Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Task Training: Emergency phone retrieve

Retrieving or the ability of a dog to take, hold and carry items in them mouth is the core for many of the common tasks service dogs perform for their disabled partners. A dog does not need to be a natural retriever to be able to do this, but it does help. While an emergency phone retrieve sounds simple enough on it's surface, one must be careful to train each part of the behavior in turn and avoid lumping steps together

Behaviors Needed for Emergency Phone Retrieve:

1. The dog must learn to take items of a variety of size, textures, shapes and weight in it's mouth gently.Tip: Some people inadvertently poison this behavior in their puppies by disciplining their pups for having valued human objects in their mouths. If your pup is playing with your shoes, remote control, mail, or whatever calmly trade them for something they can have and reward them for relinquishing treasured items. There are many ways to teach your dog to take items:
Capturing- waiting for you dog to do something naturally and rewarding them for the behavior. This is a great a way to train behaviors since it requires the dog to think about the thing it was doing when you clicked and repeat it. This cements behaviors very well with dogs. The down fall of this method is it requires humans to be very patient and avoid giving and cues (vocal or body) that the dog might misinterpret for a cue for another behavior.
Shaping (Video not captioned)- rewarding dogs for increments of the desired behavior. In this case taking an an item in its mouth. This is a great method for a dog that is not a natural retriever, like Shilo, to take items in their mouths. This methods you must meet the dog where they are and build the behavior. Pick an object- a 12" one inch (or smaller) piece of PVC pipe works great because it's lite, long enough for the dog to put its mouth on it and you to keep a hold of it, and its made of plastic. Many of the items we ask service dogs to retrieve are made of plastic, so this is a good tool to get them accustomed to the taste and texture of plastic while learning to firmly but gently hold these objects in their mouths.
2. The dog hold learn to hold on to the object for varying amounts of time with out beginning to chew on the item. The trainer would want to end the behavior behavior before the dog drops the item or takes it away to play with it. If your dog only wants to hold the item for a second then meet them there and click when they grip the item. Do this several times then begin lengthening the hold by seconds each time. It will take a while to get a dog reliably holding things for durations on a minute or more, but the slow work will lead to a dog who can reliably hold delicate cell phones, credit cards, and medication bottles.
3. The dog must learn to relinquish the items when asked. Unless the dog have been previously taught to play keep away, or that relinquishing items to humans means they never see it again, dogs usually learn to give an item to hand pretty easily. This is true when using clicker training because the dog will automatically let go of the item in order to get the treat. So you can click for the hold say give and hand over the treat. You can also work on this specifically by asking your dog to let go/ give you a favored toy. You can go over (or call your dog) and say you cue word and show the treat. The dog will want the treat and give you the toy. You will want to stop showing the treat after the first few repetitions, but you will want to continue to reward for the toy at 100% for a while. When the dog is eagerly giving you the toy for the treat you will want to start randomizing when the dog gets a treat and maybe return the toy to the dog and invite them to play as a reward. This way the dog learns that giving something to you doesn't mean they never get it back. This is very important in case the dog has something truly dangerous and you need to get it from them in a hurry.
Here is a video on teaching these first three above steps Pickup and Give Back: Training to Touch, Mouth, Take, Hold.

4. The dog will need to learn that it can walk and hold on to the item. Some dogs will do this naturally;however, dogs who are not naturals may need to learn they can walk and hold onto the item at the same time. Neither of my service dog have been naturals at this. They would rather leave the item an move freely. This is a behavior that could be captured but it may take the dog a long time to figure out what exactly it was doing when it got clicked. Shaping may work better in this instance. Teach aa good hold then take a step from your dog, most will take a step toward you so they will be in optimum treat receiving range and continue adding steps.
5. The dog needs to have a recall so he will bring the item back to you from a distance.
6. If your phone is on a counter, table or wall mount that is not with the dog's reach with four on the floor, you will want to teach your dog to do a "paws-up" to be able to reach the object. Teaching a dog to paws up should be done on purpose because you don't want you dog to figure out it can counter/table cruise for goodies. Take care to make sure to keep you counters and tables clear while teaching and proofing this.
7. Your dog will need to learn to go a way from you to get the phone. (Make an already long behavior chain easier on you dog by designating a specific phone the emergency phone and ensuring it is always in the same spot when you dog goes to get it.This will also give you piece of mind that you know where the phone is and how long it should take your dog to come back to you with it.) Gradually increase the distance you are away from the phone when you give the cue. Make sure the dog can get the phone and bring it back to you from every room in the house. When the dog can do this on a random reinforcement schedule, go back to being next to the phone and sit on the floor. This changes the dogs picture of what is going on and may confuse some when the dog can handle you sitting on the floor, switch to lying down, sitting on furniture, climb in the shower, ect. Most dogs will take you being oin the floor as a cause for concern or invitation to play, so do not skip the step of asking them to perform the behavior with you in various positions your life could depend on them associating you on the floor with a need for the phone one day.

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