Posts Tagged 'retrieve training'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The captioned version is here.

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

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

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

Video Description:

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

Sharon picks up a fork.

Sharon: This is clean.

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

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

Sharon: Oops. We’ll try again.

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

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

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

Sharon: Perfect!

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

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Barnum’s Service Dog Retrieve Training (with Videos!)

Hey all.

I haven’t been posting here much lately. I have been very involved with the Occupy/Decolonization movement. I’ve been blogging at #Occupy at Home, and I’ve been trying to assist in organizing and providing nonviolent communication (NVC) to anyone affected by the Occupy movement. It’s been exhausting, scary, exhilarating work. I am learning so, so much, and stretching myself mentally every day. Sometimes I am overdoing physically, and cognitively, and then I have to pull back.

However, amidst all this, Barnum and I continue to train! Actually, taking time out to focus on Barnum is very grounding for me. Dogs will be dogs, no matter what political state the world is in, and for that I am grateful!

I have recently implemented a spoonie* version of Sue Ailsby’s Leading the Dance. I hope to post about how I’ve modified it, with Sue’s guidance, and how it’s going (short answer: well) some time soonish as part of my “Tips for Tired Trainers” series.

The skill we’ve been working the most is retrieving. This is truly exciting. We are actually getting somewhere with the whole “making Sharon’s life easier” part of the service dog training plan! Yeehaw!

Overall, Barnum has an extremely solid take/hold of any object I hand him. He is less consistent with picking things up off the floor and is still doing some problem-solving with certain items when taking them from the floor. We also have just barely begun to add distance.

Until recently, he definitely preferred small, firm objects like pencils and spoons and clothespins. He had a harder time with soft things, crinkly things, or heavy things. Now he has gotten comfortable with socks, leashes, scrunchies, and other soft items he used to make the “this feels icky in my mouth” face before. Shreddable things (paper, tissue, etc.), very thin things (flat lids, credit cards, change), and heavy or bulky things (boots, towels, hammers) will be next.

Neither Jersey nor Gadget had a solid hold; they wanted to pick the thing up, run to me, and spit it out at me as fast as possible. Barnum will keep holding the object until I cue the release into my hand. (My cue is, “Thank you.”) It is exciting to have reached a point in training where Barnum is doing something better than Gadget did. For example, I can toss something into the tub, have him jump in, grab it, hold it still in his mouth, jump out of the tub, and place it in my hand — only when I have asked for it.

On one hand, we still have a long way to go. On the other hand, the slow, careful, meticulous approach will pay off in the end. And he’s not even two! There is yet hope for us!

Now, here are two videos. Barnum was very excited to have someone watching (videotaping) our sessions. When we first started, he kept running over to her and peering up into the camera. I didn’t use that footage. I called him over, and he settled enough to focus on me, but as you will see, he was still much more excited and sloppy than usual.

The first video shows what happens when Mr. Barnum is overexcited when we are training the retrieve. I have worked hard to build this enthusiasm. Now I can direct it. Overly enthusiastic retrieves result mostly in him doing a sloppy take — stepping on the object, batting it with his paws, even (oy!) shredding it — and sometimes with a flawed hold — moving the object around in his mouth, or dropping the object before cued.

The first video shows him retrieving a Sharpie marker for the first time. (I can’t use Sharpies, but its the cap on, it doesn’t bother me.) It’s a hot mess. I finally figure out how to interrupt the situation. I change my technique and switch to having him take it from my hand — eliminating the chase/play/prey drive aspect of the “game” — then having him pick it up from right next to me, before tossing it again.

For the captioned version of the video, click here.

(Note: If you are reading this post as an email, to view the videos, click here.)

[Video description: Sharon sits in her chair and tosses a marker about ten feet away. Barnum runs after it and has some trouble picking it up. He is very bouncy. He brings it to Sharon and drops it. With his butt facing her, he tries again, in an overly enthusiastic way, to pick it up. Sharon looks like she is smiling or silently laughing. She says, “Leave it,” and Barnum immediately looks up curiously. Sharon says, “Yes,” when he is facing her and gives him a treat. Sharon says to the camera, “He’s not supposed to do all that,” and tells Barnum, “Excuse me,” so she can pick up the pen. She holds the pen out and Barnum tries to grab it before she cues, so she moves it out of the way. She holds it out again and says, “Take.” He takes it and holds it above her hand. Sharon says, “Thank you,” and he drops it, and it falls on the floor. After giving Barnum a treat, Sharon points to the dropped marker and says, “Take.” He picks it up and puts it in her hand when she says, “Thank you!” After treating the dog, she puts the pen on the floor on her left and says, “Take.” Barnum delivers it to her again on “Thank you.” Sharon says, “Okay, let’s start over again. Can you turn it off?”]

After that, we continued our training and restarted filming, which is the next video. This includes some items Barnum has never retrieved before (such as the scissors), so it’s interesting to see him figure out how to approach them and gain confidence with more reps. See if you notice how many variables we are working with. . . .

For the captioned version of the video, click here.

The description of the second video is below my signature.

In breaking news, in the last few days Barnum has actually started to retrieve items when needed! The most exciting moment was last night when I dropped a scrunchy and didn’t realize it until I saw him holding it. He had picked it up on his own but now wasn’t sure what to do. I called him over and cued the release, and he dropped it right in my hand. Good dog!

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

*If you are not familiar with The Spoon Theory, you can read it here. The term, “Spoons,” has been adopted internationally to refer to the functionality level a person with a chronic illness is currently dealing with, as in, “I just don’t have the spoons to take a shower today.”

[Video description: Sharon tosses a marker onto the floor.

Sharon: Take!

Barnum picks it up and holds it above her hand.

Sharon: Thank you! (Gives him a treat.)

Sharon tosses the marker behind the chair. Barnum retrieves it, though he drops it halfway to her. Sharon moves forward and puts the marker on a table. She wipes her hand on a paper towel and Barnum moves in as if to take it.

Sharon: Are you sure? This is a tough one. Take.

Sharon drops it on the floor next to her chair. Barnum grabs it with his mouth but holds part of it down with his front paw, tearing it in two.

Sharon: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

She leans down to pick it up. Barnum still is standing on part of it.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum steps back. Sharon removes the larger half of the ripped paper towel.

Sharon puts a pair of paper scissors on the ground next to her. They have a black plastic handle. Barnum circles them, apparently deciding how to approach. He picks them up and brings them over. Sharon moves her hand higher and farther away an inch or two a couple of times, then says, “Thank you,” and Barnum places them in her hand and receives a treat.

Sharon tosses the scissors behind her chair.

Sharon: Take.

Barnum stoops and looks at the shred of paper towel but leaves it alone and finds the scissors. He has to maneuver his jaw a few times to grab the scissors correctly, then picks them up and trots to Sharon’s front. She moves her hand higher. Barnum tries presenting them on her knee, but Sharon doesn’t give the cue. Barnum raises the scissors and puts them in Sharon’s hand when she says, “Thank you.”

Sharon puts the scissors on the table and tosses an empty cottage cheese tub (no lid) on the ground. Barnum immediately scoops it up and gives it to her. This is the one he seems most comfortable with. After he eats his treat, Sharon tosses the container about six feet away and says, “Take.” Barnum goes to it, looks back at Sharon to make sure this is what she meant, then picks up the container and delivers it again. Sharon drops the container on her opposite side so that Barnum has to go under the table to get it. When he brings it back, Sharon holds both hands seven or eight inches above her lap. Barnum tries to put it in her lap. Sharon won’t take it. Barnum lifts it up, and Sharon puts her hand under it but drops it on her foot plate. She waits to see if Barnum will pick it up on his own, but he is uncertain. Sharon cues “Take” again. Barnum picks it up from her foot plate, and this time Sharon allows him to put it in her hands in her lap. Sharon puts the container away and grabs a six-foot cotton webbing leash. She drops it at her side and cues, “Take.” Barnum moves to it immediately and swings around so he’s not stepping on it. He brings it to her and gets his reward. Sharon tosses the leash again. Barnum retrieves it again.

Sharon: Okay, good boy! Good job!]

It’s taken me more than a week to write this post, so Barnum has now improved on various things. He is actually just starting to occasionally do useful-in-the-moment retrieves! Last night, I dropped a scrunchy on the floor without realizing it, and he picked it up! Then he wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I called him over and he gave it to me. Good dog!

Our Recent Public Access Achievements

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

We're achieving another great carnival!

The theme for the fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “Achievement.” Barnum and I had two very exciting outings recently — one caught on video — which I’m very excited to share with you. It’s perfect timing for the carnival.

The achievements that Barnum and I celebrate are not the successes of a graduation or a title. Rather, they are small steps that are leading us — oh, so slowly, it often seems — along the path to a working partnership. I don’t think we have a single behavior that I can say is truly finished — not just service skills, but basic obedience and manners, too. Working on so many little skills day after day, it becomes hard to observe that any improvement is taking place. That’s why a day like last week — or last month when we first went into a store — is such a big deal: the improvements are a stark contrast to previous efforts, clear enough for me to notice and revel in them.

This past Thursday I had my biannual appointment with my primary care doctor. The appointment itself was completely useless. (More about that another time.) However, I brought Barnum with me — even though he couldn’t come inside — with hopes that we’d do some training in the parking lot after my appointment. My driver and assistant took care of him during the appointment.

Barnum and I have really only started public access work in the last couple of months. He went into a store — the small village coop in a nearby town — for the first time on September 12. I had someone along who could video the event, which is very unusual. Below is the movie I made of it. (Like the combination treat pouch/leash belt I’m wearing? I got it from Mimi of sheekoo.com, and I love it!)

(If you’re reading this post as an email, click here to view the video.)

Click here to read a transcript of the video.

Click here to watch the video with captions.

But wait, there’s more! Fast-forward to a week ago. As I mentioned, Barnum had to stay in the van with my driver while I had my appointment. In my state, there is no public access for teams in training, so where you are able to go is dependent on the goodwill of the managers of such establishments. My doctor told me that their policy is that a SD team is not allowed in unless the dog is finished training. (These policies seem much more prevalent today than when I trained Gadget or Jersey. I wonder whether this is due to the boom in partner-training SDs — and private and program trainers, too, for the record — who are not yet skilled enough trainers, or not familiar with and careful of laws and etiquette around public-access SDs, creating negative perceptions of SD teams or SDiTs.)

Anynoodle, there is still much that can be done in parking lots or on sidewalks or at the locales that are SDiT-team friendly. Thus, after my appointment, I dressed Barnum in his snazzy working gear. We had a couple of “oopses.” One, which has never happened before, and which I hope never happens again, is that Barnum jumped the gun on exiting the van. He has gotten pretty good at staying inside until he is cued to exit. For whatever reason, though, today he jumped out while leashless. This was scary because we were in “the city” (for my area), and there was actual traffic beyond the parking lot. However, my helper snagged him, I walked him back to the van, and he jumped back in. Disaster averted. First note of something to work on more!

Then, we did some automatic sits before exiting (which is what he should have done instead of just hopping out previously), and I cued him to jump out and sit, which he did. I was pleased he was so focused on me and that I got such a fast and snappy sit. I had him sit-stay while I moved around, and then we were off.

Here’s how Barnum made my day:

  • Focus. Barnum kept focus on me and loads of eye contact the whole time. That is the foundation for everything else. I was thrilled by it.
  • Happiness. Barnum’s tail was up and wagging. His step was springy. He showed no signs of fear or vigilance (except one startle issue, which I’ll get to shortly). He was totally in the game and enjoying himself. At one point, I said, “Back up,” and instead of just walking backward, he leaped backward. He does the bouvie-bounce/pounce/spring thing when he’s loving training.
  • Loose leash. I didn’t even realize until we were on the way home that Barnum never pulled on the leash except at the end, when another dog was right nearby, whining at us.
  • Positional cues. I asked for sits, downs, nose touches, chin targets, backing up, standing up, coming to my side, and Barnum was about 90 percent reliable on all cues.
  • Toileting. When we were first heading from the parking lot to the sidewalk, I could tell that Barnum wanted to go sniff and mark the lawn, bushes, and flowers we were approaching. However, I kept him busy and focused on me, and he either realized that marking and sniffing was not acceptable, or he was too focused on working to care. When we were finished training, I took off his pack and harness and brought him to the grass and cued him to pee. He offered a short squirt, which I was very pleased about. It indicated to me that he probably did know the cue (as soon as I said, “Hurry up,” he started looking around the grass, circling, and sniffing) and that he was doing his best to follow it, even though he didn’t need to go. It’s possible that he was just marking, now that he had the opportunity, but I’m okay with that as a stepping stone to a more solid elimination on cue. This is the first time he has eliminated on cue in a totally new environment!
  • Transferring new cues from home – Part I: Door Opener. These were the ones that really thrilled me. Barnum has never touched a door opener before. The door opener for the external door at my doctor’s office is a silver vertical rectangle — not at all the shape I thought I’d remembered! At home, we’d been practicing the moves that would apply to a door opener — the same ones as for turning on or off a light switch — but my faux door-opener was a big blue paper square! The real door button was about three feet high and placed on the pane between the glass door and window. I held my hand over the button and had him nose-target my hand a few times. He could reach it without jumping up, but only just. He had to stretch his nose all the way up. . . .
  • Then I pointed at the button and told Barnum, “Touch!” He just barely bumped the bottom of the button, but that was enough; the door immediately swung outward. Barnum jumped back in surprise. I gave him extra treats and praise, along with the initial click/treat, and we did that a few more times. He hit the button every time, and he was surprised by the door every time, but with successively decreased concern. I think we’ll have to practice this many times before he is totally comfortable with the door swinging open. It’s the one area he has always had anxiety — doors swinging toward him from the front or the rear. (When he was temperament tested at seven weeks old, a solid object moving suddenly toward him was the only part of the test that scored poorly on; everything else was perfect or near-perfect, and those results were surprisingly predictive of his future behaviors and tendencies.) So, the fact that he continued to press the door opener and did not wig out — in this completely new environment, to boot — seemed like a good sign to me.
  •  Transferring new cues from home – Part II: The Retrieve. We have not yet achieved a complete trained retrieve at home. Barnum will take something from my hand, hold it quietly for a pretty long time, and then — on my cue — will drop it. But he hasn’t figured out that picking things up off the floor can be handled the same way as taking things from me. So, our big effort has gone into the take/hold part of the retrieve. It had not even occurred to me to try this skill away from home yet. . . .
  •  Then, something happened — I can’t remember what anymore — where I was holding something out, and he went to take it in his mouth! I had not been looking for that, but I was able to click and treat it. “Why not?” Says I to myself. So, I held out a pen — the object he’s the most eager and comfortable taking and holding — and we did a few repetitions of that. Well, knock me over with a feather!

I was bringing him back to the van to load up and leave when a woman parked next to me with a boxer in her car. Barnum was still paying attention to me, not the boxer, so I was eager to get out of there before he could start practicing some bad behavior, such as pulling to get to the other dog, and for all I knew, jumping up to get a sniff. (Our biggest distraction is other dogs. Our second biggest distraction is people — strangers. Barnum feels the need to greet/sniff them and inquire as to whether they’d like to give him attention or food.)

Unfortunately, this woman wanted to chat me up about my “service dog.” I had to correct her that we were in training, because Barnum was not comporting himself as a trained SD should, and I don’t like to spread any more misinformation about SDs than already exists. Then, she wanted to tell me about how her dog, the one she is leaving in the car who is wearing no gear, is a service dog, too, and perfectly eager for our dogs to interact! Usually if I say, “We’re training,” in a very “read-between-the-lines-please” voice, people back off a bit, but not this woman. Trying to focus on getting Barnum refocused and loaded into the van while not getting downright rude to this stranger meant that I lost control of the situation, and Barnum decided that, yes, it would be acceptable to pull like a freight train to get to the boxer, who had started to whine.

Somehow, finally, I managed to ignore the other person enough to get Barnum loaded, and then he settled down. On the way home, we did lots more practice with taking and holding objects, and various simple skills, and I was just over the moon.

Outings like this are extremely helpful in showing which behaviors have jelled and can be taken to the next level, and which need some remedial attention. The trip made it clear the areas we need to work on most: Leave it/zen for people, leave it/zen for dogs, more work with moving-door-related fear, and more work on default sit before and after exiting the van. But on the way home, the refrain in my head was, “Go, Team Barnum! Woohoo!”

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT and future door-opener of my world

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about the ADBC, read past issues, check out the schedule for the next few carnivals, or learn how to get involved, please visit this page about the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival.

P.P.S. You know what was really an achievement? Completing this post! I had so much difficulty creating and uploading that video — it took a week! — and then when I finally did get it uploaded, I discovered I had left out a segment in the middle and had to create and upload a new version! All future videos will be much shorter!

Golden Days of Summer – Part I

Although the payback has begun, Barnum and I have had a couple of terrific days. I’m very grateful. Finally, we’re getting a chance to enjoy summer together!

It started Friday, when I finally got a sunny day and male goldfinches at my feeder, allowing me to take a “golden days of summer picture” of the view from my window. I guess you will just have to take my word for it that these are goldfinches in the foreground, because they are in shadow, so their beautiful yellow color does not show up on the photos.

Framed by window panes, a clear lucite feeder on the window in the foreground has two birds in it, though they are in shadow and not identifiable as to species. Outside the window is lush, tall green weeds and wildflowers, especially gold flowers that resemble very tall black-eyed susans. The sun is shining brightly, casting a golden glow on the greens and yellows.

Gold flowers and gold finches in the golden sun.

Of course, somebody had to see what was so interesting. . . .

Very similar image as previous, except there is one bird in the feeder instead of two, and Barnum's head is at the bottom right of the photo, looking out the window that is open. Just the silouette of the back of his head, ears, and neck are visible.

What are we looking at? Is there a squirrel?? Is there a chipmunk?? I don't hear one...

But after ascertaining that there were no exciting rodents to watch, he got bored and went to his crate.

By the way, I have not yet definitively identified these flowers. They are not black-eyed Susans or Jerusalem artichokes. One of my PCAs says they are brown-eyed Susans; she’s probably right. I need to look them up.

Anynoodle, later that day, Betsy drove Barnum, me, and my revitalized Jet powerchair to the pond, and we had a great time. Barnum ran around sniffing, peeing, and running some more. He was quite good, overall, at keeping within visual range, visually checking in, and coming when called. He did not come promptly every time I called, but he did always come eventually, even when there was an interesting person or dog to follow.

There were a few times my chair made worrisome noises, or that it jerked a bit, which makes me suspect wheel-motor issues. However, it did get me safely from the van and down the trails to the pond and back again. I don’t know how long it will last, but hopefully at least until the rest of the summer or fall, and maybe by then I will have a replacement for the purple chair.

Betsy went into the water, and Barnum had a terrific time bounding into the water to her, then running back to me for a treat, then back to Betsy again. This was a great way for us to practice recalls and also to ask for behaviors (sit, touch, chin, down) when he arrived before receiving his treat.

Betsy was able to entice him to let his feet leave the bottom for just a moment to get a treat from her. This is good, because if I ever get my PICC line removed and am well enough, I would like Barnum to provide swimming assistance for me, as Gadget did.

He got the zoomies and ran around and around the beach, in the water and then out. He certainly is entertaining to watch!

Amazingly, he tuckered himself out enough that he was very interested in working for treats. On the way up the path away from the beach, he actually walked next to my chair, as if doing a loose-leash working walk, even though he was off-lead. He eagerly responded to cues for sit, down, stand, touch, chin, etc. We even did a couple of short sit-stays!

Then, this morning I was able to get a video of a training session. Barnum is now picking up the dumbbell from the floor! Short video of that is below. Link for captioned version is below that, and for transcript below that.

In the video you can see that he sometimes nose-nudges or paws the dumbbell before picking it up. So, I will have to eliminate that part of the behavior before we move on to combining the “take” with the “hold.”

This is the captioned version of video.

This is the transcript of the video.

Part II will cover Saturday’s adventure, when we spent the day at our town’s annual celebration. Public access galore in a super-high distraction environment. Stay tuned!

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

Progress!

Today was a day of hope on some fronts and tangible improvement on others. I thought I’d share with the class.

Hope

I have been working with the consumer affairs division of the district attorney and attorney general’s office for my region to try to get some help dealing with my purple powerchair nightmare.

(If you’re new to this blog, just click on “Assistive Tech – Powerchairs” in the Dogegory cloud in the menu bar on the right, and you’ll find scores of posts. The upshot, though, is that I bought a specialized wheelchair in order to be able to walk Barnum in my rural area, and it has been dead most of the time I’ve had it, no matter how many times it gets “fixed.”)

It was not going well, and I was resigning myself to the likelihood that I’d have to hire a private attorney and sue. I’ve never filed a suit in my life, and the idea of the mental and emotional work it would take, not to mention the physical effort, is extremely unappealing. I really don’t want to spend my precious energy that way. I also just never thought of myself as the kind of person who files lawsuits, you know?

Today, however, I heard from someone at the business where I got my chair who is new to the organization and is coming on board to “put out fires.” Apparently, I’m one of the larger fires, and having the state’s AG involved seems to be issuing more smoke on my behalf. He listened and was sympathetic, which was a really nice change of pace. He also let me know that they are having a lot of internal problems that are interfering with them responding to my demands.

So, I don’t know what will come of this, but it was the first time I have felt like somebody at their end cared and remotely “got it” about the situation. I’ll be emailing him some documents, and we’ll speak again. I’m afraid to get my hopes up, in case this doesn’t work out, but at least there is a glimmer now that there may be some sort of resolution I can work with.

Progress!

I have finally decided to take my own advice and only do retrieve training (work with the dumbbells) for extremely short sessions. This had been my plan for a long time, but I’m so desperate to get our trained retrieve, that if he was enthusiastic and showing progress, I always wanted to do “just one more.” That is a very common pitfall among clicker trainers. I know this, and yet, I kept doing it!

It’s just crucial that a service dog is excited and eager to do the tasks that you need, because you can’t force a dog to help you, especially if he has to choose between doing a requested behavior versus playing, eating, or napping. Since the trained retrieve is the basis for the great majority of service skills, the foundation is supremely important. The ideal is to train for demand, meaning the dog isn’t just willing to work, but is demanding it. This is something Gadget often did, and I appreciated it, but I didn’t have to work for it with him; he was just naturally eager. With Barnum, oh yes, I am working for it!

My ideal was three sessions a day with the dumbbells, of three to five reps each session; but I was doing seven or 10 reps instead. This sometimes led to Barnum becoming frustrated or bored, and his performance would suffer accordingly. So, I finally stopped that and decided to follow my own rules. It’s going great!

Today, we have done two sessions so far (hope to squeeze in at least one more), and each time he held the dumbbell, on his own, without dropping it. I have also started doing distracting things like tapping the top of his head or  his lips (very annoying to him) or waving treats around in front of him, and he is keeping his hold. Hopefully I’ll get some video soon to post. GOOD BOY!

I have to go back and read the Training Levels for retrieve, because we are past where I’d read for Level 3 and Level 4, and I need to find out what comes next.

Improvement!

Barnum and I had another walk today, almost an hour long. Ideally, I’d like to get us doing two hours, but I’m working my way up slowly. (My body won’t be up to that every time, at any rate. But, fall is coming, so I want to get in as much walking as possible before I’m grounded again.)

He got all excited when he saw me putting on shoes — something I don’t do unless I’m going out. (Hand factoid: one of the bonuses of being inside and in bed most of the time is very soft feet!) When I got into a wheelchair with extended leg rests, his hopes were confirmed. Recently, he has not shown enthusiasm at being told he’s going for a walk, so this was a harbinger of things to come.

He was very bouncy and perky for most of the walk, and he still  managed to keep a loose leash almost all the time, even though I tried us going at a faster pace (something that used to flip his “charge ahead” switch). Throughout the walk he gave me tons of eye contact and almost constant focus. I actually allowed him leeway to wander and sniff on the rare occasions he was inclined, even permitting minor leash tension, because I want him to enjoy the walks, and not just have them be an endless work session.

He also peed, on cue, before we left, and pooped during the walk, which he will not do if he’s stressed out, so that’s all good! We stopped periodically to practice sit, down, chin, touch, come by (come around to the left side of the chair), and side (stand parallel to the left side of the chair), and some very brief stays!

I used hot dogs for most of our work, and for the first half hour of the walk, not a single car passed us. When a truck appeared, I got out my cheese (unfortunately, I forgot the tube of pureed cottage cheese — doh!), and we played “look at that.” He is finally catching on to the LAT game.

During the rest of the walk, two more cars, a motor scooter (new for him, I think), and a bicyclist all passed by, and he was increasingly relaxed about them. He did less looking over his shoulder, but I also c/t him for doing that, and that gave him confidence that it was okay to check the environment. He is now getting in the habit of looking at the car, turning to me for his cheese, looking again, back for the cheese, and then when the car is gone, he gets c/t for focus on me.

I think we will only need a few more walks before his automatic response after seeing a car is to look at me for treats. From there, we will move to (an eventually cued) behavior of going to the side of the road and sitting quietly till the car has passed.

I also started incorporating some Zen (leave it) training during the walks, which he sorely needs. (More about that another time.)

There were two very exciting moments during the walk. The first was when the bicyclist, a neighbor, stopped to chat, and . . .

  • Barnum went to sniff his shorts, and I said “Leave it,” and he did!
  • Barnum eagerly performed sit, down, touch, and chin while I talked to the neighbor (a distraction, especially because Barnum knows his dog — and Barnum remembers everyone).

The second was when another neighbor was  out walking her dog and walking right towards us. In the past, Barnum’s behavior with this dog  has been obnoxious. He wants to play with every dog he meets, whether or not they want to, and whether or not his style of play is one they like. With this dog, he learned early to mount her, and she just put up with it. Bad scene. Neighbor did not like that!

So, when my neighbor saw us approaching, she asked if I’d like her to stop, which I answered, very gratefully, “Yes!” Barnum, amazingly . . .

  • continued to keep focus with me most of the time and
  • maintained a loose leash, though he was Very Excited to see this other dog.
  • When we got close, he did do a few lunges, and I’d back up, and he’d get under control, and we’d move forward again.
  • The most miraculous part was that he stayed by my side while I talked to my neighbor and —
  • with a gusto I cannot adequately do justice to — threw himself into sits, downs, chin and nose targets,
  • and even held a short sit-stay while I rotated around him, 
  • with another dog just a few feet away!

My neighbor asked if they could greet, and I said yes, but I realize now that was a mistake. I think I will start teaching Barnum that he is to ignore other dogs unless it is officially off-leash play time. He’d start out with a friendly nose-sniff greeting, and then he’d start jumping around in a frenzy, trying to induce play. I’d back up, he’d get under control, etc.

Overall, I was terribly proud of us both. I’m sure my neighbors — and most people in town — think I’m a complete weirdo, and that I have a wild, out-of-control dog, and that all I do with him is randomly shove food at him. I’ve come to realize that if someone doesn’t understand clicker training, and that the “behaviors” you’re clicking for can be so minute (not pulling, or a flick of an ear or eye indicating the briefest awareness of my existence) or even counter-intuitive (clicking for sniffing the ground or for looking at a car), that it’s really hard for them to understand.

Fortunately, what with all my disabilities and my “unique” personality, I think most people think I’m a weirdo anyway. But this is a town that is exceptionally tolerant (even welcoming) of weirdos, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. After all, it’s Barnum’s and my process and ultimate results that matter; it’s not a popularity contest.

So proud of Team Barnum tonight!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (she was a lot less strict with me!), and Barnum, SDiT and *maturing young bouv*?!?!

The Trained Retrieve

Or, “What’s the Point of That?”

Barnum and I are working on Level 4 Retrieve in the original (older) version of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. (Actually, we are somewhere between Level 4 and Level 5 on this.)

Every day, at least once a day (sometimes two or three times a day), we train with our dumbbells. We have three: a hard plastic white one, an unpainted wood one, and an aluminum one. I rotate them so he gets used to different materials, textures, and sizes of objects in his mouth. (We got them from J&J Dog Supply.)

[Note to MCSers: All of the dumbbells were very tolerable, after just a brief wipe down. Metal is inert and not a problem unless you’re sensitive to aluminum. The plastic is a very hard plastic that barely gives off any smell. And the wood is untreated poplar, which is a hard wood with very little odor; it is usually the wood best tolerated by people with MCS.]

Here is a video from ten days ago. (We have made a lot of progress since then, actually.) There’s no dialogue at all, until the very end, when we finish and I praise him and tell him “release,” so I didn’t caption or transcribe it. A brief description of the “action” of the video is below it.

[The video shows me holding out a white, plastic dumbbell to Barnum, him grabbing it in his mouth, me clicking and tossing a treat, over and over again! The nuances are that I sometimes hold off on the click a second or two longer, that I occasionally hold it higher or lower, and that he grabs the bit of the db in the correct position every time.]

When members of my household see us working this skill, instead of marveling with excitement at our consistency or the amazing improvement in Barnum’s enthusiasm, they say, “What are you doing? What’s the point of that?”

Fellow dog training fanatics addicts enthusiasts, do you ever feel like you live on the planet Clicookislobberania? I mean, how can it not be obvious that my holding this totally useless object while my dog puts his mouth on it, again and again, will naturally lead to him opening doors, carrying grocery bags to the car or house, retrieving pens I drop, bringing me my slippers, letting himself out to pee, opening cupboards and drawers, helping me dress and undress, pulling the covers off of me, answering the phone, and bringing me water from the refrigerator?

Well? How pointless is all that, huh? Does that clear everything up for you? How about a little support, dammit!

Sorry. I get overexcited. I know you just want to understand. I’m sure you don’t realize you’re wearing an utterly perplexed and dubious facial expression when you ask what the hell the purpose is of this seemingly tedious pursuit of . . . whuh?

No, to me it is far from tedious; it is thrilling. I work it so often because I want this skill so bad. You see, what we are working on is the foundation for The Trained Retrieve, the Holy Grail of the service dog foundation skill.

In fact, this is not one skill, at all. It is actually a combination of three separate behaviors: the take, the hold, and the give.

Why am I working so hard to get this right with Barnum? Because I glossed over it with my previous service dogs, and as a result, some skills were never up to par. Where things fell apart was maintaining a “hold.” Both Jersey and Gadget could retrieve. For example, if I dropped a scrunchy on the floor, or I sent them to get me the cordless phone, they could pick the item up (“take”), bring it to me (moving while they “hold” the object) and then put it in my hand (“give”).

However, neither of them was able to reliably hold the object quietly in their mouth while walking next to my chair, or while standing still next to me while I freed up my hands to take it. No, if I didn’t take the object when they brought it, they’d either drop it in my lap, or drop it on the floor and pick it back up (repeatedly), or shift it around in their mouths before giving up and dropping it on the ground again.

[Warning: The following paragraph is dense with clicker training terminology. Proceed at your own risk of being bored, confused, learning something new, or some combination thereof.]

I always thought of this problem as not having the “hold” on cue properly, but recently Shirley Chong gave me a different perspective by saying that the “give” was not under stimulus control. Both are true. My previous service dogs did not maintain their “hold” behavior until released, so that was not under stimulus control. But they also dropped the object (“give”) before I asked for it — in other words, before it was cued, so that was not truly on cue, either.

[Okay, those of you not interested in dog training or operant conditioning can refocus now.]

In fact, this seemingly boring repetitive exercise doesn’t just teach three behaviors. It addresses several essential aspects of all three.

First, it teaches Barnum how to take an object and hold it in the proper position (so that the bar rests behind his canines and in front of his molars), making him less likely to damage something by crunching it. Because I hold onto the db and take longer and longer to click, he learns to hold it until he’s cued to release it (give). This part of the training, above all, will give me with that heretofore elusive duration “hold.”

Eventually, when I start to let go of the object, he will learn that if he keeps quietly holding it in his mouth, he gets a click/treat, but if he drops it on the floor, he gets nothing. And, yes, at some point I will put the object on the floor (and eventually farther and farther away from me), and Barnum will learn how to take it (grab it correctly) from the floor. An object like a pen or bottle would be taken in the same way as the dumbbells, behind his canines. An object that is flat, thin, hard to grasp, or that requires care, would be “picked” with his lips (a pair of glasses), or front teeth (a dime or pulling my socks off my feet). When grabbing a pull cord to open a heavy door, he needs to get it in his molars so he can pull hard enough.

While the retrieve (go there, get that thing, bring it to me) seems like a simple skill — and for some dogs, especially dogs who naturally like to fetch — it is. Barnum does, in fact, know how to do this. However, this is not the same as building a trained retrieve, with each part equally strong and under stimulus control, providing multiple applications beyond retrieving. It is that part of the process that requires so much time, patience, and attention to detail.

How does it get applied “in real life”?

When Barnum knows these skills, I can tell him to take and hold a door pull, and pair that with “back-up,” and voila! We have door opening.

If I want him to bring me water from the refrigerator, he has to take the door pull and hold it while pulling back to open the fridge door. Then he has to take and hold the water bottle in the proper position in his mouth so he doesn’t puncture the bottle or drop it. He has to maintain that firm but gentle hold while he goes around the fridge door and noses it shut, and then brings me the water. At that point, I will ask him to give it to me, but perhaps only after doing “paws up” on the bed.

Do you get it now? This is the gateway drug skill to most of the service tasks Barnum will need to know! Now you see why dog training is so exciting and addictive, right? Right? Alright, wake up. The post’s over. [Sigh.]

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I learned to retrieve using my favorite toy, my Dino!), and Barnum, SDiT (If I chomp the bar thing in her hand, I get beef heart!)


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