A Training Plateau

We’ve reached a training plateau. It seems as if Gryffin isn’t really learning anything new right now. Perhaps I’m just unmotivated, as I’m feeling outstandingly well. Or perhaps it’s the constant time it takes. Or perhaps it’s the fact that he’s mastered the impressive stuff. Now we need to work on basics and small additions. For example, he’s really great at down when I ask. But there are many incremental steps from there to going down at a distance; staying down when I am out of sight; staying down for one minute longer; and so on and so forth. Similarly, he’s pretty good on the leash (especially when he’s in the harness) but that’s a different matter from pulling steadily but lightly when we walk, in the right direction; starting exactly when I start; stopping exactly when I stop and so on. So the most recent training session we had, which will also be the last one for at least a month, was a long list of incremental goals:

  • Down from a distance — 1/2 step at a time — rope play as reward (or food). To be done at first without harness and perhaps later with it.  This will eventually translate into me giving him all sorts of commands from a distance, but it’s the first one we’ll practice.
  • Let’s go — so that he always comes with me. He needs to follow where I lead in this and not pull back (or sideways, or forward too hard). After we get this on level ground in the house we’ll be working up to other locations, including out and about and on steps. The goal is to focus on places he doesn’t like, moments he tends not to listen. This will be done with harness.
  • Stand and wait — We’re moving away from an automatic sit to an automatic stand whenever he’s in the harness and at my side. This can be practiced with Let’s go.
  • Switch — We have decided to get a touch switch installed in my office. It’s been too hard to teach him to push a switch up (he pushes it down great). We’re practicing doing it reliably, and eventually from a distance, without the harness for now. Could do with rope play as reward. Many many repetitions.
  • Door — I had been using “open” and “close” but that’s confusing because some doors are pulled to open, others are pulled to close. Also he’s getting less eager to do this. We’re changing the names to “push” (with paws) and “take” (a rope in the mouth), with me deciding which one depending on which way the door needs to move. Will practice with harness.
  • Stays — work on longer stays. Daily. So easy to forget/ignore this. He just stayed nicely while I went and did something in a different room for a few minutes though :). We practiced sit and down stays that way today.

One of the challenges with Gryffin is that he does not like corrections. I have to minimize them to avoid turning him off training. And pump up the praise.


Assistance Dog Training Update #1

It has been 4 months now since I began training our pet as a service dog. Our intent at the time was to work on training Gryffin to (1) retrieve things; (2) find people; (3) close and open a door; (4) behave in public; (5) identify and get appropriate equipment.

It’s been a joy and a pleasure for both Gryffin and myself to work on these things. We’ve met the trainer, the wonderful Arlene Halloran, about once every 3 weeks and continued to attend puppy class in the intervening 4 months, and while we have lots to work on, progress has been made on every front. The most fascinating thing about the process is how to break things down into simple steps that he can learn, and how much I’ve learned about his personality and quirks in the process. Here’s an update on where we are:

Retrieve: Retrieving is broken into two types of tasks.

  • The first thing we started working on was “find” (by name). This is going pretty slowly — he is beginning to understand naming, but typically sniffs around until he happens upon the right thing and I praise him and give him a treat. So he has the idea of find but has a long way to go. To make things slightly harder, I have been inserting other commands between find commands, and varying the order of things found. He is most reliable with the cane. We have also begun teaching him to find my children by name. Also his Kong (for peanut butter when we leave the house), keys, and anything else we can think of that is useful.
  • The second thing we began working on was “take” “hold” and “give”. He has made significant progress here. At first, I had to put something in his mouth and hold it shut. Then we progressed to him taking it voluntarily from my hand, eventually no matter where I held it, and finally from the floor. Now he will pick things up off the floor even if they are across the room from me. Also, he will pick up a variety of things including toys and soft cloth things, but also more uncomfortable things like a set of keys or a metal spoon. Today we introduced take by name (as in “take keys”) and soon we will begin working on taking things by name that are out of sight. Eventually he will also learn to “clean up” his toys.
  • For getting the cane, we discovered he is uncomfortable picking it up. We’ve incorporated it into the work on pull (described below).

Find: Described above under retrieve.

Close and Open: This is broken down into several basic abilities

  • “Pull” (tug of war on command) can eventually be used to retrieve something heavy, or open a door. He loves this game, and in one training session progressed to the point that he would pull the cane around. We have not yet applied it to other things like doors, first I want to make sure the cane pull is very solid.
  • “Touch” (touch something with your nose). He does this every time we let him out back. However, it turns out he doesn’t like to push things very much. In fact, we have had to work very hard to get him to push open the pocket door, by progressively narrowing it and calling him through it. This will probably not be used as often as other things.
  • “Paw” (shake hands, and eventually “High 5”). He is not yet reliable with this, though my daughter has been working on it. We will try to improve it this month, and make him do it every time he wants to go out. Eventually we can teach him to use a paw to close a door (or turn off a light, etc.)
  • “Back” (walk backward). This will eventually be used to pull on something and back up so a door opens. Right now, he walks back with a lure and me in front of him. The next step is for me to stand beside him and we both back up (with a wall or couch to help us stay aligned and straight).

Behave in Public: There are several commands we need to progress on for this.

  • “Under” is the command used when he needs to get out of sight (under a bus bench; table in a restaurant, etc). He can only go in these places in the U.S. because he is training as a service dog and with permission, of course. He is also practicing this command at home, and has finally progressed from doing it with a lure to doing it with a snap of the fingers most recently.
  • “Stay” is the basic command that is commonly taught to many many dogs. He needs to learn to do it more reliably, and in many many different situations. We need to work on it much more at home as well as out, and work towards “errorless learning” (increasing the difficulty always to just below what he can actually tolerate). Tied to this, we realized today that he doesn’t actually know the word for down (just the signal) so we will work on this too (my daughter being my ever present helper :).
  • “Leave it” is a safety command — when we walk by dead bird, for example, leave it should cause him to look at me and ignore the yummy item on the street. This needs lots more practice.
  • Greetings are an important moment, as is entering a new space (a home or business). He needs to learn better behavior in all of these settings.
  • “Bed” is a useful command in my office, where sometimes students are uncomfortable around dogs. He needs to learn to go to his bed, lie down, and stay there as long as I need.

Equipment: In addition to the obvious appropriate equipment, we need to explore some other possibilities: A cape that can carry things (such as a laptop) might be useful. Also, a “bridge handle” that might be able to help with balance. Finally, I am hoping to start a research project involving a video camera and buzzers or some other communication mechanism that I could use to help guide him to an object of interest, whether in or out of sight.

Personality: I have learned thanks to Arlene’s insights how to identify some of Gryffin’s stress signals (“this is too much for me”), that he responds by shutting down to being criticized (he much prefers praise and just ignoring the mistakes), and just how much he loves being trained.

Gryffin and I are both so happy with the progress he has been making. All of this has been made easier by the fact that I am very energetic at the moment, with no symptoms at all most days. It’s a pleasure to work with him knowing that this will pay off on the harder days, and to enjoy the good days we are having right now.



Training a service dog

SONY DSCI had my first session with a private dog trainer to explore what Gryffin could do to be of help to me. I have my work cut out for me! Here’s what we discussed:

  • Retrieving things: Gryffin could help pick things up and bring them to me when I need them. One of the most important: Getting my cane if I realize I need it and don’t have it handy (since I am often just fine, and sometimes have very rapid onset problems, getting a cane and/or a jacket for me could be quite valuable). To help him learn this, I have two first steps: For things that have names, begin teaching the name by putting a treat on it and saying “find name” (for now). For things that don’t have names, he has to learn to pick up first. So I need to give teach him to “take” “hold” and “give” a variety of items with treats. Eventually I’ll be able to point at something or name it and tell him to pick it up and carry it back to me, and maybe even send him down the hall to my office for my cane or jacket if I need it.
  • Finding people: This is useful when I am tired and want to ask one of the kids to bring me a drink of water (for example). Teaching it relates to the find part of the last thing. I’ll teach him the name of each family member, and to go to them on command. Eventually we’ll teach him hide and seek and other fun games so he can get someone if I need him to.
  • Closing and opening a door: This is useful because I often need to close my door (for private conversations or a nap) and open it (when someone knocks). When I’m feeling tired, it would be nice not to have to get up to do this. To learn closing a door, he first need to learn “touch” which is to push agains something with his nose. Eventually I transfer this to a door by literally taping the thing to the door and letting him practice touching that. Opening a door: This will build on “take” and “hold” by attaching a rope to the door, and teaching him to back up while holding it. Eventually I’d also like to add turning on and off the office light to this.
  • Carrying things: He can carry about 1/8th of his body weight, which translates into one laptop and cord on the way to class if I’m having a bad day. Right now we will work on wearing a backpack, and eventually add water bottles for weight.
  • Behaving in public: Lots of effort needs to go into this. He still isn’t a great heeler, and he tries to nose new people. He needs a down stay that is totally reliable. And he needs to learn “quiet” which I will probably teach him partly by teaching him “speak” on command :).
  • Equipment: My trainer feels it’s important for him to wear a cape to limit attention when he’s “working” at the workplace. I am going to probably transfer some badges I have (“In Training”) and (“Working Dog”) to his backpack so I can use that as his cape. Eventually she recommended getting a handle for balance in those moments when I need it.

I don’t expect to need his help most of the time, but at the moments when I do, it will be a relief to have his help with all of this. And so far he loves every minute of the training, especially when it involves treats!


Dog update

After a couple of months of doxycycline (no one balked or questioned it when I went past the initial prescription of one month, and the question about whether to increase the dose hung only on whether my dog could stomach it — how different from how humans are treated), my dog has stabilized. It is a relief to see her feeling and acting like herself again, and we were able to stop the antibiotics entirely a few weeks ago. When we did, her urine test (a measure of kidney disease) even improved slightly. She seems to be stable.

The really frustrating thing about this, though, is what the vet in New York said when I brought her out to visit (we moved her from Pittsburgh to New York because my family and I are going on sabbatical out of the country for the next year). His comment? “We see this all the time in this area.”

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Dog-gone Lyme

Lyme has been, for the most part, less of a factor in my life in recent months. Sure, it’s there, and sometimes worse than others (or is that just the bronchitis I spent a month fighting back from?). But it is something I can push to the side — it’s part of the routine, and it’s not my focus. It requires no meds, and the naps & other symptoms are not getting in the way. Perhaps I just need to push it aside — I hardly realized how many headache’s I’d had at one point, until the day I was pain free and even then the first reminder I had that something was different was all the comments I got from others on how perky I looked. Suddenly I realized that a weight really was off my shoulders for that day.

So I really thought of Lyme as something that I could put behind me, at least for now. In fact, my focus was on the sad signs of my beloved dog’s slow progression through old age towards the end of her life — kidney issues, less energy, and so on. A few weeks ago, this became more acute, with vomiting, diarrhea (even in the house), and a loss of bowel control. She became desperately ill, barely able to move, clearly in pain, and I took her to the vet. Her pancreas was inflamed, her kidneys necrotic, her abdomen seemed swollen, a mass inside, and the diagnosis was abdominal tumor, unlikely that she’d make it through the next month… They called an ultrasound to confirm, and found …

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