Preparation for Training:

There are several basic skills that are need for an assistance dog that helps the handler when in a wheelchair.

All begin with foundation behaviors of
*nose targeting
* paw target
*loose leash walking
*30 seconds of eye contact

Desensitizing your dog to the sight, sound and proximity of bicycles, scooters, skateboards etc before training with the wheelchair, will help your dog to become comfortable with the wheelchair much more quickly and be able to focus on learning the tasks.

The basic skills and tasks can be taught with the trainer in a standing position. They can also be sitting in a swivel chair. This is the easiest way to train the eye contact-based behaviors such as swinging to right of left side, backing and gets the dog accustomed to working with the person in a seated position and a chair that has movement. This is a very different perspective for many dogs who are accustomed to seeing their trainer stand up.

When the dog is successful training near the swivel chair, transition to a stationary chair with arms (such as an armchair) or actual wheelchair to retrain the behaviors.

Training with the Wheelchair:

Desensitize Your Dog to Your Wheelchair
It is important that your dog feel comfortable with the wheelchair as he will come in close contact with it at times and need to know how it moves, the sounds it makes and that it is not something to be fearful of.

Treat the chair as a novel object and spend several sessions playing “101 Things to do with a Wheelchair”. Make sure to lock the brakes so it cannot move. Shape your dog to sniff all parts of it, nose pouch, paw touch, rest chin, place front paws up on it, climb on it, jump off it, retrieve objects from near, then under it etc. until he is very comfortable with it.

Next walk the dog beside the wheelchair over a variety of surfaces with you pushing from behind (or walking behind if it is an electric wheelchair). Pavement, gravel, bark mulch, over small bumps, ramps, up and down inclines etc.

If your dog shows any fearfulness or startles easily, counter condition him by playing with him near it, feeding him near it, using really yummy treats anytime he works near it etc. Progress to calling him past it, doing behaviors near it etc. Always make sure you can control the movement of the chair (by locking or blocking the wheels if necessary) to prevent scaring your dog unexpectedly. When you start training with movement, keep all changes small and build on previous successes. Ensure that the environment you are training in will not have any unexpected noises etc that he may attribute to the chair.

Skills With the Wheelchair
Your Dog needs a variety of skills when working with you near the wheelchair. All of these are helpful to position your dog for the tasks as well as moving around in tight spaces in stores, buses etc. Start by shaping these into the finished behaviors, then adding a cue as in normal training. What will happen with practice is that your dog will start to anticipate your needs and the cue in many situations will not be necessary.

For example, as you start moving forward, your dog will start moving with you uncued, turn uncued, as you start making a turn the dog will watch the front wheels for clues he needs to turn etc. The cues, however, will still be useful when you want to get your dog to move when he is sleeping (Jessie, Let’s Go!) or to prevent him from being startled if you need him to get into or out of a position quickly (for his or your safety etc.). (Jessie, Back!)

*Walking on a loose leash on both sides of the chair
*Following behind you on a loose leash
*Switching from one side to the other
*Moving with the chair around objects
*Passing though doors, gates etc either before or after chair
*Circling around the chair
*Moving to stand in front of the chair facing handler
*Backing up while facing handler
*Walking forward while facing handler
*Backing up at the side of the wheelchair
*Swinging around into heel position to right and left sides
*Getting front paws off your lap (after delivering an object to hand for example)
*Being comfortable being sandwiched between the chair and other objects or people (for tight spaces such as elevators and in corners of stores etc)

See our video Part 1 Wheelchair Skills


 

Generalizing a behavior is a very important skill for every owner-trained assistance dog, and in dog training generally. Yet, it's not often discussed!

It is also a characteristic that humans are usually quite good at and most dogs do not do easily. This often creates mis-understandings and disharmony in the human-dog team. The human believes the dog "should" be able to do the behavior as he already "knows" it. In fact, the dog only "knows" a behavior in the settings where he has been already trained with that behavior and been successful. Other factors such as anxiety, fear or distractions in that new environment can also make it harder for the dog to successfully complete tasks.

What is Generalizing?
It is the process of teaching the dog to be able to successfully complete a cued behavior or task in many different locations, with a variety of distractions, and may even be with a variety of handlers.

For most dogs, the process involves teaching each behavior from the very beginning at each new location. Pretend that your dog does not know that behavior or task at all and start teaching at each new location. Make a point of scheduling practice at specific new locations. It helps to schedule it on a calendar. With enough training at enough different locations, and enough other distractions, the dog eventually is able to remember what the cue(s) mean without having to be re-taught in a new location.

Humans actually do not have good generalization skills in some situations either. Take test taking for example. Students do better when they are tested in the same location where they previously learned the material. Studies show their success rate is much less when the test is located in a new environment.

Ever heard of the expression "having it down cold"? This simply means that you have practiced the material or skill so much that you can reproduce it anywhere, at any time when presented in any order. This is the comfort level with each task you want to get to with your dog, without boring your dog so he refuses to perform.

How long Does it Take?
It really depends on the dog and the trainer. If your dog has any anxiety or reactivity issues or is easily distracted, it may take much longer. Some dogs seem to have a natural talent for it, while others take much longer. If you are taking your dog to new locations once or twice a week, it will take longer than someone who take their dog to a new location or two each day.

Here are two excellent videos showing how to generalize the behavior of Loose Leash Walking (by placing a small amount of tension on the leash in a sitting, then standing postion), making it into game at each new location. It is a variation of level 1 of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels 'Leash Manners' behavior. 

This dog is able to ignore distractions such as other animals, bikes, people etc.

Day 1


Day 2


Build in generalizing training into your day. Make a point of taking the time to retrain and practice behaviors when you are away from home.

One topic rarely discussed among Assistance Dog Handlers is the level of stress that a dog (and person) lives with. Chronic stress in dogs, as in humans, leads to health problems and can trigger problem behaviors and even cause the need to retire your dog early.

Examine the Big Picture:
Your Home & Work Environments, Exercise and Food

Home Environment
It is important that dog guardians carefully manage their dog's home environment as this is where she recharges her batteries.

How can you do this?
Look hard at your life and determine what stresses you out the most. Make a list. Prioritize. What choices can you make that will lower or ideally remove that stress? There are always choices. You may have to do some research (or have a helper do it for you) and be creative, but there are ALWAYS options! If it's complicated, it's probably not the right choice.

Some ideas:
* Have a regular routine where possible
* Eat meals at the same time, at the same place
* Go to sleep and rise at the same time every day
* Schedule ongoing medical-related appointments etc for the same time and day each week. Same for recreation outings.
* Post a schedule where everyone in the home can see what is happening each day and in the future
* Avoid 'switching things up to keep it interesting' at home) Moving furniture from room to room, switching contents of cupboards and drawers for no reason creates chaos where none needs to be
* Set up your living areas so they make efficient use of space
* Ensure pathways to hallways and doorways are clear
* Get regular exercise even if it means sitting in your wheelchair and lifting your arms to some music. If you are in better shape, you can handle stress better.
* Manage your own health thoughtfully- quality food, exercise, sufficient sleep etc are all important factors.
* Limit excessive activity level in your home (people coming and going)
* Be Efficient in your day-to-day errands etc (do several on one outing instead of going out several times)
* Consider bulk deliveries for groceries (canned or frozen items) or regular weekly deliveries for fresh (eat lots of fruit and veggies)
* Turn background noise (such as TV's or radios down or off)
* Choose colors & patterns for your walls, drapes, bedspreads etc that you feel good around or calm you. (Avoid light green as it is stressful for most people.) Light blue is calming.
* Use natural lighting where possible instead of overhead fluorescent tubes. (Installing skylights or the 'tube lights' that poke through the ceiling or wall in dark corners might be solutions.)

Emotionally:
* Discontinue harmful relationships
* Carefully examine the medications you are on to see how they affect your mood. (Remember that how you feel affects your dog!)
* If you are a perfectionist, lower your expectations of yourself
* If you are a pessimist, try to think of positive outcomes
* Mark and reward positive things that you do, see or say. Looking for the positive in life shapes how you view what is happening to you. (You use this approach with training your dog and see how great it works! It is successful with people too!)
* Have some fun on a regular basis (laugh, read or watch funny movies etc)
* Learn to meditate
* Set aside time each week just for you!

At Work & Play
Managing stress away from home can be more difficult but still doable.
Think about the set up in your workplace. What changes can be made to decrease stress for you and your dog? Enlist the help of an empathetic co-worker or boss.
* Use natural lighting where possible instead of overhead fluorescent tubes. (Locating your desk near a window, installing skylights or the 'tube lights' that poke through the ceiling or wall in dark corners might be solutions.)
* Choose desk space closest to a door for easy access
*Bring a fan to keep your dog cool on hot days
*Take a toy to play with or chew on while you are otherwise engaged
* Choose one person as your work contact that you can depend on in case you need help with your dog

Regular Exercise
*Make sure your dog gets daily heart-raising exercise to an appropriate level for your dog and what else she will be doing that day (chasing a ball, playing with a dog buddy or jogging with your wheelchair are all great ways to get exercise). Off leash exercise where possible is best as it is less stressful on dogs. They, not you, then determine how much and what intensity they need.
*Consider reducing the length or intensity of training (often less training is actually more)

Feeding Your Dog
Since the body is built on what you feed your dog, deciding what to feed your dog is key to helping the dog manage stress. Choose a good quality food that matches your dog's physical activity and mental needs. Some dogs do well on a good quality kibble (do not assume that cost is an indicator of quality). Look at the ingredient labels. Make sure the protein, fat and calcium levels are within moderation. Too much fat gives extra unneeded energy to a calm dog. Think of it as using jet fuel for a commuter car. Lots of wasted energy! Too high protein is not necessarily better. Raw animal meats, for example, only contain between 15 to 20% protein. Why pay for what you don't need?

Homecooked or raw feeding might be an option. If you have access to reasonably-cost protein, it could actually be cheaper than feeding commercially-made foods. Raw meat and bone foods are also available in packages as complete meals.

Whichever you choose for your dog, adding antioxidants to the diet are known to help remove the free radicals that result from stress. Any of the bright intensely-colored veggies and fruits have lots of antioxidants naturally (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, kale, spinach etc) Do an internet search for ' antioxidants'. Avoid feeding any that might be toxic to your dog - such as raw garlic, soy, grapes, cruciferous veggies. Here's one link

Here is an article with another approach to stress reduction in your dog:

Also, you can use the tools in "Control Unleashed" by Leslie McDevitt to help your dog focus and stay calm.

Ultimately, decreasing stress levels for your dog will decrease your own stress level since you know that your dog can do her job unimpeded.
 
Here is an interview with Debi Davis, a long time dog trainer who has used the clicker to train her own service dogs (and many other animals).


http://www.clickersolutions.com/interviews/davis.htm
 
We recently received this question! Thought we would post the answer in case it was useful to anyone else.

"I cannot train using treats, and I cannot find any information on using other rewards with clicker training, specifically with loading the clicker. I do plan on using praise as the reward since my boy responds well to that. Any in site (sic) you could provide would be most appreciated."


Primary Reinforcer

The reason food is used, then later faded or switched to other types of reinforcers, is that it is a primary reinforcer (therefore has intrinsic meaning to dogs-food, sex, air, water, chasing, barking, digging ,etc and the dog does not have to learn to love it), is an easy choice for most people, can be tossed from a distance and allows for quick delivery and therefore many repetitions in short order (key to marker-based training). This allows for faster learning. Treats used are small (we are rewarding the dog, not feeding him), soft so it can get eaten quickly with no crumbs and the dog must value them. To avoid weight gain, simply remove the same amount of food from his feed dish as you use for treating each day. Some people use the kibble itself if their dog will work for it (and if they feed kibble).


Timing (of the marker) Rate of reinforcement and
keeping training Criteria small enough for the learner to succeed are the three fundamentals of marker-based training.


A Few Considerations of using Secondary Reinforcer for Training New Behaviors

You could use toys (a secondary or learned reinforcer) but that can slow the process down significantly. For example, if you throw a ball, it takes more time for the dog to chase and catch the ball and bring it back (assuming he already knows how to do that or you must go get the ball). Using a bean bag limits how far it can move and would be a better choice. Similarly, using a toy often teaches the dog to be ready to move, which may not be the best choice in early learning stages of a stationary or relaxed behavior such as down, sit, or stay.

When using praise, it is usually paired with stroking/physical affection and this may limit you to how far away the dog can work or the position where you are in relation to the dog as you always have to either go to the dog to deliver it, or have the dog move to you. Doable, but again, slows the process down. Most people can quickly throw treats for long distances from any position once he learns to catch them so the dog can stay at and work at a distance.

Once a behavior is understood well by a dog (i.e. is on cue and dog is able to perform it in a variety of environments) that is typically when secondary reinforcers are brought in.


Training Secondary Reinforcers

You can train a secondary reinforcer (pretty much anything else the dog learns to love), but that will likely involve using food for at least part of the training, as you have to pair the new reinforcer with a primary one many times so it now has a new meaning for the dog. Periodically, you may have recharge it as well, as sometimes they lose meaning/value to the learner. Some examples: a high-pitched voice, a scratch on the back end, a neck massage -anything that becomes meaningful to the dog. Having said that, some secondary reinforcers can come to be more reinforcing than primary ones, if you find the right one! Think of a ball crazy dog, for example.

How to Pair them:
Introduce the Secondary Reinforcer (click or other sound, toy, affection)
Follow it quickly with a Primary Reinforcer x50 to 100

Do this many times until the secondary reinforcer clearly has meaning. The dog should be looking for the primary reinforcer when the secondary is presented.

Now you can use the secondary reinforcer  after your click but will probably have to go back and re-charge it periodically if it loses it's appeal.
 

Can You Pair the new Secondary Reinforcer with a Click?

(using a secondary reinforcer with a secondary reinforcer).
The short answer: Yes, if it works for the animal. Remember that the animal defines what is reinforcing so they are the factor that makes the decision if it works or not.
 
If you say "Good dog" and pair it with a belly rub, these are both secondary reinforcers. If your dog will work for them, then it works. If not, try something else. If you can remember to say "Good" in a short quick way, you should maintain the benefits of using a precise behavior marker. Studies have shown that the metallic click does speed learning by 45% or more.

If you don't care that you might dilute the effect of the clicker sound, then you can try pairing your new secondary reinforcer with the click.

Other Reinforcers:

For less formal behaviors such as waiting to go through the door, going through the door becomes the reward. Going for a car ride (if the dog likes doing this), greeting a human friend, another dog, sniffing, chasing squirrels (often called "life rewards" in case you want to Google it), etc can all be creatively used as rewards and reinforcers. Even things and events in the environment can become reinforcers if you take the time to train (the pairing is called conditioning) them.

It is interesting to note that having to train this process means praise means nothing to a dog unless it is first paired with something else of great primary value to the dog-usually food. We train this inadvertently when we feed from the table or pair our voice with food after the dog performs a trick etc.

If you train without food, you will have to be more observant than the average trainer to see what the dog is showing you is meaningful to him and use your creativity to build on that. Normal reactions are around food preparation-the sound of the fridge opening, the can opener, the tinkle of a spoon on the bottom of a bowl are all learned (or conditioned) like Pavlov's dogs.

Many people think dogs should and want to work for us. In reality, most dogs have no interest in pleasing us. They work for themselves and have to learn that working with us is rewarding in some way (or work to avoid correction or aversive stimuli, like our unapproving voices. That is why people who train using traditional correction-based methods have to resort to punishment-they believe the dogs should want to work for us, then correct them when they choose not to.

My previous dog loved to perform agility because of the reaction he got from the crowd-he loved their laughing, clapping and 'oohing and awing' as he performed. He learned this inadvertently. I was not something I taught. However, I did notice that for him in dog class, if someone laughed at something goofy he did, he would repeat it. He was an incredibly sensitive dog to human emotion. He would often stop at the top of the A-frame to make sure everyone was watching. He was quite sensitive yet confident-in short a showman. He was a rare dog though as most aren't that self-aware, clown-like and eager to please. This is a really rare combination.

 
Exploring New Ground

So far, everyone I know has started their animals with food as the reward for the secondary reinforcer, before changing to secondary reinforcer with secondary reinforcer, so you will be exploring new ground if you try this. I'd love to hear how it works for you! Even better would be if you could video your progress and show us! This would be great for people who refuse to use the clicker on the basis they don't like to use food. We would love to have an alternative to tell them so they and their animal can benefit from this way of communicating with their dog!