Wednesday, July 25, 2012

State of the Pack

It has been a busy week here at the Pawpower Palace. Yesterday, Bristol my fourteen year young retired guide went for her quarterly trip to see her eye specialist.
<"Dr da Costa">
told me that Bristol's cataracts have gotten much worse. She had several tests, and got her tear ducts flushed. She has lost a great deal of her sight and may be totally blind within the year. She has been deaf for a year now, so we are now focusing on techniques which will allow her to live as active and independent of a life as she can. And who better to teach her these things than a deafblind owner. People joke that Bristol just wanted to be like me, since being deafblind is so fun! :)

We are teaching her new tactile cues and I am going to get her a vibrating collar. I also plan to get embroidery on the collar which states that she is deafblind. This way, if she ever gets lost, the person who finds her will understand that she can't hear or see them.

Baylee went with Bristol to the eye vets and got her CERF exam. Her eyes are totally healthy and she is free to keep on training as Mister Pawpower's guide dog! Whew! Three cheers for healthy eyes! :)

In other news, Brooke from the <"Ruled By Paws Gang">
and I are working through Sue Ailsby's
<"Training Levels">

This has been a great deal of fun, and has taught me an awful lot. I also found an awesome iPhone app called See Spot Sit which has a really fabulous training log feature, plus tons of distraction sounds. I'm using these levels to help re-teach Bristol tactile cues.

So far, we are only on level 1. Today I was working on Zen with Mill'E-Max. Zen is the practice of ignoring what you want to get what you want. An example, dog ignores a treat on the ground and gets a click and treat. Keep in mind that this example is the finished behavior and we start much simpler than that.

So this morning I was practicing Zen with Mill'E-Max. I held out a treat, and was counting off five seconds before giving the treat (building duration). Mill'E-Max did a "down" right as I clicked for ignoring the treat. So Mill'E-Max, being the very clicker-savvy dog that she is, decided that I was clicking for ignoring food and laying down. Yikes! this dog out-thinks me! Therefore, I spent the next five minutes trying to click after she ignored the treat but before she went into the "down" so she would understand that I wasn't looking for any other behavior than "zen." Eventually she got it and I learned that dogs have awesome brain skills and that I need to keep on my toes. Dog training sure is fun.

Lastly Laveau has learned a new trick. We keep all of the dog gear-- leashes, harnesses, service vests and the like, in a big wooden cupboard. It is designed to be one of those cupboards in which normal people keep their televisions. It has a big open space where the television would sit. But since we aren't normal people, who don't own a television, we use the cupboard for our dog stuff, since it's right by our front door. Last week, I had taken Baylee to work with me for the day. I was on the way home with a friend and we decided to go for coffee. I texted Mister Pawpower and asked him to bring Laveau out to the car, and I'd swap her for Baylee. That way, Laveau would get to work a bit and Baylee could rest up. I wanted to focus on relaxing at the coffee shop and step out of dog trainer mode for a bit. Mister Pawpower went into the front room with Laveau and reached for her gear. Laveau was so excited to be going out that she leapt from the floor, into the open area of the cupboard, and stood there for Mister Pawpower to put on her gear. He thought that Laveau was so funny that he laughed and laughed. This was enough reinforcement for Laveau so she has now made this little leap a regular part of her day. Just yesterday, I came home from the eye vets, and was swapping Bristol for Laveau for yet another jaunt to the coffee shop. Again, Laveau launched herself from the floor to the cupboard and waited for me to dress her for work. I need to get this on camera, it is so funny. I love working with operant dogs who aren't afraid to do crazy stunts like that! I promise a picture soon

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Can't is a four-letter word

This post is for the
<"eighth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival">
The topic is:
Marching To Your Own drum.

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference."
-- Robert Frost
Throughout my entire life, one of the words I've heard most often is "can't." Mostly it's strangers who say the word, but sadly, at other times it's family, friends, coworkers, trainers, or others with whom I have consistent interaction. When someone tells me that I "can't do" this or that, I'm more than likely to see it as a challenge, and not as the warning or the limitation the person has intended it to be. This also holds true for the word "shouldn't" or similar words. I don't want to be told what to do! Even if someone says "can't" and I try and fail, and they are proven right, at least I had the satisfaction of trying and knowing for myself(the hard way) that I really can't do something. And besides, if I'd listened to all of the can't's and shouldn't's I'd never be where I am today.

I am a Deafblind dog trainer with balance problems. My dogs are owner trained, gotten from an animal shelter or rescue, raw fed, minimally vaccinated, and clicker trained. I have been accused by some, of just "needing to be different." But as strange as it may seem, I'm not really like that at all.

Sometimes, life forces us to be different, to take a chance, to try something unheard of because it is the only thing left to try. This is how I came to clicker training. After my in-home hearing/fetchNcarry® dog, Mill'E-Max was attacked by three dogs in under a year, clicker training was the only thing that helped us make any progress. People said that it wouldn't work, they made fun of my use of treats, and said that it would lead to a dog who's only interest was her belly. Thankfully, they were wrong. Clicker training was such a wonderful discovery that I use it with all of my dogs. It works for us, and so I'll keep doing it.

Sometimes, the lesser-known path is chosen because it is the thing that literally makes the difference between illness and health. My now-retired guide Bristol was very ill in her younger days. She was plagued with chronic ear and skin infections, stomach and bowel problems, and inability to maintain a healthy weight. I switched to a natural-rearing approach-- including a raw diet in hopes of prolonging her life and in the hope that it would be able to let her continue working for me. I did it back in the day when most everyone was still feeding feed-grade kibble. I got many questions, and a lot of dyer warnings from people who were just sure that either my dog would be dead from salmonella within the week, or from people who declared that my dog's work would suffer and she would become a scrounger because she was being fed "people food." Yet again, they were wrong. Bristol started eating a grain free raw diet and within a month, she was a different dog entirely. Twelve years, and thousands of pounds of raw meaty bones later, Bristol is 14.5 years young and still waits eagerly for her allotment of animal parts every morning. Even when she leaves us for the great dog-park which lies beyond, I will still feed this way. I will do it because it works for my dogs!

If I had listened to the "can't's" and the "shouldn't's" nothing would have changed. I would not now, be enjoying the rewards which come with taking chances. The assistance dog community can, at times, be a very harsh and judgmental place. If you are different-- if you take a different road-- you are probably going to get your fair share of unpleasantness over it. You will get more questions and sideways looks than if you had gone to a program, gotten a lab, come home, used approved methods, and fed approved food. For me, what is more important than anything is the success and happiness of the team-- my dog, and me! Sometimes this happiness lies in doing what works for most people. At other times, however, much can be gain by taking the chance and doing things a different way.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day

When I first started losing my hearing, one of my biggest fears was that of losing my ability to travel independently. Whether it be across town or across the country, I've always loved being able to go where ever I wanted by myself. I decided early on that I was not going to let anything keep me from continuing to travel like this. And thanks to technology, and my fabulous dog, I am still traveling today. Here is just a small sample of one of our adventures
Yesterday after I came home from work, I realized I was out of some necessary items for cleaning. I would have let this wait until Friday, but you know the rule-- the moment you run out of paper towels and floor cleaner, that's when a dog gets sick. There was nothing for it but to venture to the Whole Foods for some needed items and maybe a treat or two. I harnessed up Laveau, grabbed my iPhone and braille display, and we set off.

I had checked Google Maps for the bus schedule, and gave myself plenty of time to walk the seven blocks to the stop. While crossing the road by my house we got a traffic check. This intersection is not controlled at all, and sometimes can look safe, but cars can come out of nowhere. We got about half way across the road, when I felt Laveau slam on the breaks, and stand in front of me. Seconds later, I felt the brush of air as a car drove passed. Thankfully there were only little roads left to cross until we got to the bus stop.

As we walked, I could smell the different aromas from the many restaurants in the area. My neighborhood has become rather famous for its many and varied restaurants. I noticed that the spider plants which grow outside of the juice bar were getting very long. I felt them brush my cheek as Laveau took me out and around them. She was very curious as to our destination, and every time we passed a familiar landmark, she would turn her head and pause, to let me know we were in front of a favorite place. The Mini-Mart, the doughnut shop, the juice bar, and the kennel where Baylee goes for day care all were pointed out to me. I think I could hire Laveau out as a tour guide!

Finally we got to the corner. Laveau lay in the grass, and I told her to "watch" which." She did. Lounging in the grass, only getting up when she saw the bus. She touched the harness handle to my leg-- my cue that the bus had arrived. I waited for the driver to deploy the ramp, and then we got on the bus. As I stopped to show the driver my ID which allows me to ride fixed-route buses for free, I told him I was deafblind and could he tap me on the shoulder when we got to the stop. Then I asked Laveau to find me a seat.

Once seated, I turned on my iPhone and braille display. I opened
<"Ariadne GPS">

This is a very inexpensive app which simply flashes the addresses and names of streets as you pass them. I especially like it while traveling by bus because it allows me to know where I am, and lets me know when I might be getting close to my stop. That way, if I think the driver has forgotten to tap me when I have arrived at the correct stop, I can remind him or her to do this when we are close.

This time, though the driver remembers. I get off the bus, walk to the corner, cross another street and wait for another bus. Rinse, repeat. Laveau is happiest when we are on the bus because it is nice and cool in there.

We arrive at the Whole Foods and the second bus driver helps me cross the busy street in front of the store. Then he leads me to a door, and leaves. I walk inside with Laveau, and something doesn't feel quite right. I know I'm in the right place-- the smell is right and the feeling under my feet and in the air is right. Laveau knows where we are going though and I feel her excitedly pull into the harness. We walk for a bit, and then I realize that Laveau is headed out to the parking garage. While this is not where I wanted to be, it is in a sense good that she did this, because now I know where I am for sure. I think Laveau was disappointed though, because we usually go to this store with friends or my SSP. I think she thought she'd find herself a nice comfy ride home in a car if she went to the parking garage.
At last, our shopping was done. I even got an ice mocha out of the deal. Since I bought several big and unwieldy items, like paper towels and the like which do not fit well into a backpack, I used IP relay on my iPhone to call a cab home. Laveau got the car ride after all.

Happy Independence Day, Y'all!

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Law-firm of Anderson Cooper

Sometimes, as a deafblind person, I feel pretty out of touch with popular culture and the like. I try to stay up to date with news-- local, national and world-wide, but I tend to miss quite a bit. This is mostly because there are only so many hours in the day, and because, lets face it, I don't really care about television or movie stars for the simple reason that I can't see or hear their work. This can sometimes land me in situations where I am obviously out of my depth. Something like this happened today.

Up until about two hours ago, I thought
<"Anderson Cooper">
was the name of the law firm which was so involved with the <"Enron Scandal">
And then I found out I was wrong!
I know all about
<"Corporate Personhood">
This would be taking it a little far, no?
So the joke's on me! Good thing I learned to laugh at myself a long time ago.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Swamp Zebra Crossing

Welcome to summer in the swamp. My refrigerator has died. This is not ideal and has caused not a little bit of drama here in the land of Pawpower. Next up-- refrigerator shopping!

On a more amusing note, I have some Baylee tails for everyone. She is now 14 months old and has started her "for serious" grown up guide dog training. She thinks this is fabulous. She loves working, being out in public, and getting praise and treats for being a good guide swamp zebra. There is just one little thing that may drive us all to drink. The dog cannot understand that J-walking is not ok, no really, for serious, not ever.
When we go to the mini mart, we need to cross the street directly in front of us and then the one to the right. We get to the curb, and I can read her mind as she says to herself:
"The shortest distance between point A and point B is a straight line! I know this!"
And I try to demonstrate that although this may be the case, it is not the best and safest option. But she doesn't care, because she must have gotten an A+ in that secret canine geometry class she took on the internetz. Nothing will do but a straight line from our corner to the one forward and to the right.

But I am not a clicker trainer for nothing, right? And my mad clicker training skillz are telling me to treat the weakest link in the behavior chain. The weakest link is that darned corner which she finds superfluous. This is going to require a lot of back-chaining of this crossing, and a pretty high reinforcement schedule for the corner she wants to miss. But I think I'll do it at night, when it's cooler.

Someone please tell me why it is my destiny to train guide dogs in the middle of a New Orleans summer? This will be the 3rd one in 4 years. In a thousand years, when Laveau retires, she can do it around the end of August. That way I'll have until June to get this stuff done, when the weather is a bit more civilized.

Stay cool, Y'all!