Posts Tagged 'service-dog walk'

Video: Pivot Left with Wheelchair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Receive new blog posts right in your email!

Join 572 other subscribers
Follow AfterGadget on Twitter

Want to Support this Blog?

About this Blog

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

Read Previous After Gadget Posts