Thursday, April 25, 2013

57. Unloading the Dryer

Unloading the Dryer

The process of training a dog to unload a dryer (or load a washing machine) has many steps and is actually a chain of smaller behaviours that can be trained in steps. It works wells to back-chain the behaviour, starting with the last behaviour of dropping an object into the basket. This ensures that the last behaviour will be the strongest one and the dog will always be working towards something she knows better than the previous part of a the behaviour chain. In essence, the task always gets easier for the dog. 

Part 1 Put Your Toys Away
The first step is that your dog must already have is a solid retrieve. You can use that to shape your dog to retrieve an object (toys usually work best to start) and place it in a basket. 

A tip from Robin J: If you dog already know 'drop', you can cue a drop when the dog brings the toy back to the basket. Pointing helps direct the dog to the location.

Part 2 Handling Different Weight and Length of Items  The second step is to teach your dog how to handle different items she might interact with when unloading the dryer. Towels work well as they come in different sizes and weights. The dog needs to learn how to manipulate heavier items  as well as longer articles. The video examples are just a beginning. Generalize the dog's skill to other objects such as jeans and bed sheets as well as smaller delicate items such as undergarments. More delicate items need to be trained separately before adding to a laundry load so the dog does not shake, stretch, lick or drool on the articles.

A tip from Robin J: If you cannot hold the basket in place during training, you can either place a 10 lb weight in it to hold it still (a bag of rice works great!) or you can glue velcro the bottom of the basket to a non-skid bath mat.

Part 3 Comfortable Near, On & In the Dryer The next step involves teaching the dog to be comfortable near, on and in a cold and warm dryer, using stools and stepping around the laundry basket etc. Small dogs, in particular, need to be comfortable inside the dryer as they may need to step inside to retrieve an item on the far side. Reaching into a dryer from outside is another skill.

Part 4 Training with larger Items
Continue training with items that are slightly larger-sized. A hand towel works well. Add more items of the same size once the dog has learned how to handle one. Once you have built up to several items, use an intermittent schedule of reinforcement so the dog is willing to take out several items for one reward. (Actually, if you cue the next behavior, you are building a chain of repeated behaviors and the cue becomes the reward for the previous behavior). 

If you ask for too many repetitions too quickly without putting the foundation effort inin, the dog may stand and stare at you -see video 5 for an example where Jessie does this. This is the beginning of extinction because the payoff of doing the behavior is not yet big enough for the dog to do many repetitions without reinforcement. More reinforcement history is needed before the task is a fun thing to do for the dog. (Think of it as putting many pennies in the bank before being able to making a 50 cent withdrawl. Dogs don't do deficits!)

Increase the size to a bath towel. Mark after part of the time is pulled out, then for the whole item. 

Every step in training is a dance between asking for more so the dog doesn't get stuck at that level of training and not asking for too much so the dog doesn't get frustrated. 

Mix the size of the items more like a real laundry load.

Part 5 Adding Sound, Motion and the Verbal Cue
The last things to train are the sound and motion of the Dryer. With the dog standing away from the Dryer, turn it on the see what reaction it gets. If the dog shows any fear, you will need to counter condition the sound with food. This is achieved by pairing a high value food reward with the presence of the sound. Turn on the dryer, the food is is given to the dog. Dryer turns off, the food stops. As the dog gains confidence, you can ask the dog to move closer to the dryer. Over time the dog will associate the sound of the dryer with good things happening. 
Jessie was fine with the sound, but was a little wary of the movement of the clothes in the Dryer as I opened the door. (see the video) I didn't need to counter condition this (although I could have) as the more we practiced the known behavior of unloading the dryer starting with the dryer on, the stronger the positive association became and the mild hesitation disappeared. Counter conditioning can occur with operant conditioning (and usually does, it just takes longer if the fear level is high).
With Lucy, the heat of the dryer brought out some interesting smells. I simply allow her to time to smell it before giving the hand cue.

Adding a verbal cue is done at the very last once the behavior looks like you want it to and the dog has acquired all the skills needed to carry out the task.  Here's a post on the specifics. If the dog is not successful doing the behavior, you need to go back, retrain without the cue, then try adding the cue back in.

Of course the reverse process is used to train a dog to load a washing machine. Front load machines work best with Service dogs. Train a different cue to indicate that the dog must take the items from the basket and put them in the washer.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

56. Using Mirrors to Train Service Dogs

The use of silver (reflective) mirrors in training dogs is a trade secret many owner-trainers of assistance dogs don't yet know about (unless they are training with a facility that has them).  Using mirrors is a great way to prevent and solve training challenges, and get instant feedback especially if you train alone. 


There are many benefits to using mirrors in your training. 

1. Mirrors allow you to use a normal stance (sitting or standing) while training your dog so you don't have to crane your neck, or twist around to see if your dog is doing the desired behavior when working at your side or behind you.  

2. You can use them to teach your service dog to perform cues behind your back or on the back of a wheelchair, like unzipping a zipper and retrieving an object from a bag slung over the back of the chair. 

3. They allow you to see your position and your dog's position from another person's viewpoint as well as how fluidly the two of you work together. 

4. Leash handling skills and food delivery can easily be observed. 

5. You can see at a glance if how, where and when you give a hand signal works for your assistance dog. 

6. Mirrors are great for shaping behaviors such as heel position, or moving around behind your wheelchair or walker. They allow you to see if your dog is making correct choices during the shaping process. 

7. Mirrors allow the handler to observe and prepare for potential distractions the dog may encounter without even looking directly at their dog. 

8. A dog that is socialized to a mirror is prepared to seeing them in public.

9. The best thing about mirrors is that they allow instant feedback that videotaping does not allow. Used in combination with video taping, mirrors can help to solve many problems.


1. There is always the risk on bumping into and breaking them. Make sure have shoes on, wear gloves and remove your dog from the room to prevent cuts while cleaning up broken pieces.

2. Heavy mirrors cannot be transported to different locations.

3. Light reflecting from the may pose a problem so on sunny days, window coverings may need to be closed.


Mirrors do not have to be large. In fact, using three mirrors each one foot by two feet high set side by side provides quite a large range of movement to start indoors (2 feet by 3 feet). Simply step back to see a larger area of movement. Because they are smaller and lighter, they are also easier for a person to move around and store than a larger mirror of equivalent size.

If you are planning to move your mirrors around much, (in other words take them on the road to train at different locations) having a frame and backing will protect them chipping and from cracking.  Ideally, plexiglass mirrors would be the most resiliant and lightweight for carrying but they are not always easily available locally and are more expensive. 

If you plan to only use the mirrors indoors, they can be used as is without a frame etc. For slippery floors, a rubber-backed mat laid under the edge prevents them from slipping or scratching the floor.

Mirrors with several panes (horizontal or vertical) can also work as long as the mirrors are not separated too far apart. 

Mirrors can be temporarily set on the floor leaning against the wall at an angle that allows easy viewing or permanently hung on a wall at a specific height. Mirrors with stands can also be purchased from equestrian suppliers. 

A key consideration for location is to make sure there is enough space for you (your wheelchair or seat if applicable) and the dog to move and for the behavior you plan to train. The end of an open hallway, in a large room with no furniture in the middle or in a designated training room are good choices.

Where to Get a Mirror

Garage sales, flea markets, second hand stores, internet classifieds, buy and sell, recycling stores, the larger hardware stores, bedroom and bath stores (for full length mirrors) and of course glass stores are all potential locations. There are specialty equestrian supply houses on the internet that sell larger mirrors, both mounted and unmounted. These are on the upper end of cost.

Away from Home

When training away from home, look for shaded windows on buildings that reflect the sun and hence provide mirror images. It doesn't have to be a one way mirror as even those that are partially colored can work as well. Many come low enough to the ground that you can easily see you and your dog from a short distance. Ideally find a few that have grass or other flat surface next to them for safety. Parking lots can pose a safety issue but if you go on a day of the week or time when the business is closed or is a slow day, it reduces risk. Always be aware of moving cars if you are in a parking lot. Orange parking cones may help slow unexpected traffic but do not use them if the business is open as there may be bylaws against their use.

Share below how you have used mirrors in training your dog.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Teaching a Service Dog to Settle

Here is a link to a few wonderful exercises that teach a dog to learn to settle, or be calm in any environment.

Chill Out