Early Behaviors to Avoid Teaching Your New Service Dog in Training

When first starting out with your service dog candidate (whether puppy or "new to you" dog), it can be fun to teach new behaviors and tricks! Learning how to learn is an important part of a service dogs skills. You do need to be careful with your choice of the first  5 or 6 behaviors though, as choosing the wrong ones can add more work or even derail your training as your dog progresses.

Some of these behaviors can be used as alert behaviors later on so we want to be thoughtful how we teach them and what cue we pair them with. This means after YOU have some experience in training behaviors and have a better idea of what you are doing and your dogs' temperament is like.

All of these behaviors are likely to become default behaviors when your dog dog doesn't know what else to do, when you are shaping him or when he gets frustrated. Most of them are self-reinforcing, which means just doing them feels good, no reinforcement is needed from you so he will keep doing them even when you don't want them. They can also be hard to get rid of once they are established, even if you teach a cue for them and put them under stimulus control.

Wait until your pup or dog understands the concepts of a 'behavior on cue' and 'stimulus control' for at least 5 more basic (foundation) behaviors before you teach any of these.

  • spinning (this can become a obsessive compulsive behavior)
  • shake a paw (can interfere with a nose target since the cue is very similar, a lifted paw encourages others to interact with your service dog, can interfere with a dog's communication with you since you might misinterpret it)
  • jumping up or paws up even if on cue (especially with large dogs and the behavior an become an attention seeking behavior) 
  • licking face
  • biting at your face (misinterpreted by others)
  • lifting lips "smile" (can be mis-interpreted as a snarl by strangers, is also an appeasement behavior)
  • barking (on cue) Service dogs can be asked to be removed from a public place if they are disruptive. (Avoid teaching barking as an alert behavior)
  • digging
  • ringing bells to go out to potty
  • scratching the door to go out (wooden doors get damaged in public places)
  • nose nudge of hand (can easily become a demand to pet behavior when you are distracted especially if you absently stroke the dog's head)

Save sniffing for medical alerts until later as well. Sniffing comes naturally to dogs and scents do not need to be "imprinted" at a young age for the dogs to be successful medical scent detectors (diabetic alerts, seizure alerts etc).

Great behaviors you want to start with instead are:

  • eye contact
  • four on the floor
  • sit
  • nose target
  • bringing things to you
  • dropping objects
  • following you (loose leash walking off leash)
  • adding duration to all wanted behaviors

Check out our Foundations Skills Classes for guidance on how to start teaching the basic skills a service dog will need.