Brice the Assistance Coton
Jo-Anne and Nev Hitchens
from the March 2004 ACQ
An assistance dog is a dog that is trained to help its disabled owner to live a more independent life.
These dogs are trained to pick items off the floor that have been dropped like spoons, keys, pens and items of clothing, They bring items to their owners like the TV remote controls, telephones and slippers, in fact any items that the dog can pick up in their mouth.. They can even bring the telephone to their owner. They open cupboard doors and get items out to save their owners bending down. Then they shut the cupboard door. They can open and close all doors in the home, including answering the door if a visitor calls, get the towel for their owners after a bath, load and unload washing machines, and put the laundry in the basket. They switch lights on and off and fetch newspapers. They undo shoe laces and are even trained to push buttons. They will help tidy up and pick all toys off the floor and put them into a toy box. They help undress and dress their owners by pulling socks off and trousers and by bringing clothes to their owners to get dressed.
The most important job of all is that the dogs are trained to get help if their owner has an accident. This can be done by opening the front door and going to a neighbor’s house or by pulling a cord attached to a switchboard that automatically calls the person’s caregiver or warden.Depending on the size of the dog, they can also assist people to get into a wheel chair by allowing the person to use the dog’s back for support. These dogs are remarkable and give many people an independent life so that they don't need to rely on other people.
For the past 11 months we have been training a Coton de Tuléar called Brice to see if she has the ability to become an assistance dog. I chose Brice because she was so devoted to me and seemed to just want to help me when ever she could. Cotons are perfect for this training because all dogs that are trained must be devoted to their owners. The training hasn't been hard, but it has been continuous. We only train Brice for 10 minutes at a time as she gets bored very easily. All training must be fun to keep Brice interested.
The training started at the age of 6 weeks with basic commands like down, stay and fetching toys. We let Brice mouth and chew toys because putting items in her mouth is a big part of her job. Puppies like to bite on anything, sometimes things that they are not allowed too, so we exchange the item Brice is not supposed to have for something that she could chew. We never shouted at her for chewing or chased her if she did have something she shouldn't. We waited until she lay down and then exchanged the item for a treat and praised her. After a few months, Brice got bored of stealing items and began to bring things back for treats. We have had a few accidents like Brice eating a slipper and also chewing a remote control, but that’s part of her learning process. She had to learn that she was allowed to pick my things up but she wasn't allowed to chew them. Easier said than done.
After 11 months of training. Brice can now bring the letter from the letter box, fetch slippers and shoes, remote controls, in fact she can pick up most small items I have dropped on the floor (pens, paper, spoons, keys, lots of different things). She can unload the washing machine and pass me the clothes. She can take clothes off the radiators and bring them to me to be folded up. She can open cupboards so that I can reach in and get things out. She can turn lights on and off in the bathroom because the cord is long enough for her to reach and pull. She tries to answer the telephone but sometimes it doesn't ring long enough for her to get it to me. But she does go and get it when I want to make a call.. She puts my son Jack’s toys away in a toy box. She pulls my socks and trousers off on a night and gives me my clothes for dressing in the morning. She brings me the newspaper and can also go into my shopping bag and get my purse out. I am very pleased with Brice and she has proved that a small dog like a Coton can be trained to assistance work. Yes, there are some tasks she can't do because of her size, but she is a very big help to me just the same and I would be lost without her. Brice will never be a fully qualified assistance dog because the U.K. requires she be spayed, and we intend to show and breed her; she is just my home helper. A yellow Jacket (insignia of a certified assistance dog in the U.K.) doesn't make her any more special than she already is.
It is important to realize that a Coton isn't the perfect assistance dog for everyone. Depending on the person’s disability the grooming can be a problem. I find the grooming great exercise for my fingers and very relaxing for me and my little Cotons.
Brice still has more training to do, but it’s not learning new tasks. Rather, it’s getting her to be more focused on the tasks she already knows.
Brice Revisited in the June 2005 ACQ
Most disabled assistance or home help dogs are large breeds like Labradors or Golden Retrievers. They are highly trained to help their human partners to live a more independent life. The learn to pick up items that have been dropped on the floor and bring them to their owners. They are taught to open a cupboard door, retrieve an item and then close it. They can even answer the door if needed and let themselves outside to go to the toilet. Dogs turn the lights on and off, load and unload washing machines and dryers, bring the mail, and even can assist in dressing and undressing their owners by pulling off socks and trousers. The most important thing these dos are trained to do is to help if their owner has an accident by getting assistance or bringing the telephone.
After reading the last paragraph, many of you will be wondering how on earth such a small dog, like most of you have living in your homes, can be a home help or an assistance dog. I’ll explain how.
I began to notice Brice was special at the age of 4 or 5 weeks. As the other littermates were playfighting like normal puppies do, Brice would try to pull off my socks and run off with any items she could find. As I have trained dogs before, I noticed she showed all the abilities that a good assistant dog shows at an early assessment. It is normally the really naughty puppies that are the best to train in assistance work, and Brice was certainly one of those.
Over the next few weeks I began to play in a special way with Brice and her toys. I taught her the basic commands of ‘down’, ‘stay’, etc. I never train a dog to sit until it is one year old. I train her for ten minutes each session as she would get bored easily. Brice was allowed to chew any of her toys and was never chastised, chased or corrected for chewing things she was not allowed to. This sounds strange, but chewing and having things in her mouth is a big part of any assistance dog’s training. If Brice did have something she was not supposed to have, I would get something very tasty from the fridge, possibly chicken or tuna, and then call her. If she did not leave the item and come straight away for the treat, I would call our other dog, Vadi, Brice’s mother, and make a huge fuss of her in front of Brice, giving Vadi a treat just for coming to me when she was called. Puppies, like children, can become very jealous and demand all one’s attention to themselves. Brice was no exception, and as soon as she saw Vadi getting treats and attention from me, would soon come running. I would then exchange the stolen item she had for a treat.
Brice can fetch my telephone when I need to make a call, and even retrieve my purse from my shopping bag. She brings my shoes to me when I want to go out and even unties my shoe laces when I want to remove my shoes.
Brice unloads the washing machine and the clothes from the dryer, and can put certain items into the washing machine that are not too large. When the clothes are on the radiator she happily brings them to me to be folded.
Brice can bring the TV remote control and also turn the toilet light on and off. She tidies away her own toys into her special toy box and even helps Jack, my ten year old son, tidy away his toys too.
Brice assists me to get dressed in the morning by passing my clothes to me. She removes my socks and trousers in the evening.
She also retrieves empty plastic cups and dishes from the coffee table and brings them to me or takes them to the dish washer.
Brice has always loved to play with keys since being a very small puppy. She can pick up dropped keys or retrieve them from my handbag when told.
Every evening after Jack gets undressed and into his night wear, Brice quickly collects all his dirty washing from his bedroom floor and carries it downstairs to the washing machine. She always leaves his socks until last so that she can toss and play with them for a little while.
Yes, we have had many training accidents in the early months of training. Slippers, remote controls, socks and toys are just a few items that have been chewed and destroyed by Brice in the maze of learning.
I think a big part of Brice making such an amazing home help is because Cotons are so devoted to their owners and this plays such a large part in Brice’s training as she must come and assist when she is told to whether or not she is busy playing in the garden or sleeping on the sofa when called.
I am very proud of Brice and she has certainly proved to everyone that a small toy dog can be trained to do assistance work. Of course there are a few tasks she cannot do that the larger breeds can, but she shouldn’t be overlooked. Brice will never be fully qualified and earn an official yellow jacket which disabled assistance dogs wear her in the UK as all assistance dogs must be spayed or neutered. This is of little consequence to me as Brice is such a wonderful help to me in my home and I couldn’t be without her now.
However it is important to point out that a Coton may not be an ideal assistance dog for everyone as the grooming can be a problem to some disabled people. In my case the grooming provides exercise for the joints in my fingers, and the dogs
enjoy it too.
Amusing Stories of Brice When in Training
Once Brice had mastered the art of opening the cupboard door, Vadi, her mother, decided to make use of Brice’s amazing abilities. Whilst I was out shopping one day, Vadi somehow persuaded Brice to open the cupboard where the chocolate cakes were stored in a tin. On my arrival home, there on the floor was an empty tin where chocolate cakes used to be stored. Vadi stood close by with a very brown chocolate face.
Another incident happened some weeks later involving Vadi and a bag of flour. She had once again persuaded Brice to open the cupboard so that she could raid it again. The kitchen looked like a Christmas postcard with white flour everywhere. Now I am not so trusting and tie up the cupboard doors before I leave the house to that Vadi and Brice cannot make any more unwanted raids.
The next incident which happened when Brice was around one year old is the most amusing of all. I had just started to train Brice to retrieve my purse from my shopping bag a month or so earlier. It was Christmas time and we had all decided to go to the local park for a walk. Nev, my husband, and Jack my son, played around the grassy area with a football. Vadi and Brice ran in and out of the little stream that runs through the Valley gardens. I sat on the bench watching them all. A few minutes later an elderly lady cam and joined me putting a shopping bag at her feet as we began a conversation. When Brice spied the shopping bag on the ground she ran over and retrieved the purse from the lady’s bag and handed it to me, wagging her tail waiting for a treat. I immediately gave the lady her purse and began explaining about Brice being an assistance do in training to a very cross and unamused woman. It did take some convincing that my little white adorable dog was not an international pickpocket after all. I demonstrated to the old lady that Brice could pick up dropped keys and also do a few doggy tricks like playing dead. Fortunately this brought a grin to the lady’s face and she finally found the whole episode rather funny. I was rather embarrassed about the whole incident and my loyal husband and young son both stood laughing at me and Brice, saying this was the funniest thing they had ever seen.
Who would have believed that such a little sweetie could have had me arrested?