Saturday, March 19, 2011

Clicker Training

Whenever I have been lucky enough to come to the bay area – for guide dog training or anything else – the weather has almost always been perfect.  I’ve heard references to it being otherwise, but guess I didn’t fully believe it.  Now I do!  It has rained steadily for two days now with predictions of the same for our entire remaining week.  Last night, there was thunder, lightning, and hail!  Someone mentioned this morning that there was even a tornado sighting in some nearby small town. 

We work in it anyway.  I hate walking in the rain, but Flo doesn’t seem to consider it to be a problem.  Today, we had another independent route (where we’re given a set of directions to follow and a destination) and she once again did beautifully.  Well, OK, we did wander into a parking lot and had a little trouble figuring it out, but I think the error was more mine than hers. 

She is such a riot when she plays!  She makes funny little growly sounds when playing tug, and today I think I am at least on the road to teaching her to bring a toy back to me when I throw it for her.  One of the biggest thrills yesterday was her amazing success with clicker training.  For the uninitiated, here’s how it works:

When you want a dog to perform a certain behavior in exactly a certain way, you “click” (with a small handheld button-click gizmo) at the instant she is correct.  Instantly following the click is a treat.  For the dog, this is sort of like snapping a picture of that perfect moment for her to hold in memory, so that eventually, she associates that “clicked” image with a guaranteed treat. 

We begin by clicking and treating simply for her touching our hand.  Then, the click is for touching a chair.  Now, for someone with no vision, this is an amazing bit of help to get from a dog.  I can’t see, after all, where the empty chairs are, and have had more than my fair share of near misses (i.e., almost sitting on someone’s lap!)

So, first she got the concept of the hand with lightning speed.  Then, she got the idea of showing me the chair.  We tried another chair, and she was so excited to show it to me that she was almost dancing.  I forgot to mention that, to a dog, this is all one delightful game.  They love it – and Flo seems to love it more than most.  After the chair success, Heather suggested I leave the room, go down the hall, and return to the common room to ask Flo to find the chair again.  Flo is so smart!  I swear she understood our conversation!  When we came back down the hall, she was pulling so hard and with so much glee that it was palpable.  She zipped right up to that chair and happily accepted her click-and-treat reward!  Later, she kept sniffing my pocket where the click device was resting as if to say, “Hey, let’s play that game again!”

Later, we began using the clicker technique to show her handrails on stairs.  I think she’s just about got it.  Again, because I have had some mobility issues these past few years, having a dog who can point out handrails on stairs for me will be a wonderful gift. 

Flo still goes absolutely crazy when she sees Leo, her primary trainer, but it’s more fun than anything else.  The first day I worked with her, she would literally spin in circles when she saw Leo.  Now, she gets mighty wiggly, but is fairly easily reminded that she now works for me.  It’s nice that she wants to show me who else she loves -- like introducing your friends to your other friends! 

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