By Jeanne Hampl (NADOI #962)
When the books Teamwork and Teamwork II first came out, I heard trainers say they weren’t any good because they didn’t describe the training using the click and treat method of training. Next, trainers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to rig a clicker so a person with a disability could use one. Then I heard people on the Yahoo list talking about dogs they were going to train as potential service dogs that were afraid of the sound of a clicker. Those worries were followed by people trying to make gumball like treat dispensers for clients who did not have the hand function to deliver treats. All are great attempts to adapt a training method for a client’s disability.
Is training really about all the equipment or a single method? Or is training about using the sound principles of operant and classical conditioning? How important is timing? Surely when adapting training to a person with limited physical or mental dexterity and timing, we as trainers must be creative. Are treats the only primary reinforcer and clicks the only marker that constitutes training? Are leash corrections or specific collars the only punisher?
Trainers who train service dogs or instruct others in how to train their own service dogs need to explore their own thinking on these concepts. We know dogs are amazing at adapting to their environmen. If not, they would not have survived and thrived as our companions all these years. Yet trainers seem to get stuck on the mechanics of their method of choice. How many trainers have actually asked their disabled clients what they are capable of doing and adapting that information into their training?
Surely a trainer who has learned only one way to train does not have the experience to adapt training unless they have a good understanding of learning theory and are willing to think outside their training box.
Another issue in adapting training involves reinforcers and punishers. I so often hear “my dog isn’t food motivated” or “doesn’t really like treats”. Yet trainers give all sorts of advice about how to get the dog more food motivated rather than figuring out what that individual dog actually considers a reward/reinforcer. Why should we humans dictate to the dogs we train what will be their reward? The other side of that equation is our concept of what is a punisher. If a punisher is anything that decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring, anything can be a punisher to the dog. My golden considers her Easy Walk harness a punisher. It definitely decreases her pulling which fits the scientific definition. But if you see her body language when I go to put it on it is also an aversive. Once the harness is on her body language changes and she is ready for a walk. So is it the harness itself or the fact that I bend over her to put it on or when she sees the harness is she thinking “darn now I can’t pull or run free, what fun is that”. I really don’t know, but to my dog the wonderful, humane, Easy Walk Harness is both a punisher and an aversive. I have seen service dogs respond the same way to their vests being put on. Their vests have come to predict something that they don’t like.
When looking at equipment to use with a client’s dog, the trainer must be able to demonstrate how to use the equipment and the client must be able to easily use the equipment. I had a client who was paralyzed on her right side after a stroke. I wanted to use a head halter on the dog. She was sure she could not put it on with just one hand. So I put my corresponding hand behind my back and rather easily put the head halter on the dog. Needless to say she was impressed and willing to try.
Another client did not have any finger dexterity to attach leashes to collars. So we used limited slip martingales. She could hold the collar open by slipping her hands into the collar. I then taught the dog to push its head through the opening. We had collars attached to different leashes or long lines and she was able to successfully let her dog out to air as well as getting the dog ready for an outing.
A trainer needs to sit down with their client and the client’s potential service dog and map out a training plan. The plan must take into account the client’s abilities and the tasks the dog needs to learn to assist the disabled client with their disability. The plan must outline the best way for the client to be able to teach basic obedience, public access skills and tasks. Working with the client’s knowledge of their dog and the trainers experience, a list of reinforcers and how those reinforcers can be delivered must be established.
Once training begins, the plan must continually be reevaluated to see if it is working, not only for the trainer but for the client and the dog.