This series is based on my experiences of training three service dogs, as a person with fatigue-inducing illnesses. I also borrow ideas from other trainers I know with chronic illness and/or disabilities.
I imagine this list as analogous to a cookbook for people with food allergies. The recipes all assume that the people using them have some limitations, with widely variable and changing specifics, severity, and other factors. This means some recipes may not work for some people, or may work some times and not others. Other recipes will include ingredient substitutions, so if you can’t follow the recipe one way, there will be alternatives.
All this is to say that if one of these tips doesn’t work for you, please go to the next one. For example, I will eventually include tips that don’t work for me, but have worked for others I know. I also very much welcome suggestions of tips you use, or ways you have modified my tips to work better for you.
Note: These tips are intended for people who already have a basic understanding of dog-training principles, by which I mean clicker training principles (also known as operant conditioning or positive-reinforcement training). If you don’t have experience already with dog training, or with forms of training other than compulsion, I recommend using a “getting started” video, website, or book, and then modifying how you apply some of the exercises, when appropriate, using my tips.
Here they are!
1. Flick it good!
Instead of throwing or tossing treats, line some up on your knee/thigh/armrest or table you’re at. I do one or two on each knee/thigh or a line of five to 10 on a table or armrest.
Then flick the treat (I use my index finger coming off my thumb). It takes less energy than throwing, and it makes the treats go flying in a different direction each time (and quickly, too, if you’re good at flicking), which is exciting and energizing to your dog, because they get to go into chase mode. This is particularly true if you use hard treats on a non-carpeted floor.
If you don’t have the control/coordination to flick, you can sweep treats off the surface with your hand, fist, or arm, instead.
Lining up your treats ahead of time (e.g., five or ten or whatever your space and coordination allow), also helps you keep track of your stats — how many reps your dog has done. Counting them beforehand is particularly useful if you’re using the “Give Me a Break” game from Control Unleashed: Line up six treats, reinforce as fast as possible, and give your release/break cue. Now you have time to line up another six treats when your dog demands training again. See tip #2 for more on “Give Me a Break.”
2. Use and modification of Control Unleashed’s, “Give Me a Break” Game
Leslie McDevitt’s great game for getting your dog “in the game” — focused and enthusiastic — also allows both trainer and dog to take a break (as the name suggests!). It’s a good way to judge if you should keep going or end a session, because your dog has to demand that training continue.
I find taking small breaks can be a useful way for me to stop and tune in to my body: Where is my pain level? How fatigued am I? Am I positioned for maximum comfort and minimum pain?
After checking in with myself, I can either decide to continue as we’ve been doing, adjust my seating/posture to better suit my needs, or decide to stop altogether.
I also modify the game to accommodate my disabilities. McDevitt’s instructions are to train in one area (standing up), and then after giving the release cue, to walk to a chair and sit down. The dog will come to associate this chair as the “time out” chair.
This is a lot of extra energy for people who can stand and walk, and impossible for those who can’t. For example, if you are using a chair all the time, remaining in your chair offers no obvious visual cue that something has changed!
What I do instead is to say, “Gimme a break,” and sign “break” at the same time, and then simply turn my powerchair 180 degrees. This provides a clear visual cue that the game has shifted, and it has the added bonus that Barnum has to come around to my front and give eye contact to initiate the game again. (This is a version of Sue Ailsby’s “Get Lost” game for teaching a dog to find the handler’s eyes.)
If you are not a wheelchair user, you can achieve similar results if you’re sitting on a couch or chair. Train with your body facing one direction, then give your break cue and turn your body to face the other way. Or, slide from one end of the couch to the other.
It may take a little longer using these methods than McDevitt’s way, but I discovered that after a while, Barnum learned what the rotated chair, coupled with the “break” cue meant.
For trainers working from bed, I haven’t tried this (because of the way my bed is positioned) but I’m guessing you could also train facing the dog (who is on the floor) from one side, then roll to face the opposite side of your room to signal your break.
3. Capture behaviors.
One of the best and laziest ways to train is to mark and reward behaviors as they occur. If you reinforce your dog enough times for something he does naturally, eventually he will start to offer it, and then you can put it on cue.
The classic examples of behaviors for capturing are lying down, relaxing, making eye contact, or simply looking in your direction. These are important behaviors to have on cue, and at some point during the day, your dog will do them.
Other behaviors that might be useful to capture, especially if you need time to rest, and your dog has to learn to amuse herself, are looking away from you or at a toy, chewing a bone, or going to her bed or crate.
To make the most of capturing behaviors, it’s important to have your training tools (treats and marker signal/clicker) available. (See the next tip.)
4. Deck the halls (and every other room) with boxes of treats.
Training opportunities occur all day, every day, everywhere. If you have treats and a clicker close at hand, it’s much easier to capture behaviors as they arise. Although I predominantly feed raw (meat, bones, and organs), with a small amount of cooked grain and vegetables, I’ve broken my “no kibble” rule in order to have lidded plastic containers of kibble in every room of the house — including bathrooms.
I also keep a treat pouch hanging from my powerchair joystick unless you have clothing with pockets that provide easy treat access. (Most garments don’t lend themselves to easy-access pockets from a seated position, although I’ve seen some vests with multiple pockets that are apparently very useful for handlers in wheelchairs.)
If you’re ambulatory, I suggest a pouch that you can clip to a waistband or pocket or wear on a belt.
If you are trying to avoid kibble — like me — there are other creative alternatives. Cooked meat, dehydrated meat or organs, and all-natural hot dogs and cheese may not be perfect foods for your dog, but they are definitely a big step up, health-wise, from kibble.
Dehydrated meat or organs can be kept in containers just like you would with kibble. All-natural cheese or hot dogs or homemade biscuits can keep well for many hours wherever you spend most of your time, and can keep even longer in a soft-sided lunch-bag cooler with an ice pack.
I keep a bag of natural treats on my bed, where I spend most of my time. When I’m ready for sleep, I put the treats in the soft-sided cooler. This way, if I want to do some training when I wake up to go to the bathroom, or in the morning, my treats are available and fresh. This works just as well for couches, recliners, and other “rest areas,” as well.
When I have the mental and physical energy to set up a “real” training session, I get my cubes of frozen meat, clicker, and other equipment and set up. But at least half of my training occurs “on the fly,” while resting, using the computer, listening to a book, etc.
5. Clickers at hand. (Will come back to this one.)
6. Verbal markers. (Will come back to this one.)
7. Use your dog’s energy and mood.
Good training is all about setting both yourself and your dog up to succeed. Not only is it useful to pay attention to your levels of fatigue, mental sharpness, and energy, but to your dog’s. This way you are working with your dog’s energy level and interest, not against it; this saves you energy, too.
For example, if your dog is hot or tired, it’s a great time to practice “Down,” especially down-stays. If your dog already has some proficiency with long down-stays, this is the perfect time to practice those.
On the other hand, if your dog is full of bounce and energy, try to train something with a lot of movement or where you want a really enthusiastic response. For example, if you’re teaching the “take” for retrieval or “touch,” and you want your dog to leap into what she’s taking or targeting, this is a good time to practice those skills.
Other examples might be shutting doors or long-distance retrieves or long-distance recalls. If you’re teaching your dog to find you or a family member or personal assistant, this is an excellent game to play for a wired dog (or on a rainy day). It’s a version of Sue Ailsby’s “Come Game,” except that you’re asking the dog, “Where’s Sharon?” or “Find Mama,” or whatever your cue is. Most dogs love this, because they get to visit between their favorite people while also earning treats, working of energy, and if one or both of the people move each time the dog is called to the other, they also use their “searching” drive.
Whatever you choose to do, unless you are intentionally setting out to test or proof your dog for holding a sit stay when he’s hot and tired, or holding a down-stay when he’s rip-roaring, it makes your life easier to train with your dog’s natural inclination in the moment.
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Coming up: How to keep a clicker close at hand, establishing a verbal marker; the best-kept-secret tool for SD trainers (laser pointer); how and why to train lying down; training while on the toilet or in the tub; practicing long down-stays; working from bed (dog on bed and off); teaching a low-energy or nonverbal recall; the crate is your friend….
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I welcome feedback: Which tips do you find most useful? Do you have suggestions of tips that you use? What about elaborations, improvements, or modifications to those above? Do you have a specific dog training or management issue caused by your pain or fatigue that you’d like ideas to address? Post it, and hopefully one of the other readers or I will have an idea.