Signals

close up bearThe lack of training, and more importantly the lack of treats going along with the training, has not ceased Bear’s signalling. His learning is less direct. He is re-evaluating the situation and how the high-value treats are distributed to maximize consumption of dried cow liver. A common strategy in this new day of no direction for Bear, which also happened to be a common strategy of yore, is to simply signal Maggie whenever she is around.

Bear sleeps on his couch. Maggie walks in from a run or from meandering around town, heading home like a fishing boat without navigation somehow finding its home port. First Bear’s ear twitches, followed quickly by a quick sniff. His eyes open and he struggles to roll from his back without flopping onto the floor. If you look at the right time you see a subtle grin from Bear as he spots Maggie going to the kitchen.

In no apparent hurry, Bear goes through a down- and up-dog before shaking off the last remnants of sleep, sauntering over to Maggie. She stares into the fridge, stricken with first-world fridge-blindness. Bear takes one sniff of Maggie’s knee, confirms it is indeed Maggie, and proceeds to signal, pawing Maggie’s calf.

bear on porchInstead of the atta-boy and a treat he expects, Bear receives a deafening “OW!” from Maggie. She glares at Bear then quickly connects the dots to me, glares at me, asking, “Why is he signalling?” She doesn’t voice it, but her stare also wonders why he doesn’t know that we aren’t playing that low blood-sugar for high-value treat game anymore? And on top of not playing anymore, why would he signal when I’m not low? I see these questions, or really accusations, in Maggie’s eyes glaring at me, thankful she is not equipped with laser eyes.

And it wouldn’t take much to uncover the pile of resentment for not only beginning the training in the first place, but also for even getting Bear at all. Think of all the shoes, books, and belts that would have been spared had the entire process never begun.

Bear doesn’t know we aren’t playing the game, and it’s been a reliable strategy in the past, so why not continue pawing Maggie at every opportunity. And I can’t fault him. In fact, I can’t help but hold out a secret hope that the years of training won’t be for naught, but rather simply some sort of time delay capsule, and that Bear is in the final stages of making sense of the game.

I think of the time Bear signalled an in-range Dec during training, only to get a small reprimand for a false positive. And then Maggie staggering upstairs searching for sugar. I think of the time nine-month old Bear jumped on someone I was meeting with at PSU, receiving a scolding for such rude behavior. And then hearing back from the victim of Bear’s rudeness that she was in fact hypo-glycemic, and was very low at our meeting.

bear by doorI cringe at all the lost moments for Bear. I thnk of the times he nailed it, smelling the low and signalling, only to be punished for his good work. My neck tingles as each scene unfolds in my mind, tensing in the end with punishment in place of a celebration. Each time learning of his good work well beyond any positive spin could occur. I wonder how much damage those instances did to the training process. Certainly as much or more damage than his Parvo incident.

I did throw in the flag on this low-signalling game. But what should I do with the middle of the night barking? Is it a low-blood sugar scent from Maggie or Dec that Bear is calling to attention, or is it the half loaf of Dave’s killer bread kicking down his back door that he needs relieve? In these days of no training, turns out I still drag myself downstairs, checking blood sugars in the dark, and more than half the time, giving Bear a dried cube of cow liver.

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The beginning of summer

Another rough day on the couch.

Another rough day on the couch.

And now he is lucky to get one scent-training each week. The morning comes and I hear one bark from down in Dec’s room. Does he need to go to the bathroom? Does he hear Heather getting ready? Or is he actually signaling that someone downstairs has low blood sugar? I lay in bed waiting for the sole bark. And what if I ignore it? What then?

I wake hearing Heather readying for work. There is no need for me to get up, but I still have this sense that I should do something. Summer started a short two weeks prior, and I still have an impulse that something needs doing. Simultaneously, there is a tamping down of ambition. A voice reminding me that it is summer, I can sleep in. And then my ears perk in anticipation of the sole-bark. My mind begins with predictions. How many times in the last week has the sole-bark appeared? What time did it occur at? And did Bear get a chance to get outside before heading to bed? He might need to go pee.

So it is quite likely the sole-bark interrupts my predictions. Onto second-level predictions, that of false-positives. With recent sole-barks as the best predictor, a false-positive signal will be the likely outcome, in which case what do I do?

Do I descend to Dec’s room, check blood sugar, confirm the false-positive, letting Bear interact with the adults, which is really what he wants? The sole-bark changed from “Hey! Someone is low!”, to “Hey! I hear you upstairs and would like to say hello!”

And so I lay waiting for the sole bark, continuing to debate the best action. Given all the time we’ve put in to training, it is difficult to ignore the bark. I am also one of those sleep-Nazi-parents. Though I don’t practice it, I am militant about kids getting to bed early and sleeping a long time. From the beginning I made sure the kids had a routine and got to bed. The sole-bark turns to multiple-barks if left alone, which would interrupt the sleep.

Should I ask Heather to be quieter? She isn’t making a lot of noise, but my ears are primed for the sole-bark and they are hearing the little things. The fridge door just opened. Something was just placed on the counter. Dog’s ears are certainly more sensitive than mine. It’s got to be coming soon. The front-door just opened. And there it is. The bark breaks the slumber. And another bark! What is with the multiple barks? He is getting quite cheeky. And three more barks!

As if there was any doubt what I would do, I jump from bed. In hopes of being able to reward a positive signal, I grab the high-value treats from the fridge. Could it be that Bear hears the fridge and expects the high-value treats? Turning Pavlov’s bells into Bear’s fridge-door.

In this case Dec was low. Apparently the multiple-barks means something different from the sole-bark. But I still wonder when to throw the towel in. At moments of strength I know that one or two scent-training sessions a day would get us there. And I am certain of this up until I pull out the scent and no-scent vials for training. There is little difference in Bear’s response to these different vials. And at moments of weakness I see the slide to pet-hood for Bear, realizing that he is already 95% of the way there.

Bear sings along with Dec practicing his Torah portion

Snow long gone

IMG_20140215_082404

The snow melted. The river swelled. Sledding hills turned back to grass. Bear cuddles with Fiona’s boots rather than gnawing them. 

Walks at the river turned soggy. Instead of walking along the river on the sand, we now walk through the trees on the path above the river.

IMG_20140210_075139While still in the thick of snow days, Bear donned his boots. The freezing rain that came after the Colorado-like snow cut his paws. So we squeezed his extra-large paws into the medium-sized boots and took to the streets. After a few minutes of high-stepping in his boots, Bear settled down and we walked to the middle school, walking in the middle of the street, abandoned of traffic and more stable than the poorly shoveled sidewalks. And though the front right boot fell off a few times, the boots did their job. I just hope to be able to use them more than this one time, which would bring down their average cost per use from about $70 to $35.

IMG_20140210_153206With the temperatures rising Bear no longer needed his boots when we ventured to the river hill for sledding. Equipped with a saucer someone left at our house, Declan and Bear raced down the hill. And the finish was always a tie, with Bear licking Dec’s face as he slowed to a stop. Then the walk back up to the top.

During the trek to the park and the racing up and down the hill, Declan got a low blood-sugar. I was unable to distinguish Bear’s excitement of sledding and a potential signal of low blood-sugar. Maybe his barking and menacing Dec was in fact a signal. Regardless, I didn’t bring along any high-value treats, and I’d used up all the low-value treats rewarding him for coming back when called, so Bear had to be satisfied with some warm affection for a reward.

IMG_20140210_154130During this time there were several episodes where Declan or Maggie walked by Bear, feeling low, confirmed the feeling with a test, and Bear remained calmed and collected. Not quite what I’d hope for. Several days in a row, Declan woke up low with no response from Bear. No response at least until Declan would walk to him after testing, petting him, presenting his hand, waiting for a signal. Bear now picks up on such pets and invitations from Declan to signal, and Bear would eventually signal by pawing or with a high-pitch bark.

IMG_20140210_100546It was time to change things up. The time and frequency of scent-training hadn’t changed much. I’d open a vial and begin scent training, which was primarily hiding the vial in a different room. So I went back to training with a dummy-vial and a scent-vial. No hiding the vial, simply presenting it to Bear, I’d reward a positive signal with a high-value treat. I’d give a “Uh-uh” and turn away with a false-positive, and I would reward a no-signal negative with a “Good boy” and a pet. Bear is still figuring it out, but he improves.

This past week he has had several live alerts with Declan and with Maggie. The other morning he even had a live alert with both of them at the same time.

Back when Bear fit under a chair.

Back when Bear fit under a chair.

From chewing to cuddling the boot.

From chewing to cuddling the boot.

By no means are we hitting on all cylinders. There are still times when low blood sugars are missed, and there are also times when Bear signals and they are not low. There are also times when he signals and they are HIGH. Which makes me wonder if he is picking up on the high-scent, though we have not introduced that. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

 

Basics

Dec serves Bear his food.

Dec serves Bear his food.

Constant diligence is needed. Letting unwanted behaviors slide just a bit, and we are paying for it immediately. We’ve been taking Bear on regular walks, which improves his on leash behavior, but recently I’ve been taking him to the river. At the river Bear doesn’t need a leash. So back on the leash at the end of the day walk around the block Bear yanks like he is readying for the Iditarod. Not ready for mushing him through the ice, I quickly change directions, doubling back on course, taking weird lefts and rights across the street as if I’ve been chugging the Schnapps all day. Bear is not amused, though he settles down, yanking less often and with less force, which my shoulder is thankful for. I may need some physical therapy in the new year.

Dec and Bear ready at the end of the day.

Dec and Bear ready at the end of the day.

So after noticing how quickly Bear loses a skill as repeated and basic as leash-walking, I figured it might be a good idea to go back to other basics. On the way back from the river we stopped at our local grocery store. And, no, Bear did not go in the river, so he his odor didn’t fill the store upon entrance. Looking back on the year and a half that we’ve had Bear, I realize now that I shouldn’t have been so eager to take him to the store while I shopped. The best setup is to take him through the store with the only task to make sure he minds his manners, and it is a lot easier to do this when not pushing the shopping cart and picking apples out of the bin.

Declan and Bear trying to commandeer parent's bed.

Declan and Bear trying to commandeer parent’s bed.

Another “hind sight is 20-20” lesson I realize is to use treats to redirect. And I’m sure I’d been told to do this by multiple people, but for some reason there comes a point when I feel Bear is all filled up on treats, and that it is time for him to learn, and if he isn’t learning then punishment ensues. And I realize now that this is the point that dog-training books say to take a deep breath, leave your dog at home, and enjoy being without him. Lucky for Bear “punishment” involved multiple sits, stays, and downs. And looking back, it is so clear the misplaced use of basic commands for punishment. Hopefully my lesson arrived in time to salvage Bear as a service dog. We tour the store without a cart, without anyone else, and with a pocket full of treats. We swerve ever so close to the nose-level chips, and I give a yank and a “leave-it” command when Bear looks to snatch a bag.

In the hammock with Dec and Tabor.

In the hammock with Dec and Tabor.

Bear remains calm walking through the store. And he learns quickly to look away from anything enticing, looking to me for a treat instead.And he re-learns this each time we go to the store. So I’m not sure how he so quickly loses the leash-walking skill. Could it be that his line has been bred for seeing-eye-dogs for so long that he wants to lead during the walk with a certain amount of tension on the line?

And may next year be one without chewed up library books and shoes and textbooks from school. And may there not be four-pound Costco-style salami eaten, nor giant Tillamook cheese loaves. And may the loaves of olive ciabatta left on the counter remain there for the humans in the house in the coming year. And may the new year not experience bags of bagels taken and eaten from the pantry, nor lunch-size chocolate milks taken and consumed from the pantry. And may bike helmets be used to protect skulls rather than be used as a chew toy in the new year.

Happy New Year.

Live Alerts

IMG_20130129_121642While Declan and I battled with remote control helicopters, Bear signaled by pawing Dec. And Dec was 59. After properly celebrating the signal, Dec said that Bear signaled him earlier in the day when he was in fact low as well. So two live alerts in a day.

I noticed Maggie poured herself a juice while she was fixing breakfast. After asking her, she said she was 77. Bear had been eyeing his bowl of food at the time, looking at Maggie a bit, but certainly not moving in for a signal. With a little direction, he went in and pawed. Not sure if that is Kosher, but I gave him some hot dog bits for it.

Dec returns

Bear and Jelly cuddle.

Bear and Jelly cuddle.

No medical emergencies on the flight home. And Bear was beside himself at Dec’s arrival. He shook and wagged and whined and pushed and licked. His whole body shook. Bear squeezed onto the loveseat next to Dec while he handed out presents and told stories. There was the fart in the elevator, grandma getting lost every day, and the monster slippers he and Rylee strutted around the hotel in. And Dec also talked a bit about the flight to DC when he helped someone who was on his way to a coma.

glucagonI spoke to the doctor that was also on the flight. She said that if it weren’t for Declan the man would have likely died. I initially called the doctor to find out if we could get the glucagon replaced that Dec ran up the aisle. But after talking to her about what Dec had done, I didn’t care about the glucagon.

During Dec’s absence, Bear seemed to take a bit of a vacation as well. Though he did great during scent training, perking up as I walked by with a sample up my sleeve, and trotting around the room to find the hidden sample; he did not do a great job on live alerts. Maggie had two lows in one night. Bear remained in a deep sleep, snoring through the night.

Grandma getting a sloppy kiss of gratitude from Bear.

Grandma getting a sloppy kiss of gratitude from Bear.

Before bed I brace for an alert, practicing in my mind what to do. I hear the bark and jump out of bed, grab a kit and juice box and a treat. When it happens, however, I find myself rationalizing the disturbance. Bear got into the pantry (or Fiona’s room) and polished a loaf of bread. It’s worked its way through, knocking at the door, and now he needs relief. Not only do I yearn for undisturbed sleep, or at least less disturbed sleep since I am up at this point, but I also am anticipating a false positive. I need to honor Bear’s signals, but the false positive disheartens me. Back in bed after a false positive, I’m awake from the trip downstairs. I begin playing out training we’ve done and how to change it. And I go through past live alerts that I’ve not responded to, and at times reprimanded Bear during a live alert. My heart sinks more.

Monster slippers

Monster slippers

Bear snores, back to sleep so quickly. If only I could slip back into sleep like Bear. I begin to question the viability of training Bear. He remains a challenge on the leash. My left shoulder can attest to that. Yet he improves on the leash (at least with me). A neighbor came by to take Bear to her house to play with their puppy. She returned after thirty feet of trying to walk with him on the leash, unable to deal with his bouncing. She then drove her car a block to take him.

And yet I am not ready to let him slip into full pet-hood. He can do this job. He has done it occasionally. And I believe he can do it, I just don’t know if it is in our combined constitution to get him there. I’ve made the two-year mark a defining line. Until then, my hot dog consumption will remain above average as I snag a few pieces each time I prepare Bear’s training treats. Capture

Bestest day ever ever

IMG_20130802_074300It’s great sleeping down here in Dec’s room. He is the smallest of the people, and my favorite. I sleep on his bed or on the floor or on some giant pillow. I love being in here. Wait! I hear something. It’s my favorite person. “YERP!” Get me out of here!

This small Declan person is so responsive. Now for my favorite part of the day. I get to say hello to my favorite person. Wait! I need something in my mouth. My stuffed animal, the long one with a rope on one end would be great. Where is it? Wait, here is a bunched up sock that smells of Declan. Perfect! My favorite. Hello, hello, hello. “Rrrrrwrrrrr. Rwrrrrrr.”

Oh this is great. Hello. Hello. You want the sock? That’s why I brought it. Here you go. Now why do you throw it downstairs. That’s where I got it. Stuffed animal! My favorite. Hello, hello, hello.

Morning walk at the river.

Morning walk at the river.

Wait! Here comes the big person. My favorite. He has the big coat on. This means we go for a walk. My favorite part of the day. I have to wait first, though. I leave the warm place after he puts my favorite blue leash on, and after he says “Okay.” There it is. Let’s go.

WHOA! I have to pee. Quick to the grass. Ah, what a relief. Now we walk. What? We’re stopping? Big tug on the leash. Tight on my neck. Growl from the big one means something. I’m still trying to figure this out. Okay, we’re walking now. Cold crisp air is great! Collar is a bit tight. Whoa! I guess we are going backwards now. Still trying to figure this one out, but sure I’ll back it up. Let me know when we’re ready to go.

Now I need some more grass, need to take care of number two. Looks perfect right there. Collar tight, back it up, okay. I didn’t like that spot either, how about this one? Okay? Phew, because I was about to explode. Hey there is a good smell over here. I can’t quite reach, just a little further, collar is tight. Whoa! Here I am suddenly looking over the big person whose crouching over that poop. Waiting. Waiting. Okay we can go again.

My favorite stick at the river. Found it three times in a row.

My favorite stick at the river. Found it three times in a row.

What’s that smell? The little one? Is he out here? There is the warm place. My favorite part of the day. Back inside and smothering Declan, the little one, on my couch, the one by the window. He is pretending to be asleep. He is under a blanket. I love this game. I have to try to lick his face. And if I lick it, then I need to try to lick it again.

Whup! I hear the can opening. I smell the food. Gotta get off this couch. I just realized how hungry I am. “Sit.” I know this one. Got it. “Okay.” I know this one, too. Sniff it out. Smells like the same stuff that was in the dish yesterday. Looks like it, too. It is. Few bites. Serviceable, but not nearly as tasty as that dish I can reach on the counter. But I sure am hungry.

IMG_20131007_131522My favorite part of the day coming right up. Finish the meal and off to my couch, laying belly up. Ah. I just realized how tired I am. Running. Running. Barking. Barking. River. What’s that smell? Reminds me of those yummy treats that are round. Smell still there. Back at the river. Running. Running. There’s that smell again. And is there something touching my nose? Blink. Oh yeah. I remember. The plastic tube with white inside. That’s the smell. Jump up on the big guy. Or bark. Or pull his knee with my paw. Yep. There it is. And now the yummy treat. And now I wait. I wait. I wait. “Okay.” Where is that scent? Not here. In the other room. I can sense it. Not sure where. But it is here somewhere. On the couch maybe? Nope. Sheesh. I am hungry. And I know the yummy treat is coming at some point soon. Is it on the chair? On the shelf? Ahhhh! I can smell it. Where is it. “Rerp! Rerp!” I can smell it! I want my treat. Oh, right there! Got it. I found it! I found it. Yummy treat! My favorite part of the day.

The big people are gone. Just the smaller ones now. Normally the smaller ones are gone by now. And I’m in that place by the door. And I have a dish of water and my favorite chew toy. But the smaller people are not leaving. They are still here. I can stay on my couch. I am so tired.

IMG_20131017_185344Kids here but not here. Two downstairs and one in the room. Time for my favorite game of find what’s on the counter. No way! A bag full of round bread with seeds on top. Quiet now. Quiet. I’ll take it to room with the one kid, the small one. The one named Declan. I like being around him. He is talking to that flat screen hanging on the wall. I like this brown long furry thing on the floor. Soft. Keep quiet, though. Pesky bag. I can see them, but they are trapped. Free the bread. Freed. Soft and squishy, and so easy to throw down in two bites. Six bites of this round bread.

What else. Pantry door open. My favorite place. What? Where is the chocolate milk? And there is normally a loaf of bread on this shelf. I can smell it. But it’s not here. And the pasta! I smell it, but it is also gone from its normal resting place. That stuff is fun to eat. Crunchy and small. They disappear in the brown furry thing in that other room.

Thirsty. To the white bowl that the people sit on sometimes. Refreshing.

Waiting for Ashley to finish eating my food.

Waiting for Ashley to finish eating my food.

Whup! Glass jar with something in it that smells a lot like bacon. Yep, there it is. A bit tricky to carry. Got it. What is this metal thing on top? New challenge. Whoa, it just popped off. Cool. Now for the jar full of bacon grease. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm. Thirsty. Back to the white chair. Where did the water go? “Yerp! Yerp!” Here comes Declan. He is so responsive. And suddenly it is refilled. Lovely.

Couch. Tired. Sleep. Hungry. Ah, more treats on the counter. Best day ever. The little people stay home and leave treats on the counter for me.

Enticing treats

IMG_20131017_182855We have a better handle on what Bear consumes. He is more consistently put in the office during the day, leading to fewer loaves of bread eaten. Now the loophole is in the early afternoon when Fiona or Declan get home. They let Bear out of the room while they forage through the pantry and fridge, leaving remnants of the teenage diet on the counter. Easy picking for Bear.

Bowl of Costco hot dogs and cheese sticks a day

Bowl of Costco hot dogs and cheese sticks a day

Because Bear eats more of what he is supposed to, not getting as much cheese, bread, salami, and cookies as before, his desire to work for treats increased. The hot dogs and cheese are suddenly more of a treat than before. So now when we pull out the scent samples, the smell of hot dogs motivates Bear. He is more active and vocal, sniffing for the scent, and announcing he found it.

Resting after doing the laundry.

Resting after doing the laundry.

Bear sleeps on the couch and I walk by with a scent up my sleeve or in a pocket. He wakes himself to alert the scent, earning a piece of hot dog, at which point we continue training by hiding the scent in another room. Bear remains in a STAY until release, at which point he goes to the room I just exited. Once in the room I wonder at what point does he smell the scent. Sometimes he’ll sniff around a bit and then come up to me and paw me, or bark, or jump up on me (he has incorporated some new signals on his own).

At what point do I reward the signal? Has he gotten enough of a whiff of the scent by passing by it, or should I wait for until he really locates it, putting his nose on it? Continuing some inconsistency in his training, I keep to no rule on this. If time is short, I’ll tend to give some leniency. With a lot of time, I wait patiently until Bear finds the scent. But I am not sure either is really better. If he smells the scent, but is not right on it, shouldn’t he signal. But then how strong is that scent? It is a cotton swab inside a plastic beaker. How much scent can be wafting out of that little thing?

Bear did signal Dec the other night, so it might be working regardless of my lack of knowledge. Dec was in the tub and Bear started yapping his high-pitched annoying bark. At first we ignored it, thinking Bear was simply excited, wanting to jump in the tub with Dec since he does everything else with Dec. After his persistence, we got a kit and checked Dec’s blood sugar. Dec got a juice pouch and Bear got a piece of hot dog with a side of cheese.

IMG_20130321_065938Maybe we will get there. Middle of the night alerts may be a stretch, though. Bear sleeps well. His snoring woke me the other night. I considered getting a scent sample at that time for some middle of the night training but opted for sleep. Maybe next time.