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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).

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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, we had a little setback with our car keys, Daniel left them inside but thankfully the key extraction Lake Worth team showed up just in time. 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.

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Busy times all over! Also, wanna help a kitten?

We went up to Ikea to get a new USA made mattress this past Sunday and I made Siddy work. He was freakin brilliant — handled the crowds with aplomb, stayed right next to me, never got too stressed to respond to a click and always took the treats and ate them thoughtfully. He’s really shaping up quite nicely I think.

In chicken world, there has been some excitement. One and Three moved out to a segregated portion of the Big Chicken Pen, but Three at some point got out and lost a sizeable chunk of skin off the back of her head. One consult with the vet and some expensive antibiotics later, she’s living indoors in our largest cat carrier to heal up and doing quite well. Also we have been calling her Zombirella, because the back of her head really did look that bad. Here’s a pic of her good side, you can see she is alert and at that stage of chicken development where they look kind of like raptors rather than chickens.

Zombirella, a rich golden brown pullet, looks out through the bars of the cat carrier in an interested fashion.  You can see the feathers on the far side of her head are rumpled and also there's not as many there as there ought to be.

The large carrier is not an ideal living place for a chicken, so we’re hoping she heals quickly and can get back outside. But she’s still quite small, and the carrier is pretty big, so she has room to stretch and flap and perch and also do some scratching and pecking for her food once she has knocked it out of her dish (chickens are messy eaters).

Both bantam chicks from the last hatch have died — just failure to thrive. I have been reading exhaustively and have some ideas for the next time I set bantam eggs on incubator settings and early-life care, so hopefully we won’t have the same problem again. Although to be fair one of them I was expecting to not make it, since he hatched with the yolk-sac still attached and generally those chicks do not make it past their first weeks of life. The six blue-laced red Wyandottes that hatched have moved on to Christine’s place, leaving little Melchior, the son of Mel and Ayinnanku, to keep company with the Sumatra chicks. He is thriving and happy!

Crispin and Clementine went off to their new homes a little over a week ago now and are doing well. Constantine and Coriander are still here for another week and a half and then they, too, will be off to their new people, and Briar Rose will come in.

And meanwhile, speaking of formerly feral kittens, my friend Kate at Om Shanti Naturals has taken in the first of a litter of kittens that showed up in her back yard. So far she’s only caught the one, but vetting is expensive as we all know! So if you have been looking for some yummy hand-crafted soap, moisturizing oils, bath products, lip balms, or salves, could you putter over to the shop and pick up an item or two? You get a delicious bath product, kitten gets vetted without Kate having to live on ramen and cat hair for a month, and it’s just generally win-win all around. Om Shanti is, after all, the home of the world’s ONLY official Tink-branded and endorsed beauty product, Tink’s Tea Tree Lavender Salve, ideal for treating the minor bumps and scrapes that life deals out. There is even body wash to match although Tink has not tried it yet (she generally does not endorse any product that involves her getting a B. A. T. H. anyway — you know how diva-esque dogs can be).

So anyway, there’s the news round-up and my pitch. Hope you’re all doing well, gentle readers, and I will try to be more regular about my updates!

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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. I’m am so happy with my pet insurance, I can hardly wait until 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.

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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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Service Dog In Progress

We took Sid out on a training run yesterday. Well, less a training run than a chance for me to get a feel for where he’s at in public access skills, so I know where we need work.

The first stop was Panera, to get a reading on where we’re at for restaurants. We picked an odd time and chose Panera because they have handy outdoor seating, plus the food was paid for when we sat down to eat, so if Sid had been a huge dork, we could have picked up and left no problem. He actually did very well until a sparrow decided to check him out, which got him a little excited. I’m not sure what that tiny bird was thinking, hopping to about 2 feet away from Siddy, but Sid at least was not uncontrollable. He just really wanted to try and bite that bird. In a lot of ways it would have been easier on him for us to eat inside, because outside you had a lot of distractions: small suicidal birds, human passers-by, traffic noises. But on the other hand I wasn’t at all sure that he’d be well-behaved enough for inside, so better to sit outside for my mental health.

The next stop was Borders, where the only problem was that Sid was starting to lose focus about halfway through our time there. I suspect it was because a book store is a pretty damn boring place for a young dog, and my browsing style in bookstores involves a lot of slowly creeping along shelves and then standing, sometimes crouching — in other words, not a lot for him to do but stand around. So it’s not surprising, given that he’s 10 months old, that his attention kind of wandered and also he forgot where his butt was and knocked into shelves once or twice. I think he’d have done better if Borders were more of a high-distraction environment, actually, because he does quite well with just standing around watching the world go by, as long as the world is, in fact, going by.

The final stop was PetCo, where he was pretty golden, which reinforced my suspicions about him doing better when there’s things for him to look at and smell while I go about my people business at the other end of the leash and harness.

All in all I was really pleased with him. For 11 months old and me just now having the energy to start systematic public access training with him, he’s doing really well. It helps that the foundations are there already: he has a good off switch, he’s accustomed to behaving politely. While he got bored and distracted, at no time did he go totally dork-faced and inattentive. I think the thing to do is ask him for brain work in boring places, like getting him to target with nose and paw while I browse the books. We’re also working on “Find Daddy!” and he enjoyed doing that at Borders.

The trip was also good for building my confidence in him. He’s not at the level where I can work with him without being mindful, and won’t be for a long time, but it was good for me to see his bomb-proof and confident self out in the world, getting bored but not anxious, and generally just being an all-around good candidate in the rough. Well, to use a rock-tumbling analogy, I think we’re through the totally rough stage, by virtue of early experience, his essential nature, and basic training in house manners. Now we’re on to the medium grind, and it won’t be too long before we head gleefully off into the pre-polish and polish stages.

Beowulf, bless his heart, taught me a lot about what I want from a service dog. Now Sid is showing me how to get there with him. And we’re having a good time.

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Busy busy busy

Sixteen new baby chickens have moved into my office/computer room which is sort of distracting when I play video games with the help of sites like Ten of them are staying here, six of them are just here because they were showing signs of pasty butt and needed watching while Christine is off doing things unrelated to chickens. So my office is full of cheeping. It’s time to get a silkie pen built, too, so I can get the seven oldest baby out of doors. We might manage to start on that this weekend, we might not.

Meanwhile, Sid went out in mobility harness yesterday to the Farmer’s Market on a training run. He’s not old enough for me to put weight on him but he needs to work in the actual harness, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, because the first time I ever put it on him he nearly sprained his neck trying to see the handle. But anyway he did freakin brilliantly, for real — if he were a kid he’d be performing above grade-level but I’m not sure what the equivalent term is for dogs. Maybe “performing above training level”? Anyhow, the point is that he is pretty bomb-proof and takes crowds in stride. He even got barked at by a dog who was there with one of the vendors and while he glanced at it, that was the extent of his interest. I’m using cheese/praise and verbal corrections (“Negative!” — can you tell I was in the military?) to communicate what the rules of his new job are, and he seems to be getting the point.

This afternoon we’re planning on taking him to an outdoor cafe to see where I’m at in regards to his restaurant training. Probably the one attached to Borders as it’s very low-key and casual and also all the food is paid for in advance and served in to-go containers, so if he’s being a dork we can pick up and leave, no fuss no muss. I wish I could be sure his behavior at home would carry over, because at home he is genius at lying down next to me and ignoring the people food. Fingers crossed!

And just for being patient with me while my posting has slowed down, have a picture of Up, one of the baby Ameraucana bantams who will be staying here. I’ve named them after types of quark, but there’s five of them so I lack a “Down”. I do however have Charmed, Strange, Truth, Beauty, and Up!
Up, a small chick whose body is yellow fluff but whose emerging wing feathers are fantastical and beautiful with subtle patterns of grey-brown on cream, cradled in my hand.

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Dog training is sometimes silly.

Yesterday was a high-pain sort of day (THANKS WEATHER) but I really wanted to get in some training time with Siddy. He lights up with the clicker comes out, so I decided we’d just do stuff for fun, because I was on drugs that make me slightly fuzzy in the head. Fuzzier than usual, anyway.

The end result of this is that 1) Tink threw a tantrum because she didn’t get to play the clicker game and 2) Sid is now well on his way to handing me my pack of cigarettes when I ask him for them.

Someday I’ll be serious about this whole training thing. Yesterday was not that day.

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Sid Training Log, part the whatevereth

Today we worked on placement, as in “put yourself where I point.” Sid did under the desk, at my feet, under the other desk, and on top of a rubbermaid container, and did it all in a mobility harness. I’m not putting weight on him yet, of course, but I do like to work him in harness so that the harness is associated with Fun Interactions Involving Cheese, as well as with “working, must be Srs Dog”.

A couple pics:
This picture is at a really wonky angle, please forgive.  It shows Sid, a black Shedder who is seven months old, wearing a dark brown leather harness which has a stiff handle (actually reinforced with metal) sticking up 3 inches above his backbone.  Imagine a guide dog harness (the kind where the straps go over the shoulders instead of across the chest) if the handle was rigidly attached to the harness so it went straight up, and also very short.  His front feet are up on a blue rubbermaid box which is about 16 inches wide by 2 feet long.

This was the beginning of getting him onto the box. I knew he could get his whole body on the box because he’d done it previously in order to lick my ear while I was sitting in my chair, but he was weirdly reluctant today. No matter, some cheese and a clicker changed all that! Behold:
Sid, in harness, sits on top of the rubbermaid box with a happy face!

I did eventually get him to lie down on top of the box, but he wouldn’t hold it long enough for me to get a picture. Trust me, it was adorable. He’s a pretty adorable dog. And he has such fun training in harness or out! He’s a great joy to train for me because patience is my downfall as a trainer, and Sid picks things up FAST. This means I spend less time breaking behaviors down into bitty steps and shaping them from there, which lowers my frustration levels quite a bit. I do need to get more systematic about training, though, because right now we’re working on the “what seems fun today” system and that’s likely to leave gaps in Siddy’s education.

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Playing the Clicker Game

Having introduced Sid to a clicker while we were in Kentucky, we’re using it for Training Time here now. Yesterday, we worked on recall (come when called), sit, down, sit-stay, down-stay, and “wave” (in which Sid waves his right front paw at me).

The major accomplishment was fading the lure for sit and down. That means that I am no longer using a piece of food to move him into position, but just moving my empty hand like the food is in it, and he’s performing just fine. The next step will be fading the signals so that I’m not using such broad hand gestures, and then pairing verbal cues to the behaviors so that I can use my voice if my hands are full.

Having successfully faded the lures, that leaves us “Zen” and “Touch” in Level One of the training series I’m working him on. Also I need to quit dithering around and pick out Dog School and take him to obedience classes. One, classes would give me more structure and a little sense of urgency, and two it would give Sid the experience of working around other people and other dogs. I’m aiming to get him his Canine Good Citizen award, plus his work as a Service Dog will take place in what you might call a “distraction-rich environment” (i.e. the real world) so the more experience he gets working out and about, the better!