Great Book on Training Diabetic Alert Dogs!

I've heard excellent reviews and the author is an excellent trainer. 
All positive reinforcement approach as well, so it's a 
win, win, win!

Click here to see more about the book and author.

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


 

List of Tasks for Wheelchair

It is usually easiest to teach the following tasks with the handler either sitting on the ground or in a chair first, then train sitting on the wheelchair. Experiment to see what works for you and your dog.

*Nudge fallen arm or foot back on chair
*Retrieve dropped item to hand
*Step up to deliver object to lap
*Delivering and retrieving objects to store counter/clerk
*Retrieve wheelchair from storage
*Retrieve objects from backpack attached to wheelchair

Other Useful Behaviors:
*Pulling the chair up inclines (manual chair only)
(This is reserved for dogs that have the build, stamina and sufficient size to handle the occasional or daily stresses of pulling a manual wheelchair with handler on flat surfaces or up minor inclines such as ramps. Use a properly-fitted harness and condition your dog first. Consult your veterinarian.)
*Small dogs can learn to sit on foot rest or lap
*Negotiate electric wheelchair lifts
*Avoid curbs and stairs
*Locate wheelchair ramps



Training Tips with the Wheelchair:

1. Each time you add a new criteria ( such as a chair or leash) to training, expect your dog to need to relearn the behavior from the beginning (reshape the behavior as if your dog does not know it). Each time, the process will go much more quickly. If your timing is off or if you are distracted by things such as handling the wheelchair, your dog’s learning will slow down. Ideally, you can practice with the new objects without the dog first to increase your skill with them.

2. Working your dog on a leash with a wheelchair may take some practice to learn how to coordinate it, the chair, the treats and clicker. An 8 foot adjustable to 4 foot leash (is easily shortened or lengthened) may give needed distance for going through some heavy doors or in narrow hallways before doors.

3. It is easiest to start training stationary skills and tasks, then as your dog becomes more comfortable with the chair, progress to the skills and tasks that require the wheelchair to move. By that time, your coordination around the chair will likely have improved.

4. Training should begin in a familiar environment, then as dog is successful, taken to other less familiar locations, then with increasing distractions.

5. If the person with the disability is unable to train the basic skills (due to physical disability), an assistant can train the dog first to verbal or eye cue as appropriate for the person’s disabilities) before transitioning the dog over to the handler.

If you have other ideas for useful tasks with the wheelchair, please let us know!

Tips for a Service Dog Owner

"As a power wheelchair user, I’d like to add some things (to your videos) that might be helpful, especially to people who are raising and training their own service dogs from puppyhood.

Personally, I can’t imagine trying to train and use a
dog that was afraid of the chair. One of the things we tested for and paid
a lot of attention to was a puppy’s ability to recognize and react to
discomfort/pain; quickly recover and then “forgive” whoever or whatever
caused it. By itself, my chair weighs over 350 lbs and although my service
dog, Laurel and I work hard for me to not run her over (it’s only happened
about 5-6 times), as active as we are and the close quarters we are often
in, I believe it is inevitable that I will occasionally do so. It is pretty
traumatic when it does occur and if Laurel couldn’t recover and be willing
to come right back next to my chair, it would severely limit what she could
do for me and what we could do together. At least for someone in a power
chair, the dog must have the ability to get run over and still not be afraid
of the chair.

My service dog is a Labrador Retriever and we got her when she was about 8 ½
weeks old. From that time until she was about 4 months old, when we went out
with her she either sat on my lap or I used a manual chair and she could
walk or sit in my lap. When she got too big to sit in my lap but was still
small enough that if I ran her over in the power chair, I risked breaking
something, I only took her out with my manual chair.

From the time we got her, I used my power chair around the house and she
learned to stay out of its way. When I started working with Laurel, I found
the wheelchair to be a barrier between us which really annoyed me (and there
are still times I feel that way). I think that is because when I could still
walk, I trained and competed in AKC obedience so I know how much easier it
is to train on your feet than in a wheelchair. Early on with Laurel, there
would be times I would get on my feet to train something but since I am a
disaster at walking and I realized that things she learned that way didn’t
necessary translate when I was using my chair, I quickly determined that
regardless of the frustration involved, I needed to stay in my chair to
train everything. On a side note, we have been doing agility for a couple
years now and being in a chair never bothers me but I never did agility on
my feet so I have nothing to compare.

When we started working with Laurel walking next to my power chair, we did
so in a large enclosed training room. We had her off leash and used her
ability to target to come up into heel position. We taught her “left” and
“right” and when we turned left, I would throw a treat in that direction so
that she would move there before my chair did. I still use the directional
commands when heeling, in agility and for all sorts of things.

I realized early on that Laurel’s “heel position” when doing rally and
obedience versus when we were out in public had to be two different things.
When we were out in public, Laurel naturally wanted to walk further forward
than she did when we were in the ring training or competing. I realized that
when we were out, she wanted to be able to see around the chair to the other
side. Since I thought that was pretty reasonable, we trained the two
different positions depending on the situation and she does them
consistently and reliably.

When we started doing rally, obedience and agility, I looked to see if there
were any videos out with people in wheelchairs doing those sports. I think I
found one video of someone in a chair doing rally and that was it. As a
result, I have put a number of videos of us doing those things out on
youtube so that others who want to compete can see that it’s very doable and
a great way to have fun with your service dog."

Linda

"I found leash weights, types, and lengths to be an added concern for
me when working my dogs from my chair. To heavy and I could not hold on to them,
wrong material and they caused pain, to long and they became wrapped up in the
wheels, if I could not gather the leash up fast enough. I have tried many
leashes over the years and found a simple six foot cotton web training leash
with a second handle I tie in the middle to be the perfect set up for me.I can
loop the main handle over my handle bar if needed, and grab the second one to
quickly take up slack and avoid entanglement. The leash setup also serves as a
very versatile ever ready door pull."

Melissa and SD Shiloh

We have had several questions about the best leashes to use with wheelchairs so here is our response!

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 TVs 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 reasonable 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.
 
Check out our webinar on "Stress and the Service Dog" if you are interested in learning more! 
 

Years ago, we added a new canine member to our family who was 22 mos. While she appeared to be a gentle soul, she was never been taught to be gentle with her teeth (called bite inhibition or control), especially when she was highly aroused around toys and desirable food.

It was a fairly quick process to teach her how to handle her mouth, but then she's very responsive and wants to please. I think in the past, she didn't know how to communicate with her people (preteens, teens and adults) but now that she does, she's happy to oblige.

I believe it helped as I was explaining to her many different ways that she needed to learn how to use her mouth and control how much pressure and when it was not appropriate to put teeth on the human flesh. If the item is linked, there is more information or a video available.

If you dog takes food hard while training, it may help to offer food on a flat palm, like you do to feed a horse, while you are in the training process.

Here are some ideas I tried:
1. Teach her to nose target my hand. 
2. Teach her to nose target the end of a stick.
3. Teach her to nose to target several different objects (not dog toys). 
4. Use a metal spoon for delivering treats (to protect my fingers but it seemed to make her more careful)
5. Taught her how to follow a food lure (she used to just bite at it). (Hide food between your fingers and shape her only getting it when she progressively takes it more and more gently. )
6. Worked on food zen. (I plan to apply it to toy zen as well). 
7. Used a clicker to get her to release toy and either rewarded with low level food (cheerio) or a throw of same toy as reward.
8. I taught her to do a finger retrieve to show how much pressure she uses.
9. We will be working on fine-tuning her object delivery as in dropping a coin into a bottle or penny bank. This will help her to learn to use her tongue and front teeth and help her realize she can control her mouth to a very fine degree.
10. Teach her how to take and give objects, including a 'pick' or 'nibble' cue that uses only her front teeth.
11. Keep arousal levels low so she is not grabbing because of excitement. (Short training sessions that stop before she gets aroused help).

Do have other ideas of how to train a softer mouth/greater teeth awareness? Please pass them along and I will add them.

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!
 
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