Posts Tagged 'shaping'

Training Update, Plus Where Is My Shark of Yesteryear?

Training Wrap-Up/Update

Barnum’s training moves apace. I try every day to do some handling (brushing teeth, coat upkeep, nail filing), some New Levels training (Sue Ailsby’s books), some service skills training, and/or some manners/basic obedience training. Most days we do not manage most of this! Still, almost every day we do some training.

The New Levels training is hard to track because a lot of it is review, and some of the “comeafters” require criteria that I’m not always able to do — like retrain it outside, or with another person, or in a different room. So, we speed through some of it, and then we stall out and wait on some until the weather or my pain level or whatnot enable me to do things in other rooms or outside, etcetera.

In preparation for future doctor’s appointments and things like that, we’ve been working on mat duration, down-stay, and relax. I’m loving combining shaping relax with down-stay and mat. These also mesh well with training default going to mat or crate when I’m eating, with which the MannersMinder has been very helpful. And we’ve also been adding new aspects of zen (“leave it”) into the mix, such as having my PCAs teach him zen when they’re doing food prep.

Most of the service skills we’ve been working on are doors (opening and shutting), light switch, and “Where is [person]?” He has made excellent progress on all of these. He can now turn on or off my bathroom light on one cue — the same cue (Lynn!) — pretty reliably, without flicking them on or off additional times. The most important light switch is my bedroom one. That’s still a challenge because the switch is right behind where I park my powerchair next to my bed, and that makes it hard for him to jump up and get it from the correct angle. We’ll get there, though.

Door shutting is, in some cases, completely reliable — such as if I’m in my powerchair — and in other cases, still not attached to the cue. He seems to know what I’m asking if I ask for him to shut my bedroom door when I’m in bed, but he still has some discomfort with it because of one time when the door bonked him in the butt when we were training that. Even though we’ve done it a hundred times (not exaggerating) since then, he hasn’t entirely gotten over that incident. Bouviers are like elephants: they never forget. They develop phobias at the drop of a hat.

With the bathroom door, he has no “issues,” he just doesn’t know what the cue is yet, and there are not as many obvious physical cues because I’m far enough away that he can’t tell if I’m pointing to the door, his crate, his mat, etc.

Where he is really shining, and what turns out to be one of the most useful skills, is finding the person. He loves this, and I’m very pleased with how I’ve trained it. I started teaching him when he was a baby to learn the names of my PCAs and Betsy, and my name, and that it was excellent fun to run to that person when he was asked, “Where’s Sharon/Betsy/PCA?” etc. What I’ve been working on lately is creating a behavior chain where he will open the door to get to that person, no matter where we are, and then nudge them until they ask him, “Where’s Sharon?”

I have discovered I most often need this skill when I’m in the bathroom, and I haven’t brought my walkie-talkie with me. So far, he will eagerly run and open my door and find and nudge the person if they are in an obvious location downstairs. It’s good training for both of us that we have to practice this skill with five different people, each of whom does it a bit differently.

Next I’ll be raising the criteria. It will become much harder if he has to open two doors (my bathroom door, which is probably the hardest door to open in the house, and then my bedroom door, which he does easily) or if he has to find the person in an unexpected location. When we have the entire behavior really solid, and he is nudging people in a totally obnoxious way, I will go back to teaching him to bark on cue so that he can bark in situations where he can’t get through a door, such as if I’m outside or if he needs to get Betsy, and she’s upstairs. I put bark/silence training on hold a few months ago because he was getting too barky (I started calling him, “Barkum”), but now that he’s had an attitude adjustment, I think it will go better.

Mais où est mon requin d’antan? (But where is my shark of yesteryear?)

One skill that is really important that we’ve had to return to basics on is his trained retrieve. He is great at picking up small things like pens, clickers, baggies, silverware, and even paper. He doesn’t chew or lick things. He doesn’t bat them around. He’s very purposeful about it. He usually remembers to hold things until I cue the release, even if my hand is on it.

The problem is that he somehow has learned that he can only open his mouth a leetle bit. Obviously I must have taught him this, because when he’s playing, and certainly when he was a pup, he had no problem opening his mouth very wide, as these pictures and this early post show.

Barnum prepares to launch Shark Attack.

Sure, it’s all fun until someone gets bit in the arm. Then it’s only fun for Barnum, not so fun for the owner of the arm.

Barnum chews bucket lid

“Mm, the lid to the bucket tastes as good as the bucket, itself.”

Barnum chews hose.

Now its a hose and a sprinkler all-in-one!

But somewhere along the way, when I taught him to take things from my hand and hold them, he got into the habit of opening his mouth just enough to bump his teeth against the thing, and then a bit more to hold the thing behind his canines. If I hold up something that is larger and requires a more open-mouthed grab, he is used to opening a bit and then a bit more, and then a bit more. So, he is sort of going, “nibble?? nibble? nibble,” until he has carefully and gingerly taken the item. However, the sequence occurred so quickly and seamlessly that I didn’t notice that’s what he was doing, because the end result was that he was holding the item the way I wanted.

It’s an excellent approach for helping me to dress or undress, a skill we recently started with sock removal. He’s very careful to avoid my fingers or toes. With removing a sock, you want a dog that will start with a careful, gingerly nibble. But for grabbing and pulling the front of a sneaker, it doesn’t work at all because he won’t open his mouth wide enough to take the front of the sneaker!

Further, when it comes to picking things up off the ground, this method fails miserably for anything that requires a wide, firm grip. What happens then is that he ends up pushing the thing around because he’s not lowering his mouth over it wide enough to grasp it with the first attempt. Round or slippery things roll away as he tries repeatedly to nibble at them. He ends up getting frustrated and giving up.

So, I have stopped most of our retrieve work and gone back to the beginning. I decided I needed to mark the moment when his mouth is open and to keep shaping him to open it wider. This is easier said than done. For one thing, I use a verbal marker (“Yes!”) for this work, and it’s harder to be precise with timing with a verbal marker than with a clicker. For another, he is a bouvier des Flandres, not a Lab or Weimaraner — in other words, he has a lot of hair obscuring his mouth. Even though he has a very short haircut for a bouv, it’s still not always possible to see whether or how much his mouth is open from the side.

Also, my original idea had been to do the training the way we’d started, but use fatter objects, but he just did the nibblenibblenibble thing with the bigger objects, so I knew we had to go further back to kindergarten. Instead, I’ve been using items he is very familiar and comfortable with, such as pens, and very high value treats when he’s very hungry and eager to work. Then I wave the item around in front of me and a little high for him so I can see when his mouth is opening. A lot of the work has just been me learning how to time my “Yes!” — which involves anticipating when he is about to open and trying to say it right before his mouth gets to its widest point — and how to position him so I can see his open mouth. I actually ended up training a little hop because he was having to jump up to grab for the item. That went away as soon as I lowered it a bit.

Once we both got used to the idea that he didn’t actually have to take the item, he just had to open up and grab for it, we started to make some progress. Last session, I had worked him up to grabbing — opening wide enough to take it in his mouth on the first grab — a wide handle of a dog brush. That’s where we are now. I am trying to regain my shark of yesteryear. If anyone had told me a year ago (or two years ago!) that I’d have to put lots of effort into getting him to open his mouth wide and grab willy-nilly at things, I’d never have believed it!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I liked grabbing things!), and Barnum SD/SDiT and reformed shark

My 200th Post: A Time to Sit and Reflect? Nope, Just a Time to SIT!

This is After Gadget’s 200th post! It’s almost two years since I started this blog. With about 100 views a day, and over 32,000 views total, there’s a lot I could write about. I started writing a thoughtful, reflective post about how this blog was a way for me to grieve, and the activism I’ve ended up doing on Lyme and MCS, the resources I’ve provided on ticks, and the community I’ve gotten to know — and helped forge — of assistance dog bloggers. I was going to delve into how grief-stricken I’ve been lately, and how I’ve avoided blogging about it, but how I want to dedicate myself to that kind of self-care now.

Then I thought, “Nah! Let’s do something fun!”

So, instead, I’m hoping this will give you some idea of how far I’ve come as a trainer, and Barnum’s come as a learner, and we’ve both grown as a team, by participating in what seemed like a very silly contest.

Sue Ailsby, the dog trainer whose Training Levels program I follow, decided to launch a contest for Training Levels list members. Inspired by the trends of “planking” and “owling” (yeah, I’d never heard of them either), where people lie stiff as boards or sit crouched like owls in “unusual or dangerous” locations, Sue has launched a contest called “sitting.”

Here are the rules of the contest, where you can also see several pages of entries. The funniest part of many of the entries is Sue’s hilarious captioning. I was not planning on doing much for the contest, but once I started seeing the entries and laughing really hard at the captions, I became more interested in fanatically obsessed with training and capturing more and better Barnum stunts.

I started out with an old standby — Barnum sitting in the bathtub. You might recall this one from my post about training to make baths more enjoyable, and its photo essay addendum, “Bouv in a Bathtub.”

Barnum sitting in a white fiberglass bathtub with a large white grab bar on the edge of the tub closest to the camera.

I have totally mastered this one.

I’ve also sent in this one, just because I think it’s a cool picture, although obviously this is from before the contest started, so I don’t know if it’s viable. Maybe it could be used on the “For Exhibition Only (FEO)” page.

Barnum, King of the Hill, surveys his domain from atop his snowy peak

I Can See Russia from My Backyard (*totally* stole this caption from Sue Eh?)

But, after that, it was training time! I knew there would be a lot of cool, impressive photos of border collies and other agility stars who could leap onto tall objects, so the first hurdle (pun not intended) was teaching Barnum to hop up onto surfaces. The only surface he is used to jumping onto is my bed — a self-taught skill from an early age. Most people are not impressed with a dog on a bed, though.

Therefore, I decided to start with the coffee table. Barnum already knew how to put his front paws on the table (“Paws up!”), but since hind-leg awareness is a much bigger deal for him (and for all dogs), teaching him to get his fear feet up was what took the twenty minutes of shaping.

Barnum sits on a black, dinged, painted-wood coffee table. He is sitting the long way, so his paws are at the narrow end on one end, and his butt is about two-thirds of the way down the table. His head is tilted to the side, looking quizzical.

Ta dah!...Wait, is this right?

By the next day, if we wandered into the living room, he’d jump onto the coffee table, uncued, just in case I felt like clicking that.

A black-painted wood coffee table with Barnum sitting on it. He's looking directly into the camera. It's a rectagular table, and Barnum's is sitting mostly on the narrower part, but cheating a little by being slightly diagnonal, so his butt is at one corner and his right front paw is just barely hanging over the middle of the other side.

I can do it this way, too. This is harder. Can you tell?

(I’m hoping to condense the process in a time-elapsed video so you can see how that shaping was accomplished, and why it became such a successful foundation behavior for what came later. However, I am still trying to figure out my movie software, and I want to get this post published before the new year. Thus, today will only feature stills.)

From there, we moved on to sitting on the couch (I know this is not something most people have to shape, but I did have to actually click and treat Barnum a few times to let him know that, yes, his presence on the couch was desirable).

Barnum sits on a brick-colored three-cushion couch. He is sitting on the middle cushion, body facing forward, but head turned to the right to face the camera, with mouth slightly open in a questioning way.

Spud Puppy

And then there was no stopping us! (Cue gay disco anthem, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead, to play over and over in your head. You’re welcome.)

Barnum sits behind a glass door on a tile floor, with white molded fiberglass surrounding him on the other three sides. There is a metal handle on the door and above his head, a shower knob. Two bottles of shampoo sit in the corner.

"Chief O'Brien, energize!" Wait a minute. . . . Is that *shampoo*?

I don’t think Medicare will cover this use of durable medical equipment. . . .

Barnum sits on gray vinyl foam van seat of power wheelchair. He is sitting very tall, right in the center, with his back against the back rest. Black foam armrests on either side, cherry-apple red base, gray wheels, and black foot plate. Barnum's expression is one of a dignified bouvier.

Ooh, look how tall and distinguished I look. . . .

And then we pulled out all the stops. . . .

Before I show this next picture, here’s some background for those unfamiliar with Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels: “Zen” is the name for teaching a dog self-control. (For example, the usual doggy zen cue is “Leave it.”)

A low black table (the same coffee table as in previous pictures). The right side of the table is set with a tangerine-colored placemat and an asian-style wide bowl, with a pair of chop sticks sticking out of the bowl. A takeout menu for a restaurant called "ZEN" stands behind the place setting. Barnum sits on the left side of the table, holding a metal dumbbell in his mouth, from which hangs a printed sign. It says, "ZEN is not just a Levels behavior. They also make great sushi. (Hint, hint.)"

That's a "hup," "take," "sit," and "stay," ladies and gentleman! (And continue to stay as I take multiple shots because my hands shake, and eight-out-of-ten pictures were blurry.)

In case you don’t get the joke, here are some closeups on the props:

Closeup of Barnum holding the sign so the text is more visible Closeup of the menu for Zen restaurantSee? It’s a play on words. A jeux de mot. It still makes me really hungry, though.

Actually, though this was a lot of fun, it wasn’t just fun — some of these behaviors have useful applications. I plan to write about that soon.

I hope you enjoyed this, my 200th post for After Gadget! Thank you for reading! Please celebrate with me in the comments!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT, living up to his acrobatic name

P.S. Doesn’t it seem like this would be an appropriate post for the next Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, the theme of which is “Achievement? Well, I already wrote my post for that, but it’s not too late for you! You still have time to submit your post for the ADBC and for the Patients for a Moment/PFAM Carnival!)

Double-Hinged Cupboard? No Problem!

There’s been a lot going on, including training. In the next few posts, I hope to update you on Barnum’s training, the latest powerchair saga, and other life events as I recover from my recent spate of activity.

Before I launch into today’s short Barnum-related post, I wanted to say thanks so much to everyone who helped Elizabeth Chalker. She did make it to her doctor and, although she’s quite ill, it seems to be going well. I’ve had to pull back from working on her situation, but I feel confident that there are enough other people involved now, that I can devote my energy to myself and Barnum with a clear conscience. If you want to keep posted on Elizabeth’s situation, join the Facebook group called Save Elizabeth Chalker.

Meanwhile, my powerchair has been to the shop and back (again), thanks to my parents, again! I hope to take Barnum for a walk tomorrow — and make it back home using the chair! The chair has a new “brain” and controller (sorta like Barnum). I think it might finally be in working order. Cross your fingers and paws! I’ll keep you posted.

Now for some fun training news. Remember how excited I was when Barnum really “got” shutting cupboard doors, and I posted a blog and video about that, as his first complete service skill?

Well, there’s one cupboard we had not tackled back in March, because it’s unlike all the others. It’s a corner cupboard, two panels, double-hinged.

An open, wood, corner cabinet door. There are two panels with a hinge connecting them. There is a chrome knob on the upper, outer corner -- on the left -- and a piece of pink paper is stuck in the middle of the other panel.

Dum-Dum-DUMMMM! (Suspenseful music.)

I didn’t train Gadget how to shut this cupboard because I didn’t think it was possible. I realize now it was definitely possible for him; the problem was me. I didn’t know how to shape with a super-high rate of reinforcement, and to mark really tiny steps of the behavior, like I do now. This kind of training is necessary for a skill that requires the dog to problem solve something complex like this.

Problem-solving was key here because it’s such a complicated door to shut, that I, myself, didn’t know how one would shut it without being able to grasp the knob, pull the door back, align it with the corner, and then push it in. When I started training Barnum on this cupboard, I viewed it as an experiment — a training exercise. If we managed to figure out how he could shut it, great. If not, no harm done.

Because Barnum has presented me with training challenges that didn’t allow me to cut corners (no pun intended!), as I had with Jersey and Gadget, and because I learned from Sue Ailsby and the Training Level’s list how to accomplish any skill through pure shaping, I am a much better trainer now than I was when I trained Gadget.

Here’s how Barnum and I conquered this corner cabinet.

For the first several sessions, we used pure shaping. (I’ve written in detail about our shaping sessions before.) I just let him experiment with nosing different parts of the door, and I clicked for anything I thought might be going in the right direction. Eventually it became clear that when he got most of the cupboard shut, so that both panels were flat against the outer/left wall, instead of at a right angle tucked into the corner, he needed to push a “sweet spot” — the outer edge of the inner door, next to the hinge — to finish the skill. I put a target (a piece of tape) on that spot (visible in the photo above). That was the only targeting involved.

When we started working this skill, it took 20 or 30 clicks to shut the door. After Barnum got neutered and became more focused and food-motivated, his learning accelerated a lot, and now he is much more savvy and “operant.” He is showing big leaps in learning between sessions (latent learning), which is thrilling.

That’s what happened last night and today. We hadn’t worked on the corner cupboard in a long time. Maybe two sessions in the last two or three months, with the most recent several weeks ago. But when we started it last night, he shut the cupboard in just a few clicks. Between the last time we trained and last night, he’d figured it out on his own!

Today, right away, he was shutting it in two or three movements, which was so fast, my clicks were always late. I didn’t know it was possible for him to shut the door so quickly and smoothly. It took me a while after I moved into this house to learn how to shut that cupboard, so I actually hadn’t figured out Barnum’s method until I watched the video and could see it in slow motion!

Since he was shutting the door completely in two or three movements, in a couple of seconds, I started adding my cue, “Shut the cupboard.” I also only click at the end of the behavior now — when cupboard is shut.

The video below is from today. It was probably the third or fourth trial of the day. This was his worst performance! He hesitated a bit when the door swung at him, which he usually seems accustomed to. Having my helper standing behind him, videoing, added an element of distraction to a brand-new skill. Thus, it takes him about eight seconds to shut the cupboard. But it gives you an idea of what Barnum can do, now that he is really a thinking, operant, motivated dog!

(Transcript below.)

* * *

Video description: Barnum is in a “sit” on the kitchen floor, his back to the camera. Sharon is ahead and to his left. To the right and in front of Barnum are kitchen cupboards with wood doors.

Sharon: Okay, stay.

Sharon moves forward and opens the corner cupboard, which has two panels, hinged in the center, and pushes it completely open so that the door is almost flat against the stove. She backs up.

Sharon: Good boy. Okay, shut the cupboard!

Barnum moves forward and puts his nose between the door and the stove and nudges the outer panel forward. Then he nudges the “sweet spot” — the left edge of the right panel, next to the hinge. The door swings forward but the outer panel hits the cabinets and bounces back. Barnum backs out of its way.

He looks at Sharon for a moment, perhaps waiting for a click or assessing the situation. The he nudges the sweet spot, hard, again. Both panels move forward and slide into place.

It’s evident he realizes the cabinet is shut before Sharon does, because as soon as it’s shut, he turns to her for his treat, and she hasn’t clicked yet.

Sharon clicks.

Sharon: Yay! Good job! (Hands Barnum a piece of meat from a yellow tray.) Okay, you can turn it off.

* * *

Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I could have done that! Except for maybe the cupboard swinging at me would have spooked me), and Barnum (pretty darn likely SDiT)

My Operant Dog!

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival "button" - purple

Enjoy the carnival!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McConnell also delivers a fascinating etymological tidbit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where we were six months ago.

My, how things have changed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now it was time to tell Barnum the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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