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When I was back in university, I took a class called "Environmental Psychology" that had a huge impact on how I looked at the world. Right from the first class, I learned an important lesson. Context can affect our views and behaviors!

At the time, I lived and breathed teaching children and families about nature and the environment animals live in.  So, when I read the class description, I thought the class was going to be about how the natural environment affects human behavior. Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the classroom the first session and found out that we were going to study how the built environment affects humans behaviors!  An example would be how we move through a shopping mall affects our purchasing choices. I seriously considered dropping the class but decided that while it was different than what I thought, it might prove to be of interest and value after all. It was!

In that class, we looked closely at how every part of the environment can change how we interact with it. From the width and flow of hallways to the color of the walls and height of the ceiling affects if we are attracted to that location, how we feel in it, what we do in it and how long we stay there. It can even affect what we purchase while we are in it! 

Changing the Environment Changes the Behavior
Just changing the appearance of the entrance to a store can make it more appealing to enter into. Choosing the design and comfort of a chair can affect how long the customer stays.  If a chair is comfortable, a customer will stay longer. If the chair is uncomfortable, they will leave more quickly. Fast food chains like McDonald's achieved a higher turnover through their restaurants for many years when they used hard ugly yellow chairs attached to the tables. Conversely, family restaurants who want you to stay longer and eat more, offer more comfortable padded dining booths that afford privacy and often some sound dampening. Deliberately placing small items like gum, candy and magazines near cash lines at grocery stores takes advantage of people's impulsiveness while waiting. Most of this behavior response is unconscious and is conditioned by repeated exposure and becomes a habit.

How it Applies to a Service Dog in Training
The knowledge from the field of environmental psychology is very relevant to training a service dog. For the most part, we choose and create the environment around our dogs. The size and design of the house and yard we choose to live in with them, the access to the house (the level of freedom they have), the arrangement of objects that are found within and extends to the emotional environment we create and especially the habits we get into all affect how our dog behaves to a large degree. Like us humans, much of this behavior response is unconscious and becomes habitual. 

Good Crate Habits
Let's start with a crate. It's a small confined space often placed in a quiet location in the house. Often there is a soft cushion in it. The dog is put in the crate when we want him to rest or take a nap. We will sit quietly nearby. Maybe he's given a food toy to occupy and calm him at first. If the crate door is left open, we may find that the dog chooses to go in during the day when he wants some quiet time. That combination of things teaches him that being in the crate means he can be calm and relaxed within one.

In teaching the crate, we may also see a dog that can calm down in a crate but not when laying out in the room with the family. That's likely because he's learned that the only place he gets a break or needs to be calm is when he is in the crate. At other times someone is interacting with him or entertaining him. The family needs to learn to build in some quiet time with the dog out of the crate. Maybe it starts in the evening, when everyone is tired from the day, the dog cuddles with the handler on the floor or couch. The handler might start with a massage. Then as the dog has learned to calm there, just the warmth of laying next to the handler or on a particular mat is calming. With repeated exposure, the dog learns to be calm out of the crate as well. The same can apply with a dog that is calm in the car but not out on a walk. His handler has likely gotten into the habit of putting the dog into the car (a small quiet stationary place) after the walk, perhaps to talk with friends, but never set up the situation for the dog to learn to be calm and rest out of the car. Next time, bring a mat and have the dog settle on the mat on leash next to you as you talk with your friend. 

Coming and Going
When we come back into the room or house after an outing and we interact with our dog in a positive way when she's excited (jumping up etc), then we are conditioning (making it a habit) that excitement. Instead, if we come in and get busy doing something else, and wait to interact when the dog is calmer (it only takes two or three minutes), we will have a calmer dog when we come and go.  (Check out this calming video)

Being Calm on Outings
A dog that is habitually revved up before, during or after training sessions or outing (to burn off extra energy first) conditions a high adrenaline response before and during training. Chasing balls triggers adrenaline for example. That is the opposite of what we want in an assistance dog. Choosing less adrenalizing ways to expend extra energy with a service dog is ideal.  A long walk at a steady speed can take the edge off and have a calming effect because serotonin is released during the sustained exercise. 

Settling in outdoor setting.
Photo used with permission by Ingrid Mcue 2021.

Making Better Choices of Reinforcers
Carefully choosing what reinforcers we use can make a huge impact on the present and future behavior of a dog. Our behavior, massage, food and play can all be used.

Using calm body language (avoiding flailing arms and excessive body movements) can help a dog stay calm. Moderating your voice (generally lower tones, speaking slowly and using softer volumes) can have an calming influence. Make sure to use calm sound and body movements at first, then teach him to remain calm even when your voice and body language tells him you are excited.

While massage is less exciting than food for most dogs, how you use it makes a big difference. Heavy fast pressure can actually excite some dogs. Generally long slow medium strokes are calming. Food can be calming (low value) as the chewing process calms a dog or it can be exciting if your dog loves all food and gulps it!  Toy play can be super exciting or only moderately exciting. This doesn't limit play from your dog's repertoire, just be careful in why and when you choose to use it. If you want your dog to show more enthusiasm for a specific behavior, such as pulling forward guiding, then use toy play afterwards to increase the enthusiasm.

If your dog gets excited about food (as most Golden retriever and Labrador retrievers do!) then use massage to consistently reinforce a calm behavior or task. If your dog doesn't value a massage, then you need to teach him it has value!

Training in Public Places
Taking a dog to an environment that has constant movement, such as a dog park or busy mall, and never teaching him he can be calm there results in a dog that expects to be doing something at all times. Instead, take his mat and settle at a distance to watch. Use massage to help him stay calm. Do it for short periods and only increase the duration when he is successful at lower durations. Only then incrementally decrease the distance from the excitement.

When we do public access training, if all we do is train in motion the entire time we are out, the dog never learns to be calm or rest away from home. They learn to expect to be "on" the whole time. Instead, we need to teach them that being calm and relaxed is in fact what they can do most of the time when away from home. We need to get into the habit of adding calm settle sessions away from home. Do them often in an outing. Then build time into those. This is hard for many people, especially if they are uncomfortable away from home. You may need to have someone else to do this part of the training for you until the dog is ready to have you accompany them. A family member or trusted friend can do this or hire an experienced trainer to take on this part of the training, then transition it over to you.

Here is a service dog sleeping in a hospital.
(photo used with permission from Sarah Magnan 2021)


Calm During Anxiety and Panic Attacks
If a dog consistently sees, especially from a young age, the handler being emotionally affected by a trigger or environment, that dog can become sensitized to those events or situations. There is research to support that. So, we either start with an older dog that has had her personality shaped by a more stable environment before we start training anxiety-related tasks or we can try to avoid letting her experience stressful situations until she is old enough to handle it. Most dogs start getting to emotional and social maturity at 18 months of age or later.

Consider Your Own Environment
So knowing that the physical and emotional environment affect your dog, what things do you do to unknowingly excite your dog every day? What specific things can you do to change the environment around your service dog in training to change his response to a calmer one? 

I am so glad I stayed in the class as it was a life lesson of considering the environment's affect on not only human behavior but that of service dog behavior!

If you'd like to get some specific ideas on what environmental changes are possible for your environment and identify what habits you and your family might have that are working against you teaching your service dog in training to be calm, book a web cam session with me!


Published in Handler Life Lessons
Friday, 13 May 2016 02:13

*Teaching Your Service Dog to Heel

Audio version of this blog post

Teaching Your Service Dog to Heel


There is much confusion in the service dog world about what is heeling is and isn't. Before we can start talking about teaching a dog to heel we need to know exactly what you are asking him to do.

Definitions:
Heel:
dog stays in a specific position next to your body, within a few inches, usually with eyes looking at you. The handler is usually upright and staring ahead holding their body in a somewhat rigid position. This skill takes much concentration and as is very hard for a dog to maintain for even short periods. Heeling is typically seen in competition, military or other hierarchical based situations. Even the high level dogs are only asked to do it for 5 minutes at a time. Service dogs only need heeling when negotiating tight spaces, high distractions or crossing streets. Teaching this takes incredible concentration on both ends of the leash. A typical cue for heeling is "heel". 

Here is a golden retriever showing how to do off leash competition heeling. You can see how much effort this would be for a dog to maintain for long periods. Thank you to Ada Simms and Lexi from Reward That Puppy Dog Training Inc. for the demo video.




Loose Leash Walking:
the dog walks with a 6 foot or shorter leash, keeps slack in the leash (hangs down in a U or the clip hangs down) but is allowed to sniff and change position. Dogs may look at the hander or use their peripheral vision and other senses to keep track of the handler's position. Most handlers are comfortable with their dogs 3-4 feet away in any direction. While in indoor retail in crowds or narrow busy sidewalk type locations, service dogs are required to stay within 2 feet of the handler but do not need to be that close in general. Loose leash walking should be a 'default' behavior. 'Default' means that the dog does it when he is not told to do any other behavior. He can rely on the equipment, the handler's body position and context to know what behavior to do. It takes much training to get to this stage.

Here is another golden learning to loose leash walk in public with her handler. She doesn't have to look at the handler, just stay in close distance and keep the leash loose.



A Challenging Behavior
The challenge for both heeling and loose leash walking is that it requires the dog to have a high level of impulse control (to resist distractions and stay in position) and that they must hold that position for a long time. And it requires the same of the human.

Being attached by a line is not natural for a dog or a human. We are free ranging individuals. Even formal dancing for short periods is difficult for many people. Both partners have to learn how to work together to keep it a comfortable experience for both. The teaching process requires short frequent training periods with high level of reinforcement in many different carefully chosen environments to help both partners succeed. If done well, can really build the bond between the two team members.

Do Corrections Work?
Corrections such as collar pops only work in the short term. If you have to keep using them, they aren't working. Head collars don't teach the dog anything except to give in to the head collar. Take it off and the dog moves away from the handler. Both of these approaches are aversive for a dog. To build and enhance a strong relationship with a service dog, we need to teach the dog the behavior we want, not punish him for what we don't. Time has to be spent specifically focussing on teaching your dog the desired position no matter what is going on around you, how good a scent or who may be approaching you. That needs to be taught specifically and incrementally, not just as a byproduct of doing other training.

How to Help Your Dog be Successful
The dogs that are successful loose leash walkers are the ones who understand the position you want them to be in first. Most dogs do best with learning to walk leash free first. Most importantly, the handler learns to let the dog learn to control herself, rather than direct the dog all the time. For some people this can be a hard habit to change.

Another aspect is if your dog is off leash, you are more likely to be aware of where your dog is in relation to you rather than rely on the leash pressure to tell you that. This awareness (including eye contact, physical proximity as well as changes in tension on the leash) is a big part of the connection between you and the dog when you are working. Many people are disconnected from their dog partner and oblivious to what is going on for him. He is half of the team and needs to be given full attention during training and then that will be faded to half your attention once he is fully trained. When you are dancing with your partner, you need to be aware of where your partner is no matter if he is dog or human. The leash is added after the dog knows the desired position and you have developed a feel for where he is. Dogs that can work off leash are much more reliable on leash.

Do a search on Youtube and Vimeo and most videos will start you off, and show great early success, but not show the steps later in the process. It can be a long one and different approaches are needed for different dogs and different situations they are in. Creativity is needed.

LLW is a Prerequisite as a Service Dog

Since loose leash walking is a necessary prerequisite for all service dogs.
and if he cannot walk on a loose leash walk with distractions, he is not ready to start public access.

If you want to follow a step by step procedure to teach your dog to loose leash walk successfully, check to see if my Loose Leash Walking classes are being offered online this month. Check the SDTI catalogue page to see when registration is open next. 

If your dog generally does well except with high level distractions or has fears etc, you will want to look at our Harnesses and Vests class. Or for large dogs that lunge or yoyo or if you have little arm strength or stability our Head Halters class that will teach you how to safely introduce your dog to a head halter and how train with it with the goal of your dog walking without it down the road.

Donna Hill B.Sc. B.Ed.
Founder/Head Instructor
Service Dog Training Institute

Published in Dog Basic Skills