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.
Listen to the audio file.
One of the fastest growing areas of service dogs are those being trained for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxiety or Panic Attacks. They are typically called Psychiatric service dogs. Most people associate PTSD with veterans, but it happens to a wide variety of people of a wide age range. People who have been raped, people who have been traumatized by their families as children, people who have lived with people with addictions (alcoholic, prescription or street drugs, gamblers, sex addicts etc.), people who have seen atrocious things done to other people or animals. Sadly PTSD affects a wide range of people from those with low education income to highly educated high income. No part of society is exempt.
My most recent video is dedicated to anyone who has suffered a traumatic event that affects their life and would like to train a service dog for others or their own dog to either alert them to an oncoming anxiety attack, or interrupt one as it is happening or interrupt them when they are doing harm to themselves as a result of the pain they are feeling.
Note: Before starting the process of training your own service dog for PTSD or anxiety, first make sure you have a dog that is suitable for these types of tasks. The dog must have a solid temperament, have excellent physical health, and be emotionally resilient. Both confidence and sensitivity are important characteristics as well. Ideally, start with an adult dog 18 months or older that has been raised in an emotionally stable (functional) environment so the dog has that normal baseline to draw from when interacting with you. Choose a dog that has an exercise level that matches yours. Allow your dog to be a dog before starting to train the tasks. 18 months would be the ideal age to start training.
You, the owner-trainer and handler, must be stable in your condition. If your condition is not stable, there is a real risk you will negatively and permanently affect your dog's ability to learn to help you and function in public since all of his needs may not be met. You need a team of many people to help you access resources, take care of and train your dog to become a functional helper. Talk to your health care professionals and a local trainer to see if they think you have the necessary skills, boundaries and abilities to train your own dog. It is not a project to start on a whim.
Your dog needs to be a dog first, family member second and service dog third.
If you meet these requirements, check out our self-paced online anxiety task class as well as our foundation another classes.
Registration and classes start the first Wednesday of each month. https://www.servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/course-catalogue
Toys and games can be a very useful tools to help train a service dog. Different kinds of toys can be used for different functions.
There are two kinds of toys: active toys are objects that allow interaction between you and your dog. Tug toys, balls, toys with squeakers fit this definition. Passive toys that your dog can play calmly with by herself like a food-filled rubber toy that doesn't roll around, chew bones or stuffed toys can be useful when conditioning calmer behaviours like a settle or stay on your mat.
Active Toys and Games
Active toys and games can be used to motivate a dog for behaviors that require a higher energy level (like tugging doors open) and for alternating with behaviors that are stationary after they have been trained. They are useful to release stress and give the dog a break when taken outdoors between periods of work.
It helps when indoors if the toy can be controlled by you. So a ball on a rope or a brings attached to the dogs harness is ideal. The toy will not be able to move so the dog won't go chasing down a slippery hallway to get it in public. In general, during the training phase for behaviours and tasks, active toys are best used at home or in the training rooms and outdoors.
Once the dog dog has the desired enthusiasm and can do the behaviour or task, then you can train them in public without the use of toys.
Passive toys can be used to teach the dog to entertain herself (add duration) while in a settle. They can help calm a dog down or self-soothe after an active behaviour or task such as finding a helper, actively detecting a scent or walking quickly for a long distance. The activity of chewing and licking helps most dogs calm down.
It is important that you carefully choose which games to pair with which behaviors and situations. For example, rough or rousing toy play, tossing treats or hide and seek is not appropriate in a retail store (unless you are training your dog to find a person as a task).
Pairing Active Games with Calm Games
How you use the active toys and games is important. When pairing active toys and games with calm activities make sure the active games come first. Always end on a calm activity. This ensures classical conditioning is working in your favour to teach the dog to calm down after activity. This order prevents inadvertently conditioning your dog to be hyped when doing the calm behavior. The anticipation of toy or game after a settled behaviour for example, causes the dog to be ready to play during the calm period. This can cause whining, muscle tightness and other undesired behaviours while waiting for the play to happen.
You can use the choice of toy you use to help your dog understand that some environments require calm behavior while others can be playful. Outdoors use active toys and play, and indoors, especially in quiet places, use passive toys. If your dog is resting under your chair at work, or settling for long periods at school, taking frequent breaks to do active play outside is a great use of it.
Some people only use play at home if their dog is easily aroused during active games. Others avoid uses toys while the dog is vested and at work.
Active toy play and games is also great for building a bond with a dog that loves activity.
What Are the Standard Behaviors and Cues for a Service Dog?
I find it fascinating that I often get asked this question and many similar to it. People assume there are standard verbal cues and hand signals for behaviors that service dogs and assistance dogs do. I also find it interesting that they believe there is a standard approach to training.
There is No Standardization!
Most people are shocked to find that there is no standardization at all. Each organization, school or business has their own way of training and their own behaviors they teach and signals they commonly use. They may also use a specific set for a specific kind of service dog. It's what is familiar to them and what has worked in the past. Given that they often deal in larger numbers of dogs and have several staff, it is more efficient to have a common set of behaviors and cues all dogs are taught. Since owner-trained dogs breeds vary widely, there will even be differences in how different sized dogs carry out a behavior. A small dog might jump on the handler's head while they are sleeping if their blood sugar drops too low where a larger dog might nose nudge their neck to wake them up for example.
While there are some basic cues that all service dogs need, they are not all the same since the dog and handlers needs are all different. For example a person with mobility issues may prefer to use verbal cue "Here" to recall their service dog since they may have limited control of their hands for hand signals. For someone who has trouble speaking, extending a hand for a nose target can recall or reposition the dog. Each team has their own special abilities and focus.
Examples of Cues
A cue to a dog is just an event that triggers a known behavior. It can be something in the environment (a door open button), a body cue (person turning their head in a certain direction), hand signal (a lifted hand) or a spoken word. What that word or signal might be is up to what will work for the person the dog. Any cue can be taught to mean any behavior. Bringing a toy can be an alert for a diabetic low. A fist can be sit. Even lifting a symbol drawn on a laminated page can cue a dog to lay down.
If you are training your own service dog, you can choose what makes sense to you and is non-disruptive to the public when the dog is working. If you are training an assistance dog for someone else, you can help them to choose cues and behaviors that make sense to them.
Using Atypical Cues
Some people actually choose non-typical verbal cues or use a different language to prevent other people from distracting their dog. This may not work though as dogs usually respond to tone and take a guess when they don't understand the cue itself. It is better just to proof for extreme distractions.
The only caveat to keep in mind when choosing behaviors and cues, is that at some point your dog may need to be handled by other people if you are incapacitated (emergency personnel, family or friends). This puts your dog at risk if she doesn't understand or do what an "average" person handling a dog expects. The dog needs to either be trained to do behaviors by default (someone holding the leash means the dog walks on a loose leash or the person sitting down cues the dog to lay down and wait) or common verbal and hand cues need to be used at least for really common behaviors. Given the wide variety of training approaches out there, and if your dog 'refuses' to do a given cue (or command), and what the potential human reaction might be, it is wise to keep that in mind.
Wondering what behaviors are the foundation for service dog? Find out in my new class "Foundation Skills Level 1-3" (for both dog and human).
If you want to learn how to train a service dog like a professional, these classes will give you a great foundation!
Donna Hill B.Sc. B.Ed.
Founder/ Head Instructor
This is the home of the SDTI blog. Enjoy tips, tricks and resources
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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.
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.
Service Dog Training Institute