Posts Tagged 'service dog'

The 10th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival — Perfect!

Welcome to the Tenth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival! I’m pleased that many of the bloggers who contributed to the first #ADBC, hosted by me in October 2010, have returned, and some new bloggers have also swelled our ranks. In honor of this being the tenth carnival, I chose the theme of “Perfect 10.” Participants could write about “ten” or “perfect” or both.

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.

ADBC #10

I’m delighted with how this issue came together. Thirteen bloggers have contributed pieces — some of them have become my new favorite assistance dog posts! Plus, because some posts were accompanied by terrific pictures, for the first time, I’m including a few pictures from some of the posts. You are in for a treat!

The Top Tens

These bloggers are all about the tens. Some looked at the last ten weeks or ten months; others made “top ten” lists, which are a lot of fun. It seems as if top ten lists naturally lend themselves to humor and celebration.

Ro of In the Center of the Roof was part of the first #ADBC, and I remember her contribution as being particularly funny. I’m so glad she’s back because Carnival Post – Top Ten is a feel-good post from top to bottom. Not only is Ro’s match with Jayden perfect, but Ro lists ten added bonuses to their partnership that have nothing to do with Jayden’s guiding ability. Several side benefits (added potassium, quitting smoking) seem pretty unusual. Under “Attitude Adjustment,” Ro explains:

I might be feeling depressed and then it’s time for Jayden’s afternoon Kong Wobbler treat. I’ve taken to pronouncing “wobbler” so it sounds very French and you can’t stay in a bad mood when you’re asking your dog if he wants his Wobbler in a high pitched silly French accent.

Patti Brehler, a puppy raiser for Leader Dogs, wrote about her first Ten Weeks with Dutch, a Golden Retriever pup. A delight to read, each plays with puppies anecdote is accompanied by an impossibly cute picture of Dutch, such as the one below. And clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks he’s adorable:

An 8-week-old Golden Retriever puppy's head and front paws are between my blue-jean clad legs. Behind him is the glove box of our van; to the right side is the van door handle. My red fleece jacket is visiible at the bottom of the picture.

Our only choice was to enter by the stage. As I coaxed my golden fur ball past the front row seats a harmonic “awwwww” rolled out ahead of us. The “awwwwws” resonated to the back of the room like a wave….

Guide Dog Jack was good enough to write L-Squared‘s post for her because she had writer’s block. Well, L-Squared better look out because the Chocolate Dog is such a talented humorist that he might take over her blog! (The pictures which illustrated each point are also great and often hilarious.) Jack wrote a list of ten ways in which his human is Not Perfect. Here’s number six, text and picture:

Super-close up of Chocolate Lab Jack shoving his big brown nose into the camera lens - the photo is so close that all the pours of his nose skin are visible clearly, while the rest of his head is nearly entirely out of focus in the background.

Sometimes I think my girl almost forgets to feed me, so I have to wake her up at o’dark-thirty – by poking her face repeatedly with my nose – to remind her that it will be time for my breakfast in only four more hours!

Martha of Believe in Who You Are has had her new guide, Jory, for ten weeks and is trying to figure out how to teach Jory to do A very good down:

With each dog, I learn something new. This time, I think it is if one method doesn’t work, try something else till she understands. I don’t expect her to be perfect, but I’ll be happy when she is very good and happily lying on the carpet or tile in and out of harness.

Shai, a Golden Retriever who is such a pale yellow that he's almost white. A light-skinned woman with short, straight gray hair and glasses, a white turtle neck and a light blue hoodie leans her head against Shai's shoulder. It looks like they're sitting on the ground, covered with autumn leaves.

At her blog, Shai Ezer-Helper Beside Me: Training My Service Dogkhills wrote a long post chronicling Ten Terrific Training Months with their cherished trainer, Stacey. khills’s post contains many photos and videos (no descriptions or transcripts as far as I know) of her service dog, Shai (often accompanied by other Golden Retrievers) tackling an elevator phobia and a serious distraction problem with other dogs. Among their many adventures is a class with Victoria Stillwell!

When my sister & brother called to arrange a Mother’s Day dinner, I was able to look forward to a big gathering instead of worrying that Shai would not perform well in a big crowd. He rode for 5 hours in the car, then we went directly into the restaurant. He was perfect. Everyone talked about how well trained he was.

Embracing Imperfection

The posts in this section acknowledge that no person or assistance dog is perfect. These bloggers defy perceptions and judgments by the public, other assistance dog partners, or their own inner voices to celebrate their dogs and their partnerships. Some simply accept imperfection as a reality of life, while others celebrate certain imperfections as bonuses.

Cyndy of Gentle Wit wrote one of my favorite posts, thanks to its refreshing honesty and dry wit, about the myth of the perfect match — on both the handler side and the dog side — in her post, (Im)Perfection:

I’ll let you in a little secret: whatever you’ve heard from other guide dog users about their dog never needing a correction is totally and completely a lie. I used to be almost ashamed of my skills as a handler and disappointed in my guide dog because I heard this so many times before training, during training and even after training.

Starre of This Witch’s Familiar is joining the Carnival for the first time, and she’s a welcome addition. In ADBC: (im)Perfect, she talks about what she learned from her experience as an owner trainer of her retired service dog and what she’s hoping for with the yet-to-be-born puppy. A big hope seems to be more acceptance and support from the broader assistance dog community:

Most people who are trying to take this road *are* trying to do this right. Being told that you have to look and be perfect 100% of the time is not okay.  Nobody is perfect, and that’s what makes us human. That’s what makes our dogs, dogs. Its okay to be imperfect.

Flo of A Mutt and His Pack wrote a post that really resonated with me. Duncan is a rescue dog, and that always comes with its own challenges and rewards. I also nodded my head at the all-too-familiar description of how public perceptions of perfection and imperfection of a working dog team are often bass-ackwards. What moved me the most in ADBC #10 – Perfect 10, was the story of an Obedience competition where Duncan and Flo have different ideas of what perfect behavior is appropriate that day. Even though I’ve never competed in Obedience, I’ve had similar moments:

We disqualified on a Companion Dog (novice obedience) run because I was exhausted, and he broke heel to come around to my right side, my weak side. He wouldn’t sit on the halts because I was a little off kilter and he’s trained to stand and brace…. Duncan was a service dog. He’d been perfectly behaved for what I needed, not what I wanted, and I’d basically had a tantrum that we “failed” in front of a judge.

Brooke (with Cessna and Rogue) of ruled by paws wrote about Rogue, the puppy she is raising and training to be her successor guide dog. In Impossible Perfection, Brooke describes some of her own and her pup’s imperfections — which lead her to consider washing Rogue out — but with new equipment and improved training, the team is confidently moving forward:

Some people may look at our challenges and say that Rogue isn’t an acceptable guide dog candidate, but I’m not ready to give up on her. If I had given up on Cessna so easily, I would have missed out on eight amazing years of partnership with an amazing teacher.

Frida Writes is another who embraces imperfection. I related a great deal to her post, Perfectionism and Service Dog Training. Like me, she holds herself and her dog to high standards, standards which can be thwarted by the pain and exhaustion of illness. She discusses what happens if others see her team as less-than-perfect:

As I mentioned in my last ADBC post, it took me a while to figure out why my dog would sometimes throw himself in front of my footplates–to prevent someone from bumping into me hard, to draw my attention to the kind of men who frighten me… So what can initially look like a lack of perfection can be the purest of perfection–finding a need and fulfilling it, even when directed to do otherwise. It just does not appear that way to others. And I’m okay with that.

Remembering our Perfect Dogs

The last three posts look back on assistance dogs who made a profound impact on their handler’s life. Even though (or perhaps because) each dog came with some difficult issues, these dogs were, in certain ways, perfect for their partners.

I was really moved by The Pawpower Pack‘s post about her first guide dog, Rhoda. Perfect After All is a short but powerful post that takes the reader on the journey of a perfectionist newbie who overcomes unexpected behavioral problems with her first guide dog only to lose her to early illness. Having faced some similar struggles, this post at the Doghouse socked me in the gut:

When I got my first assistance dog, I admit to have watched far too many “Guide Dog Movies®” and read just as many “Guide Dog Books®” I had partaken of the “Guide Dog Program Koolade®” with gusto, and expected perfection! Instead, I got Rhoda — a crazy, hyper, and very unfocused dog who had been damaged emotionally by her time in the guide dog training kennel.

Karyn of Through a Guide’s Eyes tells the story of her first assistance dog, Chimette. Together, they shared A Decade of Love. Karyn describes defying expectations — others’ as well as her own — to train her own combo dog. Even though I knew Karyn through most of that decade, I realized in reading this post that I hadn’t known who she was before Chimette:

He taught me to love life in spite of the severe progressive nature my disabilities would take on. Most envision service dogs from a limited skill perspective. Either they are hearing dogs or guide dogs or mobility service skilled dogs or psychiatric dogs. I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined a dog doing as much for me as Met and I learned to do together over our decade long partnership.

My post was written in November, 2011, two years after my service dog, Gadget, died, and I only came across it now. In the pensive mood that hindsight and a new working partner brings, I pondered the question, Two Years Later: Was Gadget the Perfect Service Dog?

Sometimes I’ve thought that I built him up in my mind to be more perfect than he really was. I’ve wondered, “Was it really that Gadget was so amazing and special, or was it mostly that he was the service dog I needed to get the basic job done? Was it really more that I lucked into adopting a dog who learned solid public manners, assistance skills, and loved to learn — despite the issues he had when he arrived?”

Thank You, Readers and Bloggers!

Thank you so much to the bloggers who made this such a fantastic carnival, and thank YOU, our readers, for whom we write. I hope you will share the link to this post on your blogs or social media so that others can enjoy this splendid collection of posts. And as you make the rounds (at your convenience), consider leaving some comment love at the posts that speak to you.

Plus, bloggers, the raffle results are in. You may already be a winner! No, really — find out who takes the prize!

Lastly, the next #ADBC will be hosted by Frida Writes in April 2013. The schedule and other #ADBC details are at the Carnival home page.

Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

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Two Years Later: Was Gadget the Perfect Service Dog?

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.

ADBC #10

You know what’s odd? I wrote most of this post over a year ago, long before I had picked out a theme for this month’s Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. But since I so often get ideas for posts, start writing them, get too tired to finish, and then forget them, I checked my drafts for “perfect” posts and found this one!

This is not the post I’d originally planned for this carnival, but in case I’m too sick/tired/busy to write that one, I’m posting this (instead of or in addition to the one I’d planned to write.) Enjoy!

The post below was originally written November 19, 2011. All I did to finish it was write an ending and do some editing.

* * *

Today is the second anniversary of Gadget’s death. I’m on a list for people whose dogs have died after undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma.* It’s called the Lymphoma HeartDog Angels list (LHDA). We talk about anniversaries a lot on LHDA: anniversaries of birthdays or gotcha days, anniversaries of diagnoses, anniversaries of deaths.

When we are facing an anniversary, it often brings up memories of seminal moments in our dogs’ lives: the diagnosis, the decision to do chemotherapy, the dog’s last day. Stories of how these dogs came into our lives often touch me, such as Susan’s story about Freeway, whom she found abandoned on the side of the freeway. Susan picked her up in her car and they changed their lives forever.

Bettina fell in love with a shelter dog when she was a teenager and begged her mom to adopt him. But when they got to the shelter, they found that the sheltie mix had already been claimed. It turned out Bettina’s mother had applied for him already, as a surprise. Thus began Bettina and Niko‘s relationship, which lasted over seventeen years!

When I think about how Gadget entered my life, what strikes me is how much random good fortune played into it — how I blithely adopted this dog who turned out to be an excellent service dog and my heartdog — and I never even realized how high the odds were stacked against that until much, much later. I lucked into the perfect dog!

Not that Gadget would have been everyone’s perfect dog. Unlike his predecessor, Jersey, who was sort of the poster dog of winning over people who disliked dogs, Gadget was very doggy — and unschooled. Literally his first act upon entering my home was to lift his leg and pee on the clean guest clothes I kept in a basket by the door. Whereas Jersey never pulled on the leash, Gadget would run to the end of it and keep going. During his first week with me, he pulled my mobility scooter over onto me. He had phobias of round things (colanders, hats, outdoor garbage cans) and was wary of men, especially men in hats.

He was a drivey dog, a dog who needed a job, and I think things might have ended badly for him if he’d gone to someone who didn’t have the skill and patience and desire to put in the training to channel that drive. He wore me out with his need for physical and mental exercise. He taught Jersey that she didn’t really have to come when called. He chased all sorts of creatures, including adult black bears. He nipped my landlord, a male friend, and my dog walker, all during his first year with me. I nipped this behavior in the bud (ha ha), and Gadget learned that nipping people was counterproductive and would not bring the goodies that other behaviors did.

When I knew he was the dog of my dreams was when we started clicker training, especially shaping. The service skill I taught Gadget first was the first behavior I ever taught with a clicker: I had trained Jersey to shut the front door, and that was my clicker conversion experience. It was so positive and went so smoothly that I thought it would be a good first service skill for Gadget, too.

Here’s how I taught Jersey: I took some orange construction paper and cut out a circle and taped it onto the door at nose height. Click for approaching the target, then nosing the target, eventually wait for touching to turn into nudging, then harder nudges, then multiple nudges until the door was shut, then click for only some of the nudges it took to close the door, and finally click only for the closed door. When this was solid, I removed the target and clicked for shutting the door without it, which required going back a few steps to reintroduce nudging the door with no obvious target. With Jersey, this process had taken five days of three short sessions per day. I had been very impressed with that!

I intended to follow the same lesson plan with Gadget, but he had other ideas. I put the target on the door. Gadget immediately went to sniff it, and before I could even click him (I hadn’t expected him to orient to the target so quickly since we’d never used one before), he touched the target. I clicked that. He touched it harder. Click. He nudged the door shut! I gave him a jackpot.

When I opened the door again, he started nudging right away, and it only took two or three clicks for him to shut it again. He was so excited that if I held off on a click, he’d try pulling off the target to retrieve it. So it ended up on the floor. Even without the target, he kept orienting to the same spot on the door and within a couple of clicks the door would be shut.

“Well,” he must have been thinking, “obviously the object of the game is to shut the door. Why didn’t you say so?” Because very soon he switched to using his paw — much more efficient without all that nudging business. Within three minutes of beginning the game, I could open the door and have Gadget shut it, over and over again, with just a single click when the door latched.

Gadget, in other words, was a conceptual thinker, which I’ve been told is unusual for dogs. Thus, I managed to train him to do several skills without really providing all the details most dogs would need; I learned to expect these mental leaps and became what is known in training parlance as a lumper. Gadget would quickly grasp what the end goal of the behavior was and just do whatever worked to get there. For example, when I taught him to go find Betsy to bring her a message, and he was confronted with her closed door, he decided all on his own to bark at her door (which Betsy was not thrilled about). I had not realized how special this was. I just thought, “He’s problem solving. He’s got a brain, and he’s using it.”

When I recently told this story to a friend who has trained numerous service dogs professionally, she said, “That’s a dog on a mission!”

It was Gadget’s gusto and independent mind that I loved so much. A smart dog who has been given tools and taught to think for himself is a joy — and a nightmare. After teaching Gadget how to open the outside door to let himself out to relieve himself, one day I discovered the front door open, cold air filling the house, and no Gadget to be found! He’d realized that if he could let himself out when I told him to, he could also do it when he decided to!

I called him, and he came in. I vowed to keep a closer eye on him. He managed one more “escape” before I realized he was gone. The third time he tried it, I caught him in the act. He sauntered to the door and began to open it. I told him, “No!” very sternly, and that was the end of it — until the last year of his life, when he took to letting himself out to find me if I went out without him.

* * *

It’s odd. Grief and memory distort; they magnify some things, blur others. Even though after Gadget died I was lost without him, and I still couldn’t imagine Barnum achieving the number of service tasks or the level of support Gadget provided, I still didn’t realize how exceptional Gadget was.

Not that I didn’t remember how special he was to me, how important. I remembered our perfect moments: When the humans didn’t know I was asking them to shut the door, but Gadget did. When he woke me up when the timer went off and I had food on the stove I’d forgotten. When he alerted me that I’d left the sink on and flooded the bathroom (even though I never trained him to do that). When a stranger came into my home at night and Gadget stayed by my side, barking and ready to attack, but followed my cue to down and stay instead.

I also remembered his “flaws”: that he never completely adjusted to the move to a home with other houses and cars on it, that he worked much more eagerly if he knew I had cheese with me than if I didn’t, that he would get so excited to do a task that he’d get sloppy.

But these were not the moments that made me miss him so much, that left me feeling utterly lost and broken, like a part of my body had disappeared with him. It was the dailiness: Letting himself out. Bringing me water from the fridge. Waking me up so I’d take my medication. Carrying messages to others in the house. Turning off the lights when I went to bed. Opening the doors. Carrying groceries from the van to the house.

Yet, I always thought, “We could have done better. I didn’t train him to real stimulus control on many behaviors. We were never free of the food reinforcers.”

Sometimes I’ve thought that I built him up in my mind to be more perfect than he really was. Especially as I became a better trainer while working with Barnum and achieved levels of consistency and proficiency that Gadget and I never had, I’ve wondered, “Was it really that Gadget was so amazing and special, or was it mostly that he was the service dog I needed to get the basic job done? Was it really more that I lucked into adopting a dog who learned solid public manners, assistance skills, and loved to learn — despite the issues he had when he arrived?”

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I came across something I thought was gone forever — the one video I had of Gadget. Betsy and I made it the year before Barnum got cancer, and a friend of mine put it on Youtube, divided into two parts. A year ago, that friend closed his Youtube account, and I was so sad that I had lost this tangible proof of who Gadget and I were together. Then, when I was captioning videos for a recent post, I discovered that I’d posted and captioned the videos of Gadget before they were taken off Youtube. (You can see them here: Gadget and Sharon Part One and Gadget and Sharon Part Two. Or read the transcripts: Part One and Part Two.)

When I watched them again, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t focused on the skills themselves or on all the mistakes I saw us making. Instead, I noticed his gusto. He was so eager, motivated, and engaged. Yes, it sometimes took two or three tries to get something right, but he was determined.

He was, indeed, a dog on a mission.

It is good to be able to miss him for who he was and not for his supposed perfection or flaws. It’s good to see this side of him that I loved so much, preserved for me to celebrate and mourn. A dog on a mission to work, to keep playing the game, and — let’s face it — a dog on a mission to earn cheese.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD

*I’m one of the few people on the list whose dog did not actually die of lymphoma. Gadget’s chemo was effective for lymphoma, and he was in remission. Unfortunately, he developed mast cell cancer four months into his lymphoma treatment, and that is what killed him six months after he got lymphoma.

Call for Posts: 10th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival! #ADBC

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.

Perfect “10”

I am thrilled to be hosting the TENTH Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (#ADBC)!

We’ve come full-circle. I hosted the first ADBC in October 2010, and between that time and this, eight other bloggers have hosted, coming up with some really terrific topics. And guess how many bloggers have contributed posts? Hint: Some have graced us with their presence once, while many others have a reserved table, having been part of every (or almost every) carnival! (You can find links to all the past hosts, topics, and carnivals at the home page of the ADBC.)

The Theme: Perfect 10

This month’s theme is “Perfect 10.” You can write on “perfect” or you can write on “ten” or you can write on “perfect 10.” Some topic ideas:

  • The myth of the perfect assistance dog can be a burden. Did you expect your first canine assistant to be perfect and have an “Oops” moment? Or do you find that others are shocked when your dog is, well, a dog?
  • Conversely, has your current or a past assistance dog been perfect for you? Was there a perfect day or a perfect moment? A way in which the two of you fit together that you could never have imagined?
  • Is there an arena of your partnership or other doggy life where you are striving for perfection or where you achieved some recognition of perfection?
  • For people who have pet dogs or train pet dogs, are there “nuggets of perfection” you have gleaned from assistance dog trainers or handlers that inspired you to do things differently with your own dog(s)?
  • There are so many things you can do with ten! A top ten list of . . .
  • Things you love about your service dog. Reasons you got a service dog. Best days with your dog. Ten worst moments. Ten funniest moments. Ten things you hate that people do about your assistance dog.
  • Anniversaries. . . Ten years ago. Your first ten months of training. Your dog’s tenth birthday. Your tenth day as partners.
  • Or anything else I’m not thinking of on the theme of Perfect 10!

The Guidelines

These things are required:

  • Anyone can submit a post — as long as it’s pertinent to the theme. You do not have to be an assistance dog partner or puppy raiser or trainer, etc. You just have to write something relating to the theme of “Perfect 10” as it pertains to assistance dogs.
  • The deadline for submissions is Monday, January 28 at 11:59PM (of whatever time zone you’re in). If you are writing or want to write a post and haven’t made the deadline, please contact me. I’d like as many people as possible to join this Carnival #10! I plan to post the Carnival on Thursday, January 31.
  • To submit your post, please comment below with your name (as you’d like it to appear), the name of your blog, the name of your post, and the URL for your post. OR, if you prefer, tweet me the same info at @aftergadget.
  • If you have anything flashing or moving on your blog or post (snow falling, gifs that move, graemlins, etc.), or music that automatically plays when someone enters your blog, we request that you turn off those features until two weeks after the carnival goes live, OR please include a head’s up that you have this feature in your entry below. The reason for this is that moving imagines or music can make text difficult or impossible for some to read and can also trigger migraines (both of which are true for me). A more serious concern for me is that for some readers and contributors to the carnival, these features can cause seizures if they visit your site. By providing me and other readers with this information ahead of time, we can make informed decisions in taking care of our health and safety about whether or not to visit your blog. Thank you for your consideration.

These things are requests (not mandatory, but they make me happy):

The Goodies

I want this Carnival to be special, so I’m doing a raffle and giveaway. Everyone who submits a post for the Carnival will be entered. This is just to CELEBRATE our community of assistance dog partners and our allies — just for FUN! No good cause. No fundraiser. No goals or charity — Just. For. Fun!

The winners will be randomly chosen (using random.org) among contributors.** Here’s what’s available for the giveaway so far:

I’m hoping to collect more giveaways by the publication date of the Carnival. If you have an item you’d be willing for me to raffle, please get in touch! I would love to have a variety of goodies — little things that will be fun to receive; they don’t need to have monetary value. I’ll post new items, with links and info to the donor’s site (if relevant), here and on the After Gadget Facebook page and on Twitter as they come in. (So, if you have a business, I’ll happily plug your stuff!) If you have something to offer, please email me or Tweet me or message me on Facebook! The more who get involved, the more fun it will be (I hope!). Update on raffle: See swag post!

So, get those wheels a-turnin’. What do you want to share with the world on the theme of assistance dogs and “Perfect 10”? I look forward to your posts!

Also, if you are willing to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, other social media, and anywhere else, I would so much appreciate it! I love my internet assistance dog community which the ADBC has helped foster. I would love as many people was possible to be part of this celebration!

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

*Here’s the answer to who and how many bloggers have participated in previous ABDCs…. Forty-eight! Here they are, in the order in which their posts appeared: Ro, Carin, Allison, Torie, Jen, Beverly, L-Squared, Kali, me, TrulyAble, TheTroubleIs, Ashley, Sherlock, Robin, Patti, Linda, Katrin, Cura’s Mom, Trish, Lisa, Brooke, Coreena, Cyndy, Martha, Jess, Static Nonsense, The Pawpower Pack, Michelle, Becky, Kimberly, Beth, Solstice Singer, Karyn,  Kelley, Sam, Artemis, Andrea, Flo, Cait, Hopesclan, Wendy, Lyssa, Patty Aguirre, Lynette, Hera, Katie, FridaWrites, and Kathie! If you comment below, I’ll happily turn your name here into a link. (Too much work to go hunting down 47 links on my own.)

Two Things Service Dogs Can Do that Assistive Technology Cannot (with a side note on brain injury)

I’m having that feeling again. That feeling of being in a partnership. Of having a service dog I can rely on. It’s been three years since I last had that feeling, and boy, am I happy it’s back.

Not that Barnum and I don’t still have plenty to work on. We do. But here’s some of what he’s done today, and I’ve only been up five hours (and he was out on a walk for one of those hours):

  • Helped me undress for my bath by removing two socks, two long-sleeved shirts, and — with coaching — a pair of sweatpants
  • Shut my bedroom and bathroom doors to keep the heat in (repeatedly because I and other people sometimes forget to shut them, see below for memory issues in humans)
  • Shut and opened both doors when I needed them opened
  • Went to get my PCA while I was in the bathroom (opening two doors to get to her)
  • Retrieved my walkie-talkie, a plastic lid, and a pen when I dropped them
  • Retrieved my slippers for me (a few times)

And other stuff which I’ll describe below.

The reason I’m writing this post is that several times today I was able to rely on him for things that I hadn’t planned on needing him for, and it reminded me of all the times people have suggested I use this or that piece of equipment — instead of a service dog (SD) — for a particular problem. And why those solutions sometimes fail me. That’s why I’ve categorized this post under “Waspish Wednesday,” even though it’s not Wednesday, and it’s mostly a celebratory post. It’s also because now that I am enjoying the partnership I have waited (and worked) so long for, I am remembering (with some bitterness) all the unhelpful suggestions of people who have told me that I didn’t need a SD for what I need a SD for.

Not that I don’t use or believe in assistive tech (AT). I do. I use a lot of AT, and I am a big believer in people having access to as much AT as they want to improve their quality of life. And I also believe that there are some situations for which AT is much better than a service dog.* And, they are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary — in my case.**

So, here are two things that service dogs can do that assistive technology (with very few exceptions) cannot:

  1. Think
  2. Move on their own

For example, one of the main things I use Barnum for is communication. I have written about this quite a bit, especially in recent posts. When Gadget died, I got a “doorbell” that became my main way of getting my PCAs, but it had a lot of drawbacks that made me miss Gadget all the more. A lot of people over the last three years have suggested a lot of equipment ideas to rely on instead of Barnum. They are a bell (already have it), walkie-talkies (already have them), and an intercom (have it but can’t use it). Even though I use the doorbell and walkie-talkies every day, I still need Barnum. Here’s why:

  1. My assistants and I are human.
  2. I have neurological damage that impairs my memory.
  3. I have MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity).

Let’s start with #3. The reason I can’t use the intercom is the same reason that for quite a while I couldn’t use the walkie-talkies or the doorbell — they are plastic, and they offgas plastic fumes when they are new. The doorbell took the least amount of time to offgas. I don’t remember now — I think it was just a few weeks, primarily because the only part I have to be near is tiny and the bigger, smellier part is away from me, in the kitchen. The walkie-talkies took a year to offgas. The intercom we have had for over two years and it still reeks to high heaven. I doubt I will ever be able to use it.

Problems #2 and #3 are just variations on a theme. I’m human and my assistants are humans, therefore we sometimes forget things. They have sometimes gone home with the walkie-talkie. They sometimes forget to bring it with them outside. They sometimes go to the bathroom or to get the mail and don’t take them with them. One of my assistants refuses to carry it because of the electromagnetic radiation it emits.

Plus (#3) I have a disability which specifically fucks up my memory, therefore I forget a crapload of things all the time. Every day, many times a day, I forget things, often the same things, repeatedly. All these ideas you might have for dealing with this? Writing things down? Carrying things with me? Velcroing them to me? Timers? Alarms? I’ve tried them all. I already use them all. And it’s still not enough. So don’t fucking suggest them. Please. (That was the waspish part. Could you tell?)

Anynoodle, what I have done in the years since Gadget’s death and Barnum becoming a reliable SD is use the doorbell, and more recently, the walkie-talkies. They certainly are much better than not having them, but there are issues. One is that sometimes I can’t speak, so when that happens, the walkie talkies are about as useful as the doorbell in that they can convey only one piece of information: “I am trying to get your attention.” This can be very limiting, whereas having Barnum bring a note is much better, as I explained in this post.

Another issue is the brain damage/memory thing. I lose these pieces of equipment. A lot. I used to lose the doorbell and the walkie talkies constantly. Frustratingly constantly. Because the problem was that when I taped the doorbell to my overbed table, I didn’t lose it, but I could only use it when I was in bed and not to call for help from the bathroom. Then I got the walkie-talkies, mostly for their portability, and I’d forget to take them with me to the bathroom. (Oh, and someone suggested — after I explained about my memory — that I keep another set of walkie talkies in the bathroom at all times, which tells me that this person doesn’t use walkie talkies because they have batteries that must be charged every night, like a powerchair. If I left them in there all the time, the batteries would be dead when I need them. It also assumes I’d be able to find and reach them in the bathroom which is used by other people. Or perhaps she thinks I should buy three or four sets of walkie talkies?)

Then, I got the brilliant idea of Velcro! I velcroed the doorbell and walkie-talkie to my overbed table where they are within reach and cannot escape. I also put Velcro on my powerchair so I could bring them with me. This has worked very well for the doorbell in that I just leave it velcroed to my overbed table all the time, so I never lose it. But for the walkie-talkie, sometimes I leave it stuck to my overbed table, and I can find it. Sometimes I lose it in my bed. Sometimes I attach it to my chair and then use it when I need it, but more often, I attach it to my chair and then can’t get to it because I’m in the tub or on the toilet and my chair is out of reach, or I have gotten back in bed and left the walkie-talkie attached to my chair, and I can’t reach it, etc. (The bathroom that has the tub is not wheelchair accessible.) Or I bring it to the bathroom with me and put it next to the tub/toilet and then forget to take it with me when I leave and then it’s in the bathroom and I’m not, and I can’t get to it. See how helpful that piece of AT is?

Ahem.

But NOW, I have a working SD. So, today when I wasn’t sure if I needed help getting dressed or not after my bath, but I really wanted my PCA to go make me lunch because our time is limited, I could send her off to the kitchen with the agreement that if I needed her, Barnum would come get her (because I had left the walkie-talkie on my powerchair and also forgotten I had it with me, whereas Barnum’s a lot harder to miss!). And when I stood up and realized yes I had used too many spoons and I needed to get to my chair FAST before I fell over, I could have Barnum open the door ahead of me and skeedaddle out of the bathroom so I could make it to my chair, as opposed to having to sit back down on the toilet, wait for my PCA to come back, help me up, and get to my chair, which would used more PCA time and even more of my spoons. And when I dropped the walkie-talkie (that I’d forgotten I’d brought and therefore didn’t think to use and therefore left it behind), Barnum picked it up and brought it to me. And when I forgot to put on my slippers and they were in the bathroom and I was already in my chair, I could send Barnum back into the bathroom to get them.

You cannot call your bell or walkie-talkie or slippers when you leave them somewhere. Well, you can, but they won’t come. They also won’t retrieve things. They also won’t open doors to get to the thing or person you want.

I love my powerchair. I would be in trouble without it. But sometimes if I am feeling well enough, I prefer to walk to the bathroom, for example. (I try to always use as much energy as I can without overdoing; it’s a very difficult balance.) Sometimes it is fine and good to walk to the bathroom. Sometimes it’s impossible and I don’t try. And sometimes my powerchair is charging or I think I’m doing better than I am, and I discover that I have used too many spoons (especially now that I’m on Clindamycin which means I’m spending a lot longer on the toilet than I’m used to!) to get back to my powerchair, my doorbell, my walkie-talkie, my bed, and I might need my service dog to help me get up and walk back, or to open the door, or to get a human assistant to bring me my chair.

Choices. Having a service dog offers me choices. Because I can choose what needs doing in the moment based on what and how I’m doing and what I need, and I can ask him to do that particular thing, and he can do it nearby or at a distance. He can get and bring the thing or person I need. Because he can think, and he can move all on his own, without a joystick. Though he does bring me a lot of joy.

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

*I believe that wheelchairs and other mobility aids are generally preferable to service dogs for ongoing mobility needs such as balance, walking, etc., because frequent use of dogs as mobility aids can be physical damaging and dangerous to the dog. If you are a full-time wheelchair user, I think it is better to use a powerchair than to have a SD pull a manual chair. If you need walking assistance frequently, a cane, walker, or chair is probably a better bet. However, sometimes you need both. For example, when I have had my powerchair break down, I have used a manual chair with a SD helping to pull it as an emergency backup measure.

**I realize that some people use human assistants or canine assistants or AT instead of one or the other or both of these, and I fully support everyone having the options to make these decisions because no two situations are the same. Everybody’s situation is unique. For example, I know a lot of guide dog partners who do not use a cane because their guide dog is a far superior navigational aid, and I also know people who use both when training a dog or when an issue arises and people who prefer a sighted aid (person) or a cane. And all of us who partner with assistance dogs have times when we cannot use our dogs — when they are sick or have died or have retired — and we have to make do with AT or people in the meantime. I know people with physical disabilities who use SDs so they don’t have to rely on PCAs or certain types of AT, and I support that, too. In my case, I rely on all three, and I am fine with that, too.

Barnum Is Now a Coupe

He is a two-door service dog. The latest model.

While I spend the vast majority of my time in bed, I also make frequent trips to the adjoining “master bathroom,” which has a difficult-to-open door. It’s actually not as bad as it used to be, but I can never fully shake off the fear of my first experiences with this door.

When I first used the bathroom in this house was when I was a potential home-buyer. I went into the bathroom, shut the door, and did my business. Then, I tried to open the door, and I couldn’t. It was stuck. It was summer, and the wooden door had expanded and become too tight. I’m not super strong. I yelled for help. Nobody heard me. I banged on the walls. I tried repeatedly to tug the door open with its obnoxiously unhelpful egg-shaped door knob.

I don’t remember how I got out. Either someone noticed I’d been gone a while and came to look for me, or — using that extra boost of adrenaline that comes with a combination of fear and humiliation — I finally managed to free myself. Forever after, I was nervous about getting locked into that bathroom.

I made changes: I changed all the egg-shaped knobs to levers and hung door pulls on them for Gadget to use to open and shut the doors. The levers were also easier for me to open. And most importantly, a locksmith friend of mine adjusted the door so that it fit better in the frame and didn’t stick in the summer.

Even with all this, that bathroom door is still the most difficult-to-open interior door in my house. It takes more torque to release the bolting mechanism than any other door does. And even though Barnum has become quite accomplished with the other doors in the house, I hadn’t yet taught him this one because it presents an additional challenge due to the size and configuration of the bathroom.

So, until I taught Barnum how to open this door, I have mainly been dealing with the problem by almost never shutting the bathroom door. This doesn’t allow me a lot of privacy when my PCAs or other people are around, but I’d rather lose some privacy than get trapped in the bathroom. It’s so undignified! (And the location of this bathroom, combined with the very thick, insulated walls mean that when I do have to yell or pound for someone’s attention in there, it’s very hard to be heard.)

The reason this door was the last bastion of dog-door-opening difficulty is that I couldn’t use the same training technique I used with others. The way to make the job of opening a door easiest on Barnum is to have him approach the handle from the side furthest from the lever’s end, as opposed to pulling straight on. This way, he uses maximum leverage with minimal force to release the bolt. (Physics is your friend.) You can see this technique in action in the video below, where it takes less than three seconds for Barnum to open and exit the door. (From 0:03 to 0:06.)

Transcript of the video is here.

However, the master bathroom has a built-in cabinet right next to the door, so Barnum’s only options are to pull from the front or to pull from the lever-end side, which is even worse.

A door with a metal door lever with a red nylon webbing pull attached. It has a knot in the bottom. Next to the door is a cupboard, with a cabinet door and three drawers. Thin, turquoise nylon pulls hang from the cabinet doorknob and the knob of one of the drawers.

Here’s the bathroom door and the counter immediately on its left that prevents Barnum from getting good leverage.

So, I messed around with it for a while. I tried partially filling the latch hole on the theory that if the bolt had less distance to travel, it wouldn’t require as much torque to release. For whatever reason, that hasn’t worked.

Meanwhile, I started shaping* this behavior with a very high rate of reinforcement so that Barnum would be VERY EXCITED to open the door. I actually began with his favorite PCA sitting on my bed and only partially shutting the door, asking him to find her (as I previously discussed here and also here). This is Barnum’s Very Most Favorite Skill in the World. He LOVES to find people, get a treat from them, and then run back to find me. This also happens to be the most likely real-world application of this skill — if I’m in the bathroom and need Barnum to go get me help. So, I was tweaking the circumstances for maximum thrill.

Once Barnum was whining with excitement every time he flew at the door and tugged, I switched to just shaping a very enthusiastic approach to taking and pulling the cord. Then I shaped for longer holds and harder tugs. Occasionally, seemingly by complete chance, the door would fly open, but most of the time, Barnum was throwing his terrific enthusiasm (and considerable strength) into the job, without success.

I did notice, eventually, that the times that the door opened “out of the blue” did have something in common — Barnum was approaching from further away. So, I went back to my frenemy, physics, to try to figure out the problem. It seemed clear that Barnum needed to pull DOWN more BEFORE he pulled back. He also needed to approach as close as possible to, and parallel with, the cabinet. And there was something about approaching from farther away that helped. Shaping him to approach from the side was easy — I could manipulate each approach by where I threw the treat from the previous attempt. I realized eventually that the distance of the approach often simply meant a more enthusiastic, energetic pull. But why that was so crucial I still wasn’t sure.

I wanted to make the pulling easier on him. Someone on a training list I’m on once mentioned that a very long pull cord works better for her SD than a short one, so I switched to a long cord. That made things worse, which helped me realize that Barnum needed to choke up HIGHER on the cord to be able to pull down more easily. This wasn’t something I’d figured out with Gadget, who naturally had a tendency to grab high and who was also a bit shorter and more naturally wild/enthusiastic in his grabs. Eventually I realized that the two key ingredients were to shape Barnum to grab higher and to pull down hard at the beginning, versus a slow, steady pull that tended to be back as much as (or more than) down. That’s why the “running start” made a difference; he naturally tended to grab higher and pull down more when he was excited.

So, today I moved the knot higher up the pull cord (or tug strap, as some call them), and I tossed treats as far behind him as possible to get him coming at the door faster/further away and as close to the cabinet as possible. Success! Once he understood that grabbing up higher was the key, he was very excited about it. I jackpotted any time the door opened, not least because the door suddenly swinging open was a bit startling to Barnum the first few times.

Then, each time he opened the door, I had him run to find my PCA. Creating this behavior chain served two functions:

1. He loves this behavior, so it added value as a positive reinforcer for opening the door.

2. Most of the time when I really will need him to open the door, it will be to go find help, so it’s good to forge the links in this behavior chain now.

After a few rounds of this, Barnum was getting mentally fatigued (he was still extremely enthusiastic, but he was starting to get cues mixed up and just throwing behaviors at me), so I ended with BOTH the bathroom door and my bedroom door shut, which — again — most closely simulates what I will need in a real situation. He also has such a strong positive reinforcement history of opening my bedroom door to find a PCA that I thought it would be exciting to him.

Well, he did it! He opened the bathroom door. I said, “Where’s [person]?” And he raced into my room, whined with excitement in his hurry to get my bedroom door open faster than was caninely possible and found her. She praised and treated, asked him where I was, and he ran back to me! I was very proud and pleased.

I wanted to pet him or thump him on the chest in celebration, but he really does not like to be touched while in training mode, so I asked him for a “high nose,” which is the behavior I have settled on for when I want some celebratory physical contact at the end of a training session and he doesn’t want to be touched. I do a “high-five” position with my hand, and he bonks it with his nose (because even though I say, “High nose!” which means nothing to him, a palm facing him is our nonverbal cue for “touch”), and he gets a treat, and everyone feels good. (I have been giving a lot more thought to how and when Barnum wants to be touched and how we can both have our needs met and respected since I read this post by Eileen and Dogs.)

Of course, we will need to practice this and get the entire behavior chain on one cue (“Where’s [person]?” leading to opening both doors, finding and nudging the person, sitting down, waiting for the “Where’s Sharon?” cue and then returning) but I feel very confident that we are close to that now.

High nose!

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

P.S. I know I haven’t been posting much lately. I have a lot of posts that are mostly done, and I hope to get back to blogging and other writing soon, which I will be filling you in on. . . .

* For those of you who are new to my blog or to clicker-training lingo, a few explanations/definitions:

Shaping, sometimes referred to as “free shaping,” is, in my opinion, the most creative, advanced, and fun form of clicker training because there is no prompting by the trainer. Instead, we use a dog’s offered behaviors and reward those that resemble — in tiny ways, at first — the end result we want. The dog has to do more thinking than in any other form of training. It is a step-by-step way for dog and trainer to problem-solve their way to a solution. In my experience, behaviors that are shaped are the strongest behaviors when they’re finished than those achieved by luring or other methods, possibly because they tend to involve such a high rate of reinforcement (sometimes referred to as RR).

Rate of reinforcement (RR) means, quoting Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training Glossary: “The number of reinforcers given for desired responses in a specific period of time. A high rate of reinforcement is critical to training success.” Here is a much longer discussion of RR and its importance in dog training.

QuickPress: Workig Dog

Today is one of those days when I woke up and couldn’t move much or speak. Here are some of the ways Barnum has helped me today.

  • Helped me take off turtleneck shirt. (New task that still needs a lot of work.)
  • Brought my PCA to me — perfectly. (Opened door, ran to her, nudged her, and led her back to me.)
  • Pulled off my socks.
  • Helped with bathroom transfers.
  • Shut bathroom door.
  • Took three messages to Betsy.
  • Pulled covers down. (Not all the way, but enough to be helpful.)
  • Opened and shut the fridge.
  • Shut bedroom door.

I think I’m forgetting some things, but the main point is that he is actually helping me now on days I need it. It’s good to be able to practice things and see what is really working and where the holes are that need further training.

Photo Essay: Barnum’s Service Skills

In honor of our Gotcha Day a few days ago — two years together — I took a bunch of pictures of Barnum doing stuff. The idea was to show all the things we’ve learned in the past two years. Of course, it didn’t show everything he’s learned, like not eating the furniture or pooping indoors or attacking people’s pants, etc.

We also didn’t take pictures of some of the skills we’ve been working on all along, and that I have blogged about before: sit, down, come, crate, go to mat, zen, etc. This does not mean we’re finished training these behaviors, but I thought it would be more fun (and we only had so much time and energy) to photograph the newer, flashier stuff.

It’s taken me till now to get the pictures uploaded, then downloaded, then captioned, etc., but here ’tis!

I didn’t know how to adjust the camera settings, and since these tended to be action shots, there are very few that are not artistically blurred. That’s right, it’s not a defect, it’s a feature. Thus, I now present . . .

The Post-Realist Photography Exhibit of Barnum at Year Two

Stand tall to turn on and off the lights!

Barnum standing on hind legs, front paws planted on the wall, nudging switch down with his nose. He's over 5 feet tall this way.

Turning off the lights!

Open the bedroom door….

Blurry picture of Barnum from behind, pulling purple tug cord on door handle.

First, grab the cord and pull back.

Step 2:

Another blurry picture of Barnum's furry butt. Wider stance, pulling back hard on the pull cord.

Aaaand pull BACK and DOWN!

Step 3:

Blurry picture from behind, bedroom door swinging open.

Eh viola! The door, she is open!

And then close it!

Barnum running to shove his nose behind the door which is open against the wall.

Get that nose behind it, and in one fluid motion, SLAM it shut!

Done!

Barnum is whirling from the door, which is now shut, toward Sharon sitting on the bed. He's moving so fast that he's a blur, with his left front and right rear legs just shadows of movement.

The second the door latches, whirl around to collect your treat!

Where’s the PCA?

Barnum sits on the floor watching Sharon who is sitting on her bed, signing (with hand and facial expression), "Where?" in ASL.

Sharon asks me "Where?" is the PCA?

I know! I’ll find her!

Barnum sits staring fixedly at a young woman standing in the kitchen.

I have found you. I am staring at you. Do you get the message?

When that doesn’t work. . . .

Barnum stands up and noses the hand of the woman who's standing in the kitchen.

Hello! I'm bopping your hand! Pay attention!

Since we’re in the kitchen, he might as well open the fridge. . . .

Barnum swinging into action, blurred hindquarters show movement as he grabs for the door pull on the refrigerator.

I got it!

Mmmf. Riss iss harder dan id loogs.

Barnum pulling straight back on a navy blue door pull attached to the refrigerator handle.

Puuuuuuull!

Persistence pays off!

Barnum stands back a few inches from the fridge door which is now open a few inches.

Okay, it's open! Can I close it now?

Yes! Shut the fridge!

Barnum stands in front of closed refrigerator door with his nose against it.

Shutting is more funner.

I’m a clumsy human, which  means a dog’s job is never done. First, the clicker I dropped accidentally. . .

Barnum crossing living room to pick up red clicker underneath an end table. His head is down and his mouth is open, even though he's at least a foot away still.

She's always dropping these clickers!

Then the pen I dropped on purpose.

Barnum is in a sit. A pen is on the floor about four feet away. Sharon's legs and wheels are visible in the background.

She made me sit so I wouldn't keep picking things up before they could manage to take the picture. Humans can be so slow.

Ah gah da peh im my ma-ow….

Barnum standing, with muzzle on the floor. The pen isn't visible under all his fur.

Mm-kay. I'b gedding ib.

I got it!

Barnum spinning toward Sharon. Pen is in his mouth, though we can't see it because his side is to the camera.

Ah brinnin eh peh...!

And now the retrieval of the “dropped” leash….

Barnum stands in front of Sharon. She's holding his leash and is about to clip it to his collar.

Why are you putting on my leash now?

You’re welcome. (By which I mean, “Where’s my treat?”)

Barnum has the leash clipped to his collar at one end. The other he is putting in Sharon's hand in her lap.

Honestly, you drop this thing so often it's like it's intentional. . . .

Two years ago he looked like this:

Baby Barnum, an adorable puppy that looks like a black teddy bear with a white chin. Sharon's hand is rubbing his chest. Her hand is bigger than his head!

What a face!

And now!…

Closeup of Barnum looking into the camera, smiling, very hairy, lying on Sharon's bed.

Look at me now, world!

Love from Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT


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