Saturday, January 17, 2009

21 C Teaching a Zipper Pull for Service Dogs

The hardest part of a zipper pull is the pulling up. Or is it down? It depends on what dog you are training and the trainer.
A zipper pull is useful for people who do not have the manual dexterity to do so. It can be used for clothing and for backpacks (such as those hung on the back of a wheelchair. They can also be helpful if your dog needs to go into your pack while you are partially conscious to retrieve medication, food etc.when you are unable to.

Training the zipper pull is a process of shaping the dog to do the desired behavior so you want to keep asking for a little more as the dog is able to offer it to you. Try to avoid getting stuck at any point. At the beginning of each session, start back at the beginning with nose targeting until the dog shows you that she understands what you want. In new environments, start back at the beginning.

Avoid adding a cue until after the dog understands the full behavior. You can use cues as prompts (as you will see in the first video clip) but make sure to fade them quickly so the dog does not become dependent on them.

I looked around the house and chose a backpack to start on due to the size of it's zipper pull, the sturdiness of the zipper and the fact that it wasn't a piece of clothing. Some dogs need time to get comfortable working within your personal space so using a pack allows her to train in front of you and also allows you to manipulate the pack to help the dog if it is needed.

Start by attaching a tab on a large zipper pull. Make sure it is a contrasting color to the baggage or clothing you are training on. This makes it easy for the dog to see it and distinguish it from other things that may be hanging off the pack. At first, you will want to remove extra hanging objects and clips near the zipper pull you are focussing on so the dog doesn't get confused. For dark colors, white works well. Medical tape seems to hold long enough without getting wet and sliding off.  For light colors, a dark works well.

For small zipper pulls, you can add an extension. The best one I found is a nylon string that you tie in several knots, then melt the ends with a lighter. It washes well and is a permanent fixture on the zipper. Doesn't look too tacky either. There are metal cute zipper pulls but save these for later after your dog perfects the behavior. Make sure the zipper pull or extension is comfortable in the dog's mouth, doesn't have an odd taste or smell, and is study enough to last.

Start by having the dog nose target the zipper pull. Next, shape the dog to take it in her mouth and then to put some pressure on it. It doesn't matter the direction the dog pulls it at first as you just want her to understand that she needs to move it. The sound of the zip gives her a clue that she is doing the correct behavior.

Once the dog has pulled the zipper a very short distance (an inch or so), reset the zipper to its starting point. This makes it easier for you to measure how far the dog has pulled it each time and also acts as a cue to the dog to take and pull it.
It helps at first if you hold the backpack in place or put tension on the area above where the dog is pulling. Later on, as the dog figures it out, you can fade your hand placement and the tension. Note that in Part 1, the dog is not anywhere near ready for a cue to be added.

Each dog will have their own learning style. Adapt to that and figure out how you can help your dog to succeed without doing the job for her.

Here is Part 1  to get you started.