Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Irwin Learns and Helps to Teach

SSD Irwin has been working extra hard on two cues: “heel” and “leave it.” When Irwin has finished learning “heel,” he will be able to swing his back legs around until he’s standing to the left side of his handler. “Heel” is a useful cue, and it’s one of the cues that all of our dogs learn.

Irwin is still learning “heel,” and Donna is using a heel box to help him. He puts his front feet on the box, and then Donna clicks and treats him for moving his back feet to the right. We start teaching “heel” by clicking and treating the dog for putting their front paws on the heel box. Then we watch for the back legs to move toward the right. If the dog is just standing there, we may take a step to the right, which often prompts the dog to move in the same direction. As soon as we see the back legs move, we click and treat.

“When Irwin first started doing the heel box, he got right up,” says Donna. “I waited for those back legs to move, and move they did—just like a donkey kicking his back legs up and out!” Now Irwin will hop up on the heel box and move his back legs several steps. He’s not quite in the heel position yet, but he’s getting there. Watch the video of him and Donna working on “heel.”

If you’ve been reading our blog, you’ve probably heard us say over and over that “leave it” is one of the most important cues our dogs learn. It’s true! For example, if the dog’s partner drops pills on the floor, the dog will need to ignore them until they can be cleaned up, which could be hours, especially if their partner isn’t able to clean them up themselves. Check out this video of Irwin practicing “leave it.” Donna surrounds him with all of his favorite things: a water dish, toys, bones with peanut butter in them, and kibble. And then an unexpected distraction shows up. Watch how Irwin reacts.

He handled that extra distraction (family dog Hunter) pretty well, didn’t he? Nice training session, Irwin!

We like this video because it shows a training session in the heat of the moment. If you focused on Irwin when you watched the video, watch it again, but this time, focus on Donna. What does she do when Irwin stands up?

“In the rush of things, I use both verbal and hand cues when it should be one or the other,” says Donna. We train our puppy raisers to use either the verbal cue or the hand signal, but not both at the same time. If the dog always gets both cues, we don’t know which one he’s reacting to, and so we don’t know if he actually knows both cues.

However, this is the perfect example of what often happens in the heat of the moment. During training sessions or out in public, things happen quickly, and our puppy raisers need to react quickly, giving cues and reacting automatically. Sometimes we unthinkingly use two cues, and sometimes we use the wrong cue for what we want the dog to do. The amazing thing is that it gets easier with practice, and often the dogs are able to figure out what we wanted them to do, even when we accidentally say the wrong cue.

Dogs aren’t the only ones who learn in each training session. The puppy raiser learns just as much. With each training session, puppy raisers become better clicker trainers. It’s always a learning experience, especially for puppy raisers who have raised multiple dogs. Each dog is different and the training techniques that worked for one dog might not work on the next one. Our puppy raisers are constantly learning.

Irwin and Donna recently went shopping at Walmart on the same day as the local rest home. Because Irwin is still a puppy, he sometimes pulls ahead, and since Donna knew that the store would be full of people using canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, she decided to use the comfort trainer so she would have more control over him. At the store, there was one gentleman who seemed especially curious about Irwin and followed them around with his cart. When he saw Donna giving Irwin a treat, he said, “So that muzzle he has on doesn’t interfere with him getting treats.”

Although she was busy shopping, Donna took the time to explain about service dog training and that a comfort trainer is very different from a muzzle. The comfort trainer fits around the dog’s head, but it doesn’t inhibit their movement in any way. They can eat, drink, bark, and more with a comfort trainer on. It’s merely a tool to give handlers more control over the dog, which can be especially helpful for partners who may not have the strength to prevent their dog from pulling ahead.

After Donna talked with the gentleman for a while, he said, “He [Irwin] sure seems happy to be shopping and watching you.” He and Irwin had a nice greeting that ended with Irwin giving him puppy kisses on his hand. An excellent end to an education opportunity!

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