me train Barnum, I describe in detail exactly what they should do. They almost always respond, in a surprised and joking way, with something like, “This is really human training isn’t it? You’re training me more than him!”

I usually say, “Yes, of course!”

In fact, when it comes to dog training, I find people much harder to train than dogs! The hardest person to train is me. I’ve learned the same lessons dozens, maybe hundreds of times, and I still do the wrong things sometimes! Sometimes even while I’m doing it, I will say to myself, “Why are you doing this?” Or after I’ve done it, and it has failed, predictably, I’ll ask myself why I didn’t see that coming. Well, that’s just human!

So, what if you’re in a position like me? Training is important to you, but you are too darn sick to do much of anything. If you don’t have a lot of mental fatigue or cognitive issues (whatever you want to call it — brain fog, chemo brain, fibro fog, CFIDS brain, Lyme brain, etc.), you might be able to read a dog-training book. I find re-reading my dog training books very helpful, especially because of my memory problems. The same holds true for watching dog-training DVDs.

However, most fatigue-related conditions also seem to affect mental acuity. And chances are good that if you’re reading or watching a dog-training program, it’s important to you to remember it. You might be following a structured program, such as Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels: Steps to Success, in which case you are trying to follow each “recipe” exactly. That’s not very restful! Too much pressure for a tired brain and body.

Recently, I’ve been listening to the podcasts on Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT). These are usually podcasts by individuals or groups of trainers who have graduated from the Karen Pryor Clicker Academy (KPA). They cover a wide range of subjects, from typical dog-training issues (fear, aggression, games) to training other species (cats, fish, marine animals, other people, and oneself), as well as theories of training and behavioral psychology. Benefits of the podcasts are that they are available anywhere and any time you have a computer, and they don’t require a fast internet connection (the way video does). They are also free, which is a real benefit over buying a gazillion training books or DVDs. You do have to be a member of the KPCT mailing list to listen to them. If you aren’t already, it’s a relatively short, easy process to sign up, and the monthly articles you receive in your email are more than worth it.

I found this episode on the Power of Context Cues to be especially relevant at my current stage in training Barnum as a service-dog-in-training. Even though they weren’t saying anything I didn’t know, there are a lot of lessons it helps to learn repeatedly. This was a great reminder of the importance of keeping contextual cues in mind, and manipulating them to my benefit. Indeed, among examples relating to veterinary visits and aggression issues, examples are also presented that relate to guide dogs. (These comments came from guide dog trainer and KPA graduate and international freestyle champion, Michele Pouliot.)

The most recent podcast is this one on “Wow!” Moments by ClickerExpo Faculty. This page also contains a listing of all the podcasts to date, so you can start here and work backward, or pick and choose what interests you most.

These podcasts provide entertainment and education that is not too mentally taxing for me (usually). So far, they have not been on topics I felt I needed to take notes on, so I can just let the information wash over me and feel like I am still doing something to support my work with Barnum, even if we can’t shape behaviors.

If there’s a podcast you particularly like, please mention it in the comments!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and lately lead latent learner

Give Me a Ring?

Hello faithful readers!

I haven’t been blogging much lately because I’ve been sicker than usual quite a lot. I have had two stuck days within less than a week, for example. The lower rate of blogging will probably continue as I figure out how to stay within my “energy envelope.” As I discussed at length in my recent post at my writing blog, mental exertion can cause as much, or more, of a payback than physical exertion.

Therefore, I’m facing some difficult decisions about how to use my time — what I will have to give up or limit, and what I will need to prioritize. More about this another time. Meanwhile, I’m trying to find ways to continue with Barnum’s training even when I’m in bed, in a lot of pain, etcetera.

One skill I’ve been wanting to work on with him is alerting me to the telephone ringing. I have a phone in my room, and I keep the ringer turned off most of the time. The theory is that I turn it off before I go to sleep and turn it back on when I wake up, but I sleep very odd hours — in both senses. My hours are strange and variable. And sleep is a precious commodity, so unless there’s some sort of major emergency, I don’t want to be woken up for anything.

Because of my cognitive impairment, I very rarely remember to turn the ringer back on. There is a phone in the living room, but with all the white noise of my air filters and my heavy wooden door, I don’t usually hear it ring. This means that I miss phone calls that I really don’t need or want to miss.

Barnum has a strong and reliable alert to my infusion pump alarm (he now jumps on the bed and then noses or licks my face), and he is learning how to alert me to the stove and toaster oven timers, too. These have been easy to train because Barnum is naturally attuned to sounds, and once he’s learned that responding to one type of beep or buzzer gets him cookies, he’s increasingly likely to generalize. These other sounds can be easily incorporated into my day now and then when  I need to use the stove or oven, so the training opportunities arise on their own. I am prepared to toss my cookies (no, not that way), because I always know approximately when the timers will go off, because I have set them.

The phone is a whole ‘nother kettle of monkeys in the ointment. I never know when someone will call. When the phone does ring, either I don’t hear it because my ringer is off, or I do hear it, and I’m scrambling to find the headset among the debris on my bed before it goes to voicemail, so it doesn’t occur to me to toss Barnum a treat.

We really need some training sessions, where the phone rings repeatedly, so it becomes something he tunes into. Unfortunately, I can’t call myself (no cell phone reception here, as I mentioned in my rural living post). This means I need people who are willing to call me several times in a row without actually needing or wanting or expecting to have a conversation with me!

The beginning stages of alert training are simple. I use classical conditioning and just pair the sound with a treat. Phone rings, I toss a high-value treat. Phone rings, I toss a high-value treat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I do this until, when the phone rings, I see Barnum start. When he’s showing me clickable behavior, I switch to operant conditioning. I click that behavior — the startle — even though it was probably involuntary. Over time, I click/treat for increased intensity of behavior (swinging head to look at me, jumping up, coming over, etc.).

But, as I said, in the beginning, it’s pretty simple. I just need to lie in bed, waiting for the phone to ring (we all know what that’s like!), with treats in my hand, and then toss the treats when the phone rings. I need to make sure that the phone rings at irregular intervals (one minute, 30 seconds, two minutes, 45 seconds, three minutes, etc.), so that Barnum doesn’t start responding to a pattern as opposed to the ring itself. (Dogs are very good at judging time intervals.)

So, if you would like to help me train Barnum, here is a hands-on opportunity! Benefits and compensation include:

  • Warm fuzzies (knowing that you are helping me train my service dog);
  • The opportunity to hear me train Barnum in the background while I ignore you to focus on him;
  • Flexible hours;
  • Opportunity to work from home, office, or a cafe or taxi;
  • Keep those extra long-distance phone minutes from going to waste;
  • Not being burdened by the paperwork that comes with pay, health insurance, sick leave, vacation time, etc.

If you think you might be interested, please contact me by using the contact form or by commenting on this post. Or, if you have my email address, you can email me directly. This can be something you just do once, for five minutes, or it could be something we do on an ongoing basis, or anything in between. At night, during the day, whatever. We just need to schedule ahead so I am ready to fling treats, or you can even email me if you have an unexpected free ten minutes in your day. If I’m awake and not training Barnum, chances are I will see your email.

No experience necessary. Only serious, silly, or frivolous replies, please. Inquire within or without — I won’t know the difference.

– Sharon, Gadget (I was lousy at this because I was hard-of-hearing), and Barnum, SDiT and sound-oriented dog

My Operant Dog!

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Enjoy the carnival!

This post is part of the second Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, hosted by L^2 (L-squared) at Dog’s Eye View. This month, the theme is “Decisions.”

**Breaking News: The Carnival is up, and it is huge! 26 bloggers participated this time. Please visit the carnival and enjoy!**

I can’t think of a topic that is more suited to a discussion of assistance dogs. The life of a service dog (SD) partnership is one of constant decision-making. For people, there are the “big decisions”: whether, when, where, or how to get a SD; which methods to use to train or handle the dog; which skills to train; how to deal with public access issues (when to confront, when to avoid, when to gently educate); when to retire our working partner and/or when to take on a successor, to name just a few.

In daily life, both members of the team make decisions all day long. On the human end of the leash, we decide how to direct our dog, which behavior to ask for, how to respond to a missed cue, how best to explain to the dog what we want, when to give the dog a break and when to keep working.

On the canine end of the leash, the dog is making decisions: When to alert, how best to guide around an obstacle, whether to use paw or nose, whether to use one paw or two, whether to refuse a command.

But even before the dog becomes a full-fledged SD, he is making choices. And the trainer is influenced by those choices, herself. That’s what my post is about — a recent event where Barnum’s decision-making shone through, and how that moved me to make up my mind.

I use the phrase, “The other end of the leash,” above, intentionally. My decision about what to write for this carnival post was inspired by a recent blog by behaviorist, and author of The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell.

In her New Year’s blog, McConnell presents the difference between “resolutions” and “commitments.” She reveals past and current commitments she has made to herself and to her dogs on New Year’s and invites readers to do the same.

She provides terrific advice on how best to keep our “New Year’s Commitments” to ourselves and to our dogs:

We know that commitments are most often kept if 1) they are focused and specific, 2) they are attainable and 3) they are made public. Not that you have to blog about them yourself, but …. do what you can to put them out into the universe in some way.

McConnell also delivers a fascinating etymological tidbit:

The word “decision” originated from “decis,” or to “cut off” — as in, “cut off all other options”. Truly making a decision – truly – means selecting one option and completely eliminating all others.

I love words, so this intrigued me, but it didn’t seem particularly useful at the time. Instead, I got caught up in the idea of New Year’s resolutions for our dogs — her resolution for her dog, Willie, as well as the dozens of comments by readers who followed McConnell’s lead in making promises for the betterment of their dogs in the coming year — making it public by posting on her blog.

I don’t normally make New Year’s resolutions, but the more I read, the more I started to ponder, “What is a doable goal that would benefit Barnum and me, that I don’t already have in my sights?”

Here’s what I came up with and posted in the comments section. (I had so much trouble getting specific that I had to post twice):

[My first comment:] My resolution — and I wouldn’t have made one if I hadn’t read your blog, so thank you — is to teach Barnum an actual TRICK. Not a foundation behavior for service work or manners or obedience or handling, etc., but a totally useless, just-for-fun trick.

[My second comment:] Oh, shoot, that wasn’t very specific. I’m not sure what we’ll do yet. Maybe twirling? I want to see what he likes.

How about, at least once a week, we will train some sort of completely useless behavior, just for fun.

Why, when we have so much to learn that is crucial — assistance skills, obedience behaviors, manners appropriate to working in public — have I decided to waste time training something I characterize as useless? The question itself provides the answer: Barnum and I have so much pressure on us to succeed, we need to be able to do something simply for the pleasure of training. This will also strengthen our bond.

In fact, Karen Pryor‘s book, Getting Started: Clicker Training Your Dog, suggests beginning with a shaped trick — something for which the outcome is not important. That way, both dog and person can simply focus on learning and having fun, without getting weighed down by the need to “get it right.”

For people training their pets, this is important advice. If you’ve turned to training your dog to correct a problem, such as jumping on guests, counter surfing, or not coming when called, you don’t want to claw your way up the learning curve simultaneous with trying to fix an “issue.” You learn clicker by doing; it’s better to learn to teach your dog to “sit pretty” or balance a biscuit on her nose, and then tackle “jumping on guests.”

As a disabled handler training my own service dog, the pressure to train — virtually constantly — and to do it all perfectly, is multiplied by twenty. Barnum must learn all the good manners a well-behaved pet needs, plus cast-iron obedience, dozens of complicated service skills, fantastic impulse control, and to perform all these behaviors in distracting, public environments.

And who has to mold this wild adolescent into a top-notch helper and public ambassador for assistance dogs? Me! The person who needs the help!

Clearly, therefore, a great deal of pressure comes from my needs that are currently going unmet, and my hopes and expectations that someday, this will change. I remember what it was like to have these needs met by Gadget.

While Barnum gives me a great deal of love and enjoyment, there’s no denying that, for the past year, and the one to come, he also requires tons of work, without providing practical assistance in exchange.

Usually, I’m at peace with this uncertainty of when, or even if, he will start giving back. Occasionally, though, when I’m extremely ill, I think, “Can’t you just pick up that pen? It’s really not that hard.”

Or, “Dude, can’t you just open the door yourself? I’m in too much pain to move.”

I have my doubts: “Will we ever get there?”

Then, I have to give myself a mental shake and remind myself of who Barnum is and how much he still has to learn. It is this pressure to get my own needs met, that runs counter to Barnum’s needs, which I must resist — for both of our sakes.

A bit of additional pressure — completely unintentional — comes from external forces, such as from other trainers with whom I communicate, as well as from some of the people in my life. For example, when Barnum was about four months old, one of my PCAs asked when he’d be able to bring me water from the refrigerator. I was speechless, because this task was so far beyond our grasp.

My helper followed up with, “Within two months, do you think?”

She was not joking. She had seen Gadget working as a fully fledged SD. She didn’t see the years of effort that went into his training. She didn’t realize she was asking about a behavior chain that required the mastery of several discrete skills, strung together, combined with distance, distraction, and duration.

I think I said something like, “No, that is a long way off. First, we have to finish toilet training!”

Thus, my resolution to teach an honest-to-goodness, good-for-nothin’ trick!

You may have noticed I said we would do a “shaped” trick. So, what is “shaping”? What does it mean to say a skill is “shaped?”[1]

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, clicker training relies on the laws of operant conditioning, specifically, positive reinforcement. (We’ll come back to that word, “operant,” in a little bit.)

Shaping, sometimes referred to as “free shaping,” is considered the most advanced form of clicker training because there is no prompting by the trainer. Instead, we use a dog’s offered behaviors and reward those that resemble — in tiny ways, at first — the end result we want. The dog has to do more thinking than in any other form of training. It is a step-by-step way for dog and trainer to problem-solve their way to a solution.

The first “trick” I shaped with Barnum was to file his nails by scratching them on a board covered with sandpaper. (To teach your dog to do this, visit trainer Shirley Chong’s nail file instructions.)

In the beginning, this meant just clicking and treating (c/t) for looking at the board, then moving toward it, then putting a paw on it, then moving his paw. Over time I start refine the behavior (giving it “shape”): I wait for a paw movement that is a tiny bit like a scratch — the front of the paw is bent forward, or he moves the paw backward as he brings it down. I stop clicking for just “paws on board” and only click for raking movements.

Eventually, I refine more. At different times, I have shaped for scratching only the sandpapered parts of the board, for longer scratches, harder scratches, and for two or three scratches in a row. Barnum also seems to be “left-pawed,” so I click more for right-paw movements to even him out.

This behavior is not yet finished, but here is a three-minute video of one of our early training sessions. This was in October, when Barnum was six months old (and looking like a very leggy, shorn black sheep!).

Note: I haven’t captioned the video, because there is no sound other than clicking, and there are so many clicks, the software is not refined enough to get the timing right. However, you can see when I’ve clicked, because Barnum looks up at me, and I throw a treat.

I also have not provided a transcript because, again, there is no dialogue, and my guess is that reading a transcript would be tedious.

But, here’s what occurs: There is a plywood board about two-thirds covered in sandpaper on the living room floor. Barnum immediately goes to the board when it’s placed on the ground and rakes a paw across it.

Initially, I click for every scratch with one paw. After a while, he ends up on the end of the board where there’s no sandpaper. When he scratches there, about three times, I withhold clicks, because we’ve already worked on this. Then he remembers, “Oh yeah, I don’t get paid over here,” and repositions.

Then, I start holding off on some clicks to get two scratches. I click even if the second scratch is very abbreviated, because my criterion is just “more consecutive scratches.” I also click more often for one scratch if it’s the right paw, even if it’s not a very good scratch.

I clicked about 25 times in this session (which is actually a very low rate of reinforcement [RR]. Higher rates are much more effective, but I’ll save that discussion for another post). However, the biggest error I made is that I went too long. Barnum tells me this quite directly by wandering away at the end of the video. His poor puppy brain was full!

Clicker sessions should be short; shaping sessions — because they are so mentally intensive — should be particularly short; and given Barnum’s age, it should have been even shorter. A one-minute or 30-second session would have been ideal.

What I hope you notice most, however, is not what I did, but what Barnum did, which is ultimately what this post is about. Through clicker training, Barnum is learning to make choices. He’s learned he’s free to guess and investigate: Will this work? No, then what about this?

Since there’s no punishment, there’s no reason not to try something. Novel behavior is usually rewarded, in fact.

In other words, it’s obvious when watching this video that Barnum was thinking. Sometimes he pauses and tries this or that part of the board, including swinging his body around to try different angles. Sometimes you can see him deciding to use one paw instead of the other, especially when the first paw didn’t get clicked. And, most importantly, he didn’t give up — he made the decision to keep trying until he got too mentally tired, and took a break. Also a valid choice, and an important communication to me.

It’s worth noting, however, that — although you don’t see this because it occurs after the tape ends — after turning and walking away, Barnum arced back around and immediately tried to continue. In fact, this “game” is so reinforcing for him that even when I have gone too long, and he clearly needs to stop, when I pick up the board, he always tries to get more scratches in. I will be lifting up the board, and he’s trying to stand on it (and that’s 80 pounds of dog — oof!).

That’s where we were six months ago.

My, how things have changed!

At that time, this skill was the only one I had trained entirely by shaping. (In most cases, I’d used a combination of shaping and targeting.) Since then, Barnum has gotten more “clicker savvy,” and we do more pure shaping. As a result, he is much more accustomed to offering behaviors.

I didn’t realize how much learning was going on inside his furry head until I embarked on our first twirling lesson. Remember that New Year’s resolution? Our useless trick?

Here’s how it went. I got out my treats (cubes of frozen beef heart), and my clicker, and shut us in the larger bathroom — the room with the fewest distractions that still provides enough space to maneuver.

My first decision was which direction I was going to teach him to spin, and more importantly, how I would remember which direction I chose. Shaping requires split-second timing; a good shaping session is a series of reactions without pauses for thought.

In fact, since no response (the absence of c/t) means, “That’s not what I’m looking for, try something else,” if I stop to think, “Now should I click that or not? Was that clockwise or counterclockwise?” I very well might be giving Barnum bogus information — telling him he didn’t do the desired behavior when he did.

Therefore, I needed a way I could keep track of which direction I’d spin Barnum without my brain inhibiting the speed and rhythm of my hands. Barnum has a streak of silver on his left, front leg. I decided to shape him to spin left, using that visual landmark to keep me on track if I became confused.

Now it was time to tell Barnum the plan.

I sat and waited. When Barnum looked to the left, c/t. I cheated slightly, by including an element of luring — I tried to throw the treats to his left. This meant, every time he turned toward a treat, I could click him again for that left-turning motion. We went on like this, with him making big, slow circles as I clicked and lobbed meat.

Did he know what he was being clicked for? No, not yet. But just like an athlete or pianist builds muscle memory by practicing moving their body in a certain way over and over, I had faith he would eventually start turning to the left on his own. At first, he wouldn’t realize why he was doing this. Eventually, he would have “a lightbulb moment” and start doing it intentionally. Then, I would shape a tighter, faster spin — maybe. Someday?

But for now, I was just trying to get him moving in the correct direction, literally. All was going well until, for whatever reason (probably due to where I’d thrown the last treat), I didn’t have anything to click. Barnum just stood perfectly still, watching me.

When no c/t was forthcoming, he offered a sit, because that is the behavior he has the longest reinforcement history with. I continued to wait. I figured eventually he would at least look left, I’d reinforce that, and away we’d go.

Instead, when he didn’t get clicked after a few seconds, he pawed the ground! First with one paw, then the other. He tried both tapping the ground and raking it. If I’d been prepared and thinking on my toes, I could have clicked one of these left-paw movements, but I was not expecting it.

I had been shaping him to hit a target on the floor with his paw, and of course he knew the scratches from the nail file, but there was no target or filing board this time, he was just trying out different foot behaviors — maybe partly because he recognized that the behavior had something to do with moving his legs.

Then he sat again. No click. He downed. No click. He did all of this facing me, straight on, so there was no clickable movement to the left!

He lay there, looking at me. Then he elaborated on his down. He put his head on his right leg. Then his left. He tried rolling partway onto his side. (Again, looking back, I realize I could have clicked him putting his head on his left leg, but I was so entranced by him offering me behavior after behavior, I wasn’t thinking small enough.)

Then he pulled himself back into a sit. He locked eyes with me and stared — eye contact, a behavior we work on every day.

Up until now, every behavior he’d offered was something he’d been rewarded for in the past. (The head-down-on-paws and laying on his side are some of the “bio-feedback” behaviors I click for when asking him to relax.)

When nothing in his known repertoire worked, he did something that totally surprised me. Staying in his sit, he scooted his butt a couple of inches to one side. Then he tried scooting the other direction.

I have never seen him do this before or since. I have certainly never asked for the behavior, “Sit, looking at me, and — staying in your sit — move two inches to the right.”

He was getting quite frustrated. He wanted the game to start again! He shifted his eyes left (probably a sign of mild stress, actually), and I clicked! He startled (“Hooray!”),  jumped up, and dove for his treat. We were off again on shaping the twirl. I ended soon after.

To someone who is not obsessed involved with clicker training, it might seem strange that I was thrilled that Barnum offered me a whole bunch of behaviors that I did not ask for. That’s because traditionally people think of dog training as meaning I tell the dog what to do, and if he “obeys,” he’s a good dog (and I’m a good trainer). If he doesn’t, he gets a verbal reprimand or a leash pop.

However, my goal since Day One has been for Barnum to be “an operant dog” which is clicker-trainer slang for a dog who has learned that thinking and experimenting, making many choices, will not only not be punished, but will be reinforcing in two ways: it will be fun in its own right, because it becomes a game to puzzle out, and because he can win this game over and over, by receiving positive reinforcements (usually food, but occasionally play, toys, physical affection, freedom, or other experiences he values).

An “operant dog” in the clicker world is one who offers behaviors without waiting for a cue, target, or lure. The dog is not passive or reactive, but instead is operating on the environment, making choices.

As a SD, Barnum will need to learn very complex skills, and this will be made much easier if he is able to problem-solve on his own. I’m currently laying the foundation for a service skill that will require him to “throw multiple behaviors at me.”

The task has to do with my sometimes falling asleep while I’m infusing intravenous medication. The IV pump has an alarm on it, but I have sleep disorders for which I take several herbal and pharmaceutical sleep aids. As a result, I frequently wake up just enough to turn off the alarm and then fall back asleep. I awaken many hours later, still hooked to the pump, and not having flushed my line — with no memory of shutting off the alarm.

I want Barnum to wake me up and keep me awake until I disconnect and flush my PICC line. I began training this skill simply by making him aware of the alarm. When the siren went off (and sometimes I set it to go off even when I’m not infusing — for training purposes) I’d toss him a very desirable treat.

After a few days of doing this, when the alarm sounded, I’d watch for any behavior I could click before tossing the treat — the flick of an ear, opening his eyes, looking up. Any movement that said, “Hey! Where’s my treat?”

I c/t his reaction because now he’s offered a behavior I can shape. Over time, I’ll wait to click till he lifts his head higher, sits up, moves toward me or the pump, etc., until he is running over, demanding his treat.

The ultimate goal is for him to wake me up when the alarm goes off and keep bugging me until he gets his treat. This will work best if he keeps offering behaviors (nudging me, jumping on the bed, barking at me), until he gets what he wants.

Almost everyone agrees that a happy, effective assistance dog has to want to work — in essence, that the dog is choosing the life of a SD.

When I see Barnum eager to offer behaviors, it shows me that he has the desire to keep training and learning. This gives me great hope and optimism at this crossroads in our training journey.

By training this way, are Barnum and I meeting Patricia McConnell’s definition of a decision — that of cutting off all other options? At first glance, it might seem we’re doing the opposite: I’m allowing (encouraging, actually) Barnum to try out many different behaviors.

However, along the way, yes, I am eliminating the choices I don’t want. When I c/t for “scratch on the sandpaper,” I’m closing the door on “scratch on the plain wood surface of the board.” Of course, Barnum can still choose to do that, but he doesn’t get anything out of it, so he makes the choice I want instead.

In the larger sense, the biggest picture of all for me right now, is that breakthroughs like we had in our first “twirling” session have set me more firmly on the road to committing to Barnum as my future SD team. For a long time, I have referred to Barnum as “hopefully my future SD” or “a potential SDiT” or “a SDiT candidate.”

I do think that many people apply the label “service-dog-in-training” too soon. How can an eight-week-old puppy be a SDiT? There is too much unknown. A puppy is a puppy, learning puppy things, like where he should pee and poop and what is okay to chew and what is not. I wanted to wait until I committed to this label.

It is a very individual decision when to switch from calling a dog a “SDiT candidate” and when to say he is a SDiT. I decided to hold off on this judgment to see if he seems to have the drive to work — the creativity, if you will — before I graduated us to “SDiT team.”

Now Barnum is starting to show more and more of the traits I look for in a service dog. I have eliminated the option of seeing him as anything other than my future service dog. I have made the decision that he is my service-dog-in-training.

All this from a little good-for-nothing trick-training session. Are you listening, Universe?

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (SDiT!)

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[1.] Clicker trainers use three other methods besides shaping to “get behavior” (have the dog do something we can reinforce). We can either lure (such as moving a treat up from her nose so that she follows it into a sit), capture (wait for the dog to sit on her own and click and treat), or use targeting (where the dog follows an object, such as your hand, into the position you want). Back to post.

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