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Gus Learns a New Way to Work

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Gus is our dog that we got a couple years ago from Jack Knox. He's a nice, nice dog and well trained. But sadly he has early hearing loss - bilateral. We knew this when we took him and realized he'd most likely be completely deaf at some point - whether soon or much later, was unknown and we accepted that.


He is my husband's best buddy above all, and brought him through some tough times, as well as being his work partner too. I've gushed about Gus's personality before - he's the funniest dog I've ever known except Jetta my current foster may have him there - but she's funny in a different way. She's Robin Williams, he's Rowan Atkinson.






Over the last year Gus has shown more and more signs of losing his confidence. It was hard to tell whether there was something wrong with the way we were handling him, or whether it was his hearing. Something that really threw us off was a clinic we went to with Jack Knox a year ago, at which he seemed to work perfectly when Jack was working him, at quite long distances.


But a couple of months ago it became obvious that Gus's hearing is effectively gone. I'm sure now that over the last year he only worked when he was sure exactly what to do. He worked nicely for Jack because he knew just what to expect and Jack is very consistent about how he stands and moves and when he speaks - and he used whistles, which Gus can still hear faintly. Gus would hear something and guess he was expected to do something, and since he's a clever and eager to please dog, he could figure it out within one or two guesses.


Gus never actually learned whistles though, unfortunately. And I'm sure he probably can't discern one tone from another, based on my experience, which is similar to his - I hear higher ranges well but tones sound flatter than they used to.


I've been toying with teaching him signs, but I kept running against the problem of what to do when he wasn't looking at me. I put out some questions on a couple of lists, and someone offered to loan me a couple of vibrating collars.


That sort of gave me an incentive to get going on this project. I've been gimping around for a week or so after an accident, so it was an ideal time to work at short range.


Jack trains his dogs with very distinct body language, so that helped a ton. Gus responds quite freely and happily to really subtle motions already. He's been coming to a leg pat his whole life - I made it just a little more distinct, three sharp leg slaps.


As he's wearing sheep, a finger shaken in the opposite side from the flank I want him to take, turns him off nice and square most of the time. A whole hand raised a bit higher and a step back will widen him out. Hands up, palms out, stepping back, stops him or gets him to lie down. Once he got used to "listening" to that consistently, just one hand up gets him to "take time." Or, if I need one hand, I can make the motion more emphatically with one hand and he understands I still want a full stop.


That left just a few key things to train. Gus is not a clean worker - he needs some handling to keep in line. His flanks need watching and he's pushy. The tradeoff of course is tons of power, guts, and plenty of scope and stock sense under normal circumstances. He's got terrific balance with the exception of the pushiness. :D


He's trained to respond to a correction when needed to square out his flanks, and he's still only roughly at the pronovice level (eastern style with shortened driving course) so he still needs an occasional help on inside flanks. So I needed "off" and a sign equivalent for "Hey!" :D Plus an "attention" signal that would turn his head back, like calling his name.


Off was an easy sign to decide on. I used a sweeping motion with the back of my hand and he's learning this okay.


This one has been a bit hard to teach though because he doesn't like to give - then if he does he thinks he's in Big Trouble and breaks contact entirely. So I'm working on balance on applying this one. I went to working in the round pen to set up simple situations where he typically comes in tight and then if I time it right, he's pretty much expecting the correction. Basically I limit the options until he's either too close or he has to swing back - so if I react, he is familiar enough with the scenario that he can then choose the right thing right away.


Something interesting that I have found, is that he learns best when I simply set up the situation and do nothing but the sign. No emotion on my face, no other body language (it's tempting to try to step towards him to push him off, to supplement the new sign), other than what I'd normally do (like step back a teeny bit to relieve pressure and make sure he knows he's not really in trouble). If he doesn't take it right, I sign for him to lie down and move over so it's set up again, and then ask for the sign.


Because he's pretty sure I'm asking him to give on his flank, he's picking this up fast.


Someone suggested a really funny sign for "hey!" Again, I don't even try to make faces or scream. Instead, if he makes an inappropriate choice, I throw my hands to my head like I'm getting ready to tear out handfuls of my hair. :D Just one hand, then two hands, then I go to him like I would if he were blowing off a verbal correction - except where you'd normally be yelling and shaking a finger, I keep my hands up at my head. I want him to know THAT means Big Trouble. Again, I keep my body language and face neutral except the last bit when I'm going to preach the straight and narrow to him.


This one has been a bit tougher because many times if he's blowing me off, he's somewhere where he can't see me. So again I've had to go back to the round pen with some of my 4 month old lambs - these are small enough that he can't get out of my sight no matter what he's doing, unless he's faced right away, in which case his butt would be handy as a target for tossing something. :D I can also work on this sign in the house. His responsiveness is growing and I think it will work fine. He's not a naughty dog in general.


Everything so far has been baby dog stuff, no driving where he can't see me. His confidence and excitement at working have increased exponentially! He really was giving up on us - you could see he was letting sheep get the best of him and many times he'd come back and crouch at our feet and refuse to work. Now I'm having to refresh his memory that that'll do really means that'll do! :D Gus is just eating this up as fast as I can figure stuff out and set up training sessions.


As for me, I'm having a very good time. Signing comes naturally to me as I worked on and off, years ago, assisting in special ed classes and it was pretty often that I had to use ASL with various students. That's why it was instinctive to stop trying to talk to him and instead hold body language to relevant motions. I'm not that smart at training normally! :D


It's also easier to shut up and motion what you want the dog to do when the signs are sort of intuitive - it's like skipping a mental step. Once we start driving the flanks will be less intuitive, but I don't anticipate a huge problem. This is where I hope to use the vibrating collar. He's going to have to learn to glance over his shoulder when I ask, or come looking for me if he's entirely out of sight.


Oddly, I handle much, much better doing this. For some reason I find it much easier to watch the sheep, possibly because timing is so crucial to make sure he understands what to do. Which is kind of, duh, I should be doing that with my HEARING dogs - can we say number one handling issue for me? So I hope this will help.


I've also filled in his "around the house" commands. Strangely, he never learned a lot of the basics like sit and kennel and tricks. So we've remedied that situation. He loves licorice jelly beans, so I have a bowl of Jelly Bellies in the front room where he supervises Patrick while Patrick's "at work" on the computer. I've "clicker trained" him - I "charged" a motion with my thumb and index like I'm pinching something - pinch/jellybean, pinch/jellybean. Now I can reinforce the basics anytime and I only have to carry Jelly Bellies in my pocket, which doesn't work too badly. Better than most treats I use.


Then I'll buzz him randomly and if he turns he get a "click" sign and then he can get a jellybean. In the house and yard, of course. Then I'll extend it to out of sight response.


Then, [look away purists!] we'll work some humble lambs in a tiny area and I'll set him up facing away from me but right in front where I can still give him a Jelly Belly if he wants it (he may not - simply getting a walkup - which is a clap, by the way, I forgot that one - may be more reinforcing). Gradually I'll fade the marker on sheep but continue to reinforce it around the house.


I'm getting a new/used camera this weekend and I'll try to get some video to share. Thanks for reading this epic length novel - I'm sitting here with my foot up having somewhat overdone it in my enthusiasm (and after a lovely session working with the Tedlet) and wanted to set all this down and maybe get some input. I'm very excited about this. Gus is really in his prime still and it will be nice if this works and he can still do what he loves!






Edited because I couldn't understand it myself when I reread this! :rolleyes:

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That was so interesting to read! Thank you for posting it. I am just starting to take Daisy to lessons, so I find all the more experienced people's topics very interesting (although, sometimes I have no idea what is really being talked about! :rolleyes: )


What a handsome boy!

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Great going..No experience with a deaf herding dog..but did have a weimaraner that was deaf that I used signs with her. Never tried a vibrating collar as she would clue off the other dogs if she was a distance away from me. Up close I could tap the ground with my foot and she would turn and look. We were so good at signs that once the vet even was convinced she could hear. funny thing was when she wanted to blow me off and not "listen" she would turn her head so she could see me! Good luck and keep us posted.

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Apologies for all the edits! It's in its final form now. :D What happened was I posted it here first then copied it over to my blog, and realized it was rather incoherent.


Sorry Wendy V - it's about 13 inches long instead of 3. But I DID break up the paragraphs. :rolleyes:

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