During the six to twelve months of Service Dog training, we train the handler and/or family as well as the dog. If possible, we set up monthly meetings so we can teach the handler how to give cues correctly and handle the dog in public places. If we’re not able to set up monthly meetings with the handler because a) you’re not local, and your schedule doesn’t allow it, or b) you aren’t local, and their disability prevents you from traveling, we have occasionally made exceptions where we travel to the handler.
We use positive reinforcement training and have a whole page discussing the benefits of this approach. In short, though, positive reinforcement is best for service dog training because it the most effective way to get the dog to bond to the handler.
You may be understandably nervous taking the dog into public places at first. To mitigate this, we provide plenty of public access training. The handler can then get used to the idea that they can take the dog into a restaurant or a shop and feel confident doing so. The handler will slowly get comfortable with the dog’s ability to respond to cues in various environments. These public access outings will give us plenty of time to work on general training techniques including not repeating commands, troubleshooting problems, etc. The Training Manual that we will give to the handler upon graduation goes over all these techniques, too. In general, training via the “five out of five” system we use is not only helpful but is also easy to communicate to handlers. (For instance, once a dog correctly follows the “sit” command five times out of five with a hand signal, we then teach him five out of five with a verbal cue alone, or add distance, distraction, or duration.) We provide a training record where we have charted the dog’s progress that we give to you. If you are interested, we will teach youto train the dog incrementally in this way because it makes it very clear and obvious how you should not move on to the next step until the dog demonstrates mastery by successfully completing the previous step five times out of five.
In addition to getting the handler comfortable taking the dog out in public, here are some of the other things we go over with you:
1 –How to Answer Questions from the Public
During any public access training, the handler may have to respond to questions from strangers. The handler will be instructed about standard questions that will be asked, such as “May I pet your dog?” Your answer should be something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, the dog is working. I promised his trainer that nobody else would pet the dog so he can stay focused on+. working.” Once the handler has memorized their response, we practice this question by pretending that you are a stranger asking questions. Depending on the family, we may also pretend to be a child and get on our knees or run up to the dog. We instruct the handler to stand in front of the dog and kindly but gently block the child. The handler should say, “No touching! The dog is working, and you are not supposed to pet a dog when he is working.” An exception is when we are working with a child who has autism, and the family wants to use the dog as a social bridge, in which case we would create an “ask to pet” scenario. Another question people sometimes ask, when they notice the nose/ head collar: “Is the dog wearing a muzzle?” or “Why is he wearing a muzzle?” We will help you practice answering, “Nope. It’s just a nose collar, and it is used to give feedback to the dog.” Note that this problem has been lessened in recent years because we have started using a pink nose collar (which doesn’t look much like a muzzle).
2 –Signs that the Dog Is Stressed
We recommend only having the dog work outside the house for a couple hours at a time to keep them from getting too stressed (with some exceptions). There are several ways to tell when a dog is getting stressed and, thus, needs a good long break (perhaps four hours). Despite the importance of dogs’ stress signals, they are easy to miss because they are different than the stress signals that humans use.
We teach the handler that the most common stress signals are any one of the following subtle behaviors (aka “displacement behaviors”):
- A –Yawning (even though the dog is not tired).
- Panting (even though the dog is not hot).
- Licking their lips or drooling (even though the dog is not hungry).
- Scratching himself (even though the dog doesn’t have bug bites).
Of more concern are the following subtle body postures, which are signs of super-high stress (hopefully you’ll never see these):
- Showing the whites of their eyes (when you usually can’t see the whites of their eyes), also known as “whale eye.”
- Making their body rigid and stiff (when usually their bodies are loose and relaxed).
- Closing their jaws too tightly (when usually their jaws are pretty relaxed).
Arousal signals are also important, and they indicate that the dog needs some time with less stimuli:
- Mouth open so you can see the dog’s teeth a bit.
- Tail straight up (instead of down).
- Head up and ears up.
By the time we are doing this work with the handler, we will know the dog well enough to know which stress signs that this particular dog is most likely to exhibit. We can point these out to the handler during the training.
3 –The Importance of Continual Service Dog Training
Getting a service dog means that the handler’s life will be disrupted for a while, and the handler should be aware that the transition (like all transitions) will be difficult. One study found that despite the “independence, confidence, companionship, increased and changed social interaction, as well as increased mobility” associated with service dog ownership, up to a third of handlers also found “the responsibility involved in caring for the dog something of a drawback”.[ 1] It’s important to properly prepare the handler for this transition by reminders to be patient, take care of oneself, and encouraging them to call or email us with any questions. Depending on the situation, we may also recommend that you take a class to help with bonding and training. Although the dog will be well trained in a number of skills, it will build up the handler’s confidence to take a dog-training class, and it will also help the dog learn how this particular person uses their voice and body when they give commands. It would also be helpful for the handler to find a personal trainer to assist them with any problems that come up (if they live in a different city than us). Of course we will be available to help you with questions via e-mail and phone calls.
We emphasize that there will be a graduation test for the dog and the handler (and sometimes an annual re-certification process). We want to be clear—even strict—about this requirement so that the handler will not think of the dog as a “finished product” that should behave perfectly, like a car or a toaster. Instead, we want the handler to think of themselves and the dog as a team that will work together to build on the foundational training we’ve completed so far. We will also remind you that every dog has something that they need to work on. Even after meeting the training standards, there will be specific challenges (perhaps getting excited around other dogs) that the handler will always need to focus on.
4 –Using the Leash with Your Feet (Instead of Your Hands)
While a handler should be able to keep up the dog’s cues of “sit,” “down,” and “stay,” there’s a shortcut you can always fall back on: Stepping on the leash. If you are in a place where you can’t pay much attention to the dog (for instance, while picking up medication at a pharmacy), you should start by having the dog lie down. Rather than trusting the dog to maintain its down-stay, the handler can then step on the leash as a proactive way to keep the dog under control if the dog wants to get up unexpectedly. By placing a foot on the slightly loose leash, the handler doesn’t need to pay full attention in order to ensure that the dog maintains its down-stay. The handler can respond to any sudden movement by saying “No” and gently adding a little pressure. If the dog gets excited, the handler can simply take away a little length on the leash and hold it taut until the dog calms down.
5 –Zen Mat
Rather than keeping the dog in a sit-stay or down-stay for long periods of time, the handler can simply place the dog on a raised mat, and as long as the dog doesn’t get off it, the dog can feel free to sit, stand, or lie down. The mat is much more comfortable than the floor and is cooler than a traditional dog bed. By pairing the time on the mat with lots of treats, the dog associates the mat with good times. This can be especially helpful if the handler will be taking the dog to work or school with them. And it’s a great way to help an excited dog calm down.
6 –“If You Say It, Pay It”
Knowing this phrase is a good way to remember how positive-reinforcement training works.
- ‘Yes” = Yes/ Treat. If you say “Yes” to the dog as a marker that they’ve just done what you asked them to do, that always has to be followed up by a treat. When training (either a new behavior or reminding the dog of an old behavior), we use “Yes/ Treat” 100% of the time.
- “Good Dog” = No treat. You can’t always give the dog a treat when they do something right, You can use “Good Dog” as praise to let the dog know they’re behaving correctly (with no treat). We remind you to use “Yes/ Treat” as often as possible, though, to keep up the intermittent reinforcement. When a dog knows a behavior (defined as doing it correctly 5 out of 5 times), then intermittent reinforcement is like a person playing a slot machine—if only rewarded some of the time, the behavior is addicting!
7 –“All Good Things Come From the Handler”
We find helpful to instill this idea into the handler for a couple reasons:
- Bonding. To encourage bonding, the dog should get nothing from other family members and should not be allowed to play with other dogs. Whether it’s food, fun, or affection, all good things come from the handler. This trains the dog to rely on and look to its handler whenever it needs something, rather than going to whoever happens to be nearby.
- Distractions. It’s easy for a dog to be distracted by all the fun things in life, but if the dog learns that best things in life all come from thehandler, the dog is better at focusing.
8 - “A Tired Dog Is a Good Dog”
If a dog isn’t getting enough physical and/ or mental exercise, they are more likely to get highly aroused and not follow commands. If the dog is tired, the dog be more likely to pay attention and respond, and thus both the dog and handler will be happier. Here are a couple ways a handler to make sure the dog is good and tired:
- Two 30-Minute Daily Training Walks. The dog will be fully trained by the time he goes to the handler, but (depending on the situation) the handler may choose continue the training by doing two daily thirty-minute walks. Few handlers are willing to, say, spend an hour retraining per day, but these training walks are different—they become part of the handler’s daily routine and, thus, are much easier to do than boring old training at home. And, in addition, to getting regular training, the dog is also getting physical exercise. At street corners, the handler can practice sit or down (with rewards, of course). At red lights and entrances, yo8 can practice walking in figure-eights. When passing squirrels or dogs, that’s a perfect opportunity for the handler to practice “Watch Me.”
- Mat Training. If a dog becomes highly aroused, having them go to their mat helps to tire them out. Having to stay on that mat is a lot of work! Many dogs even pant because it’s so mentally challenging not to just get up and do whatever they want to do. Before too long, the dog will relax and may even lie down and go to sleep.
9 - Service Dog Training During Public Access
Public access can be used to continue the dog’s training. Again, most handler will not want to have formal training sessions each day, but by incorporating training into your public access time, the handler can easily keep up their dog’s training without spending lots of extra time on it.
- Practice Cues Whenever the Handler Stops Moving. We will teach you to cue the dog to sit, lie down, or stay whenever you stop (whether to look at a shopping item, wait in line, or chat with someone). This way, the handler will be continually adding new distractions to each cue.
10 - “Nothing for Free”
This phrase is a wonderful way to remind yourself to continually train your dog, who will learn that all good things—getting a meal, being petted, going through doors, playing with a toy, etc.—have to be earned by good behavior. These are called “life rewards” because they are regular parts of life, but they can be used as rewards.
- Meals. Before meals, the dog should sit or lie down. After you set down the food in front of them, the dog must wait for a release word (such as “okay!”) from you before being allowed to start eating.
- Going Outside. Any time you take their dog outside, the dog must sit at the door and not pass through until you say the release word. This also helps prevent the dog from bolting through an open door. Going through a door to the outside is a reward that must be earned.
- Affection. Many dogs love to be petted, so affection can be a great “life reward.” Before petting your Service Dog at home, your should have your dog sit. This also keeps the dog from getting too excited. If the dog stands up, the petting stops. As with all these guidelines, the ideas are modified if working with a child who is low-functioning.
A Note About Dog Parks: You might think that the easiest way to tire out your dog would be to take it to a dog park. We strongly insist that you never take your Service Dog to a dog park because Service Dogs should focus on their handler, not other dogs, and trips to a dog park can ruin their focus.