Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Alternate careers

Dempsey hasn't had very many adventures lately, because we've been working on the "relaxation protocol." It sounds like an uptight scientist's definition of "vacation," but actually the "relaxation protocol" is a trainer geek's 12-step program for chillin' out.

You see, Dempsey needs a special program to relax. He's terrific at all his service dog skills, but like his parents, he has a hard time just kicking back with nothing to do. Without a cue or a toy, Dempsey gets very fidgety.

This is a problem because so much of a service dog's work entails waiting. Boring conference calls, long sermons, chick flicks -- Dempsey has to learn to sleep through these things, like the rest of us do.

Being Type-A parents, we're worried Dempsey will flunk out of service dog school because of his hyperactivity. We haven't told him (we like to set high expectations for our boy), but we've started thinking of alternate careers, in case the service dog gig doesn't work out.

Shoe shine boy
In Istanbul (which, by the way, is a wonderful city you should visit), there are dozens of shoe shine boys by every tourist attraction. It doesn't matter if you're an American wearing sneakers; they'll come up to you, tug your sleeve, and ask "Shoe shine? Shoe shine?" They're very persistent, and sometimes you'll give them a few lira just to leave you alone. This could be Dempsey!

Ever since he has learned "tug," he's been very eager to help you take off your glove, sock, or jacket. Now that it's colder, Doreen and I walk around with our socks on, and Dempsey follows us around everywhere, staring at our socks. If we sit down, Dempsey sits too, but after a few minutes, he'll nudge us and look at our socks. He is just dying to take them off. This is when we we give him an extraneous task (sit, drop, shake), and give him a little treat for that, just like tossing a lira to a shoe shine boy to leave you alone.

Of course, "sock tugger" would only work in a place where tourists walk around with socks and no shoes. We've heard there are places like this in California, though they tend to be run by cult leaders.

Supermarket mop boy
You know how sometimes you'll be grocery shopping, and you'll hear over the P.A., "Cleanup in aisle 6"? This could be Dempsey!

Dempsey has remarkable hearing. Verily, if a treat falls in the forest and no one hears it, Dempsey will. Dempsey isn't very interested in metaphysics, but he can refute Bishop Berkeley as well as Dr. Johnson can.

If Dempsey got this job, supermarkets could save money on mops and buckets, and there wouldn't be any announcements to interrupt the beautiful Muzak. Dempsey would just magically appear. On the negative side, Dempsey's cleanups invariably leave a pool of drool: "Cleanup in aisle 6!"

Fancy drawers these days have a self-closing mechanism, so that if you leave a drawer partially open, it shuts itself. We don't have fancy drawers, because we have Dempsey!

Because he's such an entrepreneurial little fellow, always looking for tasks that will earn him treats, he goes on regular patrol now through the kitchen, looking for drawers that need to be shut. When he spots one, he'll sit patiently by it, till we see him and tell him to "push" it shut.

We like to think this is because we have the cue on stimulus control, but in all honesty, Dempsey is a smart little guy, and he knows he'll only get credit for the work if we see him do it.

I suppose Dempsey could find a job as a replacement for self-closing drawers, but to be really honest, he's not as convenient.

Our homework the other week had a really cute picture of how a dishwasher really works. This could be Dempsey!

Ever since he's seen "An Irritating Truth," Al Gore's documentary (like we said, we're trying to get him to sleep through these things, like the rest of us), Dempsey has been trying to convince us to go green by unplugging the dishwasher and letting him clean the dishes. He is convinced there is a market for sustainable doggie dishwashing services. We haven't yet persuaded him that the health inspector has a different opinion.

Hmm. None of these alternate careers really works, does it? I guess we just need to work harder on relaxing.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Lessons in learning

One of the fun things about having puppies is that they're always learning. Unfortunately, they don't always learn what you're trying to teach them.

A case in point is freeloading Dempsey. I had been trying to teach teamwork, but what Dempsey learned is that it's enough just to look cute and show up. As Sarah Palin is (hopefully) learning, this will only get you so far. Eventually, you need to deliver, especially if you're a service dog.

Another example is "get your pack" and "get your leash." Individually, Dempsey does them brilliantly. Here's a video of Dempsey getting his pack from upstairs, (mostly) ignoring the distractions of Sawyer barking and Doreen roasting a chicken:

And this wasn't even his best effort! Without the distractions, Dempsey makes a beeline for his pack. I would think he has this down cold.

However, when I put the pack and the leash on the chair together, the behavior completely falls apart. Dempsey is not hearing "get your pack," or "get your leash." He's just hearing "get your blah blah blah," and he picks up the objects randomly.

With some tips from our instructor, I slapped together a lesson plan in discrimination: put the pack on my right, and the leash on my left; point as I say the cue; then gradually fade the point.

Our instructor said this would be very difficult for Dempsey, but within 10 minutes, he got it!!!

Or so I thought. When I switched the positions of the objects, Dempsey got them completely backwards. Apparently, I had taught him that "get your pack" means "step to your left and get the object there" and "get your leash" means "step to your right and get the object there." Dempsey got an extra big breakfast that day as I worked to untrain what I had just trained.

Now that I think about this, it makes sense. Everything I tell Dempsey is a verb: sit, drop, get, even Dempsey (which means, "look at me"). So naturally Dempsey would think "get your leash" and "get your pack" are verbs, too. It really is going to be quite the conceptual leap for him to understand that words can refer to things as well as actions.

This is interesting because, as a human, I rely more on nouns than verbs. For example, when I travel abroad, I can usually just say "train station?" or "bathroom?" and make my intentions clear. (The latter is especially effective when accompanied by an interpretive dance.) There's even a French novel -- God bless the French -- written without a single verb. But for dogs, verbs rule.

As our instructor said, this is hard for Dempsey. It's been about a week now, without much progress to show. But I think it will be very rewarding when he gets it. Once he knows nouns and verbs, I want to see if he understands grammar, the idea that you can form novel cues by combining previously learned nouns and verbs.

Dempsey's taking a nap now, and I'm just looking at him wondering what he's dreaming about in his cute little head. Puppies are such an endless source of joy and wonder.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A management challenge

One of the big challenges in managing people in corporate America is to foster teamwork while still rewarding individual performance. I am here to report that the same challenge exists with puppies.

Whenever I play fetch with Dempsey, I give him a little treat for giving the ball back to me nicely. (Otherwise, he'll just run off with it: Game over.) With two puppies, I want to avoid any kind of food aggression, so I decided to reward the team: Any time either puppy gives me the ball, they both get little treats.

Dempsey seems to have figured this out. The first few times we played fetch with Sawyer, they would both scamper after the ball. But after a few reps, hardworking Sawyer kept chasing the ball, while freeloading Dempsey just stuck around for the treat.

I'm torn between thinking Dempsey is smart and being appalled at what a bad team player he is. Time for a new game. I don't want Dempsey to be shunned at the doggie water cooler!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dempsey's doppelgänger

Dempsey has another visitor this week: His brother Sawyer. Sawyer, you may recall, looks like Dempsey's twin. Now that he's been here a few hours, we've learned that the similarity is more than skin deep.

For example, Sawyer packed his favorite toy: The Kong Squirrel. This is also Dempsey's favorite toy.

Sawyer has a green Gentle Leader and leash -- just like Dempsey. Sawyer has a large Pet Lodge kennel -- just like Dempsey.

And in class, when we had to develop our own lesson plan for a skill we picked, Sawyer learned "GI Joe." Dempsey learned "Semper Fido." They are both the same behavior: A belly crawl.

Whooo, spooky. Here are some pics of the two. Can you tell who is who?

Grad night and snow days

Dempsey went to his second graduation ceremony on Friday night. The last graduation we went to in May was nice, but this one was even nicer. Thanks to a generous donor, Helping Paws was able to rent the classier auditorium instead of the cafeteria at the high school, and the new "passing of the leash" ceremony made us a little teary eyed.

The best part, though, is that Doreen and I had volunteered for "team training," which allowed us to get to know the graduates a little. For those of you who are unfamiliar with "team training," it's an intensive 3-week course when the graduating dog is first placed with the person they'll be working with. Now, having seen it firsthand, we can report that it really is intense, which makes sense if you think about it. The dog has had 2 to 3 years working with the same trainer to learn almost 90 different cues. In team training, a person needs to learn all the cues, and the dog needs to learn how to work with a new handler. In 3 weeks.

We knew a couple of the dogs already from demos, and we knew they were superbly trained. But with a new handler, they seemed less confident, more easily distracted. It really brought home the fact that dogs are not robots, and it takes time to develop skills and trust. It really is teamwork.

The other big eye-opener for me was seeing how things can be "handicapped accessible" in theory, but not in practice. For example, there was a door at the mall which had a small switch mounted on the wall to open it. The door, unfortunately, is the kind that swings out, and when it does, it blocks the switch. One of the graduates I was working with had limited arm mobility, and it was impossible for her to hit the switch herself. To get into the mall, she needs a service dog. The dog, in turn, needs to very skilled. He needs to "rise" to get to the switch, then "switch" it on with his paws. Then he needs to go "back" to get out of the way of the opening door, and then quickly follow "behind" the wheelchair to go inside before it automatically slams shut, in about 15 seconds.

There's a very real chance that either the dog or the person in the wheelchair can be injured by the door that swings open and closed too quickly. What we're teaching the dogs are not cute pet tricks for a Bob Saget TV special, but real skills that have real safety consequences. A key dropped outside in the Minnesota winter can literally be a life-or-death situation, and the dog really needs to be able to retrieve it, quickly, every time. We knew all this before, but there's nothing like seeing it firsthand to really drive the point home.

Fortunately, we have some terrific team trainers at Helping Paws, and I saw a big improvement over just a couple of days. At graduation, we saw some of the dogs snuggling with their new people, as if they'd been friends for years. It really is very touching.

Graduation is a big occasion, and I wish I had been able to watch it. Not only were we teary eyed, we were accompanied by a very fidgety young puppy. I'm not sure how Dempsey did it, but in the sparkling clean auditorium, he managed to find, under my seat, a half-opened container of Wendy's Buttery Best Spread. Although "buttery spread" is not butter, it still drove Dempsey nuts; he spent most of the time trying to find another container, and I had to bribe him constantly to just sit still. Aargh.

But Dempsey redeemed himself the next day, by being both cute and good. It was the first snowfall of the season, and Dempsey loves snow! We took him to the park, where he played and played some more. When Doreen went behind a column, Dempsey dashed off to follow her. (He hates it when we're out someplace, but not together.) Mid-dash, I called him -- and he came! A textbook recall in a high-distraction environment from about 20 feet. We're so proud of him!

Of course, being a puppy, Dempsey is not yet consistently good. It snowed some more Sunday night, and when I took him out Monday morning, camcorder in hand, it did not occur to me that the snow might obscure his view of the bathroom. Here he is on the deck:

Just remember, folks: Don't eat the yellow snow!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Witch hunt

Now that it's early October, Dempsey and I have been on a witch hunt. We know there are going to be a lot of ghouls and goblins out on Halloween, and we want to introduce them to Dempsey early, so come All Hallows' Eve, he won't be scared.

Sadly, our witch hunt is not going well. On Saturday, we went to the home improvement store looking for Halloween decorations, but all we found were... Christmas trees. Dempsey did a double-take at the shiny ornaments, but yes, they were indeed Christmas ornaments. In October.

I know Bill O'Reilly thinks he has won the "war on Christmas," but I suspect the real reason why Christmas trees have been re-re-named from "family trees" or "holiday trees" is because there are so many holidays between October and Christmas. Calling a Christmas tree a Christmas tree would avoid any confusion, say, if you were thinking about lighting up a "holiday tree" for Guy Fawkes Day.

We haven't had much luck finding Halloween decorations at any of the other garden or home improvement stores we've visited -- do people really buy all this stuff in July? -- but at least Dempsey has been getting a lot of practice being a rain dog.

He's gotten better about being outside in the rain, though he still finds small ways to resist. The other day, I asked him to jump "over" a puddle, which he did beautifully. We hadn't practiced "over" over a puddle, so I made him do it again. Perfect! On the third "over," he landed short, splashing my jeans with water. Dempsey wanted a treat anyway. This is when I decided to call it quits and go home.

Dempsey was overjoyed. As soon as he leapt into the car, he did a "shimmy," drenching the inside of the car, including his chauffeur. Dempsey says this is what happens when you take a puppy in the rain. Next time, he said he wants his own umbrella -- or else. I told him he could have his own umbrella as soon as he learns to carry it himself without chewing it.

We've also had fun! Dempsey has had visits from two of his sisters, Nala and Angel, and he's also gone on a couple of trips up north to look for fall colors.

Here are Dempsey and Nala playing one of their favorite games, bobbing for ice cubes:

More pics of Dempsey and Nala:

And here is Dempsey at Jay Cooke State Park.

Dempsey's big adventure at Jay Cooke was crossing the creaky swinging bridge over the St. Louis River. He was afraid at first, but as soon as he crossed it the first time, he turned around and wanted to cross it again.

We crossed the bridge six times altogether, and by the last trip, Dempsey was comfortable enough to sit, drop, shake, and bow on the bridge -- though only in the middle. We caused a minor "dogjam" when we met an English bulldog on the bridge, who also only wanted to walk in the middle of the bridge.

Fortunately, we were near the end, so it was easy enough to back up and let the bulldog pass. Brave and polite! Dempsey is such a good little dog.