Clicker training is an approach to training your dog but it's also a life-improving philosophy! A person with any disability would do well to learn how to apply clicker training effectively. (By the way, you don't have to use a clicker to clicker train! You can use a word "Yup!" or sound like a whistle.)
There are many benefits to learning how to clicker train your service dog:
Generalizing: Once we start training our dogs to perform different behaviors in different locations, we find that they are often confused in the new location, not being stubborn. We discover that our dogs don't "know" a behavior or task until they have had a chance to relearn and practice it in many different locations. This is because they tend to look for small clues to tell them what we want. In each new location, they have to relearn the behavior from the start. We are very similar to our dogs. Most people think they are quite good at applying skills learned in one environment and used in another. I am sad to tell you, most are not. Think of when you have taken a class and then tried to use the information and skills in another class. I bet you made mistakes the first few times and had to relearn the skill? Perhaps even go back and read the information? Learning the principles of clicker training and applying them to many different behaviors, tasks and in different situations, we can learn how to generalize all of our knowledge and skills better. Once we become very skilled at generalizing, we can apply it anywhere correctly. That opens up a whole new world of what behaviors and tasks we can train our service dog to do for us. It also improves how we function in the world! Isn't that the whole point of having a service dog?
Read Dog Language: In order to use the clicker or marker well, we need to learn to read dog communication. Communication between dog and handler goes two ways. The dog must read us and we must read the dog. The dog's communication tells us if he is understanding what we want or how he is feeling about what he is doing. This information is useful when we are training. It lets us know that we need to modify our approach so our dog better understands what we are asking. This in turn, gets us thinking from another being's perspective. Why might the dog be doing what he is doing? There are reasons behind the behavior beyond being stubborn or stupid. This builds empathy in us. Empathy is a key ingredient in building and maintaining strong relationships with our dogs and with other people.
Shaping improves Observation Skills: One of the best parts of clicker training is shaping. Shaping involves starting with a tiny piece of the final behavior and then waiting for the dog to offer more of the behavior to get closer to the final behavior you want. Think of it like a series of snapshots in time that makes up a whole behavior. To use a phone, you must pick up the phone, turn it on, dial the numbers, press the connect button, then put the phone to your ear and wait for the ringing sound to stop. When we shape, each one of these behaviors can be marked and rewarded before putting them together as a whole behavior. Even smaller steps like bringing the phone from your chest up to your ear can be broken into smaller pieces. Learning to watch for these tiny behaviors improves our skills of observing.
We Use Our Minds and the Environment to Teach: When clicker training is used, we use our minds and the environmental set up to teach the dog what we want. We don't need to physically interact with a dog to teach him and he can even be at a distance from us. The dog's job is to figure out what will make us click and reward him. It is our job to figure out how to set up the situation so our dog will succeed. This allows more people with physical disabilities to train their own service dog. We learn that in life, the physical and emotional environment plays a huge role in the degree to which we are successful in what we do and for other people as well.
Put More Energy Into Rewarding Behaviors We Want: Society teaches us to focus on the incorrect responses and correct or punish those. Instead, with clicker training, we learn to focus on and reward the behaviors we want from our dog. The more often those behaviors are rewarded at the right time, the more often they will occur and the stronger they become. How often are we rewarded many times in a day? Wouldn't if feel better if we were rewarded more? We can start the change with our dog and it will build to positively affecting the people around you! Family, health-care workers, retail staff and others will feel the change and respond to it.
Break Behaviors and Tasks into Smaller Pieces: Every problem can be divided into tiny achievable steps. There is a saying: "Yard by yard, Life is Hard. Inch by Inch, It's a Cinch!" (Unknown) Every behavior, task, challenge or problem can be divided into tiny achievable steps. We just have to take the time to break them down and then do them. This process speeds learning and reduces the roadblocks to learning new things and refining known skills. And yes, applies to your life as a whole!
Learn What True Partnership Is: True partnership is taking turns following the lead of another that we trust. By using the principle of clicker training to create a partnership of trust, we can become more of a whole together than if we are separate. Dogs have a different skill set than we do. Those dog skills complement our human skills. We need to trust our dog to lead when he has the expertise. Other people have different skill sets. We need to learn to build partnerships with them too.
Shifts Our Whole Approach to Life Towards the Positive. Clicker training helps us understand our dogs and ourselves better. Anyone who embraces the philosophy has a shift towards being more positive in life. It starts by being more positive to our dogs and expands to being more positive towards other people in our life. The negatives still happen, but focussing more on the positives reduces the chronic stress that is detrimental to our physical and emotional health.
Learning is Lifelong: This is probably the most important lesson! We are never there yet. There is always one more task to teach our service dog or one more thing for us to learn. That seeking of knowledge and skills is what keeps us moving forward. Learning is fun!
I invite you to learn these lessons. Give clicker training a try!
Want to get Inspired?
Books to Read
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor -Karen shares her personal experiences with clicker training to show what is possible with clicker training. It is inspiring, easy to read, enjoyable and each chapter has video links of examples!
On My Mind by Karen Pryor- This is a thoroughly readable series of essays about her personal views on clicker training.
Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor-This small books helps you to understand the learning theory. She uses great people and animal examples. Again, it is written for the layperson to understand.
To get started all you really need is a marker sound and a handful of small soft treats. Check out this video to see what other simple things you can use:
Jump right in with teaching simple behaviors your dog already does.
This video introduces the proper technique of clicker training. The specific example of eye contact, but you can use "Wait", nose target.
Your first session
Here is an example of learning to read dog language during training:
Jessie shows signs of stress
If you are on Facebook, join the Observation Skills for Dog Training group
A good next step is to take a Foundations Skills Class in Clicker Training! Have fun!
Owner training allows handlers to choose some non-traditional breeds or higher energy individual dogs that match their active lifestyle. Some people end up with dogs that have more energy than they bargained for or they inadvertently ramp the dogs up by how they interact with the dog (what they reinforce without knowing it) like jumping up on their arrival or excited behavior in general). While it is important that these dogs get enough appropriate mental and physical exercise (avoid mindless ball chasing as it drives up adrenaline), it is also important that these dogs be taught how to relax. The relaxation protocol created by Dr. Karen Overall is one tool that they can use to help teach a dog to calm themselves.
The relaxation protocol is an incremental way to teach a dog to calm himself in the face of distractions. It lays out a training process so the handler can add distractions in small enough bits that the dog can succeed. There are many layers to this protocol and they are laid out in detail for handlers to follow. A bit of creativity will be needed to adapt some of the distractions for people with balance or mobility challenges. A side effect of the protocol is building a reliable stay behavior which is ideal for service dogs. You can combine the protocol with a mat to more easily generalize it to different locations.
Here is a link to the text-based protocol.
Here is a link to audio clips that you can listen to while training.
If your service dog in training has a short attention span is antsy or has trouble focusing, it is worth trying the protocol. It is a great foundation to start training relaxing with a puppy too!
There are many ways to train a dog to be a service dog or just a well-adjusted canine family member. In order to know what the options are, we have to do some research on what has been done in the past, what we are currently doing and what the future might hold. In light that we are starting the New Year, I thought I'd do a quick review of dog training past, present and future.
These groupings are broad generalizations and are only intended to give you a starting point for research of training your own dog. The popularity and methodology of each overlaps and some trainers continue to use historical methods today.
While concept of formal dog training started around 1914 in Germany by Konrad Most, and was among the first to train assistance dogs for the blind at the German Dog Farm, dog training as a profession really started to be a "thing" to do before the Second World War when the American Kennel Club started their obedience trials. After the Second World War, a number of soldiers returned home from the war with dog training skills. Training was based on techniques that fit well with the military. It was a hierarchical approach where the dog must do what they were told and punishment was applied if the dog did not comply. Some of the techniques were very harsh and they were recommended to only be used with dogs older than 6 months so the dog's spirit would not be broken. The earliest service dog organizations used this approach. The general population was introduced to dog training as a hobby on a broader scale in training classes starting in the late 1930's or so.
Some names associated with this type of training were William Koehler, Monks of New Skete, Barbara Woodhouse. Recently, Cesar Millan became popular for reviving it's widespread use.
Positive reinforcement approaches began in the 1930's with BF Skinner's theory of Behaviorism. Marian Breyland Bailey produced reliable data that animals could be trained using positive approaches and with her husband Keller Breyland (both students of Skinner) started a company Animal Behavior Enterprises that trained many species of animals for television (1955). The approach did not become widespread in use until Karen Pryor popularized Clicker Training in the early 1990's. The Lure Reward method was made popular by Ian Dunbar who started the first puppy classes in the 1980's to start training before 6 months of age. Positive reinforcement minimized the use of punishment and taught dogs to think about how their behavior affected the environment. It was also called "Operant Conditioning" Or "Respondent Learning" for this reason.
More and more service dog training organizations are using positive reinforcement to train dogs with a higher success rate than they had with the hierarchical approach. Michele Pouliot of Guide Dogs for the Blind is one example. The use of marker-based training (using a clicker, word Yes! or tongue cluck) make it possible for people with poor strength and coordination to train their own service dogs (owner-trained service dogs), even complex tasks. Capturing and Shaping behavior in small increments was an effective part of this approach. Jean Donaldson author of Culture Clash and Paul Owens author of The Dog Whisperer are other names to note.
Currently, much research is being done on how dogs learn than in any other time in history. Exciting new approaches are being investigated as science uncovers just how intelligent dogs are, in what ways and what is the most effective way to train them (in general and for service dog work). Dogs watch our eyes, follow a finger point, learn with social mimicry, have theory of mind, problem solve and so much more! Claudia Fugazza has refined a process to teach dogs how to maximize mimicry for learning new behaviors called Do as I Do. The dog watches their trainer do a behavior and copies it. Jennifer Arnold has been applying some of the learning to the training of service dogs at Canine Assistants.
One thing we are also learning is that a puppy's early experiences both with the litter and after 8 weeks in their new homes sets an important foundation for the ability to handle stressors, socialization and learning so it pays to find a good breeder. Jane Killian's Puppy Culture breeder list is a great place to start. We also need to spend time enriching our puppy's environment and socializing him before 12 weeks of life.
A dog named Rico and another named Chaser have taught us that dogs can learn the proper names of as many as 1000 objects, learn by inference, do several behaviors with multiple objects, learn categories, and much more! John Pilley wrote the book Chaser to share his findings. An early researcher in this area, Irene Pepperberg, opened the doorway with her parrot Alex using the model-rival method.
Other key names of canine researchers are Brian Hare of Dognition and Adam Miklosi of Family Dog Project.
I invite you to research these names to find out more about how much dogs (in general) are capable of. Of course, like humans, dogs vary in their genetics and past experiences so what each dog is capable of varies. That is why it is so important to select the right dog as your potential service dog.
Resource Guarding Appears "Out of the Blue"
Even among carefully selected and raised service dogs, resource guarding may appear in a dog that has never previously demonstrated it.
If the resource guarding behavior is 'appearing out of the blue' at around 6 mos to 16 mos, you may be dealing with a fear period or adolescent hormones. The larger the breed, the later adolescence sets in and the longer it lasts.
Resource Guarding is most commonly species specific. This means that he will typically only guard against other dogs, not humans or vice versa. Just because your dog resource guards again other dogs doesn't not mean he will do it against people Just because he resource guards against people, does not mean he will do it against other dogs. The most important thing is that he is safe in public. If he is not, remove him from public access training or work immediately.If your dog resource guards in both situations, it may be an indicator of his underlying temperament. Look at other aspects of his life. Does he show fear or mistrust in other ways? Where does he lack confidence? Is he a bully? Dogs that are bullies are typically fearful dogs that were not properly socialized. They may have had a buddy who was too over the top for them and they adapted by becoming pushy themselves. Just like in humans, bullying is an indicator of lack of control and fear.
Resource guarding could also be a result his training history. Even if you think you are not using confrontation-based training methods, your dog may see it differently.
Each dog has his own tolerance level for force and emotional pressure and each copes with it differently. This is a common reason I see for the mistrust seen in resource guarding. In past situations, you may have inadvertently used emotional or physical force and your dog has legitimate reason not to trust you. Confrontational methods may lead to resource guarding as the dog learns he cannot trust you with things that are important to him. Unfortunately using violence in training, often gets violence in return.
An altercation with another dog over his toys or food may affect future interactions with that specific dog or be generalized to react when the next strange dog that approaches when he has a toy. Generalizing to other dogs is more common in dogs that have had limited or poor dog to dog socialization during the critical socialization period when he was 5 to 12 weeks old. This is because they have very few positive interactions to draw from to overcome one negative interaction. Science tells us that negative experiences have much more influence than positive experiences as a survival mechanism.
Consult a positive dog training professional or veterinary behaviorist for their help and assessment. Look long and hard at his over all behaviors. Is he fearful? How is he responding to training? You do not want your service dog to be a liability to you in public. If he has underlying fears or mistrust, he may not be a good service dog candidate and may need to be removed from training as a service dog. What you want to do is avoid a confrontation with your dog at all costs. Putting in that situation allows him to practice the unwanted behavior. Practice makes perfect. If you back away when he does react, he is reinforced for growling (or worse). If you force him to give up his item, he learns he can't trust you and it further undermines his trust in you.
1. Observe Your Dog
Watch for situations that trigger the resource guarding behaviors.
What exactly are the things the dog guards?
Against who does he guard them?
What specific behaviors do you see and when do they occur?
Early warnings are the dog asking for distance. He might look away, turn his eyes away (called whale eye) or turn his head away as you approach. He might do a big yawn. He might lick nose tip. This one most people miss as it happens so quickly. He may paw the object or move closer to it. Watch your dog when he is with his food dish or higher value toys.
The end stage behaviors are the dog freezing (get still) and his eyes get 'hard" and glaring. If the dog is doing this, the dog has escalated his behavior from the early signs and you may hear growls. This is the dog telling you (or the other dog) that he is willing to escalate his behavior further to air snapping or biting to protect the resource. If the dog has been punished for growling previously, he may just freeze and then bite. Punishment to a dog might just be you verbally chastising him "Don't you do that." in a lowered tone.
What age was the dog when you first noticed it?
2. Once you have determined the things your dog resource guards against and what he doesn't, start with things that are lower value than those. In a situation such as on his dog bed where he has resource guarded in the past, give your dog a lower value toy or treat than he has ever shown RG for. If needed, start with an object that the dog has not interacted with before like a piece of wooden dowel or a plastic tube. Starting this process with a lower value item teaches the dog how to play the game and what he can expect later.
If there are children or mentally incapacitated adults involved, make sure they are not involved in the process and removed form the room while you train. This helps to give the dog one less thing to worry about and keeps them safe until it is time to bring them into the process. Prepare your treats: choose medium value treats (commercial treats are fine like Rollover or Zukes) and make sure that the treats are hidden in a pocket or treat pouch out of sight before you bring them out.
Start by giving to dog the item, then back outside the dog's personal space for a few seconds. Now take a small step into your dog's space and toss a treat right near his mouth and take a step back. Repeat for several sets of 10 repetitions until your dog is looking eagerly up at you anticipating that your moving towards him (while he has the item) means more treats are coming. When that happens, you can decrease your distance from your dog by stepping a little closer in, toss the treat and pick up the toy, the drop it again. Step away. Once you can get closer you can lean in, drop the treat and lean out. Repeat several times until again the dog is looking forward to your approach and you taking the time away.
Next step is to step in, toss a treat, and while he is eating take the toy away, toss another treat and step away. This step teaches the dog that even when the toy is removed, something good will come in its place.
3. Next, increase in the value of the item, and repeat the process but use high value food treats (any kind of REAL meat, not commercially made treats-cooked beef, pork, chicken, lamb, turkey-I use heart, tongue or roast) instead. Make sure that the treats are hidden out of sight in a pocket or treat pouch before they appear.
Since you know the dog resource guards this object, you will need to add more distance away from the dog to start and progress forward much more slowly. Wait for body language that tells you he is looking forward to you moving towards him with the treat. It may take several sessions to be able to progress to where you can get close enough to touch the item. Taking it away may be many more. If it seems to e taking too long, or your dog's behavior is getting worse, not better, then consult a qualified positive trainer or veterinarian behaviorist for help. Take each step slowly and do many repetitions. Repeat the 3 step process process with many different high value items.
4. Now repeat the process right step 1 to 3 in many different locations. You want to make sure the dog has generalized the behavior (can do it) in many different locations and situations. Always err on the side of caution. Protect children and the public when possible. Remember that you are ultimately liable for the behavior of your dog.
Periodically in your training review the process to make sure the behavior stays fresh in your dogs mind. This step is called maintenance so your dog can remember how to do it even years after he learned it. This will help to keep you and the public safe.
The first time your service dog growls at you when you try to take something away from him, you feel shocked and affronted. Your first impulse may be to strike out.
"But this is my SERVICE DOG! He should be able to trusted in any situation."
Well, dogs are dogs, just like people are people. If someone tries to take something away from you that you feel is yours and is valuable to you, then you will defend your right to keep it. At the very least, you would verbally warn them that what they are doing may lead to confrontation. If someone walked up, even a family member, and just grabbed your cell phone from your hands, you would be upset, wouldn't you? You'd certainly voice your complaint. That is what your dog is doing. He is saying "This is mine, I value it highly and I don't trust you to not take it away from me." The only thing wrong with this behavior in dogs is how humans interpret the situation.
Resource Guarding is a Normal Behavior for Dogs
Resource Guarding is a normal behavior for dogs, though not a desirable in a service dog since in public, despite laws that protect your dog from being interfered with while working, the reality is that people don't think before interacting with service dogs and they don't read patches on vests etc. People of all ages may try to take things way and they may let their dogs approach your dog when he is working.
Possession is 9/10 of the Law
Among dogs, possession is nine tenths of the law. What this means is that if a high value object (food or toy) is in the personal space of a dog, (whether or not the object is in his mouth) that object is considered his. It would be rude if another dog or person came over and removed it without invitation or permission. In many cases a fight would start.
While some dogs will allow another dog to take it, it is because they know the other dog wants the object more than they do and to keep the peace, they will not fight for it. These are usually highly socialized dogs who spend time with other functionally socialized dogs.
Dogs, unless not properly socialized or they have been traumatized by another dog or their handlers, in general, are willing to do what it takes to keep the peace between themselves and other beings that have been socialized with. Fighting is risky and they may end up injured or dead, so that is why dogs have developed a complex communication system to avoid conflict. Each dog has different things that are important to him (might be food, toy or even their person) and depending on the value, he may be willing to give it up to keep the peace. But every dog has his limit. If that object happens to be the human equivalent of cell phone or iPad, then he might not want to give it up as easily and may let the other dog (or person) know by growling.
Unfortunately, not all humans have learned to speak dog as a second language and may feel it is their right to take anything away from a dog, even if it is not their dog. And even if the dog has warned them not to. Kids may run up and take an object away, or stick their hands between your service dog and a treat you are feeding him. Humans exhibit all sorts of odd behaviors in the presence of dogs. So, since you are taking your dog into public places as a service dog, you need to teach him that strangers may take valuable things away from him, and that is fine for them to do that!
Preventing Resource Guarding
As soon as your pup comes home from the breeder at 8-9 weeks, give him a few days to settle in, then start trading items with him. To take a valued toy, move in slowly but be relaxed, gently ask for the toy, take it away and at the same time present an equivalent value toy or treat in return. Praise!When the pup is reliably trading, you can ask for the toy, then delay presenting the other toy until after he has given you the one he has. That way, the second toy is a reward for giving up the first one, rather than a bribe. Mark (or click) the instant the chooses to give it up, praise and give him the other toy.
Repeat the process with higher value things like bones. Using two equal value items helps at first. On the last trade of the training session, give the pup something higher value like a treat that he can consume and you keep the toy.
If he won't give up the toy willingly, the toy, switch your approach. Let him play with the toy he has and ignore him until he has dropped the toy and walked away from it. Pick up the high value toy. Next, use a lower value toy, get some high value treats and present the toy to him. Click a soft clicker and present a food or equivalent toy reward to him as soon as he drops the toy. Repeat until he's reliably dropping the toy when he hears the clicker. Now start adding your 'drop it' cue just before you click. After several sessions of this, try just saying the drop it cue, wait for the drop it, the click and reward. Now he's started to understand the cue means to drop it.
This also starts the process of the pup learning to give an object for a retrieve (so you get two benefits for one behavior).Increase the value of the toy or bones etc. until you are able to cue drop it and your dog willingly drops it. For most dogs raw bones or a plate of human food are the highest value to them.
If your pup has come home from the breeder doing resource guarding, you need to dig into the recent history. Do the parents do this (an indication of genetics)? What type of handling did the breeder use that may have fostered this lack of trust in the pups? Were the pups handled enough in an appropriate manner? Did their kids tease the pups with food or toys? Learning he history will help you figure out the right way of approaching it and how long it might take to overcome, especially if it is an established habitat at that tender age.
Living with Other Dogs
If your dog lives with another dog, ensure that behavior around feeding times is calm. Start by feeding one in a crate or behind a baby gate, before feeding them at opposite ends of the room before moving them incrementally closer together. Both dogs need to learn the presence of another dog near his food or toys is a good thing. Treats appear when the other dog is near. When the other dog moves away, the treats stop coming.
Teaching your dogs to take turns with other dogs for doing behaviors and getting rewarded for doing so is a great way to approach it. Make sure to generalize it to many other dogs, known and unknown to your dog.
Avoid feeding your dog in public. If you are away from home, take your dog to a private location to feed him. Put him in your car, a crate or behind a locked door. This will help to keep his stress level low and prevent strange dogs and people from approaching while he eats. Teach your dog to take turns while training with other dogs. That way, when food is used for training, he will know that his turn is coming and he will be able to earn his the food ad will not get anxious about it.Choose the value of toys used in public carefully. Avoid using bones, pigs ears, stuffed Kongs etc that other dogs may find valuable unless your dog is in a location with no other dogs. If you are trying to increase duration of your dog settling in public, use hand-delivered treats instead so you can control when, how and to whom they are delivered.
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 away from home, 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, check out Turid Rugaas little book that introduces you to 30 common behaviors dogs use to communicate. On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. 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.
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 physical 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 is a study that shows that dogs are affected by stress levels of their humans.
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 train 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.
- 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 on 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.
- Use Management for Unwanted Behaviors Combined with Teaching What you Would Rather See
One of the biggest mistakes people make it to give their pup too much freedom too soon. Use baby gates and Xpens to confine your dog when you cannot watch or interact with him. Avoid using them as a time out or he will see being separated from you as punishment.
Think of ways that you can prevent your dog from practicing the unwanted behaviors. The more practice he gets, the better he becomes at them.
Identify specific behaviors you don't like and figure out what behavior you would rather have him do instaad? Do a search on Youtube for positive ways to teach him what you would rather he do.
Some common examples:
A. If your dog has started jumping on people when they arrive, put a gate up between the living area and the entrance so your dog cannot reach visitors as they come in. Have them come in and wait until your dog has calmed down to let the visitors interact with him. Ideally they avoid eye contact and just calmly talk with you.
Until he is ready for access, teach him how to ignore visitors by going to his mat or greeting them with a shoulder or hip target instead of his paws on them.
B. If he has started mouthing you or visitors when they play with him, recognize the signs of lower arousal, and stop him before he gets there. You can give him a toy to carry during greeting. That keeps his mouth busy so he can't grab at them.
In the meantime, teach him an on/off switch game so he learns to calm himself down in exciting situations. Once he can do it away from the situation, gradually introduce it and apply the game when they arrive but start at a distance from them.
C. Is he getting too rambunctious with a housemate? Teach him the Enough cue.
- Calm the Environment Down
If your life is chaotic, maybe it's time to calm it down, for the dog's sake. You will benefit in the long run. Your dog picks up on the stress and activity level of your home and adapts to it. If you are active and irritable all the time, your dog will be too.
Identify what needs changing and change it step by step. Don't try big changes all at once. Instead, shape yourself in small steps like you shape your dog. That will help you succeed.
Having a routine can help most dogs. The dog will help you to maintain that routine once he gets accustomed to it. In the beginning, use quiet phone or computer timers to remind you of your schedule. Start with feeding times, exercise periods, play periods and training periods. Add in outings so they aren't too often or too long. Look at how often you are doing rousing activities. Do you need to decrease how often from 5 times a week to 2 or 3?
- Capture the Calm
Focus on the times during the day when your dog is being calm and quiet.
When you come home, wait until your dog is calm before interacting.
Try "Drive By rewards." This is a simple way to capture calm. When your dog is laying on his bed, awake or asleep but is calm, walk by and drop a treat beside his mouth. You could also bend over and give him a slow brief neck massage or long stroke pet. This reinforces him for being calm. So you will get more calm. Yes, this even works with dogs that get excited about food.
Here's a video that shows these and other examples too.
Part 3 continues here.
Click here to hear an audio version of this post. (New feature!)
Question: My dog has just turned 8 months and life is a Gong show. He's forgotten all his manners and jumps on me and everyone else. He is chewing things, stealing things and runs away. I got him from a breeder who has specialized in therapy and service dogs for many years. With my disabilities, I am having problems managing this behavior. What can I do?
Answer: First of all, this is a great question! And a common one. I love that you recognize it is the behavior, not the dog that you are having trouble with! Behavior can be changed!
Unfortunately, even the calmest puppies specifically bred for service dog work go through adolescence. It is a period of fast growth, lack of impulse control and venturing confidence. Hormones are usually the driving factor behind it. In some situations you might also see fear appear. This is normal.
What you don't want to do is have your dog spayed or neutered without due consideration of the risks. Those hormones are important to regulate growth. If removed too early, negative health effects may occur (cancers, CCL rupture etc) and shorten your dog's working life.
Here is an article summarizing a study done by AKC on early Spay and Neuter.
University of Davis, in California did a long term study on Golden Retrievers found that spaying and neutering affected the health in a negative way.
Here is one vet's opinion on early spay and neuter for sports dogs. While service dogs aren't sport dogs, many of the same stressors apply.
Goldens, Labs and German Shepherds, according to the research, seem to have a high risk for health complications of early spay and neuter. This doesn't mean you can't spay or neuter, but it does mean you need to consider when to do it. Waiting until the dog is physically and structurally mature can help.
Here are 11 things you CAN do to help your big-bodied but still puppy-brained adolescent develop into that ideal service dog you hoped for. The post is divided into 3 parts.
- Recognize Signs of Stress and Arousal
Learning to read your dog's stress level in different situations and arousal level is important. Stress can be both distress (bad stress) and eustress (good stress). Both trigger the hormones that are detrimental to the dog if they occur at high levels over the long-term.
Join the Facebook Observation Skills group to learn to see the behaviors that indicate stress. The Dog Decoder is also a great App to start learning dog behavior.
- Quality Food
Since food is a building block of all life, ensure that your dog is eating the best you can afford. Choose ones with no additives (coloring, taste), no salt, medium levels of protein (20-26% in kibble) and fat (no higher than 10-15%) for normal growth. Consider grain free, home-cooked or a raw diet as options if you can't find what you are looking for. Even just adding some fresh real food (vegetables, meat) to the kibble can help improve the quality.
Here's a link that describes not only what is in dog food, but also how each is made and other important information.
- Enough Sleep
Since your pup is growing so quickly, getting plenty of quiet uninterrupted sleep is important at this stage. Think of how much teenage kids sleep. Dogs are no different. They need about 18-20 hours sleep per day. They are up for an hour or two a day, but nap for long periods each day. As an adult, he will spend most of his time resting, waiting for you. You might as well get him accustomed to that habit now.
Often an over-tired puppy is a wound up pup. Place him in a quiet room if you have a noisy house or confine him in an Xpen (Exercise pen) or cosy crate and give him time to calm. Turn on the radio to classical music or play an I-Calm product or sound recording of a E-book.
Dog beds invite a nap. Have several around the room.
Place doorless crates in several key locations if that is what you or he prefers.
A neck or chest massage can help him start relaxing if he is over-tired.
Once he has learned to be quiet, phase out the music and massage and add distractions back in stages.
- Outlet for Chewing
As puppies jaws develop, they need to chew. Long after their adult teeth are in at 6 months, they still chew. Puppies also chew to relieve stress. Make sure he has plenty of different size, shapes, textures and materials to choose from. You may need to encourage him to chew his toys. Nylabone and Kong products, homemade braided toys and natural chews like chicken backs, and mammal ribs are great edible chew items. A whole carrot may be a nice treat as well. Avoid processed leather skins and chew toys (especially anything from China), cooked bones and weight-bearing bones. Pick the toys up and play with them with your dog to get him started, then let him continue on. Keep your retrieve training objects up out of reach and only bring them out for training.
- Appropriate Exercise
Puppies that are over-exercised can contribute to out of control behavior. All exercise should be voluntary until his bone plates have closed at 18 months. This means avoiding repeated walking or running on hard surfaces, jumping under elbow height. It is important to let the dog determine how far and fast he will walk, assuming it's slower, not faster than you. Forced marches beside a wheel chair for long periods are not suitable. The type of exercise is also important. Throwing a ball repeatedly many times a week creates a dog that is adrenaline charged (and risks cruciate ligament tears). Long line walks on the beach or in a field are better. Hikes with frequent sniff and rest stops are great too. Swimming is great for a muscle and cardio workout.
As a general rule: walking builds muscle, running builds cardiovascular stamina.
The Puppy Culture Exercise Chart is a useful guide for different ages and gives ideas different types of exercise for each stage of life.
Here is an article that explains what can happen if the dog gets too much exercise of the wrong kind and duration.Click here for Part 2!
Hip Dysplasia (HD) is the worry of every service dog handler. New research and some anecdotal information has recently come to light to help prevent it. Puppies are not born with it but most dogs start showing signs of HD by 18 months if they are going to develop it.
Until recently, the biggest cause thought to predict HD in dogs was genetics. It is important to see the hip scores of both parents as that is proof that the breeder has tested the adult dogs for it. Without testing the adults (2 years old and up), there is no way to know their hip scores and what genes they will pass on to their pups. Scores are fair, good and excellent for healthy hips. Affected hips are rated as mild, moderate or severe.
Breeders and researchers are now discovering that the environment in different life stages plays a much bigger role than once throught. This is a good thing since it gives handlers the choice to create environments that will minimize the possibility of HD in their SD candidates as well as help them choose adult dogs with miminal risk of HD.
Shape and Surface of Litter Box
Anedotal evidence suggests that HD can start developing when the pup is still with the litter.
Norwich Terrier breeder Magda Chiarella has suggested that the shape and surface of whelping box may be important. She observed that HD is non-existent in wild canids. She postulates that is due to the bowl shape of the den they grow up in that keeps the pups in a smaller space as well as the ground surface that gives the pups traction. She even did some experiments on a few litters to see how providing traction in the form of rubberbacked rugs on the floor of the litter box could help the pups start to use ther toes from the first few days to nurse, rather than put weight on their knees on slick surfaces that many breeders provide in the litter box.
Click here for the link
Exercising on Varied Natural Surfaces for the first 3 mos
Randi Krontveit's research suggests that fast growth of large breeds during puppy stage may actually not contribute to HD in adult dogs as previously thought. He also found that " that daily exercise outdoors in gently undulating terrain up until the age of three months is very helpful in preventing hip dysplasia in the large breeds he studied." Comparatively, he also found that pups who did steps or stairs on a daily basis had an increased risk of HD. So, pups who played and exercised in natural outdoor environments on varied terrains had overall a lower chance of HD than pups who used man-made environments. After three months of age, there were no benefits to natural surfaces. He recommends "that genetically prone pups should be exercised regularly to strengthen musculature, but extensive jumping/stair use, etcetera should be avoided until growth is completed (at approximately 12 months)."
Click here for the link
Here's another version of his study with contact info
Maintain a Good Weight
Keeping a dog overweight has long been known to contribute to general health issues including HD. Keeping a dog slim (so you can just feel a thick layer of fat on his ribs with a single finger tip) reduces the workload on joints, heart etc.
Avoid Repetitive Jumping or Running
until the bone plates have closed. For small breeds this is about a year. For medium dogs it is about 18 months and larger breeds may be as long as 30 months. Jumping (agility, frisbee, skipping) and running (using a treadmill, jogging with the dog, or dog running beside a bicycle) puts an unnatural strain on the joints and increases the chances of injury. Especially avoid hard surfaces for exercise. Long flights of stairs should be avoided for games like retrieving as well. More repetitive motion that can be very hard on the joints.
Neutering a Dog Before Physical Maturity
also appears to increase the incidence of HD as well as has many other health risks.
Click here for the study
Testing Your Dog
Have your service dog's hips tested at 2 years of age to make sure s/he does not have this debilitating disease. If s/he does, speak with a qualified orthopedic veterinarian to decide if it will play a role in retiring your dog. Purebred and mixed breed dogs can be tested and scored.
OFA Orthopedic Foundation for Animals
If your dog has mild dysplasia, all is not lost. Many dogs go undetected as long as they get regular moderate and varied exercise that builds and maintains the muscle needed to support the hip (and other) joints. Some supplements may help. Talk to your orthopedic vet.
Listen to this on audio file.
Recently there has been a real push to use flat body harnesses in training loose leash walking. Many people wonder why since harnesses are typically considered to cause pulling.
1. First, the harness itself does not cause pulling, it is the two of you pulling against each other that does.
Wearing a leash is unnatural for dogs as it is for humans. A dog must learn that is more rewarding to stay near a person and move with him than exploring on his own. That takes patience and careful attention to the distraction level on the person's part and liberal use of reinforcers (food, toys, attention, real life reinforcers etc.) It's worth taking the time to train it without using a leash first.
A well fit flat harness allows the dog to move normally and freely. It is used only as a device to keep the dog safe, like a seat belt, rather than as a training tool. If a dog does stop short, the pressure of the straps is spread over a wide area (rather than concentrated on a narrow strip on the neck) and all areas have either muscle or bone that protect the organs so injury is much less likely.
Unfortunately, all 'no-pull' harnesses can injure the dog in different ways depending on their design. Those that are not long enough chaff the dog's skin typically behind the front legs, others tighten around the chest with leash pressure, still others sit across the shoulders to limit proper motion or tighten across the chest to change the dog's gait. All of these can cause health issues on a dog and are punitive in nature. Dr. Chris Zinc, an expert in dog sport mechanics, has done research on this. "In a limited gait analysis study, Dr. Zink observed that dogs wearing no-pull, front clip harnesses bore less weight on their front legs than they normally would – even when the harness wasn’t attached to a leash! In addition, the dogs bore less weight on the leg that was on the far side of where the person walked, even when there was no leash attached; when the dog had a leash attached, it was more significant. This suggests to her that the dog was reacting to the presence of the harness against the leg by pushing harder against it. In all cases, the gait of the front limbs was altered whenever the harness was on." Whole Dog Journal July, 2013
The best harnesses allow the dog to move freely. They have a Y joint that should fit over the breast bone. They have a chest ring or back ring or ideally, both. This gives you the option of clipping the leash to either or both locations at the same time to provide the dog with more information. Two that I have had success with are the Balance harness and the Perfect Fit Harness. The Perfect Fit is a padded version that fits long bodies and protects short-haired dogs or dogs with thin skin. (I am not affiliated with nor do I sell either harness.)
2. May Cause Unwanted Health Effects
The second and main reason for not using a collar (flat collar, rolled collar, choke chain, limited slip, prong, Martindale etc) is that they may cause many unwanted health effects on a dog.
The neck area where a collar sits on a dog is a very important region of the body. There are glands, lymph nodes, blood vessels, nerves, trachea, and more. All of them are exposed and not outwardly protected by bone, muscle or fat. Any pressure on the neck whether from sudden sharp jerks or even gentle ongoing pulling can negatively impact these areas. Other unwanted impacts include misaligned spine (from being pulled to one side) and long-term structural issues. Andres Hallgren of Sweden in a study found that 252 dogs had misaligned spines, and 65% of those had behavior problems. In addition, 78% of the dogs labeled hyperactive or aggressive had spine issues. The dogs in the study were volunteered by their owners and considered well cared for (not abused dogs). Source: Paul Owens "The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training")
Have a look at the brochure showing the biology of a dog's neck created by Els Vidts FreeDogz.com. Potential Collar Damage brochure It shows the potential health impacts on a dog from being pulled on a collar. Els is a student of Turid Rugaas.
Where Did the Idea for Using Collars Come From?
If we look historically at why dogs wear collars, it probably seemed like the best way to control them. A thin rope tied around the neck was a quick and easy. Unfortunately, that was looking at the tool from the human side of the leash and didn't consider the best interests of the health of the dog. It's time to ask questions and change our choices in the present! Collars today, now that we know better, should be used only for tags.
I personally have had three dogs that we know were adversely affected by wearing flat collars attached to a leash. One ended up with spondylosis in his neck which caused a very painful pinched nerve (took 30 days to heal and stop his screaming in pain when he moved his neck awake or asleep despite pain medication). He also had trouble manipulating his tongue to eat and we ended up euthanizing him since he lost so much weight. He was 13yo and otherwise in prime health. My current dog Jessie adopted as a 7mo pup coughed and gagged when any small amount of pressure was applied to her neck (trachea damage). We immediately switched to a flat walking harness. Once in a while, she still gags when the harness is not sitting correctly and she gets pulled. Her early damage was permanent. The third had a collar attached to a long line while the owners rode their horse. Her spine was out of alignment. I have also had several clients who have had collar-induced health issues. These are not isolated events and combined, do suggest we should re-examine if collars are the best choice for dogs when walking on a leash.
Note: the harnesses talked about here are not service dog harnesses. They are flat walking harnesses for everyday use. They may be worn underneath a service dog vest or alone. Stiff mobility and bracing harnesses and other related harnesses need to be fitted correctly to prevent unwanted wear and tear on your service dog's body. Height of handle, stiffness of the harness and other features are important to minimize structural stress on your service dog.
If you would like to learn how to teach your dog to walk on a loose leash, have a look at my classes listed in the catalogue. My harnesses classes are for dogs who dislike wearing them (even to the point of shutting down) or who pull hard in times of high excitement. Registration and classes start the first wednesday of each month.