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. 


Benefits

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.


Drawbacks

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.


Size

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.