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.
 
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


 

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!

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, 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 (petting etc) 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.

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 make it work. 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.

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 (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.

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.

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.

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.
 

We have had several questions about the best leashes to use with wheelchairs so here is our response!