A recent trend is for owner trainers to train their own Anxiety Alert Dogs. I have seen several issues appear in the training process that has to do with the environment the dog is raised in that concerns me and raises the question about the best way to train an anxiety alert dog. The problem seems to arise when the handlers start with a puppy and the dog has only limited access to other people who don't have anxiety issues.
Anxiety alert dogs, like all service dogs, need to have a solid bombproof temperament but also need to be sensitive enough to detect and respond to anxiety attacks. Not only do they respond to physically behaviors of the person, but there is also a thought that they may be able to detect high levels of cortisol much as a diabetic alert dog detects high levels of sugar. A dog that is too calm will not likely respond to the anxiety attack. A dog that is too sensitive has a good chance to become overly sensitized and actually become anxious himself. By the time a dog is 18 months to 2 years old, most dogs have passed through the fear periods and the temperament you see is what you will have later on in his working life.
The concern seems to arise when a puppy is raised by a person with severe environmental anxieties because there is a strong emotional component in the dog's social environment that can affect the dog's success.
Both genetics and the environment play important roles in the development of a dog (as they do a person). Starting with a dog with great genetics (health and temperament) is no guarantee the dog will turn out how you want her. Those genes respond to the social, emotional and physical environments the dog finds herself in while growing and maturing. At what point in life altering events occur in the dog's life can be important. A dog that lives in uncertainty at home during fear periods makes it harder for them to proceed through and bounce back once the fear period is over. A dog that has stability in his environment is likely do better. It is events in the environment that turns genes on and off.
If a pup is living in a stressful environment right from the start, cortisol levels will be chronically high and that can lead to reactivity issues, and can put the dog at risk for long term diseases like cancers and autoimmune diseases like allergies.
A highly anxious person raising their own anxiety service pup:
- may create a home environment that is too stressful for the pup
- risks having a pup unable to learn what is normal vs what is stressful if the handler is chronically stressed
- may not be able to go out on their own to train (for socialization and distraction training)
- who does not have a strong support system is not likely able to continue socializing and training the pup through these crucial periods
Here are some questions to consider before choosing to start with a puppy:
What type of anxiety do you have and to what level?
Will it interfere with your ability to trainin your dog to public access level? In what ways?
What will the pup's living situation be? Will you be the only one responsible for the pup?
What barriers are you up against?
Will these be realistically overcome (best to get someone else's opinion outside of the family on this as the people involved tend to either minimize or blow up the issues depending on where they are in getting a dog and in particular what living with a service dog might change their lifestyle (good and bad).)
Do you live alone?
Do you have a support system? List who they are and what they will do to help you with training your dog. (family, friends, caregivers, dog walkers, in person trainers, online support etc)
Do they actually like dogs? Do they have the extra time and energy to help?
Who exactly will be responsible for taking the pup for socialization and training when you are unable to do it?
Are these people emotionally balanced enough to offset the environmental effect of your anxieties on your pup?
What other responsibilities do you already have?
What other responsibilities do your caregivers already have besides the pup?
Do you live an extreme lifestyle? (excesses of anything-high stress in your job, high stress at home; driving long hours, dealing with a with a child with physical or psychological issues, dealing with another reactive dog in the house, dealing with a spouse or family member with drug or alcohol issues? etc.)
Are you on high doses of medication that affects your emotions and behavior?
Can you confidently go out to do socialization in public, and public access preparation and training?
If they answer to any of these is maybe, then you will want to seriously consider getting an adult dog as your service dog candidate. Most dogs are not emotionally mature until about 2 years of age. At that time, a dog's temperament can better be measured.
Here are Some Alternative Ideas:
- Have a friend or family member raise the dog for you. Make sure they use training approach that fits with your philosophy. (nearby accessible location is important for regular access to the dog to develop a relationship especially as the dog nears maturity and working age)
- Learn to train the dog under the support of an experienced positive reinforcement trainer. The dog is still living with someone else. This limited access will minimize the negative social impacts on the dog.
- Have a trainer train the dog. Board and train situations do exist. Do your homework on the trainer and his philosophies. At present there are very few 'Board and Train' positive trainers.
- Find an adult dog that has been returned to a quality breeder or that is being retired from conformation or breeding.
- Purchase a trained dog.
- Get a program dog. There are many new programs training PTSD dogs for veterans.
- Get an adult program dog that has been pulled from a see eye guide dog program (so long as the issues do not affect what you need the dog for)
Dogs are not immune to the social atmosphere they live in. As social animals, sensitive dogs in particular, will be sensitive to the emotional chaos and inconsistencies in life. In many cases, it is best if the dog is raised and trained in a more neutral emotional environment. It gives the dog time to mature and normalize. The dog will then be able to read you better when you are having your lows and alert to and help you overcome anxiety.
So, You've Decided to Train Your Own Service Dog!
Good for you!
Some Background Information Before You Start:
In the professional programs, puppies start their training at 8 weeks with the puppy raiser families. They are given a structured approach to socializing and training that puppy, train daily and meet twice weekly with other puppy raisers or a puppy class if they are on their own. They have the support of the program trainers and their materials and facilities. At about 10 months to 18 months, depending on the dog and the program, the adolescent dogs are returned to the program facility and enter a rigorous daily training program that takes up between 3 to 5 hours each day. The dogs are trained 5 to 7 days a week and staff may live on site. That's a total of about 500 hours of advanced training beyond the basic skills in public. In the better programs, the dogs are trained by skilled professionals who do this for a living. In some programs, the dogs are trained by high school students, and training finished off by professionals. The program dogs have a very structured training plan that is adapted for each dog's needs for the entire duration. The dogs have a consistent feeding, potty, training, play and exercise time. Their care needs are also scheduled. They are regularly socialized with other dogs, but the focus is always on the humans. Canine playmates are carefully chosen. Dogs are always kept on a leash or long line and only allowed off leash in safe fenced areas. By 2 years of age, most programs graduate the dogs to work with their human partners. They get another 10 days to 2 weeks of learning to work together at the facility. Dogs and their human partners periodically check in with the program and infrequently come back to upgrade training.
Realistically, whether you work full-time, or your disability limits your energy, few people have the time or energy to devote this amount of time to their own dog on a daily basis. In addition, there may be gaps where medical conditions prevent you from training your dog for a period of time. This may be a set back, especially if it occurs when the dog is a pup during the 11 week sensitive period (5 to 16 weeks old) when it is crucial that the puppy be exposed to everything she will encounter as a working adult. Once this widow is closed, it cannot be opened.
In addition, you will be learning new training skills along with the dog and that will slow progress. So realistically, if you plan to train your dog to a level that is comparable to certified assistance dogs, your dog will not be ready to be a full-fledged partner until about 3 years of age. This actually is a benefit as many dog breeds are not fully physically or emotionally mature until that age. The big benefit you have as an owner-trained is that there is no official deadline and you can train additional tasks as you need them.
So What This Means For You is That:
- You need to create a detailed training plan for the duration of the training. Realize it will need alterations as the speed of training may not be what you estimate and challenges will appear.
- All training needs to be documented. That way you can keep track of progress and as well as be able to prove training if you are ever challenged by an official body. In BC, training records are an important part of application for certification.
- You need to be able to access materials, training tools, resources, and facilities for training. This may mean looking around your home for materials, asking friends and relatives for items to borrow, checking out garage sales and second hand stores, buying a few books or DVDs or renting a room for specialized training. You will be providing everything your dog needs to train. I have many objects and books you can borrow, but I need them back in a reasonable time so other students can use them too.
- You need to create a structured daily routine for your dog for feeding, potty, training, play and exercise time. If you are not a touchy feely person with your dog, schedule in time for that too as dogs need regular physical contact.
- Your job is also to keep your dog safe from harm. The dog should be on a leash at all times when not in a fenced area. A long line works great for open areas away from traffic. Carefully choose your service's dog's canine friends. You have invested much time, focus and money on this dog. Keep your investment safe!
- Training needs to occur daily for one to two hours a day, 5 days a week. (made up of short focused incremental training sessions as well as training in public and the transportation to get there.) Some days will be longer than others.
- When training your dog, the dog gets 100% of your focus until fully trained. This means no walking and talking with friends with the dog on the end of the leash. If you are training, you are training. Walking with people and you being distracted gets integrated into the training later on. Put your dog away if not training.
- You need to be willing and able to take your dog to different locations right from early on in training (group training classes, public places etc)
- You need to be willing and able to hire an assistant is you cannot train the dog yourself either at home or away from home. The same applies to exercising your dog.
- The dog determines what is reinforcing to him or her, not the trainer. This will vary depending on the distraction level and skill level of specific behaviors in the moment. This may mean you will have to go out of your comfort level for providing reinforcers. For example, cooking up meat or buying high value premade treats. Or using food, toys or massage in addition to praise (VERY few dogs actually work for praise alone. Many of those who do have been taught to do so.)
- The dog determines what is aversive or punishing. Even if you think a situation is not aversive or punishing, the dog may see it differently. Be prepared to modify your expectations for the interim until you can condition the dog to think otherwise.
- The dog determines the rate of training for basic skills, advanced skills and tasks. If the dog's success rate is too low, he (and you) will get frustrated. That means progress will be slow. Most often the issue is not the dog, but that you are asking for too many of the pieces of skills than the dog is able to give you at that time. Break the skills into smaller steps actually speeds progress. (splitting behaviors vs lumping behaviors.)
- When you can't give your dog 100% of your focus, put the dog in a settle and tether her, crate, or otherwise confine her or put her in your car (assuming it is safe to do so). This is not considered training time (unless you are working on duration in which case you are actually focusing on your dog).
Once the dog is trained, your focus will be 50/50 for a partnership. She will give you hers and you will give her at least some of yours. You will never be able to ignore your dog in public, just like you cannot ignore a child. You will always be looking out for her well-being just as she will be looking out for yours. Having and training a service dog may will affect your lifestyle. In the short term, an SD will add more challenges to your life. In the long term, an SD should improve your life.
If you feel you can do all of the above,
The next step is to figure out if you can afford to train and keep a service dog.
Here is a link to a cost estimate form you can fill out based on your local costs.
Then research your local laws about service dogs.
What do you need to have to get public access for training and working? Each country, state and province has different laws.
If you feel you can meet all these, then start setting up your support system, and look for a dog with suitable health and temperament.
We recently received this question! Thought we would post the answer in case it was useful to anyone else.
"I cannot train using treats, and I cannot find any information on using other rewards with clicker training, specifically with loading the clicker. I do plan on using praise as the reward since my boy responds well to that. Any in site (sic) you could provide would be most appreciated."
The first question I have for the poster is if by treats you mean special food or just food in general. All dogs need to eat and you can usually use his food to train. If your dog doesn't like to eat, there are many reasons that you need to explore. That aside, and assuming that is is a personal choice of the person who asked the question not to use food, here is an answer.
The reason food is used, then later faded or switched to other types of reinforcers, is that it is a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers have intrinsic meaning to dogs: the dog doesn't have to learn to love it. Some examples are food, sex, air, water, sniffing, chasing, barking, digging etc.
Food is an easy choice for most people as it can be tossed from a distance and allows for quick delivery and therefore many repetitions in short order (a key to marker-based training). This allows for faster learning. Treats used are small (we are rewarding the dog, not feeding him), soft so it can get eaten quickly, with no crumbs and the dog must value them. To avoid weight gain, simply remove the same amount of food from his feed dish as you use for treating each day. Some people use the kibble itself if their dog will work for it (and if they feed kibble) or find other ways to deliver homemade food (such as food tubes) or cook raw muscle meat or veggetables.
Timing (of the marker),
Rate of reinforcement and
keeping training Criteria small enough for the learner to succeed are the three fundamentals of marker-based training.
A Few Considerations of using Secondary Reinforcer for Training New Behaviors
You could use toys (a secondary or learned reinforcer) but that can slow the process down significantly. For example, if you throw a ball, it takes more time for the dog to chase and catch the ball and bring it back (assuming he already knows how to do that or you must go get the ball). Using a bean bag or a ball on a rope limits how far it can move and would be a better choice. Similarly, using a toy often teaches the dog to be ready to move, which may not be the best choice in early learning stages of a stationary or relaxed behavior such as down, sit or stay. Toys are great for increasing the dog's interest and intensity for the behavior, food tends to calm most dogs.
When using praise, it is usually paired with stroking/physical affection and this may limit you to how far away the dog can work or the position where you are in relation to the dog as you always have to either go to the dog to deliver it, or have the dog move to you. It is do-able, but again, slows the process down. Most people can quickly throw treats for long distances from any position once he learns to catch them so the dog can stay at and work at a distance.
Once a behavior is understood well by a dog (i.e. is on cue and dog is able to perform it in a variety of environments) that is typically when secondary reinforcers are brought in.
Training Secondary Reinforcers
You can train a secondary reinforcer (pretty much anything else the dog learns to love), but that will likely involved using food for at least part of the training as you have to pair the new reinforcer with a primary one many times so it now has a new meaning for the dog. Periodically, you may have recharge it as well as sometimes they lose meaning/value to the learner.
Some examples: a high-pitched voice, a scratch on the back end, a neck massage, a towel rub down -anything that becomes meaningful to the dog. Having said that, some secondary reinforcers can come to be more reinforcing than primary ones, if you find the right one! Think of a ball crazy dog, for example or a dog that loves belly rubs.
Choosing a Different Marker Sound
I suggest using a different marker than a clicker though. Reserve the clicker for when you are shaping precise behaviors and suing food. You could use a short fast sound like a tongue click, a whistle, a verbal "Click!" etc. For behaviors you want to be calm, choose a longer more soothing sound like "Good." followed with a neck or bum massage.
How to Pair them:
Introduce the Secondary Reinforcer (sound, toy, affection, belly rub, massage)
Follow it quickly with a Primary Reinforcer x50 to 100
Do this many times until the secondary reinforcer clearly has meaning. The dog should be looking for the primary reinforcer when the secondary is presented.
Now you can use the secondary reinforcer after your click but will probably have to go back and re-charge it periodically if it loses it's appeal.
Can You Pair the new Secondary Reinforcer with a Click?
(using a secondary reinforcer with a secondary reinforcer).
The short answer: Yes, if it works for the animal. Remember that the animal defines what is reinforcing so they are the factor that makes the decision if it works or not.
If you say "Good dog" and pair it with a belly rub, these are both secondary reinforcers. If your dog will work for them, then it works. If not, try something else. If you can remember to say "Good" in a short quick way, you should maintain the benefits of using a precise behavior marker. Studies have shown that the metallic click does speed learning of new behaviors by 45% or more.
If you don't care that you might dilute the effect of the clicker sound, then you can try pairing your new secondary reinforcer with the click.
For less formal behaviors such as waiting to go through the door, going through the door becomes the reward. Going for a car ride (if the dog likes doing this) greeting a human friend, another dog, sniffing, chasing squirrels (often called "life rewards" in case you want to Google it) etc can all be creatively used as rewards and reinforcers. Even things and events in the environment can become reinforcers if you take the time to train (the pairing is called conditioning) them.
It is interesting to note that having to train this process means praise means nothing to a dog unless it is first paired with something else of great primary value to the dog-usually food. We train this inadvertently when we feed from the table or pair our voice with food after the dog performs a trick etc.
If you train without food, you will have to be more observant than the average trainer to see what the dog is showing you what is meaningful to him and use your creativity to build on that. Normal reactions are around food preparation-the sound of the fridge opening, the can opener, the tinkle of a spoon on the bottom of a bowl are all learned (or conditioned) like Pavlov's dogs.
My previous dog loved to perform agility because of the reaction he got from the crowd-he loved their laughing, clapping and 'oohing and awing' as he performed. He learned this inadvertently. I was not something I taught. However, I did notice that for him in dog class, if someone laughed at something goofy he did, he would repeat it. He was an incredibly sensitive dog to human emotion. He would often stop at the top of the A-frame to make sure everyone was watching. He was quite sensitive yet confident-in short a showman.
Social Maturity: An animal behaving within accepted social norms of an adult of that species when interacting with others of his or her species.
I have observed over the years that once dogs reach adulthood, some social behavior changes take place. These are important to consider as you raise and train your own service dog.
As a young pup with the litter and after they go to their new homes, pups are open to everything. He starts to learn basic dog language, and how to inhibit his bite so his playmates will keep playing with him. This early 'window of socialization' of 5 to 12 weeks is what anyone training service dogs takes advantage of. Everything (people, other dogs, other animals, things, locations, events, surfaces, machines, sounds, smells etc) that the dog has a positive exposure to in this period becomes familiar and this stays with the pup to support him through the various fear periods. If the positive exposure is continued periodically until social maturity, the dog will be comfortable with the things he has been exposed to.
Anything that is not experienced positively in that socialization period, becomes something to be suspicious of and without support from the handler may become a source of lifelong fear. Most dogs can be worked through them of course (depending on the genetics, temperament and health of the individual dog), but that puts an extra barrier in the way of success as a service dog.
As the dog pass through adolescence, he learns how to inhibit his bite further in play so he doesn't hurt other dogs or people. He learns what is polite behavior, which dogs would like to play with him and what behavior gets him a correction from another dog. He learns to read the subtle and quick communication of his species. He learns how to respond to the communication to diffuse potential confrontations. And he learns to make choices not to engage at all.
An Example of Changes in Social Maturity
The off leash dog park is a great place to observe this change of social behavior in dogs. (If you are going to use dog parks, I recommend the type without fences and that have trails so that dogs can walk with the handlers and beside other dogs. Face to face contact is minimized as they pass other groups of dogs moving in the opposite direction. High volumes of dogs in small fenced areas with non-attentive humans is a recipe for disaster in my experience.)
Young adolescent dogs go to the dog park and make a variety of dog friends. Typically, dogs chose dogs that have a similar style of play that they do. They run side by side as the group moves along the paths, distracted by things to sniff and look at. As they move through adolescence (whether intact or not), they continue learning how to interact with other dog breeds, ages and energy levels and which ones they like and others they do not like. In this walk structure, things usually don't escalate too much, unless the handlers stop to talk.
Not all interactions are totally positive and some dogs (breeds as a whole and individuals) are more resilient to this than others. The closer they get to social maturity, the less open they are to prolonged interactions with unknown dogs whether the breeds are strange or the individuals are unknown to them, or the dogs are rude or snarky.
After a few unwanted altercations between dogs, the humans will typically decrease how often they allow their dog to stop and greet, how often they go to the dog park or they stop going to the park altogether. So in most dog parks, you typically see dogs that are 3 years old and under. This is especially pronounced in fenced dog parks where the dogs are left to entertain themselves.
When Does Social Maturity Occur?
Typically, by the age of 2-3 years, most dogs have their set of friends they are comfortable with and have most of the communication skills and self control they need to live a generally peaceful life with most other dogs. If they meet adolescent dogs, they are less likely to want to play, decrease the duration of play and are less tolerant of rough play from the adolescents (although "puppy license" is still given to pups under 5 months or so).
The exact age social maturity occurs varies. Some breeds as a whole take longer to reach social maturity (golden retrievers, labrador retrievers, standard poodles), while others are more open lifelong in general (scent hounds as a group tend toward being dog social lifelong as a function of how they were bred to work in groups for humans). In general, I find the smaller dogs are socially mature earlier at 18 months or so and become less tolerant of rude greetings and rough play especially from larger unknown dogs.
What's the Biggest Change Observed?
Once each individual reaches social maturity, they are very happy to see old friends but are less interested in meeting new dogs. Most well-socialized dogs can, however, make new friends, but the process takes longer and multiple meetings are typically needed before the are fully comfortable with other dogs. Then they are included in a circle of friends.
You'll see this with leashed group walks. At first the dog are uneasy when the group first meets.
Who are these new dogs? What interactions are expected of them? Once the walking starts, they have a task to do.
Walking in the same direction as other dogs gives them time to assess the other dogs in a non-confrontational way so when they do meet face to face at a later time, they already have some history with the other dog to draw from. They can smell the other dog's scent in the air, they can watch his body language and see how he responds to subtle communication from himself and other dogs.
This structure mimics a more socially acceptable way for dogs to meet. They approach on an arc at a distance, then circle nose to bum. Joining in on a big circle walk is actually the best way to join a group. Or if the dogs are all sitting, have them face the same way in the large circle (clockwise or counter clockwise). Once the dogs understand the safe social structure of the walks and that the other dog to dog interactions are minimal, everyone settles in to the job they need to do.
(By the way, face to face meetings are considered rude in a dog's world but since most people insist that's how their dogs meet, especially on leash, we do have to teach service dogs to be able to politely do that. At the very least, we can ask them turn and face us so they are not facing the unknown dog or rude dog.)
The decreased interest in other unknown dogs at social maturity is also what makes it easier for them to learn to ignore other dogs when they are working. They may still get excited when meeting their friends, but show less interest for stranger dogs and eventually learn to keep working despite the proximity of other dogs.
What Can Your Do with This Knowledge?
First, observe your dog and other dog's responses. When you first meet a strange dog, does your dog politely turn his head to the side to avoid confrontational direct contact or does he rush right in? If you don't know how to read dog language, join my Facebook Group Observation Skills for Training Dogs. It's a public group for anyone interested in learning dog language. People post photos and videos and you get practice listing the behaviors you observe. You can't interpret what you can't see!
Find people with dog social dogs to walk with on a semi-regular basis (once or twice a week), on leash or off. This will keep your service dog's social skills polished and decrease his interest in other dogs. It is also great situation to practice and generalize his service skills. Use the environment to practice specific public access skills. Plan places to stop at benches to practice tasks. Find stairs to practice walking down on a loose leash. Ask the other handlers to help train greetings. Practice the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Test items. Be creative!
Try joining a dog club, ask some neighbors to join you or create FB group to advertise your walks. Explain the basic structure of the walks at the beginning for new members so everyone is clear on the expectations. It's also a great social outing for you! One of my group rules is that they must use positive only equipment and interactions with their dogs.
- Brain Challenges Tire Dogs Out Fast
The fastest way to tire out a puppy or dog is to teach him to use his brain to solve puzzles. 10 minutes of brainwork is more tiring than 30 minutes of straight physical exercise (even in adult dogs).
Use clicker training and do shaping sessions for teaching future tasks.
Spread some kibble all a snuffle mat and let him use his nose to find it. Purchase several food puzzle toys and let him go at it. No, don't worry that he may start sniffing at everything, or searching for food later. Giving him an outlet for it at home means he won't have to do it as much when away from home. It also allows you to give the behaviors a cue so you have control over it and can later use it to reinforce other behaviors you have taught him.
Don't forget that you can combine physical exercise with the mental exercise with many of the foundations skills such as teaching distance. Teach him to run to a mat from a distance, or paw target an object or run around a piece of furniture. If you really want to tire him out, practice impulse control behaviors like "leave it" and wait.
- Teach and Consistently Practice Impulse Control
If you start teaching this early on, your dog will have a solid foundation to draw from. Go back to the basics if he forgets during adolescence.
Here's a video showing how to Teach "Wait" or "Leave it" and ideas how to extend it's application for life. Make it a game and practice it often.
Here's Zen for Doorways.
- Fear Periods
Unfortunately, during adolescence, many dogs experience at least one, sometimes two fear periods. They may last 2 to 6 weeks or longer. (Happily, some never do.) You can help your dog through this period by decreasing the amount of training you do in higher distraction locations where he is showing fear.
Make a list of each fear. Address each fear individually, using systematic desensitization, counter conditioning and operant conditioning. This changes how he feels about the trigger (object, environment, sound, animal or person).
The Look at That Game is helpful to start the process at a distance.
Here's a video that shows how to overcome fear of a shovel.
Next gradually integrate the trigger back into general training in more distracting environments as long as your dog is okay with it.
There are 11 things to help your dog thrive during adolescence! Use this time for training and it will help you have a great service dog on the other side! If you are having extra challenges because of your disabilities, don't forget you can get help from an in person or online dog training professional for short periods to get you over the "hump"! You can book a session with me via webcam for some concrete ideas of what you can do.
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