Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tail Waggin' Tutors at the Library Today

Today Ranger and I went to the Poulsbo library so he could listen to children read. I'm really pleased by how well he's learned the routine. Rather than use the main door and possibly run into people with allergies or fear of dogs we've been asked to enter through the French doors that open directly into the children's section. The walkway leads to the main doors and the path to the French doors isn't immediately obvious but as Ranger took a step past the path I reminded him "Our door." And Ranger immediately turned and headed down the path to our door.

When we arrived there were no children waiting so Ranger was visiting with the Children's Librarian. As we were talking and Ranger was getting his tummy rubs twin boys came and were interested in reading to Ranger. I asked Ranger to get up and told him we needed to go to our space. He jumped to his feet and headed for the corner where we set up for reading time. I asked him to wait while I shifted the furniture around to make room for him--he's a big guy. Then I spread his blanket on the floor and told him to get ready for listening. He trotted over to the blanket and lay down. The boys were very impressed that Ranger did everything I told him to. Their Mom wanted to know how long it had taken to train Ranger like that. The answer is that we've had him for three and a half years and have worked on his training nearly every single day. I went on to say that while we do train pretty much every day it isn't all formal training and that for Ranger it's fun time for interacting with his people. After Ranger had listened to a Lego firefighter story the boys began asking me questions about Ranger's gear. He wears a pair of bandannas around his neck when we visit one is his red Therapy Dog International bandanna the other is the blue PAWS Buddy Brigade bandanna--one bandanna isn't quite long enough to go around his neck and still allow me to tie it without getting a lot of his fur caught in the knot. By sewing the two bandannas together it makes it long enough that I have a better chance of not tying him into the knot. We talked about how he knows that if I put his "uniform" on he knows that he's going to work and that he knows if he's not wearing his "uniform" he's off duty. We looked at his ID card which really impressed the boys and talked about how it says he is not a Service or Assistance Dog and what the difference is between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog.

After they left there wasn't another child waiting to read so Ranger and I hung out in our corner and practiced some of his tricks and then I was just petting him, running my fingers through his fur. About this point a little girl came to show Ranger the pictures in her book. I was still running my fingers through his fur and hit a snag. Apparently I pulled a little hard trying to work it out as Ranger yelped and jumped up. The girl was very startled and kind of afraid but when I asked her if she'd ever yelled ouch when her Mom was combing her hair and explained that what Ranger had just done was to yell ouch she was fascinated. They finished looking at the pictures in her book and she held her hand out to Ranger so he licked it. I'm not sure what she expected when she gave him her hand but Ranger had no doubt what to do. It was pretty cute listening to her giggle because his tongue tickled. Please, note that part of Ranger's equipment is hand sanitizer. However, when I offered it to them her mother said they'd just go wash her hands in the bathroom.

Ranger and I had a long talk with the Children's Librarian as we were getting ready to leave. Some of her colleagues at other branches have been asking about the program and she wanted to know what kind of training the dogs have and how people go about getting their dogs registered. All in all it was a good day of educating.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Therapy Dog vs Service Dog vs Pet Dog

Ranger, as I've mentioned before, is a Registered Therapy Dog with Therapy Dog International. He is not a Service Dog although the training and expectations for behavior are similar in many respects. He is also a Pet Dog. There are legal distinctions between all of these. Service Dogs, by law, are allowed in any public space that their humans can go. Therapy Dogs do not have the same legal right to be anywhere their humans are; Therapy Dogs can only go where they have permission. Pet dogs are even more limited in the places they are allowed to go; pets can only go where an open pet policy exists.

Yesterday, I was at one of my favorite thrift shops, Value Village, and noticed that there were several dogs in the store, these were all small purse sized dogs and none of them were wearing anything to identify them as Service animals. After seeing my third dog in the shop I decided to ask when I checked out--maybe Value Village was actually a dog friendly venue. If so then, Yah!, one more place I could safely take Ranger so that he's exposed to more places where he has to behave. And to be honest more convenient for me if I can take him out for a hike then stop and shop on my way home without having to be mindful of the weather or where I park. I try very hard to be mindful of condition so I don't like to leave Ranger in the car unless it is very overcast and even then I'll only leave him until the temperature hits 60 degrees F. If it is sunny I try to park in the shade and again the 60 degree rule applies. But, getting back to my story. As I was checking out I asked if Value Village was a dog friendly establishment commenting that I'd seen several dogs that day. I got the standard "Service Dogs are welcome" and a lot of complaints about people bringing in their dogs who then urinate or defecate on the floor and the owners don't clean it up. I said I was asking because my dog is a registered Therapy Dog and I'm always looking for more places I can take him.

 "Oh, Service Dogs are fine," they said.

"But he isn't a Service Dog he is a Therapy Dog, the difference is that by law a Service Dog can go anywhere I can but a Therapy Dog can only go where he has permission," I try to explain.

"If you need him you're welcome to bring him in," comes the response.

"I don't need him, but his job is visiting so I'm always please, when I can find a place he's welcome so I can keep him in practice," I say trying to explain further.

"Sure, you can bring him for socialization," they respond.

"I should mention that he's a big guy about 90 lbs." I  add.

"No, problem. You can bring your Service Dog," I'm told.

Frankly, I was surprised at how little understanding of the distinctions there was. I'm not sure that there was enough understanding to give me informed permission to bring Ranger shopping with me in Value Village. I probably won't until I've talked to them further and made sure they understand that they can say "No."

I'm sure the lack of understanding is partly due to the  very open way the law is written in the great state of Washington. Here there is no requirement that a Service Animal be identified in anyway, the animal doesn't have to wear a vest, cape, bandanna, tag or anything else. If the human partner declares the animal is a Service Animal the shop owner/manager/staff must accept that.

I've noticed, however, that people who are using a Service Animal because they need the assistance the animal provides are careful to identify their animal with a vest, cape, or bandanna. When he's working Ranger wears bandanna identification, we also carry an official identification card with his photo and he has a easily spotted yellow tag that identifies him as a Therapy Dog. You can see it in the photo below.

I try to make sure he's wearing his full compliment of tags when he's out in public but I sometimes forget. He wears his county dog licence, rabies vaccination tag, Canine Good Citizen ID tag, ID tag and his "I am a Therapy Dog" tag. In addition we've attached all his tags to longer clips so they don't get hidden by his coat. It really isn't that hard to do and yet I noticed a couple of the dogs I saw yesterday weren't even wearing collars much less tags.

So what I'm wondering is why, since the actual partners of Service Animals already do, we can't change the law to require that a Service Animal actually wear some form of identification. If nothing else it would force unscrupulous people who just want to bring their pet shopping with them to actually plan their deception and buy some form of Service Animal ID. It might cut down on some of the idiots whose thoughtless misuse of the term Service Animal give those who genuinely depend on their assistance a bad rap. What do you think?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ranger the Mooch

As a registered therapy dog Ranger makes regular visits to a local nursing home. Visiting the locked ward today (dementia patients) one of the patients was just finishing breakfast. Ranger indicated strongly that he wanted to visit her first. I knew he wanted to mooch whatever he could so I started him visiting on the other side of the room. Later when I noticed she had finished we went back to visit with her. There were a couple of bits of whatever she'd been eating--sausage would be my guess--left on her plate and the plate had been pushed toward the middle of the table. Ranger walked over and sat politely for some petting which the resident obligingly provided. Then before I knew what was happening she picked up the smaller bit of leftover and fed it to Ranger. He sat there eyeing the larger bit of leftover breakfast clearly hoping it would come his way, too. The resident told him he couldn't have the big piece but he continued to hope. Never once did he sign food. We moved on to another resident and visited with them for a bit and continued to make the rounds returning to the first one when she indicated she wanted us back. Apparently she wanted us back so she could give Ranger the last bit of her breakfast. Note to self: remember this is the dementia ward and the residents aren't predictable and don't remember what you told them or what they said seconds ago. We definitely need work on the leave it command--not so much him minding as me remembering that we have this tool.

Visiting the nursing home is taxing work on many levels but the smiles make it all worthwhile. There's nothing quite as sweet as seeing an old lady who was sitting dejectedly in her wheelchair smile all over her face when she starts petting the dog or watching Ranger settle comfortably next to another wheelchair, lounging against it while a woman chatters away to him about how he's so gorgeous and such a good dog. It's also fun to see staff drop whatever they were doing to come pet Ranger. Or the deskbound staff invite him to stand on their desks as they lean across to pet him. There was also a very tiny Asian lady who was fascinated by Ranger. She'd never met a dog so big. He probably weighed as much or more than she did. I very much enjoyed watching the guy emptying the trashcans grin all over his face when he met Ranger. His English was pretty limited but my impression was that he couldn't get over what a big friendly dog Ranger is. I didn't recognize the language but I think that's what he was saying. I was also entertained by the Activity Director getting Ranger cup after cup of water from the water cooler. He was thirsty and really appreciated the water but I had expected  to get it for him. Still I enjoyed watching her give Ranger cups of water because it was clearly giving her so much pleasure. Some of visting is a bit bittersweet listening as residents describe the dogs they once knew and how much they miss them or watching the one woman fade from recognizing Ranger as himself to identifying him as her dog Skeeter or the gentleman who struggled to find the words he was losing because he wanted to describe what a beauty Ranger is. He wanted to tell me what a beautiful coat Ranger has with the black frosting on his brown fur but needed me to supply the words coat and fur, such common easy words and yet ones he could no longer find. Still, it's good to watch Ranger clearly enjoying himself doing what he loves best, meeting people and getting them to pet him. And it's a good feeling to know that we brightened some days even if just for awhile.

Because this kind of visiting is taxing work the other gal that had her dog visiting with us brings treats that her dog gets at the end of the visit. When the treat bag came out Ranger's bottom hit the floor and his left paw whipped up and down in a very clear sign for food. I'm wondering why in the first instance when the food was slow in coming he didn't sign and in the second case when it the food was practically on it's way he still signed. Could he recognize that the resident wouldn't have understood the sign and the other therapy dog partner could understand it? Interesting to speculate.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Begging for bites with the food sign.

It is amazingly sweet when Ranger signs food when he's trying to mooch a bit of whatever I'm eating. Yes, I admit it I share my food with my dog. He's allowed to look soulfully at whatever I'm eating and quietly indicate that he'd like some too but he's not allowed to be an obnoxious beggar. Lately, he sits politely watching me eat looking soulfully at my food and if that doesn't work he signs food. If I can be permitted a bit of anthropomorphizing, it's as if Ranger thinks I didn't understand the soulful gazing and so he needs to make it clearer by using our shared language of sign. Of course he gets something to eat when he asks like that just not always what I'm eating. I don't share my expensive dark chocolates with him because they aren't healthy eating for him but, truth to tell, I seldom share them with anyone else either ;-). He did, however, get some tiny pieces of steak last night.

He's beginning to use the sign for cheese more often but still clearly prefers to use the more generic food. He's definitely liking the variety of cheese and chicken treats he's getting as we try to establish categories of cheese-ness and chicken-ness.

Meanwhile, I have a new favorite photo of Ranger.

I actually sent this one and one other to Patricia McConnell as an entry in her "your dog on a bookcover" solicitation. I think Ranger would be lovely on a bookcover. Here's the other photo I submitted.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Polite Greetings

One of Ranger's very favorite places to go is Naturally 4 Paws. Most of his food and treats comes from there so we are there quite often and Ranger, of course, gets lots of attention and treats every time we have him with us. I noticed on our visit today that he has added something to his usual polite behavior as we check out. For a long time the routine was that when we took our purchase up to the counter to check out he would put his paws up on the counter and lean across so the staff could pet him then he would get down and sit to wait for his treats. This routine is repeated many times during the course of check out. After we started teaching him K9 sign I noticed that if there was a delay in the treat delivery part of the routine he was signing food. Today I realized that now when he sits he immediately signs food every time. It's become part of the routine. I wonder if he's actually asking for his treats or if it has become a superstitious behavior in this context. I'm going to assume he is asking because it is appropriate usage in context. I love catching him using his words. I'm going to have to take a video camera with me one of these days and try to capture him using his words.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cheese and Chicken

We've been working on the gestures for cheese and chicken. For some reason it's easier for me to teach two things at a time than it is just one--something about the way my mind works it just makes more sense to me and fortunately Ranger doesn't seem to have a problem with it. Something that I hadn't really thought about when we embarked on this enterprise is how many different kinds of cheese and chicken there are. I was startled when Ranger who had seemed to master cheese already was offering only food for the special cheese treats I bought him. Then I realized that Ranger had learned one thing, Cheetos, was cheese but he hadn't acquired a general category of "cheese-ness." The same is true for chicken. That word means chicken jerky, chicken nuggets, chicken treats, rotisserie chicken, etc. Since I don't know of any other way to teach Ranger categories than to expose him to lots of items in the category labeling them all the same, much the way he learned the noun book as described in a previous post, Ranger will be very well treated for awhile with lots of types of cheese and multiple incarnations of chicken. By exposing him to all these different incarnations of the same thing I hope he'll form his own categories for "cheese-ness" and "chicken-ness." Somehow I doubt he'll find experiencing a wide variety of his favorite treats much of a burden.

Still and all, it's fascinating to look at the mechanics of language acquisition. I never really thought about it when the children were learning to talk but children are expected to learn language as we know it so the fact that they did wasn't amazing. And that they could do it was something that they came preprogrammed with so the mechanics didn't especially interest me. Now, however, I'm engaged in teaching another species language use akin to my own something that isn't expected and if language acquisition is preprogrammed the programming isn't readily apparent so the whole experience is new and wondrous.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"What Are You Training With Your Dog?"

My son has both an advantage and disadvantage using Ranger for his 4-H dog project. The advantage is that Ranger already knows all the basics and makes the other dogs look untrained. The disadvantage is that 4-H training time can get pretty boring for both the son and Ranger. Last night was a no dogs meeting and among other things an adult leader went around the table and asked each child what they were training with their dog. Most answers were working on stays, working with distractions, etc., my son when asked calmly informed the leader that we're teaching Ranger to sign and to carry a bucket. A blank look from the leader who clearly had no idea what was meant by teaching the dog to sign then praise for working with the dog and moving on to the next kid. I'm rather sorry she didn't ask for clarification. She's rather old school in her assessment of canine cognition assuming that dog's aren't all that intelligent so it would have been interesting to see her reaction when he explained that we are teaching Ranger a number of gestured symbols (signs) that correspond to human words so that Ranger can tell us what he wants and needs. I hadn't really thought about it but we're doing a very good thing not only for Ranger but also for the children. They're growing up in a household where it is accepted as a given that animals can communicate with us. I like thinking how much richer their lives will be for starting with that expectation.

And yes Ranger has some small plastic buckets with rope handles that my son is teaching him to carry by the handle. So far Ranger will pick up the bucket but he's still working on learning to hold it until released the step necessary prior to learning to walk with it in his teeth. I can imagine Ranger delivering items to the children for them to put away. Ranger, take bucket (load bucket with earbuds that were left on the couch) find (child name here).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

I Wonder What it Means to Him

Ranger has some treat dispensing puzzles that he seems to really enjoy. The other day out of curiosity when we were playing with a puzzle I signed What Is That? indicating the puzzle. Ranger signed Food quickly followed by making the sign for Toy. I can easily see that as an intentional combination of signs he knows to say that what I wanted him to identify was a toy that gave him food. For me FoodToy would be a reasonable categorization of the puzzle but does it really mean the same thing to him? Perhaps he meant it not as a compound word but as identification of two different things the puzzle itself was a Toy but inside the toy was Food and he didn't know which one I wanted him to identify. Or maybe he didn't know how to answer the question so signed both Food and Toy hoping one would be right.

I truly believe other species like dogs have something like language as I know it but how much that language corresponds to the language I use and understand that's the real question. And this is where it is so nice not to have to hold myself to scientific standards, because I'm doing this strictly for us (myself and my canine) I'm free to assume that his language use corresponds to mine and Food Toy meant FoodToy. I am sufficiently concerned with scientific accuracy that I feel obliged to recognize that my assumptions may not be correct.