Wow. I bet you thought I’d disappeared. I did, into the abyss of a semester back after a sabbatical. But… I’m baaaaaaack!
As promised, this is part two of my discussion on service dogs, and this post is all about the training process. As I mentioned in Une vie de chien – Partie I, Max and I trained together for a year before he graduated from “service dog in training” to “service dog.” That’s it. That’s all it took. Boom. Done. Mic drop.
Kidding. Kidding. It was one of the most intense experiences in my life, and that includes grad school and the dissertation years.
Beyond picking out a rescue dog (of course) who had the necessary qualities (I worked with a behaviorist for this part, though this post gives you the idea), I had to pick a trainer. This is difficult business. There aren’t many trainers out there who do service dog training, and even then, you have to mesh with the trainer as much as you do the dog, and the dog with the trainer. I was lucky enough to find a one Mr. Jim Turner, an amazing behaviorist AND trainer. He’s got a blog right here on WordPress.
I can’t say enough about Jim. Right from the beginning, he let me know what to expect from the process and let me know, more than once, how difficult the task that lay ahead. This was a commitment. To Max. To myself. To training. To Jim.
This commitment meant beginning with three sessions per week, lasting usually about 2-3 hours, on top of my already full work schedule and long commute. Three days per week, I traveled from Indy to Muncie to Richmond. Often, I did not get home until 9pm or 10pm, and then I had to turn around and go right back to it the next day. In between training sessions, I did training at home, at the office, in stores, in restaurants. At home, we had regular formal sessions. Out and about, every moment was an opportunity. Beyond my chic purse, I got to add the additional bling of a clicker and a handy treat bag, filled with desiccated hotdogs (no nitrites, of course) and other such yumminess.
At the beginning, when Jim met with me and Jeevan, he had said (not verbatim, creative license here): “You know, this is going to be tough. You’ll always be training. You’re going to carry treats, and you’re going to train whenever you see a moment. Things are going to take longer, and it can get frustrating. It will be frustrating at times for Jeevan when he sees your relationship with Max grow and when it’s difficult for you to pay attention at a restaurant because your mind is always partially on Max. You have to be ready. Go home. Think about this. If it’s right for you, and I’m right for you and Max, call me, and we’ll start.”
It was daunting to be sure, but we were ready. Jim evaluated Max, and though he was a wild child then, he had potential. He asked what I thought a service dog could do for me. At that time, I was struggling with a failing shoulder and needed help carrying things, and I could really use something under my legs when sitting in chairs. Jim’s response? “A dog as an ottoman? Hmmmm.” Turns out, Jim was right: I never did train Max as an ottoman. Though, from time to time, he likes to get under my feet and rest his head on my shoe, but that’s not one of his service tasks; it’s just because he loves his mama.
We began with the basics that all dogs should have. Max was a blank slate and could only “sit,” so we had to begin with: down, stay, wait, leave it, loose leash walking, etc. Those are fairly easy, but service dogs have to have these skills down pat before they can even move on to service skills.
We did clicker training, which is a form of positive reinforcement training. You first teach the dog that a click means a reward (treat, love, kisses, “good boy”). Then, you mark a desired behavior with a click and reward. Eventually, you mark the behavior with a command. The real trick is to click at the right time and with the correct behavior.
For example, when we were training Max to “stop” on command (mid-walk, mid-trot, whenever). As SOON as Max stopped for any reason, “CLICK!” TREAT! At the beginning, the stopping is pretty much when you stop, but you CLICK! and TREAT! The wheels start turning in the dog’s head:
MAX: “Oh, I get a treat, if I stop. I’m going to stop.”
AMY: “CLICK!” TREAT!
MAX: TREAT!!!!!!!!!! I’m a good boy! Good Max! I love stopping! Stop. Stop. Stop.
Then, you start adding the command: “STOP!” “CLICK!” (if he stops). TREAT! “GOOD STOP!” Rinse, lather, repeat.
This is marking desired behavior. We used this to train Max such commands as: stop, wait, fast, slow, leave it, etc.
The extra interesting part of training was the complex behaviors, and this requires shaping behavior using successive approximation (that’s what it’s called, right Jim?). Jim is extra awesome at figuring out this part. You begin by naming the desired task and then figure out the steps to get there.
EXAMPLE: Pushing a button to open a power assist door
- Desired behavior: pushing button
- Required skills: 1) recognize object to push; 2) push; 3) apply pressure.
For this, Jim knew that Max needed to first offer a paw. For this, we waited until Max placed a paw near us.
JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!
MAX: “Wha? What did I just do? Hmmm. I’m going to randomly do tricks and see what happens. Sit. Down. Kisses. No? Hmmm. This guy is dumb. I’m going to poke him.”
JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!
MAX: “What? Weirdo. Not sure what I did again. Sit. Down. Kiss. Sit.
MAX: “NOTHING? Man! Poke.”
JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!
MAX: “Dude! It’s the paw! Paw!!!!! Poke.”
JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!
MAX: “Awesome! Poke.”
JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT!
MAX: “That’s it! Poke. Poke. Poke.”
JIM: “CLICK!” TREAT! Good touch!
You get the idea. Once you mark the behavior with a command (“touch” in this case), you begin clicking and treating ONLY when the behavior is offered AFTER a command. The idea has to be yours, not the dog’s. To make sure this is the case, you can test it with multiple commands. For example, if you say “sit,” the dog should sit, not offer a paw. Try a couple of different commands, then say the new one. Once you consistently get the correct behavior, your dog has got the idea. Even so, go home and PRACTICE!! I had to keep a log of our home practice sessions: I had to log: 1) each skill we practiced; 2) How long we spent on each one 2) How many times the correct behavior was offered; 4) any distractions; 5) notes.
Wait. How is this related to pushing a button? A hand is not a button, and “touch” is not “push.” This is the cool part.
Once Max had the idea of touch down, we added a target. We’d say “TOUCH” and, with a yellow square in our hand, we’d click any time he’d offer a paw near the marker. The idea is that you reward the behavior, being lenient at first, and getting stricter as you move on. Eventually the dog only gets a CLICK! when it puts the paw on the marker. Then, you move the marker. On the floor. On the wall. On your thigh. The dog eventually associates touch with a target.
Wait. That’s still not pushing! Ok, ok. I’m getting there!
In the end, we want Max to apply the correct amount of pressure on the target. This is “PUSH!” Jim had me buy an “easy” button for practice. You know, one of these:
We put the target on the button and began clicking and treating when the button was pushed hard enough to get the trademark, “that was easy!” Then, we marked that behavior with the command “PUSH!” We eventually moved on to doors, door openers, grocery carts. Now, Max can PUSH! this:
And even this:
It’s true, some doors are too heavy for him, and it’s too heavy for me, but he gives me that extra power. We do it together!
For a more visual idea of how this happens, look at this cool little example:
You can see that it is quite the process. Now imagine this for every complicated skill Max and I had to learn together. Now you know why I spent the better part of a year exhausted!
Here is a list of the skills Max has (totally forgetting some). Don’t confuse the skill with the command. For the most important commands, I chose words that aren’t always obvious to others because I can’t have other people trying to tell my dog what to do. Sometimes people feel that they can tell me he doesn’t mind very well because he doesn’t listen to them. The mark of a good dog on duty is that he doesn’t mind anyone but the handler!
- Leave it
- Watch me
- Greeting behavior
- Refocus behavior
- Go to X (bed, rug, towel, mat, etc).
- Get it (keys, pencil, paper, credit card, bottle)
- Give it to X (a person, me or anyone else)
- Drop it (on floor, in garbage, etc.)
- Hold (keep whatever he has in mouth until I say so)
- Push (cart, button, door, etc.)
- Pull (door, wheelchair, cart, coat sleeve, socks)
- Crawl (good for getting into small spaces)
- Under (table, chair, etc.)
- Up (onto something)
- Off (off of something)
- Brace (stiffen his front legs to act as a sort of cane)
- Help mama (i.e. go into service mode when he’s not actively on duty – mostly at home)
- Bark on command
- Spin right (helps to get into tight spaces)
- Spin left (helps to get into tight spaces)
- Sideways right
- Sideways left
- Follow (usually when I am in my wheelchair and am being backed up; he follows in front).
- Pee on command
- Poop on command
- Go find
- Step up (bracing for going up step)
- Step down (bracing for going down step)
- Dance with mommy (just for fun)
- Command to get harness on
- Command for service position
- Command to finish service
- Command for bedtime
- Let’s go
- Thank you!
- Up up: Get in car and wait for harness to be attached to security belt before getting all the way in
Not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. Here’s another list for your perusal.
But… there’s more to training than that. There’s public access training. This means that, once your dog has a good skill set, it needs to be able to perform these skills EVERYWHERE and with distractions, like: kids, walkers, wheelchairs, food on the ground, other dogs, squirrels!, people he loves, loud noises, people talking to you… etc.
This is the most important, and perhaps most frustrating part of training, and I will get to that in Partie III! Also, there will be more about the wonderful Jim because he helped me not lose my mind during this crazy part of the training. I promise not to wait so long until the next post.