3 April, 2012

Being a lady of leisure is not as fun as I hoped.

I’m two days into unemployment and already looking for ways to get myself in trouble. Next week I’m probably going to start Siddy on herding. We enlarged the goat paddock today and could definitely have used a good herding dog’s help! So Sid shall become a dual-purpose dog, hopefully.

In other news, Annabelle is currently shacked up in connubial bliss with a blue-eyed boyfriend, which means kids from her in September. Once she’s knocked up, Esk will go done and spend some time with a buck, and be due to kid in October. Our winter milk and cheese supply is therefore assured. Josie, due in late April or early May, continues to inflate like a hairy balloon on legs, and her udder seems to be filling.

Meanwhile I’ve applied for unemployment and am waiting for the determination letter to tell me how generous (HAHAHAHA) my payments will be. And Daniel has secured perhaps the coolest part-time job ever being a bad guy for the FBI. So we’re doing all right despite it all, but given my boredom levels I think I might reconsider my plan to take this summer off from school.

23 January, 2012

Just dance!

A busybusybusy weekend. Although actually it was only busybusy, as math class was canceled due to ice on the roads. Sid didn’t get the day entirely off, though, as once it had melted off we headed down to Blackthorn Kennel to hang out with Christine for a couple hours and drop off the other three dogs and Roo, then we headed on to Harrisonburg to see my friend Wheelchair Dancer perform with other members of AXIS dance company.

The show was absolutely amazing, two hours of emotion, athleticism, and grace. The humans thoroughly enjoyed it, Sid slept through most of it. This was actually slightly a problem as the burst of applause at the end of the first piece startled him and he launched himself into my lap. Well, his upper half into my lap, which is as much as will fit. There was a Q&A after the show, and then a reception where we managed to hook up with Wheelchair Dancer and get a bit of a chat in between members of her adoring public arriving to talk to her, and people showing up to talk to me about Siddy.

Back at Blackthorn we got some fitful sleep while Roo did laps of the room, periodically trampling us and yelling. He’s lucky he’s cute. Then Sunday it was up and Christine joined us for the trip back to Harrisonburg and brunch with Wheelchair Dancer. Afterward, she and I played in the parking lot of her hotel! Sid worked for us both simultaneously, keeping me upright and providing propulsion for her, moving with a careful sensibility of having two people to watch over. He was beautiful, turning his head to check in with me, then to the other side to check in with her, adjusting speed, and eventually learning to watch for wheelchair clearance on his left side automatically, rather than needing cues from me. Wheelchair Dancer also let me use her Smart Chair electric wheelchair so Siddy and I could take a solo spin, and it was pretty amazing. Also, Siddy thinks pulling a wheelchair is fun! I see wheels in our future… He also consented to work for Wheelchair Dancer, the first time he’s ever worked for anyone other than me.

After not enough time, we headed back up here and fell over. I’m still tired enough to wish I didn’t have to go to work but what the heck. The chickens and cats all survived our absence, and now it’s back to the grind, at least until AXIS comes back this way in May!

9 January, 2012

Sid’s Academic Debut

Siddy took me to math class on Saturday and performed like a star. I have photographic proof!

Sid's front half as he lies keeled over on his side on the floor in harness, blissfully asleep.

I think if you start asking what the hardest skill to teach is, every service dog owner-trainer will have a different answer for you. For me, the hardest thing to explain to Sid has been how to turn himself off and just chill while I do something that he finds deeply boring. Like algebra. But he’s finally gotten there, so it’s time to start ratcheting up the criteria and teach him to pass out next to me, as opposed to sprawled across the floor a leash-length away.

The only problem we’ve encountered is that one of the things I taught him was to alert on me if I start zoning out — both the fibromyalgia and my meds for it make me a little prone to just staring into space, on standby myself. Why is this a problem? Because apparently to Sid, “zoning out” and “paying attention in math class but not taking notes” look similar enough that he decided he needed to snap me out of it. Whoops.

Still, I’m deeply proud of him. We got the most coveted compliment of all from one of my classmates at the first break: “I didn’t even know there was a dog back there!”

28 November, 2011

Polishing a Service Dog repertoire

Speaking of training Sid, Saturday afternoon I declared we were going out for dinner. The problem with that was that I was having Enhanced Dizziness with Bonus Wobbling, which meant that my cane would have been a bad idea. Siddy had been at home and bored all day, which at his age is not really the BEST set-up for taking him somewhere like a restaurant, but I like living dangerously, so I stuck some cheddar popcorn in a baggie in my purse and off we went.

Training your own service dog, I find, is a process of constant evaluation — what are we doing right? What needs work? What do I need to scrap entirely? The answers in this case being 1) Sid’s entries and exits from the car are brilliant; he’s responding to the cue “Wait” and politely waiting for me to disentangle myself from his leash and then hopping right in when I tell him OK, even when some huge dork of another driver has parked close to us and I can’t get the back door open as wide as I’d like. 2) What needs work? Placing him in a down to get him out of traffic patterns. He prefers to lie down perpendicular to me so he can stare hopefully at me, both watching for me to wobble and waiting for his cheesy popcorn. This puts him right in traffic paths, most of the time, so we need to work on him lying down where I put him, or at least work on making him prefer lying down parallel to my chair, which in most cases would be effective for getting him out of the way. We achieved it at the restaurant with some repeated luring, eventually. 3) As for scrapping things entirely, well, I need to work with him at home on not popping up to grab my sweatshirt sleeve when I put it on. At home it’s a harmless and charming (if boisterous) expression of excitement that we’re about to go outside. I suspect that people in public would have a less benign interpretation of my dog grabbing my sleeve, though, and at the restaurant as we prepared to leave I barely managed to interrupt his intention to BOING! at me with a quick stern look.

Bonus Tasks I’d Like To Work On With Him: more for his sake than mine, I need to put helping with coat-removal on cue. He loves to play tug so teaching him to pull on sleeve-ends has been no trouble at all, and he really likes active tasks. I think putting it on cue and using it more often would actually function as a reward for him in some circumstances (tuggy is just THAT MUCH FUN).

27 November, 2011

Speaking of Dog Training…

I was going through the Enormous Pile of Crap on my desk this weekend and found Sid’s Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test scores, for those of you who don’t know Sid is my dog which I got from a Standard poodle puppies for sale phoenix store ans since then he is basically my baby.

Let me say from the beginning that I rather think the test does not measure what it claims to measure, because it claims to measure how “dominant” the puppy is on a variety of fronts and that is…laughable. I think that rather than “dominant” what they meant to say was “strength of will” because the idea that a seven week old puppy is out to dominate human beings is deeply hilarious. As Bradshaw points out in Dog Sense, dogs have been with us for roughly 20,000 years and in that time the selection pressure would have been away from dogs who were out to be hairy tyrants who wanted to control human beings through force.

Ahem. Bit of a digression there. But really, when you see an interpretation of the test that says “this dog is dominant and can be provoked to bite” I begin to giggle a little hysterically at the egregious misuse of the word “dominant” and also the fact that the test doesn’t recognize that any dog can be provoked to bite, it’s just a matter of where the bitey threshold is vice the “run away!” or “put on a defensive display” thresholds are.

TO GET MYSELF BACK ON TRACK. I do think some reactions are interesting, and the test is right about one thing: research has suggested that a puppy who will play fetch with you from a young age has a high probability of succeeding as a service dog. On the “Fetch Test,” the notes say that Sid scored a 3: “Chases object and returns with object to tester.” Which is exactly what you want.

Otherwise he scored mostly 2s, the interpretation of which is “This dog is dominant and can be provoked to bite. Responds well to firm, consistent, fair handling in an adult household, and is likely to be a loyal pet once it respects its human leader. Often has bouncy, outgoing temperament: may be too active for elderly, and too dominant for small children.”

This is essentially meaningless as an overall interpretation. Is there a dog who does NOT respond well to consistent, fair handling? The Volhards also advocate using their special “motivational collar” for training which is just a choke chain by another name, so they are deeply concerned with the ability to make a dog react to pain, noting that scoring a 1 or a 2 in “Touch sensitivity” means that this “will be a difficult dog to train.” I think a lack of reaction to pain is not really a liability in a dog who is trained with a clicker and a variety of yummy snacks. Sid had no reaction to the pinch test for “touch sensitivity” and rather than considering this something that makes him difficult to train (because I don’t use pain on him in training) I consider his very high pain threshold to be a huge asset in his life as a service dog, where odds are at some point someone is going to accidentally kick him or step on his tail. I would very much like him to not turn around at that point and bite the hell out of the person.

At any rate, I think the VPAT is mostly interesting for where it has remained consistent with Sid. For instance, if you throw something for him these days he will go and grab it, but generally does not bring it back to you, preferring to try and lure you into chasing him for it. He is however still pretty insensible to momentary pain, and will let Daniel pick him up without making a fuss. He still investigates loud noises with a curious, bright-eyed interest, and if you drag a rag or towel in front of him you had better be prepared for an 80lb Shedder to land on that towel like a bolt from above. He LOVES to chase a tug toy and then engage in a vigorous game of tug.

Training has made him less likely to actually get underfoot when following his person, but he still comes readily when called and follows close at my side, all “Where we goin, Mom?” Rolled onto his back, he no longer panics and flails but he does dork out, especially if you are willing to rub his tummy. In general I’d give him more 3s on the VPAT these days than he got as a pup, but that’s all down to training.

And I do still have to deeply wonder about the Volhards, and how they manage to live with dogs given their evident paranoia that young puppies are out to take over the house. My biggest problem (aside from the fact that it is wrongity-wrong-o) with the whole “DOGS ARE OUT TO DOMINATE YOU!!!!one!” model is that it sets you up to live in antagonistic competition with your dog from Day 1 and turns your house into a primal battleground filled with struggle.

I find it’s a lot easier to just manipulate my dogs with cheese and have a little faith that they’re not lying awake nights trying to figure out how to grow opposible thumbs and dethrone me from my position as Alpha Bitch.

And anyway, everyone who lives here knows that it’s actually Tink who is the Alpha Bitch.

26 November, 2011

On the inevitable self-comparisons of dog training

So I’m having a lot of guilty feelings surrounding Sid lately, mostly because I have a lot of really fantastic dogblogs in my feed reader, like Katie at Save the Pit Bull, Save the World and the Food Lady over at Wootube.

Why does this cause me guilty feelings about Sid? These people are fantastic trainers, and have worked their dogs in agility, obedience, flyball — they have dogs with TITLES. Like Katie’s eeevil red dog, who is ARCHX Siren’s Eleusinian Mystery CD CD-H RA RL3 RLV RL2X RL1X CGC TT.

Meanwhile, Siddy, despite being brilliant and brave and willing, is just Blackthorn’s Obsidian, he’s well behaved, but escape sometimes, I even got a special crate for him, I found reading the best escape proof dog crate reviews online.

This is, I realize, totally irrational. Siddy doesn’t care if he never gets the entire alphabet after his name, what he cares about is whether he gets to go places with his person and take care of her. But I keep feeling that I am letting him down, because if I was a more systematic and dedicated trainer, he definitely could have a pile of titles. He is smart, willing, and has heart and courage in spades (along with a large helping of goofy sense of humor and general good nature). In the hands of a trainer who would, say, work through the Levels with him in an organized fashion, he could be out there in the rally obedience ring no problem. Well, small problem in that his handler would have to use her cane and some speed changes would be impossible for us — does rally require anything faster than a quick-step gimp? I have no idea but if so, it’s a no-go — but no problem in the dog’s ability or capacity, the best escape proof dog crate reviews

The problem is that I have this deep and weird aversion to competing in things like obedience, and that systematically working behaviors in the backyard here at home is also not the most thrilling thing ever for me. I put Sid’s public access foundations on him here at home, but as soon as he was cleared to work and I was 95% certain of his ability to not be a total dork in public, we took our show on the road. It was more interesting for both of us, that way.

And I don’t know why I feel like we ought to be doing structured competition obedience and the like. I mean, both competition trainers and I put hundreds of hours of work into teaching our dogs, but for, say, a rally obedience dog all that work culminates in an event in the rally ring that takes, what, 10 minutes? 15? Whereas the pinnacle of Sid’s achievements thus far was working for four hours straight at the state fair, in crowds of people, amid fascinating smells, new noises, with occasional livestock. He worked for two hours at the National Museum of the Marine Corps on Veteran’s Day, where he handled immersive videos featuring machine gun fire and screaming, several new floors that were cold and metal and wobbled and made noise under foot, drastic temperature changes between rooms (the Chosin Valley room is heavily air conditioned, the Viet Nam room is heated), people using wheelchairs, people using canes, and a taxidermy German Shepherd (that one really weirded him out but he didn’t make a fuss).

It makes me sad that he will never get official recognition for these things, that because of my aversion to the competition field, no one will ever give Sid a big bright ribbon or a shiny trophy. There are no organizations that officially sanction the titling of service dogs in the work they do, although if there were he’d surely have his PA (Public Access) and SDN (Service Dog Novice) and be well on his way to SDA (Service Dog Advanced) with an eye to his SDE (Service Dog Excellent) before the end of 2012. Or maybe, given the wide variety of tasks that service dogs do, we’d have to break up the titles to specify the work he does, and so take the “S” off and replace it with an “M” for Mobility. Which would then give us the opportunity to, say, work on him getting his Wheel Dog titles if I decide to use a wheelchair.

I don’t actually know where I’m going with this, except to say that I recognize that it’s irrational to simultaneously want applause for Sid’s good work and also people to ignore him when we’re out in public. But it sure would be nice to get a big bright ribbon to recognize all our hard work, you know?

5 September, 2011

Taking the show on the road…

Saturday and Sunday the Best Mother Ever held down things here at the Manor while Daniel and I headed north to drop Constantine and Coriander in their new homes. Siddy went along in his capacity as Official Service Dog In Progress, although I also took a cane because we would be staying overnight right downtown in Philadelphia.

Sid is, after all, a country dog. He doesn’t often see large crowds of people, huge amounts of traffic crawling by right next to him, all the natural occurrences of downtown big-city living are pretty foreign to him. He’s accustomed to being told to ignore squirrels and cats; pigeons were an all-new fascination. He has been to the mall in Fredericksburg, but that didn’t prepare him for the downtown canyons where it got dark early because the buildings blocked out the sun, resulting in the weird light you get from the glow of a thousand beckoning store displays, changing traffic lights, the headlights of cars, the spinning and blinking lights of emergency vehicles. Being a country dog offers him an exciting wealth of smells and sounds, but they are nothing like the sensory overdrive that comes from a crowded city.

So I was a little worried that I might be primarily using the cane while we were there, but figured that the visit alone, even if he didn’t work through it, would provide some excellent experience. As it turned out, though, Siddy was a superstar. He loves high-stimulation, high-activity surroundings, and in fact they let him do his job even better than he normally does because during the endless times when his job consists of “stand still and hold Mom up” or “lie down next to Mom’s chair and don’t bother anyone” all the activity gives him something to look at. He never shied, although he did require a couple stops so he could stare hard at something and try to figure it out (buses gave him pause, and then he decided they were nothing to do with him and ignored them).

The hilarity of the situation is that what I really need to work on, apparently, are his leash skills when he is off-duty. We made multiple trips to a little park so he could relieve himself (his pottying-on-leash skills remain viable, hallelujah, although I think we need to practice them more and I definitely need to get that behavior on cue) and each time he wandered into the person holding his leash, or decided he wanted to walk next to the OTHER person, or decided he really needed to go into shoe stores for reasons that he did not divulge.

In harness, Siddy continued working well above where I’d expect him to for his age and experience level; out of harness he was exactly what you’d expect from a dog just over one year old who doesn’t have city experience: distractible, slightly obnoxious, and inclined to chase pigeons.

He was even excellent on restaurant outings, which was encouraging after our disaster of a trip to Joe’s Crab Shack here in town — we had an excellent dinner Saturday night (Coriander’s new person gives good food recommendations) and a pretty good lunch on Sunday before we picked up some chickens and then headed for home.

Constantine and Coriander, incidentally, are doing well and have settled right in, but we knew they would, didn’t we gentle readers. Constantine was up and exploring and hanging out with his older (at least half-) brother Juniper within a couple hours of being in his new home. Coriander didn’t wait that long, while her new person was giving us restaurant recommendations she wandered out of the room he’d set up for her, touched noses with her two new big brothers, and then explained to her person that he needed to get with the program of petting and tummy tickling because a kitten can’t tickle her own tummy, you know.

All in all, a vastly successful trip from all angles.

20 June, 2011

Weekend fun, Sid is very handsome.

Daniel’s sister was here on Saturday, and then while he took her off to the airport on Sunday, I headed down to Blackthorn Kennel. Christine and I had a heck of a good time trying to get a family photograph of Sid, his sisters Oda and Olivia, and his mother Xita.

And then before we went off to lunch, I got Christine to get a few of Sid in his spiffy new mobility harness:
Sid, a black German Shedder, stands with his body pointed left and his face looking at the camera with good humor.  He is wearing a tan harness with a Y-front and a wide girth behind his front legs, and a narrow girth four inches back from that one.  A rigid handle stands eight and a half inches above his back.

You may notice he’s in a prong collar. This is because 98% of the time, he does not pull on the leash. That remaining 2% of the time has a good chance of knocking me over and getting me hurt, though, so he wears a prong for insurance. It’s not something I’d put on a dog who still chronically pulls, because I don’t want them getting constantly pinched, but it makes an excellent insurance policy in case my adolescent partner forgets himself in the face of a squirrel.

And for reference, here we are together:
I stand to the left of the frame, a white woman of average build, about five feet eight inches tall and wearing a t-shirt and jeans.  Sid's ears are obscuring the handle of the harness but you can see my hand grasping the cross-bar between them.  I wear a leash looped across my body, one end attached to Sid's prong collar.
He looks, as Christine put it, like he’s wearing his daddy’s work shirt at the moment, with the harness so big on him. It’s actually loose at the moment but that’s all right since I can’t put weight on him. At the moment when he works he provides me some forward momentum to brace against and I use him in exactly the opposite fashion as I use a cane. With a cane I lean toward it to keep from wobbling away from it, with Sid I lean away from him to keep from falling into him. Once his growth plates have fused and we get the OK on his hip and elbow X-rays, I can stand a little more upright. But you can see from the photo that his prong collar isn’t going to tighten unless he’s actually gotten far enough ahead of me that I can’t hang onto his harness anymore.

14 June, 2011

Sid: Still Brilliant

So in all the chicken-related excitement this weekend, I failed to update you on Sid’s latest fits of brilliance. Sunday he went all kinds of places: the car dealership to drop my car off (and then pick it up later), Panera for breakfast, WalMart to get buns for bratwurst and sloppy joes. He was, as the post title will tell you, still brilliant for a dog who will be one year old on the 4th of July.

At Panera we sat outside again, and now he’s not even bothering to get up when the suicidal little birds hop right towards him all “I could totally take you, dogboy.” Sparrows are hilarious but not really all that bright. Sid is also starting to figure out when I get sudden fits of vertigo, good boy. Sitting in a chair at Panera and waiting on my food I started to feel dizzy, which resulted in Sid heaving his front half into my lap and leaning into me. It was soothing and actually pretty helpful but I’m thinking it might not be an ideal response for restaurants, where service dogs are suspected to be less obtrusive.

Then on the way into WalMart I asked him to pick up the pace while vertiginous and he gave me a look that is possibly best translated as “Are you on drugs that your doctor has not prescribed?” and kept noodling along at a leisurely pace until I was less wobbly, at which point he was happy to kick in the afterburners and lean into his harness. These are fantastic developments! Pet dogs and obedience champions may be required to unquestioningly follow orders, but when Sid decides to tell me that no, he will not be speeding up while I’m dizzy, it’s just evidence that he’s picking up that he is supposed to be keeping me safe, and part of keeping me safe may be ignoring me when I ask him for something like that.

The day was also marked by a total lack of people attempting to interfere with him, which was fantastic. The guy at the car dealership did, however, want to talk about him and how pretty he is. I get that a lot with both Sid and Zille: people who had GSDs as kids want to tell me how good looking they are, how they’re built just like those childhood Shedders, and then they fondly reminisce about their dogs.

But anyway, I will soon get a chance to ask an expert about training and reinforcing the intelligent refusal that Sid is just now developing on his own, because in a couple weeks PawPower will be stopping through the area and I will get to meet her! I am very excited, we have known each other online for a while so meeting off-line will be grand fun I suspect.

2 June, 2011

Does it count as a task if the dog taught himself? Also, baby chicken.

Sid will now open the gate to the fence on cue. Of course, he will also open the gate not on cue, such as when he has decided he is bored sniffing the things in the fence and would like to sniff the things outside the fence, or when he would like to go for a ride in the car and therefore needs to go stand next to it and stare at me hopefully. We are having to be REALLY RELIGIOUS about putting the carabiner clip on the gate latch, and I do not have any faith whatsoever that Sid won’t figure out how to remove the carabiner at some point if we give him the time to explore.

He’s kind of scary that way. He is not a terribly analytical dog, one who sits and thinks a problem through and then performs a solution. Zille does that, and it weirds me out on occasion. But Sid is really, really scary good at figuring out what he just did that got him what he wanted. Case in point: the door to the bathroom in the hotel room we stayed in when we went to Kentucky. The problem, from Sid’s perspective, was that the door was between him and me. He started out just randomly bashing at it, but his random bashing brought him in contact with the lever-style doorknob, and the door opened. He was pleased. And the next time he wanted the bathroom door open, there was zero random bashing, he just went straight for the knob.

Another case in point is the gate latch. He opened it the first time with random jumping and flailing because the gate was between him and me. The second and all subsequent times, he has opened it with a quick and practiced nudge from his nose, followed by a nudge to the gate itself to swing it open. He learns scary fast, seriously. Tink, for instance, will work on problem-solving by manipulating objects, but it takes her a few successes to figure out exactly what she did that worked. With Sid, it never seems to take more than one success for him to recognize what just happened and what he needs to manipulate and how to make it happen again.

You may also notice the theme of “there was a barrier between me and Sid” as the precipitating factor in his door- and gate-opening expeditions. Sid does not approve of barriers that prevent him from being with his person. As we do more training on his service doggery, he becomes more and more certain that his job is taking care of me, and that this job requires him to be near me and not, for instance, on the other side of the bathroom door. Since our bathroom at home is quite tiny, things get a bit crowded in there, and have you ever tried to pee while a 75lb dog sat between your knees and stared up at you? It’s an adventure.

Meanwhile, on the chicken front, the baby silkies are about ready to move outside. Daniel is going to set them up a temporary pen today, since unseasonably high temps this week have kept us from building them a more permanent home. Once they’ve moved out, the 16 bantam babies of various breeds in the smaller brooder will move into the Big Brooder. This weekend, the six members of the Pasty Butt club will go back to their home with Christine, leaving ten here as permanent residents. There’s five blue silkies and five Ameraucana babies. The Ameraucanas are hilarious, and have a tendency to stare at me intently whenever I appear over the edge of the brooder. I’ve named them after quarks, using the names I learned in high school (because Truth and Beauty are much better names than Top and Bottom) and so have Up, Truth, Beauty, Charmed, and Strange.

Here, have a picture of Charmed making eerie eye contact:
A teeny fluffy grey-brown chicken, cradled in my hand.  He is staring directly at the camera in a sort of unsettling way that suggests he will peck you if you get out of line.  And he will, because he is like that.  I have been pecked by this tiny, tiny chicken more times than I care to think about.

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