What Are the Standard Behaviors and Cues for a Service Dog?

I find it fascinating that I often get asked this question and many similar to it. People assume there are standard verbal cues and hand signals for behaviors that service dogs and assistance dogs do. I also find it interesting that they believe there is a standard approach to training.

There is No Standardization!
Most people are shocked to find that there is no standardization at all. Each organization, school or business has their own way of training and their own behaviors they teach and signals they commonly use. They may also use a specific set for a specific kind of service dog. It's what is familiar to them and what has worked in the past. Given that they often deal in larger numbers of dogs and have several staff, it is more efficient to have a common set of behaviors and cues all dogs are taught. Since owner-trained dogs breeds vary widely, there will even be differences in how different sized dogs carry out a behavior. A small dog might jump on the handler's head while they are sleeping if their blood sugar drops too low where a larger dog might nose nudge their neck to wake them up for example. 


Varying Cues
While there are some basic cues that all service dogs need, they are not all the same since the dog and handlers needs are all different. For example a person with mobility issues may prefer to use verbal cue "Here" to recall their service dog since they may have limited control of their hands for hand signals. For someone who has trouble speaking, extending a hand for a nose target can recall or reposition the dog. Each team has their own special abilities and focus.


Examples of Cues
A cue to a dog is just an event that triggers a known behavior. It can be something in the environment (a door open button), a body cue (person turning their head in a certain direction), hand signal (a lifted hand) or a spoken word. What that word or signal might be is up to what will work for the person the dog. Any cue can be taught to mean any behavior. Bringing a toy can be an alert for a diabetic low. A fist can be sit. Even lifting a symbol drawn on a laminated page can cue a dog to lay down.


If you are training your own service dog, you can choose what makes sense to you and is non-disruptive to the public when the dog is working. If you are training an assistance dog for someone else, you can help them to choose cues and behaviors that make sense to them.

Using Atypical Cues
Some people actually choose non-typical verbal cues or use a different language to prevent other people from distracting their dog. This may not work though as dogs usually respond to tone and take a guess when they don't understand the cue itself. It is better just to proof for extreme distractions.


Caveat
The only caveat to keep in mind when choosing behaviors and cues, is that at some point your dog may need to be handled by other people if you are incapacitated (emergency personnel, family or friends). This puts your dog at risk if she doesn't understand or do what an "average" person handling a dog expects. The dog needs to either be trained to do behaviors by default (someone holding the leash means the dog walks on a loose leash or the person sitting down cues the dog to lay down and wait) or common verbal and hand cues need to be used at least for really common behaviors. Given the wide variety of training approaches out there, and if your dog 'refuses' to do a given cue (or command), and what the potential human reaction might be, it is wise to keep that in mind.

Wondering what behaviors are the foundation for service dog? Find out in my new class "Foundation Skills Level 1" (for both dog and human) starting in June 2016. 

If you want to learn how to train a service dog like a professional, this and the next class will give you a great foundation!

Donna Hill B.Sc. B.Ed.
Founder/ Head Instructor
SDTI