Friday, March 26, 2010

Fun With My Service Dog: Combining Training and Play

Rosie helps me pick up trash on the lawn.

My service dog, Rosie never ceases to amaze me with her intelligence and ability to grasp onto a newly taught skill. Last week I decided to see how she would do picking things up and handing it to me. We have tried in the past, but if she thinks it is a goofy game, she has a tendency to chew on the object in her mouth. I knew there was a chance she would do the same today too. I sat at my desk and dropped things onto the floor. Then I would ask her to pick it up. The tricky part was getting her to actually give it to me and not drop it on the floor in front of me. After all, she is not a retriever. It didn’t take too long before I had her putting the object in my lap. I started with big objects, an old cell phone, an old camera, an article of clothing… and then upped the challenge. I moved on to check sized paper, a plastic medicine bottle, and even a tiny charm that was rounded and a bit thicker than a coin. Before I dropped this object on the floor for Rosie to pick up, I looked at it, inspected its rounded edges and fairly compact size and decided it was safe for her even if she happened to swallow it (which I was really hoping she wouldn’t do.) So I flicked the little object onto the floor, telling Rosie to pick it up and give it to me. She barely hesitated, picked the thing up in her teeth and brought it to me. WooHoo! She got lots of praises. The second time she dropped it on the floor and I thought she had swallowed it. I freaked, pulled her jaws open and swept the back of her throat before I looked down and saw the charm laying there at Rosie’s feet. The only thing I swept from Rosie’s throat was the treat I had given her. I apologized and gave her praise and another treat. She realized I was wound a bit tight that day, so she wasn’t bothered by my upset at all (plus, I have shoved and placed plenty of supplements in the back of her throat for many years, so it was nothing alien to her.)
Rosie hands me the trash that was on the lawn.

I got the idea to try this activity again because last time I did laundry at the laundry mat, I knew she was bored and we wouldn’t have much time or energy left for playtime afterwards. I was dropping loose socks and squatting down to pick up the articles of clothing was just plain painful. Achy. I began to have Rosie pick up the clothes and hand them to me. The delivery of items to my lap or to my hand has always been the biggest challenge when we have tried these retrieve activities before, but I feel she caught on pretty well today. I began dropping stuff on the floor on purpose for her to pick up and hand to me. This was a great activity for her (and me). It was a little bit of training to break the monotony of the task I had at hand. It also gave her brain and body something to do other than just stand there looking truly pitiful.
Oops! I dropped something!... Rosie hands me the article of clothing that fell on the floor.

A couple days ago, she had her long dog and was playing with it. I asked her to bring it to me… which of course she did. Then I was telling her to bring it to Solace (“her” kitten, a 4 year old Siamese mix with an attitude.) This confused her at first, but then the light bulb went on and she brought her long dog over and put it on the office chair right in front of where Solace was laying (on the office chair). I gave Rosie lots of praise for carrying through this activity. What she had done was something we have only done before with another person, and not for a very long time. It was a command that she carried through from a distance of me. More on that later.

Today it was very cold (compared to yesterday’s 60. It was actually seasonable for March for a change today) Wanting to do something different, I set up a game with some of Rosie’s tennis balls, a bucket and a Chuck-it Ball launcher. To warm up for the game, I stood at the bucket of tennis balls. I would throw one and Rosie would go get it. I would tell her to “put the ball in the bucket”. Once she had the hang of that (didn’t take too long as we have played this game before).

Then I decided to work on having her do the same command with me standing far away from the bucket. She often has a hard time doing a command far away from me, and I think it is because I teach her these commands right there at my feet. If I tell her to roll over and she is 20 feet away, she feels like she has to keep moving until she reaches me and then drop to do her roll over. After I teach her something, I need to train her to do the same task at a distance as well.

Rosie delivers a tennis ball to me... Rosie puts the tennis ball in the bucket.

Anyway, back to the tennis ball and bucket activity: The game rules were, I would stand about ten feet away from the bucket of tennis balls. I would send Rosie over to the bucket to get a ball out and “bring it to me”. Then I would send her back to get another tennis ball from the bucket. When she returns to me, I have her sit and I step back, and throw the ball to her so she can catch it in her mouth. Then I tell her to “take the ball and put it in the bucket”. The extra ball I have is kind of a distraction because she will want me to throw her that ball instead of carrying through with “putting the ball in the bucket”. Once she drops the ball in the bucket, she can return for the last ball which I throw to her and we do the whole process all over again. What drives me nuts about Rosie is that she really thinks she can pull the wool over my eyes so to speak. She knows how to do this activity, but if she is for some reason distracted or just being plain obstinate, she will just throw the ball around even though previously she put it in the bucket several times in a row. If she throws the ball around even though I am giving her the command to “put it in the bucket” and then eventually puts the ball in the bucket, I definitely do NOT treat her. I know she knows that task. She’s not getting an easy treat from me! I too can be obstinate!

All in all, even after five years, Rosie and I are still learning and teaching each other things. Things that she hadn’t been able to take seriously when she was younger, she was now able to understand and not goof off while doing the activity

It is hard to explain to others how to teach some of the things Rosie does to their dogs. I have learned that not all dogs or dog breeds learn the same or at the same speed or ease as border collies do and Rosie is my first dog. “How did you teach her not to bark?” I would grab her snout firmly and say “No! No barking!” and she would stop. “What if your dog sees a squirrel and starts after it?” I yell “Rowena, No!” and she stops. Do you see my dilemma? I cannot easily spread my knowledge, because sometimes Rosie learns with out my trying to teach.

Anyway, I love Rosie and enjoy having her be my service dog.

Rosie and her "long dog" toy.