Thursday, October 2, 2008

Preparing for Shilo: 10 Days and Counting

The anticipation is driving me to prepare. I have now been 10 months without a service dog. In that time, I have had to the opportunity to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of being partnered with a service dog. In my case, I definitly feel the pros outweigh the cons. I am ecstatic about having a partner again. Knowing there will always be someone to help when I fall, drop something, need help with a door, who can help me carry things, and more allows me to live my life much more freely and not depend on other people as much. Right now, I am working feverishly to prepare mentally, emotionally, physically, and materially for Shilo's impending arrival into our household and pack. I am also cramming new cues and definitions (what the dog understands each one to mean) that I need to be able to use them in a clear and consist manner. Many of the cues are the same words I used with my retired service dog, Bastien, but the cues are being used for different behaviors and tasks. Therefore, I struggle with keeping straight what the dog should do with a given cues based on her definitions and the contradictions with my old, tried, and habitual ones. I know once I start working with Shilo and her trainers at Summit new habits and definitions with slowly sink in. Karen Pryor says in her article Clicking is Really for the Birds, "Often dogs fail to respond to a cue not because they are being stubborn, or because they don't know the cue, but because we gave the cue carelessly. With the wrong hand, with another word or two mixed into it, or in a new environment where some aspect of the cue that the dog relied on is changed or missing. If you've been inconsistent, and the dog doesn't always respond even though the behavior itself is well-trained, transferring the cue you've been using to a new cue can help." This type of misunderstanding can be quite common when someone is just getting to know a dog who already has training (as I will be with Shilo). She knows her stuff. During team training I will cement my knowledge of what she has been trained to do based on how my disability, cerebral palsy, affects me and what a dog is capable of doing to assist me physically. For example, when I went for team training round one I had a hard time of it because Bastien worked with many types of cues including voice, hand, body and in some instance environment cues. I found hand, body, and environmental cues to be quite useful in our day to day working mode because some of my cues were so small most people never noticed, which allowed my to stay in better connection with my dog (an he with me) when giving presentations, working in environments that were extremely loud like fairs, airports and train platforms, and conversely extremely quiet environments like movies, shows, and libraries. An example of a example of hand cue he knew was holding my hand flat to receive something retrieved meant "give". An example of a body cue he knew was holding my coat sleeve towards him meant for him to help me tug it off (this is useful when people half limited range of motion as a part of a disability in my experience). Even though Shilo has been trained on vioce cues only, because many people with disabilities could have a difficult time correctly giving hand and/or body signals becuase of the disability; I found myself using these cues out of an eight year habit. I had to keep reminding myself that she didn't know these things. Many experience trainers talk about people using unintentional cues or small movements and/or changes in behavior when asking for a behavior that they are unaware they are doing, a famous example is Clever Hans. Sometimes trainers when working together will ask the other if they were aware they were also doing X thing at the same time or just before they cue a behavior. Dogs have proven to be keen observers of human behavior according to studies like Social learning in dogs: the effect of a human demonstrator on the performance of dogs in a detour task. For some people, like myself, who tend to talk with their hands and bodies this unintentional cuing can be both helpful and an annoyance. The helpful part comes from feeling as though your dog can read your mind and getting things done more quickly. The annoyance comes when you can't figure out why your dog is doing something even though you didn't "ask" for it and you are trying to get them to do a totally different thing. The other annoying part comes in if other cues for the behavior that are still necessary, like a voice cues, start to deteriorate. Knowing all this, I continue to study Shilo's commands and accept that I will make mistakes that may make her think "Geez this human is confusing."

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