Hopefully, two of your criteria for choosing your assistance dog were that he would be physically and mentally capable of doing any task that you would require of him. As the trainer as well as owner/handler of a service dog, you will also need to consider WHEN he will be physically and mentally ready for some of the tasks and what impact they may have on him.

Physical Needs of Service Dogs
A dog that is asked to train for and carry out tasks that he is not yet physically mature enough to do may negatively impact his overall health. Any behavior that is repetitive especially on a daily basis, that is done on a hard surface, involves jumping, or puts stress on joints (such as rearing up) should be closely evaluated for when they should be trained. Hips, elbows, knees and spine are the most affected.

A dog’s bones are not fully formed until they are 12 to 18 months old. Smaller dogs develop sooner than larger dogs. By that age, the bone plates have closed and if they have formed properly, your dog is more likely to be sound. If there is significant or ongoing stress as the plates are forming, the bones may be malformed and the damage can become permanent.

Overall physical stamina is another consideration. A 6 month old puppy has less stamina than a 2 year old dog and a senior dog also likely has less than the 2 year old. You need to choose the number and type of tasks to train accordingly.

Since bracing work is especially structurally stressful, make sure dog is structurally sound and suitable build for this work and wait until his bone plates have closed before starting the training. Have a vet assess your dog. Pay particular attention to the technique you use to teach a brace as you want to make sure you are distributing your weight over the shoulder area evenly, not putting any stress on the spine and placing your weight so the stress goes straight down through the dog’s legs toward the ground. Think of a cane being held upright versus being held on angle. The one on the angle put the stress on the cane and it may snap. The cane held upright puts the stress on the bottom tip on the ground where it should be.

Pulling a wheelchair is another physically stressful task as is opening a heavy public door. Start with a harness that is designed for the task, and has been properly fitted. Make sure your dog is physically mature and that you slowly condition him to do the amount of pulling you need on a daily basis. Think of your dog as an athlete: every aspect of their physical training (weight, distance, speed, duration, etc) should be increased in small increments and trained one aspect at a time. Then you can bring the aspects together by adding two together, then three etc.

Mental & Emotional Needs of Service Dogs
Mental and emotional levels and requirements also need to be considered when considering training new tasks. Does your dog have the self control, body awareness and mental maturity to complete both the training and implementation of each specific task?

Some dogs won’t be ready for certain tasks until they are older. For example, your dog might be too mouthy (unaware of the impact his teeth have on you) to carefully pull off a sock without injury to you or too exuberant to paw a light switch without scratching the wall. He may not yet be physically aware of his body to safely navigate close to you in a wheelchair. You can choose to start training these but not expect proficiency until he is older, or you may choose to wait to train them.

Mental stamina increases from puppyhood to maturity and beyond. Start with simple tasks, and train more complicated ones. Start with a few and build to many, alternate training tasks so you don’t overload him in training.

Consider how long your dog can focus on a task or tasks without getting fatigued - a very common cause of refusal. Stop well before you get to that point. Better to leave him eager for more than getting tired of what you are training.

Your dog needs to feel connected to you. Regular training and play builds that bond (remembering than training should always be fun!) Of course, your dog needs daily love and attention from you (and maybe others).

Overall Maintenance of Health
Maintaining your dog in good working condition is critical to his performance. Ensure he is getting the exercise levels he needs for a dog his body structure, breed and age and getting quality food.

Daily exercise builds muscle tone, helps with body awareness, expends extra energy and stress and helps keep him at an ideal weight. It also helps to keep a more active dog calm.

Factor in how much exercise he gets doing tasks for you, then make up the balance of his needs with other forms of exercise. You may need to be creative with how you exercise him if you handle him alone and have physical or balance disabilities. Teaching him to chase a piece of fur dran along th ground on a string, or the tip of a long target stick, retrieve a ball, pacing alongside your wheelchair, sending him to run around objects at a distance or targeting a spot on the fence etc may be options. Directed exercise may also help him to bond with you since you are the provider of this resource.

An overweight or obese dog is less likely to want to work for the handler, has lower energy levels, may be sluggish in performing them and the extra weight puts him at risk for heart and joint-related health problems. This makes it difficult to maintain his performance and training.

Tip:
To figure out if your dog is overweight, gently touch the tips of your fingers to his ribs. You should be able to easily feel the rib bones under his skin. If there is a layer of fat, he needs to lose some weight. A quick visual check (not as effective) is to look from above to see an hourglass shape with his chest and hips being wider than his stomach area. If in doubt, ask your veterinarian.

Your dog needs quality food suited to his age and energy output.

For large-boned dogs, it is important to pay attention to how much calcium is required for proper growth during puppyhood. Consult your vet, but a heads up that too much calcium can be bad for large breeds or big-boned dogs as it promotes the bones to grow too quickly and become less dense, and therefore less able to withstand stress. If your breed is prone to hip or elbow dysplasia, an Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) screening test at 2 years of age done by a veterinarian may be needed.

Since you are most likely using treats to train, you can fend off obesity by removing the equivalent of food from his daily ration that you feed him in treats. For a handful of treats, remove what you think the caloric equivalent is for his food. You may also be able to use his daily food as the reward for training, providing it motivates him enough to work. In more distracting environments, or to motivate him to do new tasks, you may need to use higher value, but healthy treats, such as small cubes of liver, chicken, cheese etc.

An easy way to reduce caloric intake is to remove one fifth of his regular meal and substitute it with cooked pumpkin or other squashes, boiled frozen green beans or other vegetable that he will willingly eat. Once he gets to his ideal weight, you may need to experiment with how much food he needs to keep him at a stable weight.

On a daily basis, every dog needs a balance of rest and recreation time suited to his specific needs. After performing longer than usual or in stressful situations, it is important to give your dog sufficient rest and recovery time afterwards. Giving him a day off, or periods of time where he can remove himself from the stress is needed to keep him happy and healthy.

When in the midst of performing, a short break from the situation, a change of task or creating an opportunity to physically release stress by chasing a ball or playing tug may help him deal with the stress in a appropriate way. Then he can get back to work.

A Study of the Impact on Service Dogs for Autistic Children might be of interest.
Factors Affecting Behavior and Welfare of Service Dogs for Children With
Autism Spectrum Disorder


 
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A fairly common complaint among assistance dog owners who have family involved with the dog, is that the dog prefers the company of one or more other family members. This may occur for several reasons. The family members may be more ‘fun’ than you-that is they play fun games with the dog and ask less of them behavior-wise. The dog may have a natural preference for a specific sex or type of personality. You may not interact with them as often or as enthusiastically as other family members. She may notice that you do not control the resources s/he wants or needs. You may have left her a for a few weeks with another person and she disowned you. There are many other possibilities why a dog bonds to others, not you. Without a strong bond, your service dog will not be as eager to work with you, and may defer to others in the home. So, what can you to do improve the bond?

2 Steps to Try

1. For a time, (may be several months or more) ask family members to reduce their interaction with the dog, then once a strong bond has been formed with you, they can gradually resume some (but not all) of their activities with the dog. You keep doing the activities that your dog values most. These are the ones that have the most meaning to her. Perhaps that is feeding or play (or maybe something else).

When family comes and goes, it also helps if they try to make their arrivals and departures less emotionally charged, as you would for a separation anxiety dog. Asking family members to avoid eye contact, physical contact like petting and not talking to the dog until after the dog has calmed down (about 10 minutes) helps to lessen the excitement about their arrival and departure. You still interact normally with your dog as that enthusiasm for you is what you want to maintain.

2. Take on the role of doing things with her: providing for her needs, feeding her, training her, playing with her, exercising her, and massaging her (see post bond 1.1) can all help to develop and strengthen the service dog bond.

All of these things she enjoys. The more positive interaction you have with her, the more of a bond that will develop. Start with taking on (or exchanging with family) one high value activity, then add more as needed. If you can, start with the activities that are the most meaningful to your dog as they will have the most impact on your bond. That way, once the bond has developed, there will still be some lesser value activities for family members to do. A simple way do make this easy for yourself to take the plunge is take a trip with your dog. Out of your normal environment, your dog will need to rely on you for direction, resources such as food, walks etc, and learns that YOU are the best thing since a bunny in a field!

Here are Some Specific Ideas on How to Handle Activities:

Training
During actual training sessions, it is helpful to have family members not make eye contact with, speak to or otherwise interact with the dog except as necessary and as directed by you. They should not step in and help except when asked. You are the trainer and you decide what behavior you are training. They can assist in physically setting up equipment and pose as 'strangers' for training but any interaction with the dog is directed by you (unless in emergency situations). It is up to you to set your dog up for success. Your dog should look to you for direction and rewards.
 
A great way of starting this is simply by having the other person stay in another room while you are training (not the kitchen). If the dog is distracted by that, use a really high rate of reinforcement and then end the session. Send the dog to go say "Hi"  to the person in the other room, let them interact for 30 seconds or so, and then call the dog back for another high rate of reinforcement training session. And send her to go back to the person again at the end. 

Playing
You can employ the Premack Principle any time you interact with your dog. The Premack principle is simply pairing a highly desirable activity with a less desirable activity and the less desirable activity then becomes more enjoyable for the dog.

What this means is that the dog sees interacting with you as less fun than say playing a game of fetch. If your spouse normally does that with the dog, you take it over. Because you become the only one playing that game with the dog, the dog starts seeing you as more fun. For some people with some disabilities, activities like this may be a challenge, but if you are creative, you can find a way to adapt it to make it work for you. Instead of playing in the yard, take it to the basement where the dog can still get excited and has room to run. Can’t throw a ball? Ask your child to be the thrower but you give the cue to get it and the dog must deliver the ball back to you (your lap or hand). You then give the ball to your child to throw again. Your child says nothing to the dog and avoids eye contact if possible. Or buy or ask someone to rig up a ball thrower that you control and use it in the yard.

Feeding
Feeding your dog twice a day can be a bonding experience. You can either hand feed, that is give your dog her food handful by handful, or you can ask her to do tricks or tasks or even use the daily ration of kibble as training treats.

Exercise
During sustained exercise, serotonin, a chemical made by the dog’s body during heart-raising exercise, makes the dog feel good. If you are the one to provide exercise (long walks or hikes, not tossing a ball), your dog will start to associate you with exercise-and feel good about being with you. Anyone in a powerchair has an advantage over the rest of us as they can go more quickly as they move along. Most dogs love speed.

Massage
Some dogs really like a massage. Take time once a day to sit down and relax with your dog in arm’s reach. Give her a gentle massage starting from the base of the ears, moving down the neck, down the back  on either side of the spine, and down each leg and tail. If you find a spot that your dog enjoys, spend some time there. Some dogs love the base of their neck rubbed, others the base of their tail or their belly. If you find a sensitive spot, work around it until you have a better relationship and your dog will let you massage lightly near it. Feet are often sensitive spots for dogs too.

You might need to be creative in how you can access your dog. Try placing her crate beside your wheelchair and place her mat on top of it and cue her to jump up. Or maybe you have a grooming table you can use for this process. If you have trouble controlling your hand strength or fingers, move your fists in circles, or use a towel and pretend you are drying her off when she is wet. Physical contact is how the mother dog bonds with her puppies. It can work for people.

Tethering
Tethering a dog to you on a 6 foot line may help with small puppies but be sure to do it for short periods only. Tethering a dog or puppy to you for long periods is exhausting for both you and the dog and does not allow the dog needed down-time to relax. It would be like having your service dog working for that whole time. Try to avoid sudden movement while the dog is tethered to you. Move gradually and predictably. Ideally, cue your dog before you do anything. That way she at least has a chance to respond before you start to move. 

We find it better to simply keep your dog in the same room as you, perhaps using doors or baby gates as barriers. Place a dog bed or crate nearby so your dog has somewhere comfy to sleep while he is waiting for interaction with you. With time and other bonding activities above, you can remove the barriers and your dog will choose to stay near with you.

Summary
If you take the time to find out what your dog really enjoys, and spend time doing those things with your dog, and the more you can provide care, training, play and physical interaction with your dog, the stronger your dog bond will be, even if there are other people in your home.
 

Giving your dog a massage has many benefits. It is easy to do and you don’t need any special knowledge.

The benefits of massage is that they can help with bonding, is great for a dog’s physical health as it promotes circulation and toxin removal, comforting for older dogs, helps you detect injuries (since you have your hands on your dog on a regular basis), can increase flexibility and healing after an injury, can be used as a pre-warm up and cool down for rigorous exercise and help calms a dog in stressful situations.

With all these benefits, it is surprising that more people do not give their dog regular massages! Most people don’t because they fear they might do it wrong and injure their dog. With an understanding of the basic techniques, a few tips and always erring on the side of light pressure, it is really hard to do injury to your dog.

How to Give a Massage:
Choose a time of day that works for you, and a quiet location.

Your dog can be standing, sitting or laying down as you massage her. Let your dog decide what is most comfortable for her if possible. After a little trial and error, you’ll find a position that is comfortable for you both. Massaging her on her mat helps to build a positive association for the mat.

Using a moderate to light touch (always erring on the lighter side), start at the head and work toward the tail. Then start at the top of the back of the dog and work toward her feet. Massage both sides of your dog before you finish. Use smooth motions.

Support the part of the body you are currently working on with your other hand or lay it on your knee as needed. Your dog should be able to relax and rely on you to hold her body part up as you work it.

Once you have a little practice, a whole massage may take about 5 minutes. At first it may be longer. Also, as your dog learns to enjoy it, you can spend more time in favored spots. As you both gain trust with the process, allow your fingers to explore her body, getting into depressions such as hips and between foot pads, whatever you think she might enjoy.

If you have limited control of your fingers, using gentle rotations of the fist knuckles can feel good to your dog, as long as you can control the pressure.

Massage is as individual as the person giving it and the dog receiving it. Experiment in little steps to see what works for you both. If you have weakness in your limbs, do one part of the body at a time. Take a rest, then resume. There is no rule that says you must massage your entire dog in one sitting!

Head
On the head, start at the base of the ears, rubbing each ear between your thumb and forefinger. Do small circles if it feels good to your dog. With a finger on one side and a thumb on the other, gently draw your fingers towards the tip in a straight line. Start up the middle of the ear and work to the outside edges.

Use two fingers to gently massage the muscles on the top of the head. Next do the jaw muscle. Do the other side. This is often where a dog holds her stress so spend time here, especially if your dog is mouthy or snappy. Use light circles on the lips over the gum line (nose to molars) if your dog is comfortable with your touch. Many dogs enjoy light touches on the molar area. Do not do this area if your dog shows any signs of stress, (alarmed look, looking or pulling away or if she lifts her lips, growls etc.) You can try it again after several sessions when she learns to trust you.

Base of Neck
Most dogs enjoy the base of their neck being massaged on both sides. Place your thumb on one side and two fingers on the other and gently work it. Start at the base of the skull and down to the shoulders, spending more time on the thicker muscles. This is another place dogs hold their stress.

Back
Use your whole hand (fingers and thumb tips) to gently massage both sides of the back. Work in lines from front to back moving closer to the underside of your dog. You can use a gentle raking motion with your fingers. Most dogs enjoy moving the rake with their fur, very few enjoy going against the grain!

Shoulders & Hips
Massage the muscles around the shoulders & hips.

Base of Tail
Dogs that generally don’t like to be touched still enjoy a massage of the muscles where the tail meets the top of the spine. It is a difficult spot for them to reach for scratching or chewing.

Legs and Feet
Most dogs show at least some sensitivity with their lower legs as you move toward their feet. The first few times until your dog learns to enjoy the massage generally, avoid them. Then, as you gain her trust, start doing very light touches further down and actually touch the tops of the feet. Progress at your dog’s speed. When she allows it, gently work the pads of the feet. For some dogs this can take many session to get here, especially if they have had painful or scary experiences with nail clipping.

Stomach
Most dogs enjoy a tummy tickle or belly rub. Avoid using any pressure.

Perking Your Dog Up
For a quick invigorating massage, pretend your dog is soaking wet and use a fluffy towel to pretend to dry your dog off front to back, top to bottom.

Five Key Tips to Massage Your Service Dog:
1. Get in a position that is comfortable for you to sustain. Place your dog beside you on the couch, on a table where you can easily reach her while seated in your wheelchair, or sit with her on her mat.

2. If you are relaxed, your dog will relax. Using calming signals such as deep breathing, matching your dog’s breathing patterns, lowering eye lids while making eye contact all helps.

3. Observe your dog's facial and body reactions constantly. If she shows concern at any time (looks at you with concern, flinches, tenses up, pulls away etc), stop massaging that area and go back to where you know your dog was enjoying it. Lighten your touch. If she gets up and walks away, honor that and let her go. She has had enough for one session.

4. Keep your touch light. The idea is to gently move the muscles to stimulate blood flow, move muscles and tendons and remove toxins etc. A Massage should be a soothing activity for you both. Use a very light touch on puppies and small dogs.

5. Avoid working over the vertebra-stay to each side of them. Similarly, work around, not on, recent injuries.

Try giving your dog a 5 minute massage every day for a week. What changes to you notice in his behavior? Flexibility? Health? Calmness level?

Let us know how you make out!

Click here to listen to an audio file of this blog post.

An alternative to commercially prepared treats (perhaps since you know what ingredients go into them and because homemade ones are often much cheaper as well as better quality), is to make your own. Here are some suggestions.

If you want to add nutrition, dust meat bits with debittered Brewers Yeast and kelp powder. Soaked millet, rolled oats and cooked barley are good substitutes for other treat recipes requiring wheat since they are higher in protein and are more easily digested by dogs.

High-Value Heart
Probably the highest value treat and the best tolerated food I have found for most dogs is heart. Heart is a muscle meat and there is no gastrointestinal upset if a dog eats a lot of it. It is high in taurine and counteracts the effects of legumes in grain free kibble. 

Purchase heart of any species. Ideally source the meat from a local butcher who has access to grass-fed animals. 
Cut off excess fat (for the larger animals) and slice the heart into half inch slices and cook on a no-stick pan without oil. Cook on both sides until there is still a little pink in the middle. Remove from heat and cut into cubes the size appropriate for your dog.

If you have some left over, they freeze well but are not as tasty as if fresh-cooked. Thaw for a few minutes before feeding. BBQing can increase their value. I use this for high distraction environments and behaviours I need to be strong away from home like recalls. Avoid using in low distraction environments or you risk your dog refusing other lower value treats. They are that yummy! LOL!

Chicken Patty Treats
For probably the most economically priced and easiest to prepare healthy training treat, purchase frozen chicken patties, sprinkle liberally with garlic powder and cook until done all the way through. Cut into 1/4 inch cubes and freeze.

When needed, thaw for 10 sec in microwave and cut again into quarter inch cubes. (about $3 per kg or $1.50 per pound!)

Liver Treats
Cooked Liver (beef, chicken, pork or turkey)
garlic powder flavoring

Sprinkle powder on liver and use outdoor BBQ to fry up liver slices. This prevent smelling up house. and cut into strips, then tiny bits. Freeze in containers. This is very rich and should not be more than 1/6 of your dog's daily food intake. Most dogs will get the runs from eating too much. A few dogs get goopy eyes from eating cooked liver.

Moist Meat Treats
A bit more sloppy treat is slow cooked chicken, turkey, duck or roast. Buy the cheapest cuts and cook until meat falls off from bones. Separate bones from meat and freeze meat bits in containers, using wax paper or plastic to make layers that container enough for one training session. Freeze. Thaw or microwave before using.

For the cheap cuts of meats such as beef or moose roast, cut into 3/4 inch steaks.

Freeze until ready to cook separating steaks with wax paper or plastic. Drop bundle on the ground to break apart and remove as many steaks as you want to cook. Thaw. Sprinkle garlic powder on both sides and let sit for a few minutes. Cook (in a no stick pan or BBQ) until brown all the way through then slice in quarter inch strips and freeze in containers. Cut into 1/4 inch squares after thawing.

These meats also do well when ground up in a food processor and put in a food tube. 

Beef/chicken/turkey Patty treats
1lb lean ground beef, chicken, or turkey
2 eggs
1-2 cup quick oatmeal (add more or less depending on consistency-more for higher fat meat)
garlic powder to taste

Mix all ingredients into a giant patty (or several smaller ones) and flatten to very thin. Cook on a no stick fry pan until cooked. Flip and cook all the way through.

Cool and cut into strips, then tiny squares and freeze on cookie sheet. Then scoop bits into containers for freezing. This does have a somewhat crumbly texture so best used at home. This recipe is more work (and more expensive) than the chicken patty treats above)

Cheese Bits
Use a mild chedder or marble cheese and cut into 1/4 inch cubes. On hot days can get a bit mushy.

Hard Boiled Egg Bits
Hard boil an egg or two for 10 minutes and let cool. Peel the shell off and cut egg white and yolk into small pieces and freeze in a small container. Take a few out for training sessions and let thaw for a few minutes (or microwave for 15 sec). The yolk is usually highly prized by dogs. It is a bit messy but works well for in home training.

Egg variation: Make french toast and cook all the way through. Cut into quarter inch cubes and freeze until needed. You can also make a double egg omelet in a very small pan. Flip it over to cook both sides until dry. Cut into squares. Mixing in a bit of flour before cooking can help it stick together better. 

Kidney Bean Treats
Slow cooked kidney beans are high in protein and do not cause gas in most dogs. They are very cheap and make an ideal, if somewhat sloppy treat.

Place 2-3 times as much water as beans in a slow cooker, turn on high and cook until tender (about 4 hours).
Use a slotted spoon and lift beans onto cookie sheet in a single layer and freeze.

When frozen, remove from freezer, let thaw for about 3 minutes or run water over the back of the cookie sheet, then lift with flipper or butter knife and break into bits and freeze in containers. It looks like peanut brittle at this point. Place into containers and freeze.

Take them out of the freezer for a few minutes before using during training. Juice makes a tasty additive to dry foods.

If you mash them, you can use them in a food tube too!



Have other favorite recipes? Please share them with us!

Leslie McDevitt has put together a comprehensive 7-10 week training program to help you teach your dog how to relax, focus on you and the task while in exciting and stressful environments. Always working under your dog’s threshold and using counter conditioning and desensitization, this program is a Godsend for anyone with a dog that has any over the top reaction (positive or negative) to any person, animal or situation. Her methods use these triggers to teach your dog to focus on you, which of course is what a service dog needs to do. The methods are easily adaptable for anyone with physical or other limitations.

The foundation of the program is a series of games that are enjoyable for both you and your dog. They become tools you can use for life with your dog anytime you are in a stressful or exciting environment.

Leslie offers some surprising approaches to retraining dogs (such as if your dog wants to sniff, encourage it and put it on cue. Not only does this decrease his desire to sniff, the sniffing becomes a reward for him!) and they become amazingly effective tools. She offers sound advice using a variety of techniques from learning your dog’s body language to massage and even using your own breathing that helps to calm your dog! Originally marketed for the agility crowd with over-drive dogs, this book will benefit anyone who wants to become better partners with their service dog.

A DVD has recently been released where you can see her dogs as well as clients’ dogs in the process of training. She shows you subtle behaviors to watch and reinforce that change how the dog is feeling. If you are expecting to see reactive dogs, you won’t see them since the program is all about working your dog under threshold and changing the way he feels about his trigger(s) and teaching him to use you as his focus point.

This is one book that everyone should have in their library, no matter how awesome their dog is, to head off potential problems. All you need is a basic understanding of operant conditioning (or willingness to learn) and an openness to new ideas to get all of the benefits from this book. This book is one we will be reading over and over again as we get more ideas each time we read it!

Here are some links to Clean Run (Leslie McDevitt) website and Youtube channel.  

Also check out her videos with her own dogs on Youtube!

And a summary of the book or DVD (see table of contents, book covers etc)
(type 'Control Unleashed' in the search)
 
A. The Walk
There are two aspects to this behavior: 1. having a person walk by the dog and 2. walking the dog by a person. Work through both.

Practice on several other people individually, increase level of difficulty (may be from friends to strangers or the reverse depending on the dog’s level of sociability.)

1. Start by walking by one familiar person at a distance, decreasing distance at each pass. C/t for any loose leash, or focus on you. As you get closer, you dog may tend to move towards the person. To keep her near you, increase your rate of rewards. Practice on several other people individually, increase level of difficulty (may be from friends to strangers or the reverse depending on the dog’s level of sociability.)
Increase number of people to two, then three.

2. Next ask one person to walk by you and your dog at a distance, then closer. If as they approach, your dog tends to move towards them, try using rapid fire rewards (c/t done in quick succession to keep your dog's attention on you. Decrease the speed over time as they approach and she keeps her focus on you.
C/t can be used as an interrupter and to refocus your dog on you but be careful not to wait too long as you might unintentionally be rewarding moving toward the person. Timing is key here. Better to click to soon (for focussing on you) than too late in this circumstance.

B. People Wearing Different Clothes
Use people of different ages, sizes, clothing (hats, sun glasses, mustaches, carrying bags, add a pillow for a big belly, draped clothing like saris, etc)

C. People Carrying and Pushing Things (sound and motion elements)
Start with one person and one object held stationary. Then moving object a little, then more, then faster. Add sound (such as bag flapping in wind or umbrella popping open)
Train for canes, strollers, wheelchairs, skateboards, shopping carts, etc.
You may need to do some separate training at home first getting your dog to target then learn to push large children’s plastic toys, allowing your dog to interact with a skateboard (motion and sounds) etc.

D. Training for People Carrying Food
Start at home by training “leave it” cue for food, toys and other objects you don’t want your dog to touch when out in crowds. (see Sue Ailsby's Training Levels for a detailed description).

Ask a friend to hold food in their hand and cue leave it etc. Then hold it so it is visible. Then closer and closer to dog nose level. Place yummy-smelling food in a bag and ask a friend to walk by the dog. C/t for keeping the nose away, then for focussing on you.

Use adults, teens and dog-safe children.

Ask dog-friendly strangers to do the same.

E. Adding More People
Next, visit an outdoor public event where dogs are allowed and you can easily choose your distance from the crowds (check out your local community event listings in the newspaper or on-line).

Walk the periphery.
Walk a few steps in and out.
Walk further in and out.
Walk in longer or across to other side.
Spend more time in that environment-bring a chair and sit for awhile.

F. People with Dogs and Other Animals
Train for the animal first using the same process as for moving objects before training for people with dogs (or other animals) in a crowd.

Train each animal species separately –horses, cats on leash, ducks, etc.-whatever you know you are likely to face in your everyday life. See blog post (Distraction 1.3)

G. Go to Events or Training locations Where People Have Their Animals With Them
Start with a single species event such as a dog trial, then a horse event. A 4-H Club Display or County Exhibition can be a great place to test/practice the level of distraction your dog can tolerate after she has had much training.

Start at the periphery as for crowd events. Give yourself and your dog lots of space to escape and know where physical barriers are in case your dog goes above his threshold.

Move to small groups at periphery, before moving to other areas of more dense people and animals. Err on the side of keeping under threshold.

Be Proactive, not Reactive!
Be prepared for any situation and always have a way out planned ahead of time!

Anticipatory Training is the Best Defence
Once your dog and you have worked through the process of training for different kinds of distractions, you will be ready to take on anything. You can use the same general approach if something unforeseen pops up and each new challenge, your dog will respond more quickly. Mix and match the approaches as needed.

For example, one woman in a wheel chair with her service dog was at a horse competition and found herself just above ground level with all the horses running directly at her and her dog, then turning to the side to take a jump. For various reasons, it was not possible to request a different seating location. Her assistance dog was so distracted at first she was unresponsive to cues and would move to the side each time a horse approached, but after marking and jackpot rewarding calm behavior when the first few horses were far away, then marking and rewarding as each successive horse approached a little closer, the dog was resting comfortably beside her chair about 20 minutes later with the horses thundering nearby, ready to be able to offer her help at any time.

What Environments will you be Visiting in the Future?
Identify the potential distractors in each environment and work through each before visiting. Intend that each of your visits are training sessions and focus on your dog. It may mean you visit the location without your dog or stay at the sidelines to observe at first. Look at each location from your dog’s perspective. Make a list, prioritize as above and pre-train your dog to not react around those distractors (expose her to those under controlled settings such as at home, in familiar training environments etc.) It may mean you ask friends and family for their help, you may need to borrow equipment for a couple of weeks or ask permission to go into locations during quiet periods or after hours. Be creative and resourceful in gaining access to places. If you ask, and explain what you plan to do, often people are willing to help, if not professionally, at least personally. 

Choose a location where the subject animal(s) are behind a fence, in a crate or cage, tethered on a long line, on a leash being handled by another trusted person, or otherwise safely confined. This is for your safety, your dog’s safety and the animal’s safety.

A. One Animal
Start with single calm animal at a distance if at all possible. C/t for any looking or sniffing in that direction while staying calm.

Dog will eventually start looking at the animal, then at you in anticipation of getting the reward. When she is doing that 5 or more times in a row, start clicking the looking back at you. When she is offering that consistently, you can also start naming the behavior “Look” so it comes under verbal cue control. (Tip: “Look” is usually used to get the dog to look at something whereas “Watch” is used to get your dog’s eye contact.)

At the beginning of training sessions cue the look once, then cue simple or fun behaviors your dog knows in quick short bursts of 10 or less. Give your dog a one minute break by moving further away, disengaging eye contact, then move back in and try cuing a few more quick behaviors.

When she is successful with several sessions of that, cue slightly more difficult behaviors.

Next, at that same distance, drop the “Look” cue and just start cueing the simple behaviors. (Your dog shouldn’t need to look at the object/person of interest before doing the cued behavior.) Then try more difficult behaviors.

Next, decrease the distance a little.

Now start cueing simple or fun behaviors your dog knows in quick short bursts of 10 or less. Give your dog a one minute break, then try a few more.

When she is successful with several sessions of that, try slightly more difficult behaviors.

Decrease the distance again. Repeat as above.

Before you get too close to the animal, decide what is a safe distance and if you want your dog to actually interact. If you choose to have her interact, make sure there are other knowledgable people handling the other animal(s) and have a plan. Watch carefully for body language (to indicate stress levels) and have one or both animals confined behind a fence or on a leash so you can move them apart quickly if needed.

B. Multiple Animals
When your dog is able to work with you fairly close to one animal, add a second and work your way from the beginning through the same process. Remember that adding a second animal may chance the dynamics of the group so progress more slowly. Add a few more animals in the same way.
 

 

(For the purposes of this blog post, an object could be a ball, balloon, bicycle, skateboard, shopping cart, car, vacuum cleaner, riding lawn mower, garbage truck etc.)

For safety and the confidence of you dog, always stay with your dog, within leash length. Never leave your dog unattended (especially if leashed) when a human-operated object is in the area (with or without the human presence). There is too much risk of unknowing people making mistakes that can scar your dog.

A. Smelling & Touching the Object
Start object stationary at a distance that is below threshold.
Work closer in small increments until dog is in nose touch reach. Sometimes, you may need to approach the object directly. For example if your dog is focusing on a strange-shaped rock, it might be better to walk directly to it and touch it yourself, then let your dog interact with it. With a noisy or dangerous machine, it would be better to take a slower approach described below.
Other times it is better to slowly move towards it and c/t for any calm behavior and focus on you. When you arrive there, allow your dog to interact with it: sniff it all around, (approach from various angles), nose and paw target it, push it, stand on it -whatever is appropriate for that object, your dog and their physical safety, and social environment the object is in.
When your dog is able to stand or sit calmly nearby the stationary object, try cueing several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, glance at you, sit, etc that you dog can do easily or enjoys doing, Of course click and treat for attempts and good responses.
Next, play with a toy near the object.
Now ask for more complex behaviors-downs, short recalls, heeling, longer duration eye contact, and some service tasks (appropriate to environment).
You can add distance and hopefully your dog will be satisfied she knows what the object is and will ignore it and respond to your cues. If she does not, keep working her near the object or approaching other similar objects in the same way in other locations. Your dog should soon generalize that the object is an object, no matter where you are and not worthy of interest.

B. Hearing the Object
Add some distance, find the sound threshold and work below it and have a helper make it move with its sounds (bicycle bumping over gravel, brake squeaking etc) or turn the object on (if motorized) but keep it stationary.
Move closer to the object as dog becomes comfortable with the sound.
Cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that your dog can do or enjoys doing. Play with a toy near it. Now ask for more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

You can add distance and hopefully your dog will be satisfied she knows what the object is and will ignore it and respond to your cues. If she does not, keep working her near the object or approaching other similar sounding objects in the same way in other locations. Your dog should soon generalize that the object is an object, no matter where you are and not worthy of interest.

C. Watching the Object Move
Again start at a distance and ask someone else to move/drive the object.

Start at a very slow speed. Increase speed as dog can handle it. When dog can handle the object passing by and is deferring to you, cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that you dog can do or enjoys doing.

Next, play with a toy near it.

Now cue more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

Move closer to the object. You move to it first, as it may trigger interest or fear on your dog’s part. You want your dog to feel she has choice in approaching the noisy object or moving away. This will give her a sense of control and confidence. If at any time, she wants to move away, go with her to just below her threshold distance. When she is comfortable with that and able to focus on you and successfully carry out simple cues, direct the object to move parallel to her, then on angle, then more towards you and your dog.

Progress slowly and stay under the dog’s threshold if at all possible to build success. At each step, start with simple cues, progress to playing, then to more complex behaviors.

D. Unpredictability
Ask the other person to be less predicable in driving by, towards dog, fast, slow etc.
Cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that you dog can do or enjoys doing.

Play with a toy.

Next ask for more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

Move towards or away from object as needed for your dog’s success. Reward for staying focused and completing tasks!

E. Generalizing to other Locations

Set up situations where you and your dog encounter the object in other environments. Be ready for a training session as needed. Remember to decrease your criteria whenever you change a criteria (such as speed, loudness of sound, environment the object is seen in etc).

Can you see the pattern you are building here?
 
Listen to the Audio version of this blog post.
 
Be Flexible
Remember that despite your best planning, no plan will occur exactly as it is laid out on paper. You, your dog and the distraction or environment will demand that changes be made on the fly. Below are training plans (think of them as frameworks if it helps you be flexible) to get you started. Please adapt or modify them for your own dog’s needs. They can be used for basic beginning training or training problem areas or anything in between. Each stage may take one training session or many, depending on you, your dog, his previous training and experience with similar situations, the object, animal or people involved and the environment where training occurs. Don’t forget, you will be clicking (or marking) and rewarding for calm behavior or focus on you at each little step.

Your Dog's Perspective
When training a dog for distractions you need to think from your dog’s perspective. Dogs learn about the world using predominantly their senses of smell, hearing and sight. So these senses are what will capture their attention. Which sense is predominant is usually determined by the breed. So for example, sight hounds are usually triggered by the sight of things moving quickly, scent hounds are triggered by interesting smells, while more reactive dogs (like terriers), tend to be more sensitive to sounds. You may need to spend more time on your dog’s preferred sense than the others but you want to make sure you work on all three separately, then together. Be creative-ask others for ideas if you run into a real challenge for your dog.

Work on Only One Aspect of a Distraction at a Time
Break down each distraction into its simplest parts and work each one separately. Once success has been achieved with each one, then you can start combining components. This is what is known as raising the criteria or splitting the behavior.

Set the Scene
Also remember that if you are calm, your dog will be too. Take a helper to help setting up the training equipment or the environment, provide moral support for you or to interact/distract/direct members of the public as required. Give them clear guidance what EXACTLY you want them to do. (Stand up straight, avoid eye contact with dog, explain to public what you are doing when they reach a specific spot etc). Thanking them afterwards or taking them out for a coffee etc goes a long way to having them help you again-think positive reinforcement for humans!

Remember to Reward
At each step of the training, start by click and rewarding desired behaviors. And don’t forget to jackpot reward (a handful of 8-10 treats delivered one at a time) your dog when she does something that is new or a breakthrough for her. This keeps her interest and also motivates her to focus on you, not the distraction.

How Fast will My Dog Progress?
How quickly your dog progresses through each step depends on her previous socialization to the objects/people/animals/environment (that is why it is so important to socialize them during the critical period of 7 to 16 weeks), current level of training/teamwork, motivation for reward, general resilience to new things and places, and overall confidence level among other things.

What is a Threshold?
This is the level at which your dog can no longer stay calm or focused on you with that object, person, animal or environment. She will show a few signs of stress (positive or negative) such as taking treats harder than usual (but can eat), ears forward and listening to object, eyes open wide and looking at the object -but can still be redirected by a cue or sound that you make. She should also be able to complete simple task such as sit, stand, down and nose targeting your hand. You want to start with your dog under threshold and keep her there as she learns to deal with distractions. Going above the threshold causes the training process to take longer.
 
Tiny puppies, rescue dogs and even the most focused and well-trained dogs have things that distract their attention from their job of focusing on you. So how do you add distractions to your dog’s training program while helping her to be successful?

The most effective trainers use a slow carefully thought out 4 step process.
1.Desensitize your dog to the triggers,
2. Counter condition her to them (changing how she feels about it) and
3. Train her to interact appropriately with them while giving you eye contact
4. Respond to your cues to do behaviors and tasks while in the presence of the distraction(s) then defer back to you.

All four are techniques that work best in combination for service dogs.

With some dogs, you can progress very quickly through a planned distraction. With others, you may need to spend much time at each step of a slight increase of distraction. It all depends on how much value you dog put on that particular distraction, or the combination of distractions.

You must remember that a distraction is not only something that captures your dog’s attention and draws her focus away from you, the distraction may also cause stress (anxiety, fear, excitement) in your dog. You must work through the emotional response first, (using desensitization and/or counter conditioning) before your dog can offer her attention to you.

In the first stages of training anything new, give your dog a chance to improve. If he starts at about a 30% success rate, he should quickly progress to 80% success. If his success rate is lower than that to start, or he doesn’t progress rapidly, you’ll have to break each step into smaller steps he can achieve. The same as with task training, it is the trainer’s job to help the dog succeed.

The rule of 4 comes in handy here. If your dog is not successful, break that step into 2 smaller pieces and then each of those into 2 smaller pieces. Once your dog has achieved 80%, it’s time to increase the criteria. Remember that several short sessions are better than one long one. Give him play breaks, crate him, or take him out of the stressful environment if you plan to be there for a longer period- for example if you must drive a distance and want to make your time at the location worthwhile. Don’t forget, it takes a lot for you to focus as well, so you need a break from your dog too!

When your dog can calmly focus on you and do some simple behaviors (nose touch, sit, a cued glance, etc) for you with the distractions nearby, it is time to move on to asking for a progression of more complex service-oriented tasks. Work towards his returning his attention to you after each task. The click or mark and reward will help with that, but by intermittently rewarding for eye contact, you can have a dog that is attending to you.

General Rules of Distraction Training:
A. Set your dog up for success! The key idea here is that the increments of change must be small enough that your dog can take them in stride. This is called working under threshold. If your dog starts to become distracted and I unable to complete the behavior or task you cued, you have raised the criteria too fast for her needs. That is an example of working above threshold.

B. Remember to use high value rewards when adding a high value distraction or one that she has never trained with before successfully.

C. Use distance as your friend, then decrease it in small increments as your dog demonstrates he can handle being closer to the object/animal/person.

D. Start with low value distractors and increase in slightly higher value steps. You will need to brainstorm a list of things that capture your dog’s attention (smells, sounds, things he sees) and prioritize them. If you can separate out the pieces of each distraction: for example a horse: sounds of neighing, smell, sight since for some dogs one of these will be more of a trigger than others and you will need to work separately on it.

E. Start with stationary things, then add a slight motion and move to greater motion.

F. Start with quiet things, then increase sound in small increments.

G. Start with non-smelly objects and increase the intensity of the smell. For example, instead of using a live bird, pet it first and c/t for your dog smelling your hands and staying calm. Next wrap the bird in a towel for a few minutes and lay the towel down where your dog can smell it. Present the empty cage for your dog to smell. Then add the bird.

H. Start with one distraction, then add another, in increments of one or two as you dog shows you she can be successful with it.

For Locations with Multiple Distractions

i). Train a few of the distractions individually first, then together in various combinations, if possible.
ii). Start in a familiar environment if at all possible, then move to less familiar location to continue training.
iii) Train at the location when no-one is there to build familiarity with the physical environment.
iv). Start at the periphery of a location, (walking on the edge of the action, for example, before moving slightly towards the center.)
v). Start with low density (for example, choose events with fewer people more spread out, then progress to slightly more dense situations (move to an area in the event where people are closer together or a more popular event).

Over-Training
Train for the worst-case scenario and you will also be prepared for anything! This is called over-training. Since working in public can be so unpredictable, it is important that we train way above any expected criterion for distraction level. We do not want to floor or traumatize our dog, but by incrementally increasing our distraction criterion, we can bring our dogs into the realm of bombproof (assuming they have a resilient temperament to start with.) 

Proofing For Distractions
In order to keep your dog current, it is a good idea to refresh training uncommon distractions periodically. How often is up to the time you have and how reactive/focused on you your dog is or you can refresh training for specific distractions before you intend to revisit a location.
 
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