Someone Else’s Shoes . . .

Posted February 9, 2011 by Carol
Categories: Uncategorized

Yikes! – I had the best of intentions to keep this blog updated, but life has gotten in the way.  And when it comes down to a choice of whether to spend time updating the blog or actually training Rocket, the latter has to win out.   We’re continuing to work on lots of skills, and now that Rocket is in Big Dog class, he and I are going to lots of new public places to train.  Even though Rocket is learning a lot, I also find I am developing a better understanding of what it is like to have to navigate as a person with a physical disability out in public.  One of the frustrations I have encountered on a frequent basis is door switches placed in inconvenient places, covered up by displays so as to make them almost impossible to find, and even broken or poorly functioning switches.  At the library we sometimes visit, they have a garbage can right next to the door switch – it is always a challenge to get Rocket to focus on hitting the door switch instead of diving headfirst into the trash.  This very same switch has been very hard for him to activate, and even if I try to hit it with my hand it doesn’t work well.  If someone without a service dog were to try to activate the switch who has limited hand strength or function, I can see how it might be difficult to get out the door without help.  So I have taken it upon myself to become somewhat of an advocate.  At this particular library, I went to the counter and inquired (nicely, I hope) who was responsible for the upkeep of the door switches and asked if the switch could be repaired.  The librarian was very pleasant and agreed to forward my concern on, but so far I haven’t seen it get fixed.  I’ll have to be more persistent, I guess.  At least the libraries have door switches.

Changing the subject completely:  It is a temptation to only write about the successes and not the issues we go through in the training process.  Well, Rocket has had a significant issue from the very beginning, and that is rubbing his face and Gentle Leader on the floor or on me when we are out in public and he is in a situation where he is in close contact with other people.  For those of you who may not be familiar with the Gentle Leader, it is a wonderful tool that gives a person super control over the dog; essentially it is a head harness, based on the principle that if you can control where the head of the dog goes, you control the rest of him.  They are NOT a muzzle (can you tell I’ve been asked that question before?), and are not uncomfortable for the dog if fitted properly.  Rocket can wear his Gentle Leader without any problem in most situations; however, when I take him to church, where there are a lot of people, or other stimulating environments he seems to resort to this, and it has been difficult to train him out of it.  It is as if he is so excited to see other people that he just doesn’t know what to do with himself, and so this is an outlet for his excitement  At least that’s my current theory.  At any rate, our teacher, Nancy, has given us the option of trying to wean him off of use of the Gentle Leader by using a limited slip collar instead.  While the Gentle Leader is a wonderful tool, it is, unfortunately, sometimes difficult for people with limited hand function to put on the dogs, so it would be a good thing if he could learn to work without it anyway.  I agreed to give it a try, and we have been working without it sometimes out in public.  The problem is that without it on, Rocket can easily get to the floor with his nose to sniff, and he acts like a vacuum cleaner, with me having to use all my strength to pull him away from whatever it is he is sniffing.  Obviously not the best way to handle the situation.  It certainly has pointed out that we have a great deal of work ahead of us with the “Leave It” cue, and in some ways it is like going back to kindergarten.  We are making progress, though.

Well, here’s Rocket working on the door switches at the local post office – isn’t he getting to be a handsome boy?

New Skills

Posted September 17, 2010 by Carol
Categories: Uncategorized

As of yesterday, Rocket has officially graduated into Big Dog Class!  Whoo -hoo!  I’m so proud of him.  Over the next few months we’ll be working on refining and putting together the various skills he has learned to help get him ready for his future job.

Over the summer we worked on several new skills.  One of the new cues was “hold.”  We began by teaching him to grab a dowel and hold it, without mouthing it, right behind his front teeth..  One of the important aspects of this is that he is not supposed to let go until both of my hands are on the dowel and he is told to “give.”  This is one of those skills that is going to have many practical applications.  If he is paired with someone who has limited hand use, this can help with retrieving dropped items – it makes sure that the object won’t be dropped on the floor before it can be securely grasped.  The “hold” can be used to carry objects, for instance carrying a bag from the store to the car.  And the hold can be used by the dog (paired with other cues)  to pull open and hold a door.    Rocket isn’t to the point of actually opening a door yet, but he has been learning to grab a door strap as a first step.

We practiced with the dowel  for weeks and weeks, gradually upping the ante, requiring him to hold it for longer periods of time, to hold it while he moves from one position to another, and not letting go until he is asked to.  He is making good progress, as you can see:

Ninety-Degree Retrieving

Posted August 4, 2010 by Carol
Categories: Uncategorized

Aack!  It has been three months since I’ve updated this blog, and Rocket has been learning a lot of new skills. He has graduated from Working Wonders class, and we’re now in a transitional class called “Almost Big Dogs, ” getting ready to join Big Dog Class sometime this fall. I intend to take some time to film Rocket practicing some of these new skills, but in order to put at least something on the blog right now, I decided to add a variable to his retrieving practice today – I think he likes it. In fact, he’s out in the pool right now as I write.

It’s All About the Relationship

Posted May 3, 2010 by Carol
Categories: Uncategorized

Rocket and the "Cone of Shame"

The past month has come with some changes in Rocket’s routine.  For a week in April we did a dog exchange in our class.  Rocket went to stay at another foster home (thanks Linda!) and I brought Miss Becca home.  It was quite interesting working with another dog. Becca is definitely wired differently than Rocket. While she was very happy to come home with me and settled in quite well, I did notice that it took her a few days to respond well to me when we practiced our homework. It was as though she needed to know she could trust me before she was really willing to work  in a focused way. But once that began to happen, she became very responsive and fun to train.  There was a TV special on PBS in April called Through a Dog’s Eyes that featured a service dog organization from Georgia.  It documented the process of matching service dogs with their partners, and I could also see in this show how important the human-dog bond was for a partnership to work. I’ve been told that Helping Paws essentially allows the dog to choose the person – that they won’t force a dog to work with someone they don’t want to – and I appreciate that very much.  I want to know Rocket is going to be happy when he goes to his new home.  Oh, yes, I know – he’s only a year old and we have months and months of training ahead of us, but after sending him away for a week, it has been on my mind a bit more.

I’ve also been wondering a lot lately about who Rocket might eventually be matched with and hoping and praying that that process will go smoothly.  Right now Rocket is very attached to me – I’ve found in the past with my own dogs that  training them strengthens the relationship, and in Rocket’s case this has also been true.  He is such an exceptionally sweet dog; I believe that, just as mentioned in the TV show, almost more important than the physical assistance he will be able to provide someone is the capacity he will have to love that person.  And yes, it is going to be difficult for me to say good-bye, but I also think I will be heartbroken if for some reason he is not able to fulfill the purpose  for which he was bred.

A week after Rocket came home he went in to have his neutering surgery.  Dr. Reierson from Elm Creek Animal Hospital graciously offered to donate the surgery, and everything went well.  Rocket had to wear an e-collar for several days afterward because he wouldn’t leave the incision alone, and he hated it at first.  But then he discovered it was kind of fun to push Risa around with it, and he actually didn’t mind at all having it put on by the time he was done with it.

Here are two more video clips.  I took the first to show how he is coming along with his light switch skills, and in the next he is practicing the Really Reliable Recall.  Rocket’s recall is beginning to look really awesome.  This has come with months and months of practice.  Want to know the secret to training a reliable recall?  Here’s how we’re doing it.  First, I don’t use his special recall cue unless I am very, very certain he is going to respond when I call him.  For instance, if he is out in the yard and is extremely distracted by something (say, a rabbit), that is not a time I would ask him to come.  Secondly, when he does come running to me, I have a big handful of his favorite treats,  and when he gets to me we have a 20-second party; he is allowed to chow down on the food and gets lots of praise and petting.  In fact, in class when we practice this we are timed to make sure it is a full 20 seconds.  He gets this big celebration EVERY time I call him.  And it is working.  That’s a big feeling of accomplishment for me, and we’re going to keep up the practice I’m sure.

Funny – it’s about bedtime, and Rocket keeps going into the bedroom to bring me things – shoes, a hanger – I think he’s trying to tell me he’s tired.  So I’ll quit for now.

And here’s his recall:

Progress in Spite of Me

Posted April 13, 2010 by Carol
Categories: Uncategorized

I filmed Rocket a few weeks ago working on some of his newer skills; watching the videos has been educational.  You may recall that Rocket is being trained with a clicker.  When he hears the clicker (or sometimes in the video you may hear me saying the word “tip” –  a verbal substitute for the clicker), he knows that what he is doing at that very instant is what I am looking for.  However, while looking at some of these videos I can see that my timing is WAY off with the click – it is late.   For example, here’s a clip of me working with Rocket on learning to turn on a light switch.  He should be hearing the click EXACTLY  when his nose is pushing up the switch – watch the video and see how late I am with the clicks.  I have come to the conclusion that when I am having frustrations with Rocket learning a skill it may very well be my timing that is off.  Granted, it isn’t easy to catch the behaviors all the time at the exact microsecond it happens, but I need to pay more attention to tightening it up I can see.    In spite of my bad timing, though, don’t you think Rocket is doing awesome with a light switch?  I’m so proud of him!

Want to see how your timing is?  Here’s a game we learned the first few weeks of class.  Find something that will make a clicking sound, such as a pen with a retractable point, and have someone drop a ball and see if you can click the exact instant the ball hits the floor – how did you do?

Retrieving Practice

Posted February 20, 2010 by Carol
Categories: Uncategorized

Last week, part of our homework was to practice retrieving keys from the snow.  It’s a little tricky trying to video Rocket while working with him, but here’s a short demo of how he’s doing.

Play Time

Posted February 2, 2010 by Carol
Categories: Uncategorized

This has been such a long, hard winter!  I’ve been feeling pretty sick and tired of chipping frozen dog poo out of the ice, but today the snow was falling and it was just beautiful outside.  Rocket and Risa went out in the “Big Yard,” and I caught them on video in a little play session.  Even though Rocket and I have been working hard lately on learning some new skills, he still finds plenty of time to enjoy life!