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The Special Needs Pup - Learning to See Behavior In Pieces


This is the owner, with her Special Needs Pup. That is a love affair that can go far!

#bensonmaremmastraining,


I had the distinct privilege recently of working with the owner of a special needs pup. She came to me after having been turned away by several trainers along the way who stated concern about working with a pup with disabilities; this pup is blind. Maybe they weren’t clicker trainers? Positive reinforcement trainers? I say this because positive reinforcement training is all about leaning into strengths, not summing up an animal, or situation, based on perceived deficits. I stepped up to the opportunity to work with the owner of this pup, disclosing to the owner that I have had no experience with a dog with the disabilities her dog has. I also have never kept an LGD as a companion dog. But I do know a lot about science, about how dogs learn!


In any training situation, it is appropriate to “train the dog in front of you”. It does not serve me, or the dog, to come into a training session with preconceptions about the dog. It is my job to be in the moment and come to understand what will motivate the animal in front of me. This may be specific to the individual in front of me – so I ask the dog. I experiment, and I watch the dog.


Clicker training works with any species. I know for a fact, because I have seen the video, that it is possible to clicker train a fish – using some shrimp and a penlight for a marker. So, nothing in me believes training with this lovely blind pup won’t be possible. Nope.


As a Zoom trainer, my job is to train the human – not the dog. Then the human trains the dog; we are partners in this effort. I am here to empower owners and advocate for dogs; every owner, every dog. This young dog has five of his six good senses. That is a lot! Who of us is perfect anyway! I am here to learn, as well as to teach. I am certain this pair, this owner and pup, have a lot to teach me. Our journey has just begun, but I’d like to share our beginning with you.


Teaching Recall

The owner states the pup no longer comes when called. Well, this little guy is an adolescent now, and right on target to assert himself – disabilities or not! So, here is where we start. Working with adolescent dogs is a sugar high for me. It is such a dynamic time in a dog’s life. Young dogs come up with new behaviors, seemingly out of the blue, and training tools that once worked well with the dog may not work as well through adolescence.


One of my favorite people to learn from, a scientist named Susan Friedman, made a comment in a course I was participating in that she was teaching. She pointed out that a dog’s behavior is intentional, it serves a purpose to the dog. Asking a dog to change his behavior means that the dog has to choose to stop doing a behavior he was doing with purpose. So, what have you got to offer this dog in asking him to change his behavior for you? What does the dog have to give up to give you the behavior you asked for? For an adolescent dog, the answer to that question is that the dog probably has to give up quite a lot to change his behavior because dogs of this age are VERY invested in learning, as is reinforcing to them. They are often very engaged in their environment and might just prefer to stay that way.


So, you call the dog; this really did used to work! And the dog just keeps going…. And in using traditional training methods, the dog is told he made a mistake (usually “NO!”), and the behavior is asked for again. Well….no, he didn’t, not from the dog’s perspective! He was happy doing what he was doing, and he still is. If the human becomes a problem, the dog will move away, or ignore the human if that is possible.


Telling a dog “no” is not instructive. Humans often feel that it is pretty obvious what not to do, and that the something they want the dog to do is now obvious. It isn’t. And nobody, not dogs or humans, like to be told they made a mistake, even said sweetly. It is really helpful, though, to ask for a different behavior instead, one the dog is likely to want to give you. That DOES make sense to dogs. So how do you convince the dog that HE wants to come to you?! You make it a win. You have to be more appealing than what he was just doing on his own. Sometimes this can be accomplished through the training history an owner has with the dog; that is certainly the end training goal. But for adolescent dogs, what often works best is to change the environment, the “antecedent” set-up. Change what is happening in the dog’s life just before you ask for something difficult so that it is easier for the dog to give you what you asked for.


When I call a dog, if he does not come when called, what I hear the dog say is “Nope. Too hard. Try asking again, differently”. Dogs tend to give their humans many opportunities to get it right, thank you dog.


Using a clicker to help a dog with recall is a great tool if used properly, but not all on its own. As it sits, a clicker is just a little piece of plastic. But used within the methodology of positive reinforcement training, it becomes connected to a history of successes for the dog. Dogs like that! But you still have to have realistic training expectations of your dog. If you don’t, you can inadvertently teach the dog that sometimes the clicker is cool and sometimes it is just a noise.


If I call an adolescent dog from 50’ away, especially with distractions around us, he is likely to continue to do what he was doing. He isn’t wrong, and this makes sense to me. If I am 10’ from him my odds of success are better. If I am moving, looking like a party, and then I ask, my odds of success are really good. What if I ask, and the dog says no? I go closer. I change the circumstance around the dog to tip the odds in my favor, and I ask again. I don’t scold, sigh, or otherwise grumble, even at myself. I smile. I change something. And I ask again, having learned something for the future.

But way, way before I ask for a complex, difficult behavior like recall, I thoroughly teach a few easy behaviors, using my clicker, and here is where we come to the point of my story – and my humbled moment as The Zoom Trainer.


The woman who owns the special pup has been using traditional training methods, very kindly, but also often not getting what she wants. The first clicker behavior taught to a dog becomes a default behavior for the dog for the rest of his life. The first clicker behavior I teach, in all the circumstance in which I have trained dogs, is eye contact. Do you see where I am headed? Yep. I suggested to her that she start there – teach eye contact. There was a patient silence, and then she gently reminded me that her pup is blind.


She was so gracious with me! But after I recovered, somewhat, from feeling foolish, I stopped to really think through what it is about eye contact that I need from a dog and what does his body actually do. What I came up with is that it is absolutely possible to teach this pup to give “eye contact”.


What I am really asking for from the dog when I ask for eye contact is his attention on me. To give me eye contact, the dog must turn his head to orient to my face. Guess what, this special pup can do both of those things just fine. People like eye contact because eyes hold a lot of information about how the dog is feeling. That’s fine, but looking into the eyes of a dog is not the ONLY way to know how he is feeling. Honestly, it may not even be the best way, because way before you see the dog’s eyes his body has been doing many things in preparation of giving this behavior. Learning to see behavior as pieces of behavior allows a trainer to respond to the dog way back in the beginning, and to understand the dog, and the training opportunities, way back in the beginning. Giving eye contact is actually a complex behavior.


Here are some things that may happen before you have the dog’s eyes. His respiratory rate may change, he may even hold his breath. He may stop moving, or tighten his body, or raise his head, or turn his head. He may close his mouth. He may turn his head, and then his shoulders, and then his whole body. With an adolescent dog, whether he is a sighted dog or not, often it is necessary to click and reinforce any one of these early behaviors because doing so will create a greater likelihood that the dog can ultimately learn the complex behavior.


I feel that when I have eye contact with a dog I also have his brain. This blind pup has a very big brain! And a very willing spirit! He loves his human. He trusts her and enjoys her. So, given the right language and opportunities, I feel very certain that he can be taught this clicker behavior of “eye contact”. Stay tuned! We are an early work in progress; the pup, the owner, and me – one very humble trainer. Send us your good thoughts.

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