Dogs Don’t Generalize and Neither Do I

generalize, verb

gen· er· al· ize

an extension of a concept (or behavior) from a familiar situation to a less familiar situation

Training with Winnie has been an amazing experience so far. As a cat person, I’ve never really trained any animal to do anything. Granted, the cats will sit for food, but I think that they mostly figured that out on their own. But man oh man are dogs a whole different story.

When we adopted Winnie, I did what any new puppy parent would do- I searched out books by the best animal behaviorists out there. My favorites ended up being Patricia Mcconnell and Sophia Yin. I learned a lot from both of them about not only how to train a dog, but why I’m doing what I’m doing. Dogs brains work really differently than human brains, although I was to discover that Winnie’s dog brain is very much like my autistic brain in one major way.

We don’t generalize.

Here’s an example- I’ve spent most of my life in New York, which has made me intimately familiar with the MTA transportation system. But when I was a smaller human, a teenage size human, the subway was a big problem. The train line that my friends and I usually took was the Green Line, which is composed of the 4, 5, and 6 trains. Something important to note- sometimes these trains overlap. A 4 train and a 6 train can both stop at the same station. In this example, that station will be the 14th St/Union Sq. station. We usually took the 6 train to get there, but it was running behind, and the 4 train would be a lot faster. This is where the trouble begins.

Any New Yorker worth their salt will tell you that in this situation, the 4 train and the 6 train are exactly the same. Even my teenage friends would tell you that. They certainly told me. Multiple times. And time and time again, I’d tell them that they were crazy, then they’d say I was bad at directions, and eventually, we’d miss the 4 train and end up taking the 6 train anyway, and I’d spend the whole train ride trying to figure out they thought that taking the 4 train was the same thing as taking the 6 train.

I’m sure I don’t have to prove to you guys about how these things are different, but just in case, I made a list:

Things that are unknown about the 4 train:

  • If they have the old seats or the new seats
  • How many stops are between where I am and where I want to be
  • If they have the new digital maps
  • If the next stop announcement will be easy to hear
  • How to get out of the subway at the other side

Your average human being doesn’t think about these things. Their brains are able to generalize a familiar situation into an unfamiliar situation.

Now, dogs don’t ride subways, they do have the same issues generalizing that I do.

The way that people help dogs learn how to generalize is to provide them with variety and repetition. When we taught Winnie to sit, we didn’t just have her do it in our living room. We did it in the kitchen and in the bathroom, on our front porch and in the car. In Petsmart, Petco, Pet Supplies Plus, and every place we could find that had ‘pet’ in the name. She learned that ‘sit’ can happen anywhere, and now she’s prepared to do it.

When Winnie came home, I expected cuddles and belly rubs and a lot of picking up poop. I definitely wasn’t mentally prepared for the fact that she and I would share similar learning struggles. I like to think that it makes me more conscious of my own brain processes, and maybe even makes me a better trainer. Now, if only Winnie would give me as many people treats as I give her dog treats!

 

7 Things People Don’t Know About Service Dogs

The general public sees a dog in a vest and the thought never crosses their mind about why the dog is wearing it. Up until recently, most people assumed that every vested dog was a guide dog, and that was that. It’s better now. A little better, anyway. People are a lot more educated about service animals, but the majority still can’t tell you the difference between a service dog, an emotional support animal (ESA), and a therapy dog.

These are misconceptions I’ve noticed while researching, or when talking to people about Winnie.

1. Service Dogs and ESAs Are Two Separate Things-

Emotional Support Animals have been in the media a lot lately, and as usual, it’s been making everything more confusing than less. Let me clear it up right now, there is no such thing as Service Peacocks. This is because Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals (ESA’s) are totally different things. Emotional support animals are for just that- emotional support. They help ease their owners’ anxieties and phobias, but they are not a psychiatric service animal. EAS’s are not covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (the ADA), instead, they are covered by the FAA, if their owners are trying to bring them on planes, and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), if their owner needs to live in a place where pets are not allowed. Planes and Housing are the only places where ESA’s have rights, and to get these rights, the owner needs a letter from a doctor, and sometimes extra paperwork. *note* individual airlines are starting to crack down on ESA’s in planes, which should spark some interesting discussions.

2. Getting a Dog Doesn’t Work the Way You Might Think-

The media would have you believe that there’s only one way to get a service animal. You realize you need help, you get in touch with a charity that trains cute little puppies into perfect service dogs that are delivered right to your door for free. You bond with the dog immediately, and all of your problems are solved. This is so not how the process works. For one, service dogs are almost never free. The average cost of a dog is $20,000. And if you do find a charity that gives away dogs, their scope is very narrow. Combat Veterans. Blind People. Autistic Children (but never adults). And regardless, there are waitlists. A two-year waitlist to even be assigned a dog, plus two years of training, you might not see your service dog for years. Because of all these factors, people sometimes decide to train their own dogs.

3. Some People Train Their Own Dogs Instead of Going Through a Service-

The law says that people have the right to train their service animals. This is a huge decision. Training a service dog is a lot of work, and as someone with a disability, it’s even harder. Self-trained service dogs also wash out (which means fails as a service dog) at a much much higher rate. Self-training also doesn’t save money, which is an upsetting surprise for a lot of handlers. Dogs cost money. Food and toys and vet bills and training materials and specialized trainers and service vests. Self-training means you don’t need $20,000 right at the beginning, but over the course of the training, you’ll still be spending at least $20,000. Self-training is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I am self-training Winnie mostly because no programs who work with autistic people work with adults. I also have had dogs before, and I have Jess at home to help. I do think, after 3 months of puppy-hood, that if I get another dog when Winnie retires, I’ll be seriously considering a service.

4. Service Dogs Aren’t Required to Wear Vests-

You will always be able to recognize a service dog by its vest, right? Wrong! There is nothing in the law that requires a service dog to be identifiable in any way (this is because the Americans With Disabilities Act is really big on privacy). So why do most owners put their dog in a vest? The honest answer is that it’s easier, and by easier, I mean that if you’re in a public place with a dog who isn’t wearing a vest, people will harass you. In fact, even if they are wearing a vest, and someone decides that you don’t look “disabled enough”, they might harass you. I think we’ve all experienced “disabled enough” before here.

5. There is No State or Federal Registry For Service Dog-

You might have seen a service dog walking around with an ID or certification papers, and listen to me now when I tell you that it’s all crap. The only requirements that make a service dog a service dog is that its handler has a disability that requires an assistance dog and that the dog is trained to do tasks for the handler. The dog may be asked to leave a public space if it’s not well behaved, but that’s slightly different. So, to get down to it, service dogs cannot be certified, and asking handlers to provide paperwork or asking invasive questions isn’t legal. Any company that says that they can provide papers, or certification, or identification are just looking for money.

6. Service Dogs Aren’t Just Well Behaved, They’re Trained for Specific Tasks-

Service dogs look like the most obedient dogs in the world, and while this is true, obedience is the least of what they are trained for. The things that make service dogs more than just well-behaved pooches is the idea of tasks. Service animals are trained to do specific things. A guide dog has very different skills than a diabetic alert dog, and these skills are called tasks. Tasks break behaviors into little bits, like a guide dog can be trained to lead their handler to a specific place. Tasks are required, period. Generally, 3 is the minimum. Using Winnie as an example, she’ll be trained to do Deep Pressure Therapy, to sense when I’m getting overstimulated and lead me to a quiet area, and to interrupt my harmful body stims. This is just for me. Another autistic person might have their dog do an entirely other set of tasks. Everyone is an individual, and that’s one of the things that makes training a service dog so complicated.

7. Service Dogs Can be Any Breed, From Chihuahua to Great Dane

Picture a service dog for me. There’s a golden retriever in your mind’s eye, isn’t there? That, or a doodle of some sort. And there’s a reason for that. Labs, retrievers, and poodles are all very well suited to being services dogs, because of their temperaments and learning styles. This does not mean though that other breeds aren’t up to the job (although some breeds are more suited than others). Any breed as long as they’re smart, trainable for the handler’s needs, and polite and non-reactive can be service dogs. So, while German Shepherds make good guide dogs, smaller more portable dogs like chihuahua and Shih-Tzus might make fantastic seizure alert dogs. An informal note about this though, using a non-standard breed can and will make people pay more attention to you. It’s just a thing.

So, there was a lot of information! Do you feel smarter, or just tired? Anyway, if you’ve got questions, or you think I forgot something important, or if you think I’m just plain wrong about something, drop me a line, and let me know!

Winnie: Tricks and Treats

This one’s going to be super media heavy, guys, just a heads up.

So, I’ve been talking a lot in this series about Winnie and about Service Dogs, and I figured now’s the right time to show instead of tell.

Winnie is currently solidifying her obedience skills, and sometimes that can feel kind of frustrating because it can seem like she’s not learning anything “useful” yet. I fall into that trap sometimes. I think everyone does. But it really helps me to be able to see how the skills she’s learning now will turn into tasks later.

Oftentimes tasks are made of multiple steps, each which need to be trained individually before they can be put together. So, while the skills Winnie is going to show you may seem simple, keep in mind that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Here’s a highlight of Winnie’s basic commands:

Sit-

 

Sit is the classic command. It’s the first thing that most puppies learn how to do, and Winnie is no exception. She figured out that sometimes when she sat, magic food would fall from the sky, so she’d wander around, sitting randomly, hoping the food would come. It was adorable. Sit is a lot different for Winnie these days, it is used as a polite way to say ‘please’. She has to sit to get food, or treats, or pets, and because of it, she’s learning that she has to be calm, even if she’s excited about something. She can’t do it calmly yet, especially when what she wants as to see people of dogs, but she does manage to stay sitting while her tail whips back and forth and her butt vibrates.

Down-

 

Down is Winnie’s default move. It’s very difficult sometimes to keep her from going right into a ‘down’ from other commands. Which can be hard, when we don’t actually want her to be down, but it’s also good because when I’m at school and at work, down is going to be in the position that she’s in. So down is the first step. Right now, she’s not in the formal position that will be required from her later, but it’s a great stepping stone to build on.

Stay-

 

Stays are my personal hell. They’re probably Winnie’s hell as well, but since she can’t talk, I’ll never know. What I tell myself and what I’ll tell you is that she’s still a baby. She is five months old, and her self-control abilities are almost nil. They’re actually better than most puppies her age. Stay is definitely up there in the top 5 of skills that will be important when she’s working. I need to be able to stick her somewhere and trust that I can move around without her getting excited and bounding off. The combination of down and stay, (often called a down-stay command in the training world) will help her handle public access as she gets older.

Touch/Target-

 

Touch is one of the most important and most used commands when it comes to training service dogs. It’s a simple concept, you ask the dog to target, and they touch your hand, or a pole, or a ball on a stick, etc. Simple right? Say you want to walk nicely next to you, you can just walk with them targeting. If you want her to touch a part of your body, you just target your knee. This likely be a part of most of the commands that Winnie will learn.

Leave It-

 

The first time your 9-week-old puppy tries to make off with a poop bag, you realize very quickly that she doesn’t understand what “NO NO NO STOP DAMNIT” means. And you realize that “NO NO NO STOP DAMNIT” makes a terrible command, because you’d look like a lunatic saying it in public. This is where Leave It comes in. Leave it means, essentially ‘ignore that’. When Winnie was very little, we used it to (try) and stop her from eating garbage on her walks. But as we’ve all matured, Leave It has changed in a wonderful way. Winnie is a social butterfly to a fault, and all she wants in life is to say hi to every human and dog she can see. So, we use Leave It when we can’t stop and visit. And (mostly), she moves on. As we move toward more public access skills, Leave It helps her learn what is and isn’t ok for her to sniff or touch. This skill will likely never become part of a task, but it goes towards her general temperament and manners skills, which are just as important.

Look-

 

I don’t think anyone can know how many ways ‘Look’ can be used until they try to train a dog. I honestly thought that it was kind of silly when the trainers at puppy kindergarten introduced the concept. Why did it matter if the puppy looked at you all the time? Now, Jess did point out that my issue may have been an autism thing, and that just because I didn’t care about eye contact or looking at peoples’ faces, it doesn’t mean that Winnie didn’t either. So, I have half-assed it for a while; look, guys, I’m only human. But as Winnie started doing more complex things, I started to see the value. When she looks at me, she’s checking in with me. She’s asking ‘” is this okay?”, “am I doing it right?”. We’re communicating in a way that makes sense to her. I still find it uncomfortable sometimes. It turns out dog eye contact feels just as weird as the human version. I knew there would be extra training challenges because I’m autistic, but I think we’re getting through this one ok.

This is just a handful of the things that Winnie can do so far, and she’s learning more every day!  Do you have a favorite trick or command that your pet knows?