Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Charlie's Big Trick

Last night was our last dog class (that is until I can get signed up for the next session!) and I'm extremely proud to report that Charlie was a super hero during class.   He aced every command I gave and he even tried some new things (like a 12' agility tunnel - WHOO HOO!)  Of course, the highlight of the evening was when he successfully executed the latest "trick" that I've been working on with him.  Here's how it goes:

I put Charlie in a down-stay and he smiles at me.  

Then I say "Roll Over" and give a little finger wiggle.

The roll starts, gains momentum, and then ...

VOILA!  We're back at the starting position.  Sounds easy but trust me, it took loads of trials before he would reliably perform this one.   I'm so proud that now I'm going to start working on a "High Five" command.  (Poor Charlie!)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Practice, Practice, Practice

If there's one thing I've learned from raising a child with autism and a dog to serve him, it's that practice is everything.   This is particularly so with regard to social situations (for both Tim & Charlie) - repetition is truly the key to success.

Typically, in a non-distracting environment, Charlie behaves brilliantly as an obedient companion and servant.  However, add in a few distractions (i.e. dogs, children, trash bins, etc.) and Charlie can quickly lose his focus.  Today's outing to the Berkeley Kite Festival provided ample opportunity for Charlie to practice his social skills in an extremely challenging environment.  

The day started well with cool 59 degree weather (the Bay Area has a vast array of climate zones and the differential between our home and close-by Berkeley can be as much as 20-30 degrees.)   Charlie managed the drive well ( I understand he had some motion sickness issues as a young puppy but we've not experienced any of that since his arrival in SF) and eagerly responded to our commands as we unloaded our gear.

The event venue, Cesar E. Chavez Park, is a popular park for pets and their people and was even given the highest "Four Paw" rating in Maria Goodavage's book, "The Dog Lovers Companion to the San Francisco Bay Area."  That rating, combined with the kite festival madness, made for a tremendous assemblage of people, kites and dogs in one location.   For Charlie, this was distraction central.

I'd like to report that our many hours of training and practice paid dividends in this situation.  I cannot make such a report.   Pulling, tugging, leaping, lunging ... no, I'm not writing about the kites here.  The wonderdog appeared to revert to his most feral instincts in this environment and he behaved about like one would expect an 8 month old puppy to behave.

In spite of his less than optimal performance today, I am not defeated.  In fact, quite the opposite.  This situation reminded me of the importance of exposing Charlie to new and challenging environments so that he can continue to practice the skills that we work on in our distraction-free backyard.   The principle is not unlike our guiding principle in working with Tim:   practice his weakest skills and PATIENTLY await the results.  

In spite of our rough start, I must report one noteworthy behavior we observed today.  Throughout the event we were stopped a number of times by small children asking to pet Charlie.  Thankfully, in each such instance, Charlie obediently sat and waited for me to release him from his sit-stay (which I wouldn't do until the curious child had finished attending to Charlie.)  In light of his general behavior at the event, this surprised me but made me realize that Charlie is beginning to understand the important parts of his job.  As long as we get that part down, I'm not terribly bothered by his otherwise dog-like behavior!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hot Fun in the Summertime

Tim's officially been out of school now for a week and I'm on a constant quest to find new things to engage him. We've covered all the usual activities:  library, pool, bowling, lunch with daddy ... but all of these activities have been sans Charlie.  (Just don't have the nerve yet to barge into such establishments with 50 lbs of a not-quite-fully-trained-bundle-of-lovin'.)  So today I was determined to partake in a full day of Charlie fun.  (Also had to wait for a repair guy with a ridiculous 12-6 arrival window.  Ugh.)

Our mission was to teach Charlie some very basic agility skills.  (I don't have a clue what I'm talking about here but he readily demonstrated that he's more agile than I so I consider our efforts a success.)  First we set up our makeshift agility course with a hula hoop hung from our pergola.

Then, with the help of the magic clicker (see previous post about clicker training) we slowly worked up to a jump through the hoop.

Before long, Charlie was flying through the ring like a seasoned Zambini brother!

Of course, Tim thought this was hilarious to watch and after hearing me command Charlie to go "through the hoop", he took it upon himself to do the same.  Of course, he got more than a cookie for his effort - sorry Charlie!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Angel has a Forked Tail

Have I mentioned that Charlie is still a puppy?  After a happy romp in the backyard I stepped inside to answer the telephone.  When I returned to puppy playtime, I discovered this mess.  Not even sure what it is (I think it's the lining that goes underneath the mulch to help deter weeds) but Charlie sure enjoyed shredding it.   Puppy training tonight ... hmmmm.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Bonding Game

Every time we take Charlie out and about wearing his "clothes", people inevitably stop us to ask all about his duty to Tim and how he's progressing in his training.  We always proudly respond with tales of his one-of-a-kind demeanor and eagerness to learn all the basic doggie type commands.

But lately we've been playing a game with Charlie that seems to be unintentionally enriching the developing bond between Tim and Charlie.  We call the game Find Tim and give the command "Go get Tim" or "Go find Tim."  Aside from having the obvious benefit of teaching Charlie to keep track of Tim, we've seen that this game always leads to a rollicking romp between kid and dog.  This, in turn, leads to a happy kid and a happy dog just happy to be together.   It's a joy to see!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Dog and his Boy

We're seven weeks into our adventure with Charlie and he's steadfastly rooted in all our hearts. Last night Charlie made me realize that Tim may be rooted in his little canine heart too.

We have a nightly routine that involves bathing, teeth brushing, and story telling right before our mandated bedtime. Charlie is always a part of these activities and often participates.

Once the routine is complete, the rest of us head back downstairs for the remainder of the evening until we eventually retire.

What I've noticed of late is that every night before we retire, Charlie walks over to Tim's bedroom and waits by the door until one of us opens it to do a "final check-in" on Tim. We've never prompted him to do this, nor have we encouraged or discouraged this behavior. I don't know how to explain it other than to surmise that Charlie is just a very special dog who takes his job very seriously.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Magic of the Clicker

We're several weeks into our training with Wendy and I'm just really starting to get the hang of something called clicker training. Generally speaking, clicker training is a psychology based method of training using a clicker to mark desired behavior.  Although it sounds complicated, it's actually pretty basic once you get the hang of it. (Here's a useful website Q&A on clicker training, including what it is, how it works and different applications of the method.)

Wendy demonstrated the power of the clicker for me at one of our early in-home training sessions.  I had been trying to get Charlie to walk through a hula hoop but he was absolutely spooked by the hoop.   Wendy sat down with hoop in one hand, clicker in the other and just waited for Charlie to come to her.   Every time he came closer, she'd click and treat.  Then she'd wait for him to make the next step, closer to the hoop, before she clicked.  Then she'd wait until he touched the hoop before clicking.  She kept this up until eventually, Charlie was scooting through that hoop as though he'd been doing it forever.   The power behind the method is that it gives the dog some control - he "decided" to approach the hoop instead of being forced to do so under duress - and was rewarded for his decision.

I've been working with Charlie, the clicker and the hoop and thought it would be a fun experiment to see how well Tim could take over the reins.  Check him out:

First, he needed to get Charlie's attention ...

... a few more lures, ...

... and finally, voila!

I don't know who was more surprised, me or Tim, but this was a great feat for all of us!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Charlie's Day at the Spa

In anticipation of the arrival of Patty Dobbs Gross and her husband Ron this weekend (they're coming to our town to deliver one pup and check in on three other current North Star placements), I decided to "treat" Charlie to a day at the spa and get him all dolled up for the reunion with his first foster parents.  

I may have mentioned before that I LOVE a local pet store chain called Pet Food Express.  As I understand it, the company was started by a couple of San Francisco guys who really liked dogs and wanted to create a shop that sold nothing but wholesome foods and quality toys for their canine companions.  At the location near us they have a regular promotion of buy three of anything in the same genre (i.e. toys, food, etc.) and get a fourth one free.  That even includes our giant 40 lb bags of dog food!

Anyway, one of the things I like best about this shop is their self service dog wash.

I think this idea is absolutely genius!  You buy a token for $15 (or a package of 4 for about $45) and then you leash your dog up to one of their elevated bathtubs (no bending over the bathtub at home!)  

Once you've got the dog hooked up you select the type of shampoo your pooch desires (Charlie opted for the oatmeal aloe vera shampoo) and turn on the sprayer.  

Then you lather him up, hose him down and do a pat down with as many towels as you need.  (We used 5.)

After the towel dry, the pup steps up and clips into the drying area.  Turn on the dryer and spend the next 20 minutes or so in the fluff cycle.

And when it's all over, you have one super fluffed pooch and no mess in your bathroom to attend to while your dog seeks out the nearest load of stinky stuff to roll in.  Plus, after the bath you can stroll through the shop and pick out a new toy for your fluffy friend.  Check out Charlie all fluffed up and hanging with his home boy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dog School - Take Two

So a week after Charlie's less than stellar debut at Dog School he's made considerable improvement.  We were determined after last week's fiasco to make some progress on things like attention and stays and I'm happy to report that Charlie didn't let me down.  He continues to be distracted by other dogs (as it happens, our town is one of those California towns where it seems that every man, woman and child has a dog) but he surprised all of us last night when working on his "come" command and successfully ignored one of his favorite golden retriever buddies strategically placed between his starting point and me.  He was truly impressive.

More noteworthy this week is Tim's continued affinity for Charlie.  He looks for him constantly and asks for him when he's not with us.  We're also starting to see Charlie seek out Tim which is REALLY good news.  At the suggestion of Wendy the Trainer, we started playing a game we call "Find Tim" where we give Tim a treat to hold and tell him to go hide.  We then tell Charlie to Find Tim and he happily trots to wherever Tim may have chosen to hide.  The exercise tends to end with lots of giggles and smiles.

Tim's love for Charlie was undeniably evident this past weekend when Tim became ill and ended up in our local Children's Hospital for a short stay.  In spite of his condition Tim repeatedly asked for Charlie.  Then when we finally arrived at home, he immediately sought him out and gave him loads of love.  Theirs is truly a unique bond.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Charlie's Cousin

So it looks like Charlie is going to have a "North Star Cousin" living right here in the same town!  In fact, this new North Star placement is going to live with a classmate of Tim's and we are almost as excited as the new owners are about the whole thing.  Meet Senna, an Australian Labradoodle from Canyon Court Labradoodles down in San Diego County.

Come back soon to see pictures of Senna and her sweet little kid.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Class Clown

Got home from dog school last night and was completely deflated.  My sweet, smart Charlie, who sits, lays down, stays, and smiles on command at home was a total delinquent in class.  I admit that I went into the class feeling cocky and over confident (perhaps this was a lesson from Charlie to me.)  This adorable creature just could not contain himself around all his doggie classmates!  He eventually did calm down but I left there feeling more motivated than ever to learn how to speak this animal's language.  

Wendy worked on several new commands in class, the most interesting one was the "stand up" command.  I never even thought about this one but I can see how useful it will be, particularly with a service animal.  (Imagine a giant golden retriever in a down-stay who just might be blocking an aisle or doorway.  Simply direct him to stand up.  Genius!)

We've got a private session tomorrow in a public park so I'm certain that we'll continue to work on dealing with distractions along with Charlie's other list of skills.  For now, I'm still pretty proud of his performance in non-distracting environments.  One day at a time ....

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Super Scooper

With all the support we've gotten from "Team Charlie", I have to say I'm a bit stunned that I had to discover this latest device on my own.  While Charlie may have changed my son's life, this little doodie-hickey has absolutely changed mine:

Talk about making a horrible job much more tolerable!  I'm going to talk to the folks at North Star about putting this on their list of "doggie must haves."