Right Hand Man
When I found out a couple of months ago that I needed to have both of my rotator cuffs repaired I decided it was time to teach young Audie some skills to make several months of maddening frustration healing and rehabilitation more tolerable. Being a bright and biddable pup he’s enjoyed going along for the ride.
I had hoped to post video clips showing the many ways he helps me out — but the main things he does for me are help me get dressed and undressed – and, trust me, you don’t want to see that! Also, even when I have use of two hands my video taping and editing skills are marginal at best. Since I haven’t managed to teach Audie videography skills yet, I’ll have to paste this post together with one hand.
Most of the tasks Audie does for me are built from just two basic skill sets; directional cues and fetch/hold skills. Once I had taught him left, right, forward, backward, stay, fetch, hold, carry and tug I had the building blocks for a wide range of tasks. Here are a few examples of what we’re doing:
- To help me take my shirt off he takes hold of my left sleeve, stands still and pulls gently away from me while I let it come off my left arm then slowly pivot around to unwrap it from my body and useless right arm. After the shirt falls off he picks it up and hands it to me. He’ll also tug off my socks and slippers if I ask him to.
- When I put my sweatshirt on (I’m pretty much limited to zip front shirts and pull-on pants for now) he holds the bottom so I can zip it up. Same with coats and jackets.
- I got a new bath mat in the mail. It was sealed in a plastic bag. To open it I held one end of the bag in my left hand and had him grab it and tug hard away from me. Together we easily tore the bag open and got the rug out.
- The rug came in a box that was too big for me to pick up in one hand. I took a piece of duct tape, made it into a loop, stuck it to the box and had Audie carry one side of the box by the loop while I held on to the other. He’s also learned to carry a laundry basket with me this way.
- A box with 6 bags of dog treats arrived today. It was also too big to carry in one hand. I cut it open on the porch, put the bags of treats in a tub-trug and had him carry one handle in his mouth while I carried the other in my left hand.
- He’s learned to find and fetch the phone on command. Zip will do this with the TV remote. They’ll both carry items back and forth between Mark and I on command.
- He’s a mobile doorstop. I can open a door, park him in front of it, put him in a stay and he’ll hold it while I do what I need to in the doorway.
- Basic thing, very handy – when I accidentally drop something I say ‘oops’ and either dog will pick it up. They’ll either carry or hand me the item as needed.
- Babysitting. Walking back from the mailbox today I dropped a letter and didn’t realize it. Audie saw it lying there, ran back and returned it to me before I realized that I’d dropped it.
Audie’s not even two years old yet; and remember — all he needed to learn to do these things were a few basic skills. The key is that he had to learn to do them very reliably and he had to be able to put several small pieces of a task together in a series. These came, IMO from a balanced, sequential, four-quadrant approach to training that encourages a young or inexperienced dog to explore behaviors during the learning process but requires him to obey during the proofing process. I use both positive and negative markers when I shape a new behavior and allow the dog to find the thing I want in a game of hot and cold. Once he shows a basic grasp of the skill, we practice it in short training games and I watch him to see when he starts to practice or rehearse the skill on his own.
In practicing he repeats an action I’ve taught him on his own volition. Audie will often practice an action a few times in a row, then go lie down to process what he’s taught himself. The calm, mindful demeanor he expresses as he practices is utterly different from the bounding exuberance he is prone to much of the rest of the time. Once Audie starts to practice a task, he’s ready for me to start proofing him on that task. He’s got the basic idea and is demonstrating that he’s ready to generalize the skill.
The first week he *officially* helped me with these tasks he was sometimes silly or distracted and sometimes tentative. This week (week 2) he’s calm and confident. He understands that this is a job and he’s proud that he can do it.