This is an EXCELLENT blog post about using rewards as a way of life with your dog. This is the method I use with Luka.
Part of my training with Anna and Barbara calls for periodic exams through the first year to demonstrate that I am maintaining Luka’s skills and to give them a chance to visually see any problems I might not be aware of.
It is hard to believe it has been three months already but it is time for our first exam. This video shows the following:
- A live alert at work
- Luka responding to the cues he was trained (I skipped a couple that I rarely use like “speak”)
- Egress from the car
- Public access in a store
In a prior blog post I mentioned how much Luka loves to run. I bought an attachment for my bike that allows him to run next to me while remaining tethered to the bike and quickly discovered that he also likes to pull. After a short while, however, I grew uncomfortable with my setup. First of all I felt like that huge bike tire spinning around (it is taller than Luka) just a couple of feet away from his head was an accident waiting to happen no matter how cautious I was. Secondly I felt like I couldn’t hop on or off the bike quickly if the situation warranted it, such as an off-leash dog approaching. Finally I didn’t like where it positioned me – sitting on the seat I’m pretty far above Luka’s head and we can’t make eye contact.
So I did a little research and discovered that they make scooters for adults. – why should the kids have all the fun with their Razors? A Scooter seemed like a good alternative with smaller wheels, being low to the ground, and easy to step on/off.
I’m not the first one with this idea. Indeed there’s a bunch of people who use a tug line – the same kind used for sled dogs – to attach one or more dogs to the front of their scooter to stay in shape during the summer (and for fun). I gave this a try as you can see in this short video:
This was loads of fun but it, too, had some problems. With Luka out in front, he was pretty much in charge of where we went. I taught him the mushing commands for left and right (haw and gee) but “whoa” just didn’t seem to be in his vocabulary. Fortunately the scooter has excellent brakes! I also didn’t like being so far away from him. When we are walking I like the fact that I can see his face and can notice where his attention is focused. Likewise I like his being able to check in with me visually from time to time.
Then I discovered The Dog Powered Scooter. It seemed like the perfect solution since it brought Luka back next to me rather than way out in front. The original design uses a L-shaped bar like an outrigger under which your dog is tethered to the harness attachments from both sides. This ended up not working very well for Luka as he really didn’t like being under the outrigger and he liked even less being constrained by harness attachments on either side of him.
So I merged some parts from my bike attachment and came up with this: Photo courtesy Tyler Trahan
I’m using the footplate and vertical bar from the Dog Scooter kit and the horizontal spring-loaded harness attachment from my bike rig. This puts Luka right next to me – exactly the position he is in when we are walking. I bought a special harness designed for sled dogs that distributes the weight more evenly over his whole body. And it all fits in the back seat of my Honda Fit hatchback so I can bring it to work for mid-day scoots through the park.
I can’t tell you how much fun this is. Luka does most of the work on flat ground and I pitch in on hills or when he gets tired. He ignores most of the many distractions that we pass by such as barking dogs, pee-mail messages left by other dogs on tree trunks, and (drum roll here) even squirrels. If I think he really wants to take a break during our scoot and have a good sniff, I simply step off the scooter and the quick-release attachment comes off in less than a second. Luka can then enjoy the cornucopia of smells that surely fill his dreams. I haven’t gotten verbal confirmation from Luka but judging from his enthusiastic whole-butt-wagging when he sees me getting the scooter ready I think he likes it too!
Here we are scooting along the sidewalk in our neighborhood. (Thanks to my two-son film crew, Josh and Tyler.)
Luka’s training method uses positive reinforcement to reward behavior. In my Chicken Camp blog post I described how a clicker is used to mark a desired behavior and let the chicken know that a reward in the form of food is forthcoming. This is the same basic technique used with Luka but with several enhancements. First of all, a reward can take many forms including praise, play, and touch yet it is mostly delivered in the form of food because it is a primary motivator. Secondly I vary the quality and quantity of food depending upon level of difficulty. Lastly a reward is not always preceded by a click. I still use the clicker during training sessions such as when we are on a walk and I ask him to sit or put him in a down. However when in some “real life” situations like at work, or in a grocery store or restaurant I can silently reward him with food when he correctly executes a command since the clicker is often inconvenient and noisily intrusive.
Luka gets four different levels of reward food, level 4 being the lowest reward level, level 1 being the highest level; each level is a little tastier and more enticing than the prior. Which reward he gets depends on how strongly I want to reinforce a given behavior and how hard he had to work. For example, putting him in a down while I shop for jeans won’t earn him much since there isn’t much distraction and he probably wanted to lie down anyways out of sheer boredom. However putting him in a down because a rabbit has foolishly decided to run across the field behind our favorite ice cream place will earn him a much higher reward because of the sheer willpower he had to muster in order to comply.
His level 4 reward (low end) is a high quality, grain free kibble. He gets this for simple commands like down, sit, place, and heel unless there is significant distraction or I’m trying to shape the behavior in a new way. I’ve tried a few brands but lately have settled on Acana Pacifica. Luka really likes anything that tastes fishy – the stinkier the better. The other reason I really like this stuff is that the kibble size is not too small. I tried some other brands with smaller kibble and to give him a fair reward I would have to give him a small handful which is rarely convenient and usually ends up with a slobbered hand. I like being able to toss him one piece through the air and I think he enjoys tracking the trajectory and snatching it in mid-air. Plus we look really cool when we do it – I feel like one of those SeaWorld trainers who can toss a fish and get it to land right where the animal is jumping.
I use a wide variety of products for Luka’s level 3 rewards. They are usually about the same size as one or two pieces of kibble but are softer and tastier. I like the Zuke’s products although I’m not convinced they are super healthy. My favorite is Pet Botanics Grain Free Salmon Omega Treats. They stay pretty soft over time and I can easily cut them into smaller bites. These seem to be Luka’s favorite too. I can’t tell you how I decide when to give a level 3 instead of a level 4 reward – there’s some crazy formula I have in my head that directs my hand to one pouch or the other. It mostly involves how much distraction he had to ignore and how well he executed the task. Lazily laying down after looking around to make sure there isn’t anything more interesting to do will earn a level 4 (or sometimes not even that) whereas a snappy down right where and when I want it will earn a level 3 and a kind word of praise or scruff behind the ears.
Level 2 rewards are the first step into the big leagues. He only gets these for difficult behaviors or behaviors I really want to reinforce. Luka and I have been working hard at dog encounters which are challenging for him. He really wants to bark and interact and I want him to just pretend the other dog doesn’t exist. We are pretty close to my goal although it has been a lot of work. As soon as we see another dog approaching I get his attention with a “watch” command and reward him with a level 2 reward which is supremely tasty. I’ll let him look at the other dog but as soon as I think he is getting overexcited or about to bark I capture his attention again and reward him again with level 2. This process repeats until Luka is visibly calm or the other dog is out of range. It has worked remarkably well. Luka’s default behavior now when he sees another dog is to look at me pleadingly which I immediately reward with level 2. I have successfully taught him that the tasty reward I have in my pouch is far more interesting than an approaching dog. I also use this reward for recalls and other really important behaviors. I currently alternate between two level 2 treats: Charki Puffs which is dried beef lung coated with dried beef liver paste, and Cadet Gourmet Salmon Snacks. These are dry and hard and can be easily broken into smaller pieces depending on how big a reward I want to give. Luka goes bonkers over these treats, in large part, because they have a very strong taste and an even stronger smell. The strong odor has actually been a bit of a problem – my treat pouch which is permanently attached to my belt has taken on quite the odiferous personality. I’ve taken to keeping my daily supply sealed tight in a ziplock bag. Of course this slows down delivery at reward time which is usually time-critical so I’m still working out how to handle this.
Level 1 is the holy grail of rewards and is reserved for only two behaviors: blood sugar alerts and the Really Reliable Recall. I rotate between a few different ingredients but they all involve meat. Usually it is grilled chicken breast cut into pieces and divided into hearty servings. Sometimes I’ll add pieces of cooked hamburg or slices of beef or turkey hot dogs. Lately I’ve also been supplementing with a single-serving of string cheese which I peel into long stringy pieces that he stretches from my hand whilst standing on two feet. Being ahead of the game and having level 1 treats available as needed takes preparation. Once a week I’ll grill up a whole package of chicken, cut the pieces into small pieces and divide them into Ziplock bags which I keep in the freezer then thaw as I need them. I do the same thing when we grill hamburgers, making extras to cut up and freeze for a later date.
You may have noticed from my description that I didn’t list what I feed him at meal time. That’s because he has no meal time. All of Luka’s food – every bite he eats – he earns as a reward. He never gets a bowl of food. We don’t even own one. When I tell people this they often look at me incredulously then start in with a predictable series of questions that reflect the questions and issues I had to resolve during training.
The issue most people raise is the hardest for some to accept although it wasn’t really a problem for me. It usually takes the form of “aren’t you just bribing him?” or “that sounds like slavery”. In general they question the morality of the work-for-food scheme. Here’s the thing: dogs need to work. They need to have a job and a purpose, especially big dogs of the working breeds. It is only in the last hundred+ years that humans started keeping dogs *purely* as pets which is why all the small “designer” breeds are fairly recent inventions. The idea that Luka is somehow being duped or bribed doesn’t make much sense. Am I being duped or bribed when I go to work every day in exchange for a paycheck? In the end, we all work for food in some capacity, each according to their own abilities. Even my youngest son, Timmy, has chores he is expected to do or he’ll starve (just kidding).
The bigger issue I had to wrap my head around has to do with the day to day implications: how am I going to carry all this food around? My answer to this question is still evolving but the current solution looks like this:
The blue treat pouch is a high quality self-closing pouch with two internal sections where I keep level 3 and 4 treats. The clip on the outside is my own invention for hanging used poop bags during walks. The black fanny pack has several zippered sections where I keep the following:
- A glucometer kit
- Smarties, peanut butter crackers, and granola bars (for me)
- ADA information cards
- Level 2 treats in a ziplock
- Two or three level 1 treats in ziplock bags plus string cheese
- A small plastic bowl to feed him level 1 treats without making a mess
- Extra poop bags
- Just-Add-Water paper towels in case of emergency
Each morning I load up with the supplies I’ll need for the day, strap it on and I’m ready to go!
The system of carrying all his food around and constantly rewarding him was hard to get used to. However the benefit is hard to dispute: training happens continuously. We don’t put aside a half hour a day or an hour on a weekend to train in the back yard. All day long, as long as we are awake, we are training. Every time he sits on command, he gets reinforced. Every. Time. There are some behaviors that we don’t exercise regularly so I *do* put aside periods when we can practice these but they are easily integrated into our daily walks or play time in the yard.
Some days there just aren’t enough opportunities to reward Luka, especially when we are just hanging out at home. On these occasions I let him exercise his mind with a treat ball full of kibble or this really fun dog puzzle. I shot this video the second time we used it but now he’s a pro – he quickly opens every compartment and finds the treats. Time for a new challenge!
As promised, here is my story of Chicken Camp.
When Cathy and I found out we would be attending chicken camp we really had no idea what to expect. That it would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable and enlightening experiences of our trip caught us both by surprise.
Anna, the owner of Animal Training Center (ATC) in Austria, and her staff use a positive approach to training using the Karen Pryor Clicker Training method. Chicken Camp is Anna’s method for training clients who wish to learn clicker training, be it for their horse, dog, or goat (this is not a joke) and attendance is mandatory for clients receiving diabetic alert dogs from her. Anna wants to make sure that when she sends a client home with a diabetic alert dog the client has the necessary skills to maintain the dog’s training in a manner consistent with how it was trained. During the camp, attendees learn how to train a chicken to perform simple tasks using a technique called clicker training. Cathy and I attended this two day workshop just before we started training with Luka. I use what I learned that weekend many times each day with Luka as I maintain his training and start to train new behaviors.
Anna and Barbara led the camp of twelve students along with Aure Lia, an intern at ATC. They work remarkably well together and have taught the camp many times over the past few years so it ran very smoothly. Our workshop days alternated between periods of presentation and discussion, playing games to reinforce what we were learning, and, of course, training our chickens. A lot of time was spent learning about classical conditioning and operant conditioning which are the bedrock upon which clicker training rests.
Our very first job was to choose a chicken and get comfortable handling it. Four large dog crates containing three chickens each were placed on tables at the edge of the room. Each chicken wore a different colored leg band. Anna and Barbara demonstrated how to properly remove a chicken from the crate and gently hold it with your hands over the wings or snug against your body so that the animal felt safe. They showed us how to gently place it on the tables spread throughout the room where training would take place. Initially I named mine Ralph until Cathy pointed out that they were all females so she was renamed Raphina.
It was a little intimidating at first, especially reaching into the crate and having to pull a reluctant chicken out head (and beak) first. There was a bit of squawking and flapping of wings around the room the first few times but in short order we all became confident chicken handlers.
Why a chicken?
- Chickens give little emotional or cognitive feedback. The trainer tends not to develop an emotional bond with the chicken so he doesn’t try to interpret their thoughts or feelings and can remain objective.
- Chickens have a high food drive so it is easy to reward them when they perform a desired behavior.
- Chickens make frequent, fast movements of their head which is helpful when “free shaping” behavior which I’ll explain shortly.
- Chickens are small and it is relatively easy to manage a roomful of untrained animals which you certainly could not say about dogs. This also allows students to learn from their fellow students.
- If you can clicker train a chicken, you can train anything. The technique can and has been used on virtually every animal. It has even been used to train a small fish in a home aquarium as shown in this amazing video.
Each of us were asked to gather in three person teams. Our teams would be there to help each other during training sessions since the person training often needs help maintaining a clean table, observing what is working and isn’t working, clearing away spilled bird food, moving objects on the table, and generally supporting each other. Cathy and I were lucky to be paired with a woman named Andrea who spoke excellent English and we became fast friends. She attended the camp because she has a horse and goat and wants to train them to do basic tasks such as move away from an opened gate.
Now comfortable with handling our chickens, our next job was to do what some people call “charging the clicker.” We needed to teach our hen to associate the sound of the clicker with a forthcoming reward. We held a small seed-filled short-handled basket behind our back (so the chicken couldn’t see it). We then clicked our clicker (taped to the short handle of the basket) and promptly presented the basket just long enough for the chicken to peck once and then quickly removed it. After only a few repetitions the chickens started looking for the basket as soon as they heard the click. This is classical conditioning in action – the animal instinctually associates the sound of the click with food. Our chickens seemed more comfortable with this training than we did at first with all the motions we had to do to get it done correctly – it is not as easy as it sounds and my first few attempts ended up with a table covered with spilled bird seed.
Each of our training periods were very short – no more than 30 seconds at a time – after which the chickens were returned to their crates and we returned to our seats to talk about our experiences and continue learning about the theory behind this form of training. This pattern repeated itself throughout the weekend: sit for a while to learn and discuss training theory, retrieve your chicken and train for 30 seconds with your teammates, return your chicken to the crate, and help your teammates with their chickens.
Okay – so the chickens know that click equals reward. Next we had to train them to peck a 4 inch diameter circle made of red construction paper that we placed on our tables. There are several techniques you can use to shape behavior with clicker training and we were using one called free shaping. In free shaping you wait for the animal to randomly perform a desired behavior upon which you click and reward. Now, if we waited for our chickens to peck the red circle we would have been there all day with very hungry chickens. Instead we paid close attention to the chicken and clicked whenever it turned its head, looked, or moved its body in the direction of the target (the red circle).
The clicker is effectively our way of communicating the message, “I like that behavior and you are about to get a reward.” If you’ve ever watched a chicken you’ll know that they are constantly moving their heads in short, quick motions. It was absolutely crucial that you click AS SOON as you see a good behavior or the chicken would not understand which behavior you wanted. Some of the games we played were purely to hone our clicker timing skills. For example, Barbara would drop a bouncy ball onto the table and we had to click as soon as it bounced in ever shortening intervals.
Very gradually, over several training sessions we started to demand more from our chickens. We would no longer reward mere glances at the target, they had to actually move towards it, or lower their heads a little before we would click and reward. Once we were confident that they understood what behavior we expected, we would again raise the criteria. It took many training sessions of very slight progress in each before we could reliably get our chicken to peck the red circle on the table. Yet, our chickens learned how to peck at a circle in under 4 minutes of total training time, about eight 30-second training sessions!
One of the things we learned about and definitely saw with our chickens were sudden breakthroughs where it seemed like the chicken suddenly understood, “Oh – I know what you want” and offered exactly the right behavior. These were rewarded with “jackpots” where we let the chickens peck several times from our basket. The entire team rejoiced at these small victories – it was a lot of fun!
By the end of the first day we had all gotten our chickens to perform the basic task of pecking the red paper target. On day two we had to choose a new task for our chicken to perform. Anna and Barbara had a collection of props we could use including a plastic bowling pin you might train your chicken to knock over, a fuzzy dice you might train your chicken to pick up and drop, a bell for the chicken to peck at and ring, and so forth.
Several objects fell in the category of item categorization in which the animal is trained to choose between several similar but slightly different objects. For example there were tiny plastic toy figures: a wolf, a giraffe, and a soldier. One could train the chicken to peck at just one of those animals and ignore the others. I chose a similar task that involved color discrimination wherein I trained my chicken to only peck the red circle and ignore the green, blue, and yellow circles of identical size that we placed at random places on the table. By the end of the day Ralphina would be able to turn completely around to find the target behind her and clear across the table, walk to it, and peck it to get her reward, ignoring the other colored targets along the way.
Using the techniques we learned the previous day we set to work in short training sessions training our chickens to perform the desired behavior. Some chickens proved easier to train than others. Andrea’s chicken was fairly challenging and she had to proceed in the tiniest increments to get her chicken to take interest in the bowling pin. We worked together as a team to talk about what was and wasn’t working and by the end of the day she succeeded. Cathy trained her chicken to peck and ring a bell that one of us held aloft on a string.
As I mentioned, we did not only train our chickens. Indeed, by the end of the two days we had probably only trained our hens for a total of 20 minutes or less. We also played games. Some of my favorite moments from the weekend were playing a game I called Human Clicker Training. Here’s how it worked. One person was chosen to be the trainer and another chosen to be the trainee. The trainee left the room and the class chose a behavior that the trainer would coerce the trainee to do using just a clicker to communicate. At first the tasks were very simple, such as walk to a specific table in the room, pick up an object, carry it to and place it on a different table. Some tasks were silly like when a man had to clicker train his wife to kiss him on the cheek.
Once the behavior was chosen, the trainee entered the room and had to randomly offer behaviors to see what elicited a click. At first the offered behaviors were large and coarse – basic movement around the room akin to playing the “hotter/colder” children’s game. Some of the behaviors required very precise and subtle motions and it became quickly apparent that you have to break the desired behavior into very small discrete steps.
When it was my turn to be the trainee, the behavior they chose was that I had to walk into the room, sit in a specific chair and touch the tip of my pointer finger on my right hand to my nose in a very precise way. Getting to the chair was pretty easy. After that it became really hard. First I had to figure out that the behavior involved my right hand so my trainer clicked only when I moved my right arm. I started moving my arm slowly around and she had to click any time it came close to my head. Let me tell you, it took quite a while for me to get it – it was probably only a few minutes but it felt like an hour and was very tiring. A poorly timed click had me convinced that I had to touch my ear somehow and I spent a long time offering very odd (and apparently hilarious) behaviors without getting a click.
Besides being an enormously entertaining game, being the trainee let me feel firsthand some of what the animals we train must be feeling whether they be chicken, dog, horse or dolphin. I strongly felt many emotions including excitement, frustration, and elation at breakthrough moments.
The trainer also experienced what it was like to train an animal more intelligent than a chicken, which definitely complicates matters. Chickens seem to not get frustrated, nor do they seem to try to guess what you want – they are very easy to train. More intelligent animals on the other hand can get very frustrated or even angry and are actively involved in trying to interpret the meaning of a well or poorly timed click. Being able to empathize with your trainee is crucial, especially when you are trying to train a 3000 pound hippo to open his mouth while you brush his teeth.
Anna, Barbara, and everyone in the class were warm and welcoming and made our language barrier inconsequential. We had great conversations with some lovely people including a couple who are interested in getting a diabetic alert dog for their young son.
Overall I can’t say enough positive things about the experience and I would jump in a heartbeat if an opportunity came to take the more advanced class, Chicken Camp 2. Cathy and I are already reminiscing about our time in Austria and dreaming about returning so who knows – maybe we’ll be back!
Special thanks to my wife, Cathy, for her tireless and excellent editing skills and to Aure Lia who took many of the pictures featured in this post.
I hadn’t planned on blogging today, or at least not about this. But three of Luka’s alerts in the past 18 hours were just so inspiring I had to share them.
Background: Since getting Luka, his alerting has been less than reliable. This is a common condition when DADs get placed. Luka was missing some lows and false alerting a lot. He got the perfectly reasonable idea in his head that when he alerts he gets to play, in addition to getting a tasty treat. Combine that with what I can only conclude was a bad batch of test strips that gave wildly inaccurate results and I completely scrambled his alert behavior. Barbara and Anna (Luka’s trainers in Austria) have been giving me invaluable guidance during these last three weeks and I’ve been gradually increasing his alerting accuracy. Over the past several days it has really improved as evidenced by the latest three entries in my alert log:
Thursday 7/24 9:30pm
On our nightly walk before bed. I expected I was high because I was low 1.5 hours earlier and took a good dose of ice cream and walnuts (of course) without bolus. In the middle of the walk Luka sat down in the road right in front of me and sat facing me. It was really weird – I thought maybe the sound of the leash clicking against the clasp on his new harness sounded like a click and he was now expecting a reward because that is how he sometimes sits when he is awaiting a reward. I released him and walked on, he came right back and jumped with both paws on my chest – really agressively. I didn’t have the bringsel on because I had changed into sleepwear, nor did I have my usual kit containing a glucometer and level 1 treats (that was stupid). His behavior was so out of the ordinary I decided to give him a good handful of kibble and head straight home to check for sure. My BG was 74 and Luka got a tasty treat of pieces of hot dog and cheddar cheese.
Friday 7/25 11:00am
I went into a meeting and checked my bg: 105. The meeting lasted about an hour and a half before lunch and I figured I was pretty stable since I was just sitting still and the meeting should have caused my metabolism to go into sleep mode along with the rest of me. Luka broke his down-stay after about an hour (which he has a bad habit of doing lately) and sat quietly next to me and just *stared* at me. It wasn’t the excited/jumping alert behavior I was used to and it really struck me as odd. I was about to correct him and put him back in a down-stay when I decided I should make sure. The verdict? 76. Glad I checked!
Friday 7/25 1:30pm
After the meeting I ate a quick lunch and took Luka for a well deserved long walk around the office park where I work. As usual we practiced recalls, remote downs, down with distractions (SQUIRREL!) and he was doing great so when we came to a big open field I put on the 10 meter leash and played chase and “find the treat.” We had a good romp and he got a blissful roll in the grass. As we got back to work and entered the building, Luka alerted in his usual way – jumping and looking for the bringsel – just as the elevator came. Again I thought “there’s no way I’m low – I just ate a half hour ago”, but sure enough: 56.
For my readers who have DADs these probably don’t seem all that remarkable. And, yes, this is exactly why I wanted a DAD so why should I find these so extraordinary?
Prior to this Luka had definitely caught me by surprise with some alerts – times when he alerted and I didn’t think I was low. But between those times were many cases of false alerts or times when I figured out I was low and I had to alert *him* because he didn’t catch them. These three alerts in such close succession gave me a glympse of what the future holds as Luka’s alerting reliability rapidly improves. A little over a year ago I tried to envision what it must be like to have a DAD – a fulltime companion who can help carry some of the load imposed by diabetes. I think for the first time today I realized that it is no longer a vision and I am truly humbled.
It has been a little over two weeks since I first met Luka and one week since coming home to the US. The days have been full of many firsts and memorable experiences. I’ve decided to document my experience as a self-interview.
Dave: How is everything going?
Dave: Really well. Every day gets a little easier as we find our routine but everything has been great. Luka fits wonderfully into my life and I already feel like he is an old friend I’ve known for years.
Dave: How was Austria?
Dave: Spectacular! Visiting a foreign country always expands your worldview and this trip was no different. It is a beautiful country in many dimensions and Cathy and I have many fond memories of our time there. Anna and her husband, and Barbara our trainer really went out of their way to make us feel like family and we are deeply grateful for their kindness and hospitality.
Dave: How did you get by not knowing any German?
Dave: Funny you (I) should ask. We got to the Bed and Breakfast where we had arranged to stay and found they spoke very little English. I managed to convey that we had a reservation and they said that they had no record of it. Cathy and I were exhausted after a red-eye flight and in bad need of a shower and a nap. I found the reservation confirmation on my iPhone and showed it to them. The husband and wife proprietor argued a bit in German and apologized and were obviously trying to figure out where they would put us. I’m not sure exactly what happened next – either I randomly said something in Spanish or the hostess did because we both looked at each other with surprise and said, “¿Habla Espanol?” It was really a comedic moment as we proceeded to converse freely in Spanish. Cathy’s and my high-school Spanish held up remarkably well and we enjoyed conversing with her every day in a mix of English and Spanish with a German word thrown in for good measure.
Otherwise language wasn’t much of an issue. Anna and Barbara speak English as do most people in Graz, the major city about 25 minutes distant that we visited on several occasions. The big challenge for me was dinner. Often we were too tired to go into the city so we ate at smallish restaurants in villages where menus were entirely in German. In some cases we found friendly waiters who spoke English and were happy to help. In a few cases, not so much. We got by but since diabetes demands that I know what I am eating, every mealtime was a bit stressful and I ended up sticking with a small selection of menu items I could recognize or get translated. Cathy found it far less stressful and was much more adventurous.
We did have to learn a handful of German words and phrases because some of the commands Luka knows are in German and some are in English.
Dave: Are there any particular memories from training week that stand out for you?
Dave: There are many, and some of them I’ll be devoting entire blog posts to, such as Chicken Camp.
The first day we were there we walked from the B&B to Anna’s farm to meet Luka for the first time. It was uphill most of the way so by the time I got there I was low and I told Anna this before she let Luka out. Luka came out of the house, excited to meet new people, and quickly greeted me. Then he went right to Anna and started tugging on her bringsel. She redirected him to me, and he immediately came over and found the bringsel I was wearing and tugged it off. We had a big dog party and gave him a LOT of tasty canned dog food – our first meeting was probably as memorable for him as it was for me.
One evening as we were getting ready to leave the farm, one of Anna’s dogs escaped and ran full-tilt towards a neighbor down the road who was outside gardening. The dog was very excited and wanted to visit his friend. Earlier that day we had been working on the “really reliable recall” which uses classical conditioning to associate two short blasts on a whistle with a very high value reward. Since it is classical conditioning (not operant) the dog practically has no choice but to turn around and race back to the trainer. I was the only one who had a whistle and Anna quickly urged me to blow it. I could not believe how effectively it worked. That dog was at full speed, only about 20 feet from the object of his desire – the neighbor. But upon hearing the whistle he immediately put on the brakes, turned around and ran back to Anna as fast as he had been running away. I was VERY impressed and Anna was VERY proud. Seriously – I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
On the first day after having Luka overnight, our assignment was to drive with Luka to a nearby village, take a walk through a park, and meet Barbara afterwards at a cafe. Being alone with him in public with potentially difficult distractions was pretty intimidating to me at first – it felt very much like when my flight instructor opened the door of the plane after landing and said, “Ok, Dave – you’re ready to solo. Have fun!” In both cases I tended to overcontrol the situation at first but soon muscle memory and training kicked in and I was able to relax and enjoy a unique sense of freedom. During our walk we came across a childcare facility with a fenced-in playground full of 3 and 4 year old children. Cathy’s background is in early childhood education and, having four kids, we both loved and miss this special age so we put Luka in a down near the fence as the children came to look and babble at us in German. One of their teachers came over who had good English skills and asked us about Luka. We told her the whole story about him being a service dog trained to detect hypoglycemia associated with diabetes. A look of recognition came over her as she told us about a friend who is diabetic and also wears an insulin pump. She thought it was amazing what Luka could do and translated what the children were saying about him. They were very adorable.
Dave: What about your family life? What do your kids think of Luka?
Dave: They are each developing their own special relationship with him. Some are more reserved, some are more demonstrative, and Luka meets each of them on their terms. When we get home each day he runs through the house to find each member of the family and greet them. We took our trainer’s suggestion and came up with a family name for Luka: “Fritzi.”
The reasoning for this makes good sense: Imagine Luka is a superhero. He has a special power that can protect people from harm (specifically, me) and when he is called into action by his superhero name, Luka, he knows it is his duty to take notice and respond. But Luka also has a life as a mild-mannered member of our family who pet him, talk about him, and call him into over to play with his squeeky toy. At these times we use his family name, Fritzi, so he knows that he has the option of responding to or ignoring us – basically that he is “off duty.” Cathy and I are currently the only ones authorized to call him Luka since we are the only ones who know how to properly issue and reinforce his super-hero commands.
Speaking of super-heroes, there’s this great picture that Frank Wisnesky made. I met Frank at the Wildrose conference this year. He is Dad to a type 1 diabetic daughter and is very involved in the DAD community.
Dave: How was it getting Luka home?
Dave: Cathy and I have differing memories of the experience. I remember Luka as being fairly anxious and stressed during the flight and having to spend a lot of time comforting him and preventing him from looking for a parachute and emergency exit. Cathy remembers that there were some periods of time like this but there were also periods when Luka seemed accepting of the situation and we were able to watch an entire movie and eat a meal while he lay by my feet. Her theory is that I was more stressed than Luka was, primarily out of compassion for his obvious preference to be anywhere but on that plane. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Dave: After all the trouble you had getting permissing to bring Luka to work, how has it been?
Dave: My co-workers have been incredibly supportive and considerate. Many people have politely let me know how cool they think Luka is and that they are glad he is there. People have been respectful and avoid interacting with him although I have introduced him selectively to some people who he will be around a lot. We’ve settled into a nice routine that includes a long walk at a wildlife refuge on the way to work, a short mid-morning walk in the woods near the parking lot, a longer walk through a park at lunch, a short mid-afternoon walk around the parking lot, and a long walk or bike ride on our street when we get home.
Dave: Bike ride?
Dave: Yes – Luka really likes to run so I bought an attachment for my bike that allows him to be safely tethered to my bike while I ride at a reasonable pace for short distances. Did I mention he likes to run? I often end up putting on the brakes because he is pulling the bike faster than I want him to go – I think in a former life he was on a sled-dog team. At first he tried to bolt after squirrels and rabbits while tethered to the bike but quickly discovered that I outweigh him and the momentum of the bike demands that he keep running in the same direction lest he get dragged. I’ve been practicing riding wide figure eights which forces him to focus on the bike or get run over and this has made our rides really easy – he completely ignores barking dogs that we ride past because he really can’t afford to be distracted.
Dave: Are there any aspects of living with a service dog that differ from your expectations before you had Luka?
Dave: There are many. The most profound is my experience with public access. All along I had fears about feeling self-conscious and out of place bringing a service dog into public places. I thought I would feel a loss of privacy since having a service dog is a pretty big advertisement that you have a medical “problem.” Those fears were mostly unfounded. I feel pretty confident and bold when Luka and I walk into a public place like the library, grocery store, or mall. I stand tall and walk like I have every right to be there. I do tend to avoid eye contact with people but I suspect that will change with time. Even my youngest boys notice that people stare and children point and ask questions – I’m aware of this in my periphery but I’m careful to leave it there.
Dave: Thanks for talking with yourself today. Would you be willing to let me interview you again in a few months to see how you progress?
Dave: I’d be happy to. You know where to find me!
We made it! After an intense week of training and a long flight from Austria, Luka, Cathy and I are settling in to our new life. There are so many stories to tell about our time in Austria that I don’t know where to begin. I’m inclined to tell it sequentially – start at the beginning. But so much is happening every day now that such an approach seems restrictive. Instead I’ve decided to tell the story in snippets merging my current experience with moments from training week.
One of the commands Luka and I have been working on a lot is “watch.” When I give this command he is supposed to look at and focus on me, upon which I mark his behavior with the clicker and give him a treat. This is easy when there are no distractions – indeed most of the time at home or at work he he is checking in with me with great regularity. As the level of distraction increases however, it becomes much harder for him to focus on me. During these times, the chance that my commands will fall on deaf ears increases proportionally with the level of distraction (SQUIRREL!). It is of utmost importance that I enforce 100% of the commands that I issue. If I tell him to sit, he has to sit, and if he does not – mostly likely because he is distracted – it is crucial that I recapture his focus and get him to sit. Failure to do this will, over time, erode his training since he’ll get the idea that he has a choice over which commands to obey and under what circumstances he can ignore them.
It seems to me that the watch command is the bedrock upon which all other commands rest. If you can’t reliably hold or capture your dog’s attention even in times of high distraction then you will inevitably find yourself unable to control him in those situations and end up resorting to brute force or just avoiding those situations entirely – neither of which is ideal. Obviously no dog is perfect, and complete control is probably an unattainable ideal but it is a worthy goal to work towards. So we work on it every day when we are out walking. Often he turns and looks my way without my issuing a “watch” command and I reward this behavior as well. This is all part of operant conditioning, a topic I’ll be explaining in detail when I blog about Chicken Camp, and is central to Luka’s training philosophy.
Once Luka was solidy responding to watch commands and freely offering watch behavior without command I changed the game on him by varying the level of reward that he receives each time. At all times I carry four different level treats with me, another topic I’ll be covering in the future. Level 4 is dry kibble. Level 1 is a mix of chicken and hamburg that we cook on the weekends and package into single-serving containers and is only given as a reward for alerts and a “Really Reliable Recall” command. Level 2 and 3 fall on the tastiness spectrum in between. When Luka responds to a watch command he always gets a treat – I use a lot of level 4′s and 3′s but sometimes I throw in a level 2. When he offers a watch behavior without command then I use the same variable reward scheme except that sometimes I don’t reward at all.
This is called variable reinforcement and is a huge multiplyer for behavioral control. In Luka’s head he is gambling each time he performs the behavior – he never knows exactly what reward he will receive and every so often he gets a jackpot. Yes, I am turning my dog into a gambling junky. Fortunately his paws can’t hold poker chips or pull the arm on a slot machine. This method really works and I can see its impact already. When Luka looks at me there is a questioning look in his eye with a bit of excitement as if he is saying, “What are you going to give me this time, Dave?” It engages him mentally in the game and keeps his focus on me. Games of chance are highly addictive because of the way our brains are wired and I am taking advantage of that to maintain connection with Luka. But unlike in a casino where the house always wins, Luka and I both win – he gets rewarded every time, our bond deepens, and my ability to control his behavior and self-control is strengthened.
During the first two days of training I had a very hard time capturing and holding Luka’s focus. Barbara, our trainer for the week, intentionally put us in highly distracting situations to promote this connection, such as walking past other dogs in a penned area. On Tuesday, our second day of training, Barbara went into a tall fenced-in area and picked up a chicken. I had to walk past the fence with Luka and keep him under control. This was among the most intimidating experiences of the entire week. Barbara had advised me that, should Luka ignore my watch command, I should step towards him with my knees towards his face so that he pretty much had to look up, which I could subsequently reward as a “watch” behavior with a really good treat and, having regained his attention, get him to sit or lie down where he would find it easier to maintain self control. Giving the treat would be important because I needed to remind him what was waiting for him if he would choose to focus on me rather than the chicken, and I couldn’t just offer a treat for free.
Boy did Luka want to go for that chicken! As predicted, my watch commands were completely ignored so Barbara asked me to make him watch and get him to sit. What ensued was a comical dance where Luka would try to peek through or around my legs as I pushed towards him, completely refusing to look up at me and instead trying to keep both eyes on the chicken. Then he started turning in circles backwards and we danced around and around a few inches at a time while he stared excitedly at the chicken and made whining noises. I felt completely out of control. It did eventually work although I’m not entirely sure if it was what I was doing or if he just got bored with the dance. Eventually he looked at me and I rewarded him with a big dose of level 2 and he sat down because it was far more comfortable than looking straight up and eating while standing on all fours. After that, his head swiveled back and forth between me and the chicken as I continued to reinforce his self-control. It wasn’t pretty but it did work in the end. I was thoroughly exhausted!
That night as I was thinking about my day I was thinking how much I disliked that experience and that I would never want to do that again. But I realized that it was actually really valuable because it gave me confidence. Ok, it wasn’t pretty and I was definitely not in complete control. I didn’t resort to brute force to control Luka, and we made it through. There will be times when we encounter similar difficult situations and knowing that I’ll be able to handle them – with or without grace – was very reassuring.
On Thursday Barbara said she wanted to try the “chicken” distraction again. I was thinking, “no problem – we’ve really been working hard since then – this should be a piece of cake.” Then Barbara explained that the situation would be a little different. First of all Luka and I would be alone inside the chicken coop with many chickens and ducks and no fence to separate us. Second of all Luka would be off-leash. Ok – now she had my attention. I’ll cut to the chase (pun intended) and say that no chickens or ducks were harmed in the exercise. Luka did great. It was a lot of work and but I was able to maintain at least a semblance of control using just my voice and body language.
I’m writing this on Thursday, the Fourth of July, just a week after the chicken test. My life has changed so much since then, as has Luka’s. It was a week of many firsts and that’s what I’ll be blogging about next.
This is a photogenic castle in Judendorf, Austria where Cathy and I had a lovely sunset dinner last night. It may be our last time alone for quite a while since, as of today, Luka is with us 24/7.
My confidence builds daily under Barbara’s capable tutelage. This afternoon we took a long stroll with Luka and Barbara through the old town part of Graz. It is a beautiful, romantic city but I didn’t see much of it because I was so focused on Luka and the distractions we encountered including MANY dogs, pigeons, tasty outside cafes, and a large man carrying a surfboard. During our excursion, we rode the tramway (a streetcar on rails) and explored a multistory shopping mall where I got my first stares from shopkeepers as I placed Luka in a down-stay and pretended to shop for jeans.
Later, after a walk by the river that bisects the city, we made our way to Glockenspielplatz (Glockenspiel Plaza) where we enjoyed great food and conversation with Barbara while Luka patiently lay by my feet ignoring the dogs, pigeons, and children walking through the plaza just a few feet from him. He was even able to ignore the yodeling accordion player near us. Luka tested my resolve regularly (totally normal) by standing up to tell me he was bored and ready to go somewhere else – an experience I am all too familiar with after raising four energetic boys. We saw the Glockenspiel chime -the clockwork figures danced when it was 18:00. After eating our Austrian meals complete with delicious apple strudel, we made our way back to the car where Luka fell asleep sitting on the floor at Cathy’s feet as I drove us home. He is one tired dog now and is sleeping peacefully in our room.
Tomorrow we will visit a grocery store with Barbara after Luka, Cathy and I hang out at a local park without Barbara to practice his commands. The fears I experienced earlier in the week are quickly dissipating as Luka and I negotiate the terms of our partnership. There have been many tender moments between us that have given me a glimpse of the bond we will forge in the days, months, and years to come.
Today was a very good day.