Friday, 29 June 2012

29th June - Toolbox of Tricks - What can Lucie do?

Friday night, glass of chilled New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in hand - that can't be right - surely they don't speak French in New Zealand - maybe I have been sold a knock off! Anyway - tastes good enough to my immature palette. Dave is out at the rugby and peace all around. I thought I would follow on from yesterdays talk about dog skills and let you know about the commands and skills that Lucie has.

I am a little naive about dogs and the whole world of training, so when I entered this journey it meant I had no idea what to expect. I thought assistance dogs would have a huge list of party tricks, and wow the crowds with their show stopping skills. But of course these are working dogs, and their skills may be a lot more subtle than the razzle dazzle you can train a dog to do. When I first met Lucie, and asked her to 'sit' for a treat, she blatantly ignored me. I thought, OMG, if she doesn't sit, what can she do? What am I letting myself in for?

I arrived on the residential training in May and all was to become clear. I realised there is a lot more to a dog than simply giving a command and expecting an outcome. Gaining their attention, delivering the command correctly, and in a way that they want to respond is key. So I learned not only what she could do but how to get her to do it. Tone of voice, attitude, relevant reward, gaining her respect was vital to have any chance of a command being effective.

I might add, I had this grand plan of making a little video of me doing some of these skills with Lucie, but I am not sure it makes interesting viewing. However the really amusing part was we recorded a bit of obedience work today out on a walk. I downloaded it tonight, and played it on the PC only to quickly realise Lucie was going nuts hearing all these commands, and running round excited trying to do them all. She must think I am a ventriloquist! I had to hit mute on the laptop before she got tied in knots :)

So I will stick to the ubiquitous list for now.... Lucie's skills are:

- Command responses including sit, down, settle, stand, wait, fetch, drop it, come, leave it (and 'ah ah' to reprimand), close, forward (to start walking), left, right, straight on, up up (speed up), steady (slow down), 'to the kerb' (to sit before crossing a road and waiting for 'forward' command), 'to the door' (sit and wait again before going through a door)
- Whistle responses are used for eating, she can only eat after two whistle blows, and there is also a whistle recall command
- Trained to be attached to Alex, with a waist strap and handle. She listens to my commands, not movements, so if Alex bolts off she hold steadfast and keeps him safe.
- Toileting is done on command - busy busy for a wee, big busy for a poo, and in a designated toilet area
- Behaviour is also limited to acceptable rules such as not going on couches, beds, no jumping up etc.
- Walking has to be relaxed and by your side. A black lead indicates she is working, so no sniffing around or distractions, a flexi lead means she can sniff and toilet. If on flexi lead or off lead she is like most dogs, but still has to be under control and respond as required. She will not run off to far, and will 'check in' on you while walking.

Whilst many assistance dogs have a much longer list of skills, like helping with washing, answering the phone etc, this is not necessary for an autism dog. Their key requirements will be engaging with the child they are partnered with. A child like Alex can have excessive tantrums, be physically very active, jumping and flapping, can make unusual sounds, squealing and shrieking, and be unpredictable. It is essential none of this unusual behaviour stresses the dog, so they must be trained to cope with these behaviours.

Just a couple of points on all this - be under no illusions that just because this is what Lucie is trained to do, and is capable of doing, that this all actually happens!! This is the aim, and what we are always striving to achieve, but there are days when quite frankly I am left thinking 'what on earth?!?*' She can be stubborn, test boundaries, have off moments and quite honestly be as dizzy as you like. I can be distracted, unclear, frustrated, forget my training, give mixed commands and lose direction. So things do go wrong. Even a simple command can be ignored on a bad day, so perfection is not a given, but an aspiration.

I have come into contact with several experienced assistance dogs, and am also starting to realise they aren't little robots performing exactly to command. They have personalities, moments and delinquent behaviours, but in essence they still do an amazing task for their owners. What has really impressed me is that no matter what has happened with Lucie during a walk, or at home, the moment I have put her jacket on and she is working, all attitude drops, and she instinctively adopts perfect obedience, and total control. When the chips are down she knows how to earn her keep....

In time I will be able to update you on new skills we develop but for now the task is to get these ones working well, and take it from there. My wine glass is empty. Time for a refill, and I think I will give this amazing Wimbledon tennis game my full attention.

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