Posts Tagged 'power wheelchair'

Waspish Wednesday: Now, with Real Wasps!

Betsy got stung by a wasp today as she was dealing with one of our four composting nightmares. As she was sitting on the floor with a bag of frozen peas on her ankle, she said, “You should write a Waspish Wednesday about this!”

After I thought about it I realized she was right, it is Wednesday! I have other topics I’ve been wanting to write on, not least my post for the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, if I can get it done in time. Meanwhile, though, what have I been up to?

Powerchair hell, as usual. A few weeks ago, I asked the people who built my big purple chair if I could please exchange it for a new chair or just return it for a refund, inasmuch as it is a lemon. They responded that they would completely change all the wiring and the wheel motors.

I thought about it. I knew I didn’t want that, because they’d already rewired it, and I’m convinced the wheel motors are not the issue. But I was trying to decide if I wanted to ask for a new chair or just a refund. I looked up the Massachusetts wheelchair lemon law and discovered that it is up to me, the consumer, as to whether I want an exchange or a refund.

I wrote them, referred them to the law (which is online; most states have wheelchair lemon laws), and told them I wanted a refund. They responded by yelling at me a few times. I basically said, “Can’t we please just settle this? I’m not asking for reimbursement for mileage for the many long trips. I just want a refund. I’ll return the chair.” But no, I kept getting emails saying it was my fault for using it in mud, snow, and rain, which is mostly not true, and also beside the point, as the advertisements for this chair and the conversations I had with them said it’s great to use it in snow, etc.

For the last few days I have been contacting the Better Business Bureau — who told me to file a complaint, but who have no teeth — and the Consumer Protection Office, who told me to file a complaint, and may or may not have teeth, and the Attorney General’s office, who told me to file a complaint, and who — I think — do have some sort of teeth. This is just exactly how I wanted to spend my summer. Sitting inside, reading websites, making phone calls, and doing paperwork for a chair that has caused me pretty much nonstop stress and trouble.

Right now I’m in the middle of writing a “Letter of Demand,” which the AG and the Consumer Protection office told me to write. I’ve got my calendar and all my old emails to refer to to help my sometimes rusty memory. In this letter, I demand he comply with the various applicable consumer protection laws, and then say that if he doesn’t, he could be facing big, nasty, mean court charges. It’s just a thrill, and I know he’ll be totally cooperative and reasonable once he gets it.

Meanwhile, I decided to see if I could resurrect my old pchair, my Jet 3 Ultra, which was a pretty decent machine in its prime. Betsy and I took it all apart, as this picture attests.

The seat of the powerchair sits sideways on the floor, disconnected from the base. Around it are tools, hardware, rags, cleaning solution, a flashlight, and other debris.

Actually, we'd already put the base back together when I thought to take pictures. We took it apart a lot more than this.

It turned out we didn’t need to take it apart as much as we did. We discovered this when Betsy suggested I find and read the manual and see if it tells us how to change the batteries, which it did. However, I’m not sorry we took it apart, because I learned about what’s inside and where and how to make all sorts of adjustments. It also gave us a chance to vacuum out a lot of debris and remove dust and dirt — which always harbors mold.

We adjusted the seating, which had always been too low for my long legs — raising the seat and then moving it back so my feet rested on the foot-plate like they were supposed to. (The original vendor should have done this, but he just dropped it off and left. That’s a story for another time.) Then, we had to move where the controller box (joystick) was sitting, so that would be in the right place, too. Betsy did a lot of heavy lifting; it was quite a job, but now I finally have two chairs with proper seating.

We tried taking out the almost entirely dead batteries and replacing them with some others I had lying around. Usually if you don’t charge batteries they die completely, but I thought that since the others were very-nearly dead, these others couldn’t be much worse. I was wrong. They are completely dead, and now the chair doesn’t go at all. It won’t even charge. However, it looks fabulous.

Powerchair reassembled. In the foreground, the chair, with a shiny gray captain's seat and red metal base with gray wheels. Behind and to the left, Barnum naps on his tan organic dog bed.

Voila!

I even figured out a problem that had stumped me for years, which was how to make my elevated leg rests from my new indoor chair fit with it. I figured out how to remove some thingies that had been blocking the  rails. I also took the seat belts off my useless purple chair and put them on this chair. (Which is where they were originally from.) With the addition of seat belts and extended leg rests, it will be safer, more stable, and less tiring for me to use for extended periods, such as for walking my dog! Behold! . . .

Side view of the powerchair with long, black, metal leg rests and a gray seatbelt with a red buckle.

Now I'm ready for action! (Sorta.)

I have been posting on a powerchair forum called Wheelchair Junkie, which is basically a bulletin board for power mobility gearheads. The folks there have given me a lot of helpful advice. I decided to get cheap replacement batteries for the Jet, just so I have a working backup chair and one that I can use with my existing van lift — so I can go to doctor’s appointments and take Barnum for working field trips to parking lots and stores and such. And, I will see how this chair does in the rough-and-tumble of my rural setting. Hopefully, it will be good enough until I get something with more power, clearance, stability, and speed. (I’ll talk more about ideas for that another time.)

I ordered my batteries from Amazon, the same brand and type that had been in there before. They arrived within three days, and I couldn’t wait to install them and see if the chair was viable! After all Betsy’s and my hard work, I was very excited.

I took out the old batteries, put in one of the new ones, started to connect the wires to the terminals, and then decided I should put the other one in, too, before I connected the wires. So, I took the second one out of the box, and . . .

Close-up of wheelchair battery. On the far side, the red terminal stands up straight. On the near side, the black terminal is bent back severely.

Augh! The terminal was bent!

I emailed the seller and asked them to send me a new one with expedited shipping and take back this damaged one for no shipping charges (because each battery weighs 23 pounds, so shipping can be pricey!). I didn’t hear back from them. The next day, I emailed them again and asked for their shipping return address and an expedited exchange. No response. Today I sent the battery back, and the shipping charges came to almost as much as the cost of the battery itself! I wrote to them for a third time, told them the battery was on the way, and asked for them to defray the shipping costs and send a new battery. I also said I was “very unhappy with your customer service.” I hoped that would get their attention, since they get feedback scores from customers.

Surprise! Very shortly after that, an actual human from the company emailed me and said they were expediting my refund, but that my shipping charges were too high for them to cover. I don’t know what will happen in the end, because we’re still discussing it. Meanwhile, I ordered a replacement battery. I hope it arrives in perfect condition!

I want to get out of my frickin’ house! AUGH!

My theory is that I was in a wheelchair karma-accident in my former life. The only positive out of the battery disappointment was that when I tried to stand up from the ground and needed assistance, Barnum did a terrific job of bracing me. He is super solid on that skill. He stands nice and square and doesn’t move a muscle. Best stand-stay and brace on any dog I’ve had yet.

Good dog! Bad wheelchair vendors. If only I could clicker train them! . . .

– Sharon, who has used a carrot for a long time and has now taken out her big stick! The muse of Gadget (I LIKED the Jet! But not as much as the scooter, which went faster), and Barnum (Sharon never takes me for walks anymore. Sigh.)

Woot! Do I Have a Working Dog?

Barnum and I just had a very exciting walk!

I haven’t even been able to attempt a walk recently because I haven’t felt up to it. But I slept on and off till 4:00 PM today, so I started gathering our walk things as soon as I woke up.

I really wanted to try to go farther than we have been, despite that my outdoor chair is still in the shop, so I found my elevated leg rests for my indoor chair.  I’m hoping the walks will whomp me less the next day if I have more physical support and stability.

And . . . we’re off!

First, I took him to his toileting area, and I asked him to pee, and he did! Click!

Before we left the yard, I clipped the leash to his collar, and didn’t put on the Easy Walk Harness because I thought he’d probably generalized loose-leash walking (LLW), and we wouldn’t need it. I was right! He showed no more inclination to pull on his collar than on the harness. Click!

He was also very interested in taking cheese for clicks, which he earned for

  • being in the right position, or
  • making eye contact, or
  • being about to go too far ahead and then remembering to keep the leash loose and returning to position!

Click!

We wandered along at a sedate pace (because that’s what he’s used to; going at faster speeds makes him excited, and then he forgets what he’s supposed to be doing) with a nice loose leash. Then, when passing my neighbor’s front yard, we saw they had a very bright, dark pink, plastic thing propped up next to the road. I think it might be a toddler’s sled?

Anyway, Barnum looked at it with deep distrust. He’d never seen one of these before, and who knew what it was capable of?

So I backed us away from it until he seemed comfortable, and we watched it for a bit. I c/t for looking at it relaxedly. Then I started playing the “Look at That” game (from Control Unleashed).

I’d say, “What’s that?” and point to it, he’d look, I’d click, and he’d turn to me to take the treat. We did that a bunch, moving slowly forward.

Eventually we got close enough that he just wanted to give the whole thing a good sniff and not take any cheese, so I just clicked for sniffing. BUT, he was keeping track, because after a round of sniffing, he came back to demand cheese! I obliged of course; the click is a contract.

Since he was already sniffing it, I thought we might as well add nose targeting, so I pointed to different parts of it, saying, “Touch!” and he’d get a c/t for each.

Then we did some sits and hand targets and eye contact cues, right in front of the pink thing, and he was very happy to get c/t for all of that. I decided that the pink thing was no longer a source of anxiety, and we moved on.

We continued out LLW, including the opportunity for me to cue a poop. I have learned now that when he reaches for a treat and then wrinkles his nose and turns away, it means he has to poop. Very useful information. I can then take him to my preferred spot and cue just as he starts to circle.

Unfortunately, the bugs were terrible, attacking us both relentlessly, so I decided to speed up to try to lose them. This triggered the desire to run for Barnum, which resulted in some leash pulling, so I turned us toward home.

This was a tricky place to turn, because we had gone partway up an extremely steep hill, which also was very loose (dirt roads here, keep in mind) with gulleys and gravel from the snow and rain, so I had to go down it very slowly, with my back-rest reclined as far as possible, otherwise I could easily have tipped over. (This chair is too lightweight to safely maneuver a hill like that.)

I would not have felt safe to do that at all with the Barnum of two months ago, because I would never know when he’d pull and I’d do a face-plant into the rocky road. But he walked very slowly and deliberately next to me, while I crept along on “turtle.” Good dog!

On the way home we passed the pink thing, which was no longer an object of interest. What was an object of interest was my neighbor using his riding mower, which is the kind of fascinating sound and movement that usually plays havoc with Barnum’s focus. So, first I let him just observe for a couple of moments, and then he made eye contact. C/T!

Then we did more uncued eye contact, and I segued into cueing sits, downs(!), stand, touch, eye contact, and “chin” — the first time we’ve done chin away from home. He was game for all!

Then I decided to see if I could get him in working walk position with my two cues I use at home, “come by,” which means, “swing around on my left rear,” followed by “side,” which means, “stand next to me on my left, parallel to my chair, with your face next to my knees.” Often, at home, I can just say, “Side,” without “come by,” but I wanted to make things easy for him.

Not only did he do it — which we, again, had never done away from home before — but when I asked him for Side the second time, he actually did a BOUNCE into position, which is incredibly cute. (He leaps into the air and lands in the right spot. He bounces from a down into a stand sometimes, too, and gets serious air.) He bounces into position when he is feeling confident and happy to be training.

I really have to get these working bounces on film some time. They’re wonderful.

All this, in front of the mower driver!

Then we moved on, and a formidable opponent presented itself to us: birds! Not just one bird, but two or three small birds, scrabbling in the dust in the road and on the roadside, looking for seeds or insects. Bouncing, scratching, hopping birds!

I stopped when we were a good distance away to think about how to handle it. I backed us up, hoping to get him under threshold, which — with birds — has generally not been possible in the past. But, when we were about seven car-lengths back (that’s how I measure distance — I imagine how many cars would fit in that space, because I have no concept of feet or yards or meters, etc.), I just sat and waited for him to notice me. He looked at me, c/t.

Then I did “What’s that?” with him to get him looking back and forth between me and the birds. Two of the birds (too far away for me to identify, maybe wrens?) helped us out by flying away, so there was just a single robin left.

After we had grooved on the Look at That game, I cued eye contact and got it, and we slowly proceeded forward, with me c/t very frequently for keeping LL and for eye contact. Then, when he seemed he wanted to chase, I said, “Leave it,” which is our Zen cue, and — while he did not actually back off or look at me, which is the response I train for — he did STOP in his tracks.

The robin hopped right into the middle of the road, taunting us, the cheeky little twit, and I said, “Leave it,” again. Then, [cue clouds parting, sunbeam shining down on us, choir of angels singing] Barnum SWUNG HIS HEAD TOWARD ME AND LOOKED AT ME, INSTEAD OF THE HOPPING BIRD!!!!

I clicked and gave him about half-a-pound of cheese and squealed with delight, and other dignified dog-trainerish-type things. I told him how proud I was of him, and he waggled around a lot. It was a very nice moment. We proceeded forward, and I got to practice my zen cue with the robin a couple more times, each of which went great — because now we were on a roll, see?

Then we went into our driveway, which put us even closer — despite a few intervening trees — to my neighbor riding his mower. So, I went right up to our border so Barnum could watch, and then we did more zen, sit, touch, etc., despite the mower distraction. Very satisfying!

Inside the gate, I took off his orange safety vest and his leash, and we romped a bit, but he really was not so into it because he wanted to get inside, away from the bugs. He was way ahead of me when I saw him pick something up from the ramp and chew it. I thought it was a flower at first, but then it started crunching. I asked him to drop it, which he was not inclined to do until I reached for the cheese (still need to work on that), and when he did, I saw it was a piece of plastic flower-pot. Not edible!

He took his cheese and turned back to slurp up the shard of flower-pot. His nose was on it when I said, “Leave it,” and he backed right off of it! We really ended on a high note!

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT?!?!??!

P.S. Several of you have commented on recent posts, and I haven’t yet had the chance to reply. Your comments are really important to me, in some cases quite touching. I just wanted you to know that I definitely plan to respond to them.

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

One Step Closer: The Service Dog Leash

A lot of exciting activity yesterday. As I posted yesterday, for a few days, Barnum was not getting his usual amount of attention because I had [gasp!] other things I needed to deal with. So I tried to keep him entertained with his Kong Stuff-a-Ball.

Periodically, during my writing flurry, I’d call Barnum, just to work on his recall and remind him that good things happen when he comes to me. (Good things in this case are food, some lovin’ up (but only if he’s in the mood), and a release to go back and play with his toy.) But he did miss training. He got quite cranky about no training, actually.

Thus, I knew he had focus and motivation, so yesterday, for the first time, we used my service dog (SD) leash. While using a different leash might not seem like a big deal, it was to me, because:

  1. It attaches to my waist, so pulling would be a real problem.
  2. It is much shorter (unless I let it out for going behind me) than our practice working leash (it has two lengths of about 32 inches each, so normally it’s 32 inches from my waist to his collar, except if I adjust it to make it longer)
  3. I want him to associate that leash, along with his other working gear, with him being totally focused on me, so I waited to use it until I was sure I was at nearly SD working-walk competency before we used it in training.

In other words, symbolically, it was of much greater importance to me than to him. I had to know we were both really up to the task before I started using it. Yesterday, I felt confident that we were, and we lived up to expectations! Gooooo, Team Barnum!

We practiced “working walk” (WW) around the house and on the ramp, and he was really excellent. WW is something between loose-leash walking (LLW) and “heel” (as it’s used in competition). For WW, I require not just a loose leash, but eye contact at least every three seconds (preferably more), attention focused on me and my movements at all times, no elimination or marking or sniffing the ground, no eating anything he comes across unless it’s a treat he’s been clicked for that’s fallen, and I tell him “go ahead,” and he has to maintain parallel position with my chair on my left side (unless I ask for something else).

We were about 80 percent to a perfect WW (in very familiar surroundings — I’m under no delusions we can achieve this in the wide world). The only parts that were off (the 20 percent that was unsatisfactory) were the following:

  • He took left turns much too wide, still haven’t come up with a fix for that — I didn’t have this problem with Gadget or Jersey;
  • His butt swings out a bit too far sometimes, especially when making eye contact (i.e., he’s not as parallel as I want);
  • He hasn’t totally figured out the correct way to get back into position when we’re in a really tight spot, like a close corner;
  • He does not 100 percent know his cues for sit and down with one verbal cue only while on the move, in positions than facing me, etc.

That probably seems like a lot that’s “off”, but please compare it to all the stuff he was doing right!

  • Great eye contact;
  • Overall consistency in staying in position;
  • Maintaining default stand-stay when we come to a stop;
  • Knows the cues for getting back into position if he’s facing me and I want him to get back in heel position (“come around,” and “side”), and often did them default (without cueing);
  • Loose leash all the way
  • Performed other skills I tossed in (shut cupboard, shut drawer, touch, watch me, leave it, sit-stay, stand-stay, down-stay when chair moves)
  • His “back-up” is a thing of beauty — I’ve never had a dog who backed up next to my chair so well — and he does it as a default whenever I back up (without cueing), and he does it almost equally beautifully if I cue him to back up while I stay still

I was very excited!

We also had some interesting little bonuses during our session. At one point, while we were doing WW indoors, he rested his chin on my thigh and looked up into my eyes, and I laughed, because it was so cute, and without thinking, clicked it.

Then I thought that chin-on-knee/thigh in public might actually be a useful skill, for instance, if I need him to check in with me because the environment is distracting/overwhelming for either of us, or to signal that yes, he’s working and paying attention, or if I want him to take my agitation-calming behavior “on the road.”

So, while he was in that mode, I cued and clicked “Chin” a few more times. Then we made our way to the driveway, to practice in a more distracting environment, because he is used to the driveway leading to the road (excitement!), which leads to a walk (unbelievable excitement!).

As I’ve learned from Sue Ailsby, whose Training Levels I’m following, whenever anything changes in a behavior, especially something that’s such a big deal as a more distracting environment, you make everything easier. Therefore, from the gate onward, I loosened criteria for everything except these behaviors, which I still required:

  • Loose leash
  • Relatively correct position (on my left side, but he didn’t have to be parallel or really close, etc.)
  • Eye contact/noticing me (it didn’t have to be really good eye contact, but he had to at least flick his eyes up to my face on a pretty consistent basis)
  • Taking treats (because if he can’t take treats, he’s too distracted to think and pay attention to me, so there’s no point in continuing until things get boring enough that he can think again).

If he was paying attention to me, taking treats, etc., we went forward, out onto the driveway and toward the road. Anytime he started sniffing the air or staring off into the distance or otherwise not paying attention to my being on the other end of the leash, I’d back up.

It took him a while, but he caught on. We didn’t make it to the street, but that was fine with me — it hadn’t been my goal. (Although I’m sure, given the chance to think about it, it would have been his goal.) He also made no attempts to sniff the ground or to mark!

Then we did a working walk back into the yard, he did a sit-stay while I closed the gate and took off our very special leash and I gave him a release, and we played chase and fetch.

I enjoyed another bonus surprise behavior during our play. He was bringing me back the ball!

He used to have a very nice play fetch as a puppy (which I know is common for puppies, but not so much for bouviers, so that was something the breeder and I actually looked for), then it lost steam in adolescence (again, pretty typical to lose that type of behavior in adolescence), and I had started training a strong play retrieve, but then winter and snow made that impossible. (The tennis ball needs hard ground to bounce and roll on, and the bigger balls that can be used in the snow got buried. I also couldn’t get around in the yard because of the several feet of snow to keep training fetch.)

Therefore, this was our first time playing ball in many months, and without my even asking, he was bringing me the ball! To earn treats!

Such a good day!

Then I let him have some free time in the yard to dig in the mud. Hey, he earned it!

By the way, to anyone training their dog who feels guilty if you miss a day (or a week) of training, I say, consider it a strategy. We went the previous few days with the bare minimum of training. A couple of times, I did a little with him because he was just begging me for it, and I felt he needed it for his mental health, but it was very brief. Otherwise, because I was on a deadline, I was either writing or resting or sleeping. Even though he was getting physical exercise, he would cover over and be like, “Train me, dammit!”

So, that was actually good for us. I think it is good to take a break sometimes and get the dog really demanding training.

Peace,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I will never divulge the secret of the crisp left turn!), and Barnum SDiT (and looking dapper in the gear)

A Grand Day Out: Barnum and Sharon Hit the Road (and Find Training Partners!)

A Speedy Pee, a Walk, a New Training Partner, and Improved LLW and Recall, all in one go!

What an unexpectedly wonderful series of events Barnum and I had on our walk today!

It started terrifically, when I took Barnum out to pee.

We have been in rather a battle of wills, I’m afraid, over peeing on leash. Barnum has incredible bladder control. I’m convinced he has the bladder of a dog three times his size, because he can — and will — hold it for 16 or 18 hours, even when given numerous opportunities to pee.

You see, now that the weather is better, I have been very dedicated to not letting him out to relieve himself off-leash. Ever. If I’m not able to take him out, I have one of my helpers do it.

Longtime readers know I’ve been obsessed with having a service dog who will eliminate on cue, on leash, on every surface, since before Barnum arrived. Although, as a puppy, he was always taken out on leash to eliminate, and did learn to eliminate on leash, on cue, he seems to have forgotten all of that over the winter, when I got sloppy and too sick to stay on top of it.

Thus, we began again. . . .

For the first few weeks, I’d take him out in the morning, knowing he had to pee, but I think because he gets so distracted by being outside (exciting!), and because he prefers to relieve off-leash, he would not “go.” I’d take him in after a couple of minutes, and an hour or two (or five) later, I’d take him out again.

Often, he would ring the bell, indicating he needed to go out, but when I took him out, he wouldn’t go. So, back in we’d go.

Finally, sometimes not until evening, he’d pee, I’d give my cue word as he squatted (“Hurry up!”), click when he was done, give high-value treats, and then let him off leash to run around. I “ran around” too, if I was able, zipping up and down the ramp, pretending I was chasing him, or encouraging him to chase me, and he loved it.

All that running around naturally led to him needing to poop. Eventually I need to have all elimination functions on cue, on leash, but I decided that the reinforcer of being able to run and play off leash after peeing was more important than a Cold War of waiting for him to poop all day, every day.

When I started this process, a few weeks ago, I had to take him out several times a day, all day, before he would pee. Within the last few days, he has more often been “going” on the first or second attempt.

Today, I took him out, and  he peed within one minute! Then, in addition to the click, praise, and treats, I could offer the best reinforcer of all: “Do you wanna go for a walk?!?!”

Puppy Barnum races Sharon in the superpowerchair

He's a lot bigger now, but this is how we ROLL.

[Image description: Five-month-old puppy Barnum races next to Sharon across the lawn. He is running full-out, with his ears flying straight behind him, his red tongue hanging out and to the side, his legs fully stretched out. Sharon, in her big power chair, watches Barnum as she zooms alongside. They run through the grass, with a metal fence in the background. Sharon wears a straw hat and shorts, suggesting a sunny day.]

Indeed, the fact that we were able to go for a walk was a joy in itself.

Mostly, lately, we have been just practicing loose-leash walking (LLW) up and down our driveway, or — if I have someone to load the chair and drive me — an off-leash run at the pond. (I have video of one of our driveway walk sessions, which I hope to edit and post eventually. It shows quite a dramatic change from our LLW training videos from the fall.)

I’ve been doing driveway “walks” for two reasons:

  1. It’s easier to practice LLW and “leave it” (Zen) in this less distracting environment.
  2. My chair has not yet really been fixed, so I wanted to wait until someone was home, on the other two-way radio, when I went out.
Pchair with headlights

This is how my bad-ass chair looked when it was under construction, and running!

So, even though it was a short walk, this was our first real walk in a long time.

We started out on a good paw, with Barnum doing quite well in his LLW and even managing to take treats and stay in position. Then, the smells got too interesting, and he didn’t take treats anymore, but he still kept pretty good track of his pace and the leash.

Although it is mud season, and thus the roads have not been graded yet and are full of gulleys, the chair managed well. We were going up an extremely steep hill, with only occasional reverses from me if Barnum got ahead when one of his dog friends, a sweet and lively Vizsla rescue, came pelting onto the road.

She was off-leash (as most dogs are in my area), and she kept “dive-bombing” us to try to play with Barnum. Of course, Barnum completely lost his head and tried to pelt after her. Repeatedly. (Thank goodness for migraine meds.) It was very difficult to keep him from pulling with such a temptress coming and going in all directions.

Nonetheless, we eventually made it up the hill to the Vizsla’s driveway, where her person appeared. My neighbor held her pup so Barnum could have a chance to settle, sit, make eye contact, stay in a sit, make eye contact again after I’d unclipped his leash, and then give him the release. (I have patient neighbors.)

Barnum had a wonderful time playing with his friend, as well as running around and marking every place he could.

I was very pleased that his play was overall appropriate and friendly. He has really only played with one dog for the past four months, a rough-and-tumble dude who can be a bit dominant and resource-guarding around Barnum (the resources being me, his owner, snow, and any food his owner or I might have on us).

(Just for fun, here is a ten-second video of Barnum playing with aforementioned buddy a couple of months ago.)

I had been concerned that Barnum’s play manners would have eroded as a result — that he wouldn’t play with the same variety and good doggy manners as he used to. But, no, with the exception of two aborted humping attempts, he was quite the gentleman.

It was also great to be out and to talk to another human being, away from my house! I really like my neighbor, and as we chatted, she mentioned that she needs to train her dog. Apparently, she is a cat person, her husband is a dog person, so they got a dog to be her husband’s. He trained her, but now my neighbor is at home with her most of the time (although she also works outside the home) and has no experience with training and dog handling in general. She has an infant, and seemed a bit daunted by the prospect of learning dog training with so little time, in this “baptism by fire” situation.

I couldn’t believe this amazing opportunity was presenting itself!

Regular readers of this blog know that I am following Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. Some of the Levels skills require working with other people and/or dogs. I have tried to find a training partner, to no avail. While Betsy and my PCAs pitch in when possible — a tremendous help — usually they are too busy with other necessities, and also, none of them have a dog!

I asked my neighbor if she’d like to be my training partner, and she said yes!

Since we had just gone through her trying to get her dog to drop a dead rodent she’d unearthed, I decided to teach her about doggy Zen.

She was very easy to work with because she is wild about whatever training treats I have with me, whenever I visit. (Whereas Barnum usually could not care less.) This girl is very food motivated! And she’s plenty smart and caught on quickly.

She tends to jump up on me a lot to try to get treats, so I went back and forth between four-on-the-floor and Zen. (By this time, her person had her hands full with her baby, so she said she preferred to just watch me train her dog.) While I was training, I explained what I was doing and why, how to use the clicker and treats, and how to practice zen on her own.

“Where can I get a clicker?” She asked.

This question surprised me so much I almost laughed; because my house is full of clickers, it never occurs to me that someone might not know where to get one. (I told Betsy that our neighbor asked this, and she said, “Come to our home and look under the sofa cushions. They’re everywhere, like loose change.”) Right now, just rotating my head in bed, I have counted six clickers visible — four different kinds — three of them within a few inches of my hand!

“I’ll give you one!” I immediately told my neighbor. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give her one right that moment, because — for the first time ever? — I only had one with me!

But, we decided to keep in touch, and we would try to set up a time to do some training together.

Another wonderful bonus of our conversation was that Barnum eventually saw that I was not paying attention to him, but to another dog, and that I was clicking and treating this dog, and — most importantly — the other dog was not paying any attention to him!

So, he came over.

This gave me the opportunity to click and praise extravagantly and shove some cheese in his mouth before he could question my motives. Then, I gave him his ultimate reinforcer: “Release! Go play!”

Away he went. After that, he started checking in with me more often, and even coming when called for some cheese and a release back to play. I was thrilled. This is the best he’s ever done in a new environment, with another dog around, to boot.

Eventually, my neighbor took her baby and dog inside, and I did several more recalls and releases in their yard before putting Gadget on the leash to go home.

Now he was truly tuckered out, and he walked so nicely by my side, I had to keep telling him how proud I was of him, and what a good dog he was. He was even interested in clicks and treats for proper position for about half the time, then he was too full.

We even did a couple stops (with automatic stand-stay) and a few sits.

He’s spent a good portion of the evening snoring, having received lots of sensory stimulation and exercise of his body and mind. Ah, tranquility.

I had a session with my empathy buddy for my telephone nonviolent communication (NVC) class, and as she helped me figure out my emotions, I realized I was proud, not just of Barnum, but of myself!

It seems ridiculously obvious that the point of training is that improvement occurs, goals are reached, and, well, the dog gets trained. However, when I’m in the midst of it, it’s often hard to see that training is, indeed, taking place.

After four months trapped in the house, only able to train indoors, I had no idea if our indoor LLW practice would bear fruit outside. Now I know — it has!

Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by all we still have to work on, I lose sight of how far we have come. Today was a gorgeous reminder of our progress, along with some unexpected gifts bestowed by my neighbor and her sweet dog. Barnum received lots of reinforcement: food rewards, play time with another dog, play time with me, and the multitudinous joys of a walk.

I received the reinforcement of seeing my hard work pay off. But I wouldn’t mind some more. If you’re in the mood to cheer on Team Barnum, please comment and click me!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I lost my head around other dogs, too), and Barnum (Mr. Full-of-Surprises SDiT)

LTD: Roadwork! (Walkin’ and Talkin)’

I have a semi-working powerchair and semi-working walkie-talkies! Not since the clicker and the target stick have technologies played such an important role in dog training!

Obviously I’m exaggerating. Nonetheless, lately I’ve been on a roll.

In last week’s post, I described how I figured out what was wrong with my powerchair. I was waiting for the temperatures to climb a bit so I could finally take Barnum for a walk.

I’m pleased to report that Barnum and I have taken four walks since that post!

Walks are so important for so many reasons — exercise for Barnum, a source of bonding and a mental health boost for both of us, as well as practice for lots of behaviors such as eliminating on cue while on lead, loose-leash walking (LLW), attention and eye contact, socialization and desensitization, and the opportunity to train known behaviors (sit, down, stay, touch, etc.), in a more distracting environment (generalizing).

Vigorous exercise is also a key component of Sue Ailsby’s Leading the Dance protocol that we have been trying to follow. Previous posts focused on number five, “Possession,” and number seven, “Sing a Song.”

Here’s number 10 — “Working off Energy” (referred to as “roadwork” by many clicker trainers):

Work Off Energy – Roadwork adult dogs 4 days a week. Start small, but work up to a mile for small dogs, 2 miles for medium dogs, and 3 miles for large dogs. Many problems will disappear with no more effort than road-working. You can jog with the dog, or ride a bike, or longe him with a Flexi, or use an ATV, or lend him to a jogger who’s afraid of being mugged.

One of the behaviors that has suffered from not being able to walk Barnum has been eliminating on cue. If you’re a long-time follower of this blog, you know this is a skill I’m obsessed with concerned about. In fact, I not only blogged about it when we were housebreaking Barnum, but before Barnum even arrived.

On the Training Levels list, the consensus was that getting a dog to relieve on cue, on leash, reliably, is tremendously helped by “roadwork” — as is almost every other skill and behavioral problem. I was so frustrated! I felt like I was failing as a mom/handler and as an owner-trainer.

Now, all has changed! Callooh! Callay! Oh frabjous day! I chortle in my joy!

First of all, I was able to get Barnum to pee (and in one case, poo), in the yard, on leash, before we left for our walks. This is ideal, because then I can use the walk afterwards as a very strong reinforcer.

Tuesday, the temperature climbed from negative numbers to a balmy 22 degrees Fahrenheit. I bundled myself in layers and dressed Barnum in his Premier Easy Walk Harness and hunter-orange safety vest, and away we went.

Barnum in orange vest on ramp surrounded by snow

Barnum's suited up and ready for his walk. You can see how much snow has fallen on the patio table and next to the ramp, which is actually two to three feet off the ground!

[Photo description: Barnum, a furry black brindle bouvier des Flandres, stands on a black metal grate with black metal railings. He is dressed in a bright orange vest with reflective stripes and gazing into the distance. The snow on either side of the ramp reaches his elbows.]

In truth, before we left, I told my personal care assistant (PCA) that I planned to go for just a half-hour test drive, and which route we planned to take. I said if we weren’t back within 45 minutes, to get in the van and come look for us. The chair is working, yes, but those batteries are still not reliable and had not been tested in very cold weather, and I didn’t want to risk getting stranded in the cold and dark while temperatures dropped.

I hadn’t known if I could make it to the street at all, because my monster chair just fits down the ramp, with no room to spare. Yet once on the ramp, I turned the knob to “turtle,” and toddled safely down the walkway.

Half an hour went by much too quickly. Barnum really needs a lot of work on his loose-leash walking, and he also needs much more exercise — an hour, at the very least. Before the chair batteries went on the fritz, we were doing at least one-and-a-half to two-mile walks (at a fast clip). But you gotta turtle before you can rabbit, right?

We did manage to get some decent training in for the beginning part of the walk: I was able to click and treat Barnum many times for walking by my side. He even ate the cheese! However, when my cheese supply was gone, and I switched to kibble, he turned up his squishy, black nose at it. Still, it’s progress for Barnum to pay attention to me, at all, or accept treats, on a walk.

I was pleased with the powerchair’s performance, too. The roads were thick with two to three inches of snow muck. Yet the powerchair did excellently, overall. In fact, at one point, a car slowed down to pass us, and slipped and skidded a little as it tried to accelerate, whereas my chair motored right along. Woohoo!

We only had two problems.

I’d chosen the least hilly route I could, but since I live in the hills, there’s no way to avoid at least one major slope in any direction. The path I chose had just one serious hill. Leaving, it was downhill. Coming home, it was uphill — and at the end of the walk, near my house.

The thick sludgy snow, combined with the steep incline, made for difficult driving. I had to careen back and forth to keep my momentum and to try to find the least snowy path. My erratic movements were hard for Barnum to predict, and at one point, I accidentally hit him in the snout with my footrest. Poor guy!

But we made it up. I was ecstatic. We rolled into the driveway less than 40 minutes after we’d left, and as I was removing my leg rests to store in the van (because the chair is too big to navigate the ramp with them on), I saw my PCA’s face peek through my bedroom curtains. I was glad she knew we were home.

After I entered the yard and closed the gate behind us, I let Barnum off leash. He bounded around happily in the snow, as if he had never taken a walk at all. Then, I did something stupid. I flew down the ramp, pumping my fist and shouting, “We did it! We did it!”

I couldn’t help myself! I was having a Leonardo-DiCaprio -“I’m-king-of-the-world!” moment.

Of course, my right wheel went off the ramp. The axle came to rest on the ramp’s two-inch-high safety lip, and the wheel was buried deep into the snow that is piled several feet high on either side of the ramp. I attempted to rock the chair out of the rut, but it was well and truly stuck.

I tried getting some momentum with the wheels. At first, the one in the snow just spun in space. Then it stopped spinning. Oh dear. Neither of the wheels spun at all when I moved the joystick. I checked the controller display panel, and saw that the switch was off. I turned it back on, and the display panel simply blinked in distress.

Nooooooooo!

I bellowed to the house for help, but my home is super-insulated, and nobody heard me. I just had to hope that sooner (rather than later) my PCA would notice I was still outside.

I sat and watched Barnum playing. I tried to be patient, but I was getting a bit chilly. (Later, I discovered the temperature had dropped to 18 degrees Fahrenheit when I was waiting.) Eventually my helper poked her head out the door.

“I’m stuck!” I yelled.

She came out to help, and I tried to back the chair up to help, but it was pointless. We decided to put it in free-wheel mode so it could be pushed. (Powerchairs have a safety feature of locking the wheels unless they are released to roll. When it’s in “push” mode, the motor disengages, so you can’t drive and free-wheel at the same time.) There’s a lever on each wheel motor. Sitting in the chair, I pulled the lever on one side up, and pushed the lever on the other side down.

Then I realized what I’d just done. The levers should have both been either up or down. The lever on the side where the wheel was caught must have been pushed up by the ramp’s side when the chair went down. I pulled both levers up, which engaged both wheel motors, and wahla! The power was on again!

Left purple powerchair wheel and motor, with snow slush

A lot of the snow had melted off the treads by the time I took this. Notice the free-wheel lever, with the up arrow for "Drive," and down area for "Push," written in yellow.

[Photo description: Large, black knobbly tire on the bottom of a purple powerchair. The entire wheel well is coated in wet snow. The snow on the treads is partially melted off. Behind the tire is the drive motor — a black canister, parallel to the ground, with a lever sticking out, and yellow writing indicating that when the lever is up, its in “drive” mode, and when down, is in “push” or “free-wheeling” mode.]

With human muscle power, as well as the chair’s engaged motors, we were able to return me to the center of the ramp, and I made it home. Barnum continued to play in the snow.

However, I really wanted to be able to communicate from a distance from now on, if I’m out — especially if the chair is not working optimally, the road and weather conditions aren’t great, and/or it’s nighttime. This is where the two-way radios come in.

In an early post, I talked about how my ability to communicate with other household members declined significantly when Gadget died. Betsy’s solution was a doorbell, which had its pluses and minuses. Betsy bought us an intercom set for my birthday, last year. I was very excited about this new bit of assistive tech. Unfortunately, over a year later, we still can’t use them because they are still outgassing horrible plastic fumes. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tolerate them.

This year, for my birthday (are you sensing a theme?), Betsy bought me walkie-talkies! Ever since I’d moved to the country in 1998, I’d thought it would be a good safety precaution to have a cell phone for an emergency. However, neither town where I’ve lived in Western Massachusetts has cell phone reception.

The two-way radios were our attempt to circumvent the cell phone issue. Betsy bought radios with a 24-mile range “under ideal conditions.” Hilly, tree-filled countryside is not “ideal conditions,” but I normally only go a couple of miles at the most for my walks (my ultimate goal is to be able to make it to the center of town, which is about five miles), so we thought these would be powerful enough. Betsy assembled them Tuesday night (I was burnt-out on figuring out technological gizmos), and left them to charge overnight.

Wednesday, my PCA — who is a firefighter — very enthusiastically showed me how to use the radios. We each put one in our pockets, I donned my layers for the cold, and Barnum and I set out.

I checked in periodically with my PCA to make sure I was still within range. All seemed to be going well. I’d brought extra-large bags of hot dog and cheese cubes, and Barnum was eager to be clicked and treated for loose-leash walking for the first few minutes. Then he lost interest completely as his stomach filled and the terrain got more enticing.

We had to do a lot of stopping and starting, because any time the leash got tight, I turned to the right (his leash is clipped to the left side of the chair), and stopped. Stopping without turning is too slow in terms of giving Barnum the information, “What you have just done is causing the fun to come to an end.” Apparently, the stopping and starting, as well as the thick, slow ground, discharges batteries severely.

At one point, I pulled to the side of the road for a passing car, causing my left wheel to get stuck in a couple of feet of snow. I couldn’t tell where the drop-off was between the road and the gully, because there was so much snow. I radioed based.

“We have a situation,” I told my firefighter PCA, in a joking tone.

“Understood. A situation. What’s your location?”

“Well, um, I’m on Jennison? And um, my tire is stuck in the snow? And . . . Oh, a UPS guy has stopped. I think he’s going to help me. Hang on.”

“Standing by. Over.”

Indeed, the UPS driver very quickly and neatly popped me back onto the road. I guess if you spend all day, every day, hauling around big packages, you get strong.

Another lesson learned: Don’t drive into a hidden snow bank.

The rest of the trip was uneventful until we got to the hill that leads to my house. With the temperature hovering around 30 degrees, the snow was not just thick, but extra sludgy and sloppy. I normally have to do a lot of starting and stopping to train LLW — once Barnum loses interest in treats — but going up that hill, if I stopped, I lost the tiny bit of momentum I had. The chair crapped out repeatedly (that’s a technical term, meaning it stopped and the power lights flashed), and I had to turn it off, wait a few seconds, and turn it back on. (According to Wheelchair Junkie, the way I’ve treated my batteries constitutes abuse. Yes, I guess that would be battery battery.)

I really could not afford to have Barnum pulling in any direction but the one I was going in, and I couldn’t take care not to clock him with erratic driving. So I gave him as much leash as I had and had to let him do as he pleased while I focused on getting home.

Trainers aren’t kidding when they talk about how reinforcing pulling is, in itself, for dogs! Just those few yards up the hill with the freedom to pull, and Barnum tried to pull the rest of the way home! (Two steps forward, one step back, anyone?)

But we made it. I even managed to go length of the ramp without careening off this time. I let Barnum off leash to play in the yard, as he tends to get the “zoomies” after a walk and likes to gambol in the yard, especially when it’s so comfortably freezing outside. Pictures to come.

On the third day, God didn’t rest, and neither did I. We went for an hour-long walk. Finally! We’re approaching real roadwork. This is when I discovered that the radio’s range sucks. Past about an eighth or a quarter of a mile from my house, they couldn’t hear me back home.

We had no untoward events, unless you count that I was kind of flattened the next two days as a result. I got to take a lot of goofy pictures of this heroic conquering of the winter landscape, as well. I’ll try to get that up as a photo essay shortly.

Love and other outdoor games,

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (snow-dog)

It’s ALIVE!

Those of you who read my post in late November know that, while trying to take Barnum for a walk, my powerchair died completely. I had to be pushed home.

I have a powerchair that I use for inside the house, but it’s no good for walks. That’s why, as part of my puppy-preparedness efforts, I bought this chair:

Pchair with headlights

This is how my bad-ass chair looked when it was under construction, a year ago (before it got all dinged up and the batteries died).

I purchased an outdoor pchair that I got specifically so I could take Barnum on long walks in any type of weather (within reason), and over rough terrain. Since we live in the country, on a hilly dirt road, there really is nothing but rough terrain.

Because we live in New England, where winter lasts nine months, a snow-worthy vehicle was a must. Now, here we are, at Barnum’s peak adolescent-exercise-neediness time, and I am power(chair)less. Argh!

At first, it seemed like a simple matter of dead batteries. But when I plugged it in to recharge it, it wouldn’t charge. The red “Fault,” light on the charger glowed when I tried to recharge the batteries. The charger says that if this light appears, you should consult your manual. My chair was built from all recycled parts. There is no manual.

“Fault” seemed a bit too “on the nose.” As in, “It’s your fault that you bought a chair you have no idea how to maintain. It’s your fault you let the batteries die. And now it’s your fault this magnificent chair has been sitting here, ruining many of your dog-training plans, because you are too sick, overwhelmed, anxious, and incompetent to figure out what’s wrong and fix it!”

Indeed, for the past 10 weeks, the chair has remained dead. I have tried to gather information, but I have been overwhelmed and confused about how to figure out what is pertinent, what is not, and what to do about it all.

Plus, there have been all the various health crises, dog crises, dog training efforts, blizzards, migraines, etc.

Oh, and if you’re new to the world of assistive technology and health coverage in the United States and are wondering why I don’t just call my wheelchair vendor and ask them to come out, diagnose the problem, and order new parts, let me explain. My totally inadequate indoor chair was covered by Medicare. This means that I am not eligible for any other type of wheelchair coverage for at least five years or until the indoor chair stops working, whichever is longer.

It would seem to make the most sense to procure a chair that I could use both indoors and out, wouldn’t it? One that fit me and my fluctuating abilities and limitations, one that was suited to life in the country?

However, that kind of thinking does not fit in with the “four walls rule” of Medicare. This is how (bitter, angry) disability advocates refer to the guidelines for who is entitled to powerchair coverage, who is not, and what a chair must do for that individual.

In a nutshell, for Medicare to cover any piece of medical equipment, the recipient must provide proof that without it, they cannot get to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom. That’s it. If you are totally unable to eat or pee or lie in bed without a wheelchair (or other mobility aids), Medicare will cover a piece of equipment that does just enough to meet those needs. If, however, you ever want to go out into your yard, or down your street, or to the grocery store, and you need a mobility aid to do that, that is not a medical necessity, and therefore it’s not covered.

This is why I have a dinky little chair that serves me well indoors as long as I’m at my most functional, and a much more physically sustainable and usable chair for the outdoors. Again, let me head your question off at the pass: If the outdoor chair is so much better, why don’t I use it indoors, too?

Many reasons, the biggest being that it’s mammoth. For instance, the only door it fits through, in the entire house, is the exterior door to the ramp. Thank God that it does! It never even occurred to me that I should measure my door before I bought it.

It just barely fits going down the ramp, but only without the leg rests on. It also has big, knobby snow-blower tires. It would be like riding a tractor in the mall.

Big, Knobby Tires

Dude! Check out these gnarly treads!

[Photo description: Closeup of the tires for the powerchair. They have purple “hubs” with black, thickly studded treads.]

All this time, Barnum and I have been grounded. I have one helper who can walk him two or three days a week, but only at a normal, walkie, sedate pace. I have a dog walker who comes weekly to take him on a hike around the pond. On the other days of the week, I try to schedule dog play dates in our yard so he can work off energy that way.

Puppy Barnum races Sharon in the superpowerchair

See, this is how we ROLL.

[Photo description: Five-month-old puppy Barnum races next to Sharon across the lawn. He is running full-out, with his ears flying straight behind him, his red tongue hanging out and to the side, his legs fully stretched out. Sharon, in her big power chair, watches Barnum as she zooms alongside. They run through the grass, with a metal fence in the background. Sharon wears a straw hat and shorts, suggesting a sunny day.]

But as a service-dog-in-training, he really needs the benefit of the bonding, training, mental stimulation, and exercise of going for walks with me. I’d been feeling like I was failing him.

I also really missed our walks, which were just starting to get easier, due to less pulling and more attention on me, instead of on everything else in the known (and unknown — to me) universe.

Lately, however, I’ve been building up steam to solve this problem. If it meant buying a new battery and new charger, and whatever else, so be it. I would find a way to make it happen. I just needed to figure out which type of batteries (which encompasses a huge range of brands, sizes, power sources, and more), which type of charger, etcetera.

Finally,  yesterday Betsy helped me take the chair apart. Neither of us really knew what we were doing, but nothing blew up. That seemed like a good sign.

One of the questions we’d had was, “Are these gel batteries, which is what almost all powerchairs and scooters use these days, or are they lead acid batteries, which is what the car mechanic who helped me fix the broken headlights thought they were?”

This time, by taking both batteries all the way out, I was able to read the answer — in Spanish and French. Nowhere in English did it say “lead acid” on it, but it did in these other two languages. So, that was good information.

I wrote down everything the batteries said, and we got all the part and serial numbers we could find — from the wheel motors, from the batteries, from the charger, from the controller unit.

Although I was approaching this as a fact-finding mission, I tried to do what I could to tweak anything that might improve the health of the chair. I checked to see that the headlights still worked, which they did . . . which was weird.

After all, if the batteries were completely dead — which would seem to be indicated by the charger’s “Fault” light and by the fact that turning on the chair’s controller did nothing at all — why were the halogen headlamps, which run off the batteries, still functioning?

I chalked it up to yet one more thing I don’t understand about mechanics and went back to research and repair.

We filed off some corrosion on the connections. I had Betsy move the charger to the kitchen table so I could examine the cords to make sure no wires were loose. I went to the charger to write down all the relevant data I could.

That’s when I saw it: The switch.

There are two switches on the charger. One switch is the on/off switch. I got into a bit of a problem a few months ago when the charger was lifted out of the back of the chair and then put back in. As the switch grazed against the chair’s exterior, the switch flipped into “off” position, and for three or four days I couldn’t figure out why the chair kept losing juice, even though I was charging it. I discovered the “on/off” switch, and ever since, I keep my eye on it.

However, there was a second switch I’d never noticed before. This is mostly because it is a recessed switch — the type of switch you need something small and pointy, like a pen, to move up or down. It was also because the hole that contained the switch was very low on the unit, so it was totally obscured by the rear wall of the chair.

Rear view of purple power chair

The charger takes up most of the space in this rear "tray," with the hidden switch down where the tail lights ride.

[Photo description: Rear view of very tall powerchair. A gray captains chair seat and big, blocky headrest, and a purple wood tray “box” above the rear tires. The chair is outdoors, in about an inch of snow.]

Here’s what the switch says:

<< Up for conventional wet lead-acid

<< Down for maintenance-free gel-cell

I squinted. It was hard to tell, but the switch seemed to be in the down position.

“Huh,” I thought, and took a pen and flicked the switch up. Nothing blew up. That seemed like a good sign.

We put the chair back together. I told Betsy about the switch. Could it really be something so simple, we wondered?

Only one way to find out: Plug it in and charge it for 24 hours, and see if something changes.

I plugged it in. Nothing blew up. That seemed like a good sign.

The green light that indicates how desperately the battery needed charging flashed in its most pathetic, desperate, flickering manner. No surprise there. Even if the batteries hadn’t been dead before, after sitting for over two months without being charged, they would be now.

I stared at the “Fault” light. It seemed to glow faintly red, but I couldn’t tell if it was really glowing, or if it was just the reflected light of the flashing green charging button. I went to bed with just the tiniest wisp of a hope that what I’d discovered might do some good.

I let the chair charge all day, the full 24 hours. Partly, I knew that if the batteries were to have any chance to recover, they needed a ton of charging. Partly, I wanted to wait until I was ready for the disappointment when I discovered that the damage had already been done by charging the batteries — who knew how many times — on the wrong setting.

Tonight, I examined the charger. The “Fault” light did not seem to be glowing, now that the green light was just a steady green glow, not a frantic flashing.

Huh.

I unplugged the charger and put the cords in the back. I flipped on the power switch. The lights came on! First, all the way to the left, on “E” (for empty), then the bars moved to the right, all the way to “F” (for “Fuck, Yeah!” “full charge”).

I moved the joystick. The chair moved.

Never has the term “joystick” seemed so appropriate.

I screamed up the stairs to Betsy that the chair was working, and that I was going to do A Victory Lap!

Silly woman thought I meant take it outside. Outside, where the thermometer currently reads -9 degrees  (that’s negative nine Fahrenheit). With a windchill estimated at -25. Oh yeah, and there’s three feet of snow on the ground, which would completely cover not only the wheels, but also the lower portion of the seat.

Purple powerchair sits in front of six-foot mountain of snow

This is how high the snow would be piled if someone plowed a pathway in our yard! The actual snowfall is about half this height.

[Photo description: Large powerchair with gray captain’s chair, black tires, and purple trim sits in front of snow bank that is taller than the chair.]

No, I told her, in the living room.

We have a nice, big, open space, “main room,” that is the combination living room/kitchen. I jumped on the chair and started it on low power, and set the speed to turtle. It moved, very slowly. And nothing blew up. That seemed like a good sign.

So I switched to high power, turned the knob all the way to rabbit, and let rip!

“Whee!” I squealed as I careened around the room, doing donuts and pin-point spins.

Barnum got into the spirit of things and chased around me.

I narrowly missed hitting various walls and pieces of furniture, and I did hit the plastic easel where I keep a list of behaviors Barnum and I are working on.

“Hey!” Betsy yelled. “That is an OUTDOOR chair!”

“Allllllriiiiiiight!” I yelled, as I headed for the kitchen, spun, and looped toward the hall.

“You’re going to hit something!” She bellowed. “There are glass plates around!”

“Where?” I scoffed. Betsy pointed. I shrugged as I zipped by.

“If you break something, I’m not cleaning it up!”

“Okay, Mom!” I said.

“Young lady, use your indoor chair,” she faux-whispered, like a kindergarten teacher telling a student to use their indoor voice.

We were having fun. We sang “We Are the Champions” by Queen, and did high-fives.

“Go, Team Wames!” We shrieked. (This is a combination of our last names that we just came up with last night. We like it because it sounds ridiculous.)

Do I still need to buy new batteries? Undoubtedly. These poor cells have been sorely neglected for months. I’m also going to add some extra electrical tape to the connectors (when in doubt, add duct tape or electrical tape). It remains to be seen how far I’ll be able to go on one charge.

And the leg rests are in serious need of repair, too.

But, at least we can try. At least Barnum and I will be able to attempt a short walk, stretch our wheels.

I just have to wait for a decent path in the snow. And the temperature needs to come up just a tad — thirty or forty degrees might be enough. (I definitely need to research how long lead acid batteries can withstand the cold, and to what temperatures.)

But meanwhile, we are flying! I plan to take a spin around the living room at least once a day. (Don’t tell Betsy!)

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who didn’t know from these newfangled contraptions), and Barnum (rebel with the paws)

QuickPress: God Laughing. (Me? Not so much.)

You know that expression, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans?” Or “Life  is what happens while you’re making other plans?”

Well, I guess I’ve been having a lot of life, or delighted deities or whatnot, because my life is not going according to plan.

I posted before Thanksgiving that I was hoping to do lots of training with Barnum, especially recalls, during my week alone. I also wanted to go on a lot of nice walks with him.

However, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, on his run around the pond with Deb, he somehow took a chunk out of his inner toe pad on his left, front paw. I didn’t realize how bad it was until, after taking him the next day to play raucously with his favorite dog buddy, he was limping. I cleaned it up, but the next morning I could tell he was feeling pretty bad, and the wound did not look good.

Thus began a week of limited exercise, limited training (because so much of it requires movement, and that was painful for him), and lots and lots of foot first aid. The technique I developed was:

  • Wipe affected area with alcohol prep pads. (I had used a different antiseptic the first time, and he jumped and yelped and tried to get out of Dodge. The alcohol seemed to sting, but not hurt as much.)
  • Keep paw in the air so it stays clean before I . . .
  • Apply triple antibiotic ointment.
  • Continue to keep paw in the air so it stays clean before I . . .
  • Apply a sterile gauze pad.
  • Continue to keep paw in the air so it stays clean before I . . .
  • Tape the pad in place. I started out with paper tape,  but that didn’t hold as well as my waterproof first aid tape. Unfortunately, I need that type of tape for my PICC line care, and I used a ton of it on Barnum with twice-daily dressing changes for almost two weeks, because  I also needed it after I . . .
  • Put a clean cotton sock over it all, and tape it in place with tape wrapped above and below that protrusion where his dew claw would be if he still had it. That keeps the sock from sliding down. Then, of course, I applied the traditional medical . . .
  • Cayenne pepper, to the sock. Yes, this might seem mean, but it was the only thing initially that kept him from tearing off the sock. Eventually, he learned to leave the sock alone, and I didn’t need to use it anymore.
  • If he needed to go out, I had to put a plastic bag (or two or three), or a couple of nitrile or vinyl gloves over it all, and tape those into place, as well.
  • Eventually, when the wound was doing much better, I switched from the sock/bag procedure to a less bulky . . .
  • Sterile thin paper face mask around the paw (can you tell I have a lot of leftover infusion supplies? Thank goodness!).
  • This was held in place with gauze bandage (which only required two small pieces of waterproof, first-aid tape). Then the whole “look” was topped off with a . . .
  • Powder-blue dog “booty” over it.
Barnum big head in booty

Does this booty make my head look big?

  • “Booty” does not do this piece of canine footwear justice. It’s really more of a doggy high-tech sneaker. I call them “the Nike cross-trainers of dog booties.” They come in a set of four, but for the past week, he’s just been wearing one, which I rotated, based on which was muddy and which was clean and dry. It has a mesh top for breathability, elastic to keep it on comfortably, along with the velcro, and real treads on the black rubber sole.
Doggy Nikes

I am ready to be on Pawject Dogway.
  • The sneaker is not waterproof, but it keeps the bottom of the paw relatively dry, unless it’s really wet out, and it has the advantage of being much harder to shred, pull off, or destroy than the sock, bag, etc.

Therefore, not so much with the walks and recall training. On the plus side, a lot of handling training! He is now very good about letting me mush and maul his front, left paw!

Of course, eventually he and I were both physically doing well enough that I wanted to take him for a walk — which I did after my morning PCA had left and before my evening PCA came on shift. My big, bad-ass, outdoor chair that is made of recycled parts, which I bought specifically to be able to walk Barnum, was low on battery power. I knew that already. I also knew it wasn’t good to let it sit too long without using it or charging it, so I made sure to charge it mid-week.

What had been happening with my chair was that if we went for very long walks, especially really fast, and/or at night when I had the headlights on, and/or over really rough or hilly ground, it would lose power in a serious way on the way home. So, my plan, for the sake of my chair and Barnum’s paw, was to take us for a short walk on one of the less rugged roads (though, since I live on a dirt road in a hilly area, there is only so much that can be done to avoid that).

Pchair with headlights

This is how my bad-ass chair looked when it was under construction, a year ago (before it got all dinged up and the batteries died).

Here’s what occurred:

I got Barnum’s harness and hunter-orange “recreation/visibility” vest on him, and got my headrest and foot rests set and adjusted on the chair, and away we went, out of the yard, down the driveway, right out onto the road, about fifteen or twenty feet, and then the chair totally died. Totally. Dead. Could not turn around. Nothing. No lights on the control panel.

We sat there in the middle of the road. I waited for a car to come so I could ask for help. Barnum waited for me to get on with whatever the hell was holding me up so we could get going. After all, I had asked him if he wanted to go on a walk? Do ya? Do ya wanna go for a walk?? Wannagoforawalk?? Do ya???

Well, I lied. The poor dog got no walk. Eventually, a car came in our direction . . . and turned in at the first house on the road. (My house is the second, up the road.) I saw two people, whom I thought were women, but I couldn’t recognize them from the distance, and waved and said, “Hello! Hello? Is that Lynne?” (Lynne is my neighbor. I realized they were neither of them Lynne because they just looked at me and each other, and didn’t take a step in my direction, whereas Lynne would have greeted me warmly and probably realized something was wrong.)

They started to head into the house. I said, “I’m stuck!” That got their attention. “Can you help me?” I asked.

They came towards me. Barnum stood at attention next to my chair, looking at them with serious intent, and gave a couple of experimental “woof”s. These are quiet, hoarse, tentative woofs for situations where he thinks he should bark, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to do it.

“You’ve trained him really well,” one of the women said. “He’s very protective of you.”

“No,” I said. “That means I haven’t trained him well. He is not supposed to be protective of me. That’s a problem. We’ll need to work on that.”

This was the first time he’d ever barked at a stranger when we were out and about. I was not happy about it. Fortunately, when they got closer, he became his usual goofy, wiggly self and wanted to sniff their butts and kiss and play.

Meanwhile, I explained that I lived there (pointing), and my batteries appeared to be dead, and could they push me in my chair home? Fortunately, they could. I really hadn’t known if they’d be able to, because my chair weighs over 400 pounds, and I’m no feather, either. They were young, strong, and healthy, though, so it was okay. Except for the humiliation.

I decided I really must, must, must finally deal with figuring out which kind of wheelchair batteries to get to replace the dead ones, which I’d been putting off because I am not at all mechanically inclined, and the whole thing makes me anxious as hell. Only three things got in my way:

  1. I’d run out of the supplement that I use to help me sleep, so I’ve been even more chronically sleep-deprived than usual, which makes it hard for me to think about, read about, and take in new information about, a subject that is both cognitively taxing and emotionally loaded for me.
  2. I spent a lot of energy bandaging and unbandaging Barnum’s foot, and taking him out to eliminate, after making sure he really, really had to go, and was not just ringing his “out” bell because he was bored and wanted to go out and play. Why did I want to make sure? Because any time he needed to go out, I had to put a bag or glove or sneaker on his paw. The result was that one night I did not get him out in time. I discovered this the next day when my PCA informed he had peed on a bag of my infusion supplies. I don’t think that’s medically advised.
  3. I was wracked with horrible grief after realizing that I have a huge backlog of grief from the loss of numerous people (including Gadget) to death or abandonment, as well as never having mourned the many functional losses and other “life losses” (such as my former career as a writer and editor) related to getting multiple tick-bourne diseases three years ago. I’ve been numb for most of the last year because I couldn’t cope with how excruciating the grief over Gadget’s death was if I allowed myself to feel it. I started to feel it, due to the anniversary of his death, and it felt like someone was squeezing my heart while hitting it repeatedly with a brick. The grief also made the insomnia worse.

That’s where Barnum and I are at, currently. His paw is almost totally healed. My heart is broken. Win some, lose some.

We’ve been doing more training again, and I still haven’t managed to even follow the links my less-wimpy and more mechanically inclined pchair-using friend sent me about batteries. I’m afraid I’ll get the wrong kind or otherwise screw up and break my chair.

One thing I am not afraid of, though, is ordering products from dog catalogs. The next time I place an order, I’m stocking up on vet wrap, which is self-adhesive, waterproof, and coated with bitter apple and cayenne to prevent chewing. I think maybe a case of it should last us till the end of the year.

By the way, dear readers, Barnum and I have actually trained a bunch of stuff in the last couple of months that I am backlogged about posting about. I’ve gotten wrapped up in writing Gadget bereavement posts, including what will hopefully be some useful grief resource pages. So, if all goes well, the next many posts will be a mix of happy training updates on Barnum and more somber (but maybe in some way uplifting, affirming, or useful) posts about grieving a service dog.

Comments very welcome!

-Sharon, Barnum (“bootylicious” fashion icon), and the muse of Gadget (who looked good in anything)

P.S. Breaking news! My favorite online vet, Doc Truli, aka VirtuaVet, just posted a great solution for covering a dog’s legs.


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