Saturday, November 20, 2010

Say What? Maintaince Training for Service Dogs

Anniversaries and follow-up visits have a way of showing you how far you have come along with anything you may have let side;however, inadvertently.   We received high praise from Wendy at Summit for how well our public access manners and tasks have been maintained, though, I admitted that the emergency phone retrieve has gotten dropped since we no longer have a land line. I really must work on getting the cue back in use with my cell phone since it is my life and safety on the line. As  teams move through life it is common for things to slip or for things to get dropped because handlers and dogs begin to engage in anticipatory learning where in they put together strings of actions/cues and will perform behaviors without waiting to be asked. Many human partners think this predictive behavior is wonderful, and in some instances it is. However, I have come the conclusion that these short cuts if allowed to develop freely and without thought to possible hazards are very dangerous to our canine partners.

Example1: You and your dog are riding the lift transport service and  your service dog cannot ride the lift with you, so they must wait in the van until you can collect them at the front door. The dog anticipating you to call them begins to come out the door before being called and before you are there to collect them. I will leave the horrid possibilities to your own imagination.

Example 2: Your service dog faithfully retrieves everything you drop and has done this for you so often that the dog comes running whenever it see or hears anything hit the floor in your vicinity.  While this may not seem like a big deal and even helpful, what if you drop something glass and it shatters or the lid goes flying off your med bottle since you where trying to get the lid on when you dropped it.

Now, anticipatory learning does have a place in a service dog partnership, but we humans must be careful about the behavior chains that develop and nip ones that could be dangerous to us and/or our canine partners in the bud before they become habits that are exceeding difficult to break. This is where maintenance training takes center stage. If you regularly practice all your dogs behaviors from basic obedience to elaborate chained behaviors such as tugging open a door or get help, you are much more likely to prevent these short cuts from developing in the first place. You will also want to correct your dog for "blowing" cues (as I and many others call it) straight off by sending them back to the start and having them do it correctly. For dogs having a no reward marker or a cue reminder can help them know when they are about to make a mistake and give them a chance to change their mind before making the mistake.

How do you know if a Behavior needs brushing up?
  • You (or someone in your circle) can't remember the last time you used a particular cue
  • The dog's response to a cue has become slow or sloppy
  • The cue is essential for you/your dogs safety (i.e. come, emergency down, get help, waiting at open doors)
  • The dog seems to have stopped paying attention to a given cue altogether (Tip: did you inadvertently change the cue. It happens all the time. It is really easy to change a cue in just a few repetitions of the pattern New Cue + Old Cue= Behavior for the dog to go "oh this =that" and the old cue is no longer needed. Unfortunately, it can take us humans a bit to figure out what is the cue the dog is now responding to)
  • You need a particular cue to be reinforced so that you can build a new behavior with it.

Finding Time for Maintenance Training

People often claim they don't do something because they think that it needs a lot of time. The amount of time needed to maintain given depends on several factors: how often it is used and actively reinforced/rewarded, if the dog finds to behavior itself rewarding, and how complicated/difficult the behavior is, and the tendency of the dog in question to assume that a behavior that hasn't been used/reinforced in a certain period of time is just taking up memory needlessly. The more simple, easy to perform and frequently used behaviors can be easily maintained in a few short repetitions,the more complicated the behavior the more you may need to make a specific effort to practice it, especially if it is not something you need the dog to do on a regular basis (say at least a couple of times a week) like getting help or dialing 9-1-1 on speed dial.
  • Before you give your dog anything or answer a request as for a behavior any behavior the dog knows or is working on will due
  • While waiting in line, for the bus or whatever
  • When your dog seems bored to you
  • During your lunch, coffee or other breaks in the day
  • When you need a distraction
  • During the course of normal day, give cues as you go along to keep your dog engaged
  • As a new section to your daily fitness routine. Spice it up for both you and your dog.


Logan said...

Great post and information Melissa!!!! Sorry I don't get to come and comment often. I use Google Reader on my iPad Touch and it's not as easy to. Still reading them though!

Melissa Mitchell said...

Yay! Happy to here from you:)