Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The "Too Smart" Service Dog

Hi. As I explained on After Gadget, normally my service dog blogging (and related stuff) takes place over there. Except for today's post. I was going to post it at After Gadget, but it turns out it would violate WordPress TOS. So, I'm posting it here. Future Gadget- and Barnum-related posts will be back at After Gadget!

You asked so many great questions about my experiences as a service dog (SD) partner and trainer that it is taking quite some time for me to write all my answers. I am also still finishing Barnum's training. Until now I wanted to wait to train him to open the outside door to let himself out because I wanted to make sure he was really solid on having his door-opening behaviors under stimulus control (defined below). Which leads me to today's topic.

Two of you asked about my funniest or most embarrassing experience as a SD handler,* and -- especially considering that the idea for this post was inspired by support from www.wooddogcrate.com  -- I remembered a time I should have used a crate and about how my dog training skillz were not as groovy back then as I thought....

I've written in the past that Gadget was my heartdog, my perfect dog, and he was. But that doesn't mean he was actually a perfect dog! He was a reliable SD, and he liked to work, but he had his own agenda (as we all do).

When some people learn that I taught Gadget to open the refrigerator and other doors in the house -- including the door to the outside -- they picture chaos: a wagging stubby tail protruding from my open fridge while last night's leftovers are snorked down or Gadget opening and sauntering out the front door whenever he wanted. This is not what happened -- mostly. Why? Because the point of clicker training is to teach dogs to use their own minds to make the decisions you want. The more you train it, the more it works.

The behaviorist terminology for this is stimulus control, which basically means that the dog always does what you ask when you cue them and they don't do it when you don't cue them, etc. So Gadget only opened the fridge when I asked him to. For example, to get me a bottle of water. Likewise, he learned to let himself out to eliminate after I cued him to go out and not when I didn't . . . usually. And then there was this time which proved that I did not have stimulus control on door opening and that Gadget was thinking outside the, um, house.

A close-up of Gadget's face, turning to look over one shoulder, covered in a bright-orange vest. His muzzle is wet, his beard dripping water. His ears are cocked. In the background are blurry green leaves.
Summer of 2009 - Playing at the Pond
In the summer of 2009, Gadget was undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma and feeling great. He had virtually no side effects from the treatment and was in remission. He was happy to keep working as my service dog.

I was undergoing treatment, too -- for Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections. However, I had prioritized his healthcare above mine. Even though my doctor had wanted me to start daily intravenous antibiotics several months before, I waited until Gadget was in remission and his chemo schedule was bimonthly -- instead of weekly -- before I made the appointment.

To get daily infusions, I would need a PICC line. This is a little tube inserted into the artery in your biceps so you can get intravenous medication pumped directly into your bloodstream without needle sticks. Because I have such a complicated medical situation, I conducted research and anxiously weighed the pros and cons before deciding to make that appointment. By the time my mind was made up and Gadget was halfway through his chemo protocol, I just wanted to get the procedure over with and move on with my -- and Gadget's -- life.

Going to the hospital is always exhausting and stressful for me, and this procedure was no exception. I was nonverbal throughout, needed a sign language interprepter, and experienced some heavy-duty chemical exposures. Still, it basically went fine, and Betsy and I were glad to get back home. After my assistant helped me wash the hospital residues from my hair and skin, Gadget and I wandered outside, picking blackberries. He loved berries and would pick them right off the bushes.

Gadget steps among rocks and bushes to get at ground-vine blackberries. The picture shows him in profile, powerfully built, short gray peach-fuzz fur, and focused on his task.
Gadget picks blackberries off low bushes.
All was well . . . except that my PICC site was a bloody mess. I had to keep mopping it up while trying to reach past the thorns. (Note to self: Picking blackberries after minor surgery is a bad idea.) I came inside and called the visiting nurse association and was told that some bleeding was normal and that my nurse would clean it up when she changed the dressing the following day. So, fine.

By that night, however, my arm was red and swollen under the dressing. I wasn't particularly worried but Betsy was, and I started to "catch" some of her anxiety. Just as a precaution, I called the VNA again. They told me to call my doctor. Unfortunately, my doctor was away on vacation. Had she been there, she probably would have told me to wait to see what the nurse said in the morning. She doesn't panic unnecessarily. Instead, I called the covering physician, who did not know my case and whose first priority seemed to be that one of her colleague's patients didn't go septic on her watch! She told me to go to the ER right away and have the PICC line pulled and cultured in case it was infected. I really didn't want to do that! After everything I'd gone through to get it put in -- oy!

I didn't think it was infected. I didn't have symptoms of sepsis, and I didn't even know if it was possible for a line to get infected so soon after insertion. But the doctor was insistent, and Betsy was worried, and by now I was worried, too because I was brand-new to PICC lines, and septic shock is not something to mess with. Thus, I gathered my water, supplements, oxygen, medical information, etc., and prepared to go.

Normally when I went to the ER -- or anywhere -- I took Gadget with me. However, if I went to a toxic environment like a hospital, I would have to wash not just myself, but him. Since he was getting baths every time he went to the vet for chemo already, that was a lot of baths. Given how long and tiring this day was turning out, I didn't want to add giving Gadget yet another bath, too. Betsy could assist me, so we decided to leave Gadget at home.

Gadget really hated being left home by himself. For one thing, as my SD, he was used to going with me wherever I went. For another, even though it was much less severe than when I'd first adopted him, he did have some separation anxiety. However, at nine years old he had lots of training, much less separation anxiety, and excellent manners, so he only spent time in his crate to chew something messy (house rules).

If I'd been thinking clearly, I'd have remembered that, between my health problems and his, I was sometimes leaving Gadget inside when I went out, and his solution to this bad behavior on my part was to go looking for me -- by opening the door, letting himself out, and scenting me down. In other words, he was not waiting for the cue. He was thinking for himself, which is often a good thing in service dogs -- but not when you need behaviors under stimulus control!

If I'd been thinking clearly, I would have thought of this before we left. Unfortunately, I was exhausted, stressed, and in pain. My mind was on my arm and how I was going to convince the ER doctors not to pull out my PICC line. It was ten o'clock by the time I distractedly left Gadget with a marrow bone, turned on the outside light over the ramp, and Betsy loaded my powerchair into the van.

As we drove the dark, country roads on our half-hour drive to the hospital, I thought of Gadget at home with his bone. And then I smacked myself in the forehead. "Omigod!" I said to Betsy, "I bet Gadget has let himself out by now to look for me."

Betsy agreed this was likely. And if Gadget was outside in the warm August night the mosquitoes were likely swarming in through our open door. We were not keen on the idea of adding at least another forty minutes to our trip by turning around to deal with it. We considered our options.

Recently, our household had made two new purchases for which I was profoundly grateful that night. The first, most important option was a chain-link fence. This meant that Gadget would only be able to follow my scent to the gate. He wouldn't run into the road, get lost, get hit by a car, have a porcupine encounter, or any number of other disasters. Thank doG! He could, however, and likely would, start barking at the gate, calling for me, demanding my return. Since we'd probably be gone for hours (any trip to the ER is at least a three-hour proposition -- NOT including travel -- on a slow night), I really was not keen for my neighbors to hear him barking all night.

Our other recent acquisition was a cell phone. Because we live in a rural area with no cell towers, we never used the cell, but we had it for when Betsy was doing overnights at work. So, I turned on Betsy's cell phone and waited for a signal. When I got bars, I dialed information. I only knew the last names of our closest neighbors, a married couple who have different last names. I fervently hoped that they were listed. First I tried the woman's name -- no listing. Then I tried her husband and got a number. Hoping he was home, awake, and in a mood to go deal with my door-opening dog, I dialed his number.

"Hi," I said nervously when he picked up the phone. "This is Sharon-from-across-the-street? I'm sorry to call you so late at night. We're on our way to the hospital. We left in kind of a hurry. And I think it's possible that Gadget has opened the door and gone outside to look for me. He'll probably start barking soon. Would you mind going over and putting him in his crate -- whether or not he's outside? That way I won't worry. . . ."

My neighbor didn't ask how Gadget would be able to open the door or why I hadn't just put him in the crate before I left. He just said that he'd go over and take a look. I was so relieved. I would have liked a report, but we would soon be at the hospital where cell phones were not allowed, so we didn't ask him to call back.

The story of what happened in the ER is a tale worthy of its own post. I'll save that for another time. The most important part is that they did not remove my line. And the whole time, in the back of my mind -- when I was not dealing with doctors or nurses or administrative matters -- I wondered, "What happened with Gadget? Was he outside? Was he barking? Did my neighbor put him in the crate? What would we find when we got home?"

We drove home after midnight. I don't remember when. Probably one o'clock or two o'clock in the morning. The house was dark and quiet. There was no gray dog in the yard.

We came inside and found Gadget waiting quietly in his crate. On the counter was a note. It said something like, "Yep, he was outside and the door was open," with our neighbor's signature on the bottom. After that, when I went out, if I didn't take Gadget with me, I always put him in the crate (and gave him something to do, like chew on a knuckle bone or frozen Kong). You don't want to leave the door open for that kind of behavior more than once.

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT

P.S. Because we trained it from puppyhood, Barnum is my first dog to have no separation anxiety and to be 100 percent relaxed and happy in his crate. Can you tell?

Barnum inside his crate, lying in 'dead bug position,' asleep with his head thrown back, all his legs in the air, just letting it all hang out! He is lying on a tan puffy dog bed inside the crate, and there is a red Kong against his butt.
Barnum asleep in his crate.
*This is not my official answer to the questions raised by the Girl with the Cane blog. This story is just what floated into my head when the topics of "Gadget," "crates," and "funny" collided.


  1. What a relief that you put the fence up and that he didn't have to wait overly long since your neighbor could help. This is an important cautionary tale to the rest of us!--as with toddlers, with dogs we have to try to think ahead as best we can to what might occur to them to do.

    1. Hi Frida, thank you for commenting!
      I must admit, I have far more experience with dogs than with toddlers. In fact, lately I have been hearing a lot about a friend's baby, and I keep thinking of things that are relevant to puppies and not really relevant or appropriate at all to children. Oops!
      But yes, generally I'm pretty good at anticipating my dogs' moves, but that night I was so exhausted and distracted, I wasn't thinking very clearly.