Service dogs need to behave calmly in restaurants, in supermarkets, on public transportation and in various other complex environments. They need to ignore distractions and be ready to perform tasks to help their handlers. No question about it, public access work is challenging. Trainers and owners can make it easier for service dogs by being able to quickly identify indications of stress so that they can take steps to reduce that stress.
If a service dog in training is showing multiple signs of stress or the signs are severe, then the dog needs to be removed from the situation entirely. The dog may not be ready to work in that setting yet, may need down time, may need more practice in easier settings first or may need to be acclimated more slowly. However, if the dog is only showing indications of mild stress, some simple strategies can be implemented in the session that can help change a stressful experience into a positive one for the dog.
Strategies to Address a Service Dog’s Stress
- Give the dog a brief sniff and explore break. Taking the dog to a quieter outside setting and allowing the dog to sniff and explore for a few minutes can be a great way to reduce the dog’s stress.
- Ask the dog to perform easy and fun tricks. Cuing the dog to perform behaviors that are associated with playful experiences may elicit some of those positive emotions, thereby reducing stress.
- Get the dog moving. Remaining still and exposing the dog to the same stressor for a length of time can increase the dog’s stress response. Instead, moving away from stressor, ideally to a quieter and easier setting — for instance to a less busy part of a store — may help.
- Offer extra-special training treats. Treats that the dog really loves may help distract them, and may change the dog’s emotional state.
- Use a cheerful tone of voice and body language. All too often when the dog gets nervous the handler does too. An encouraging or even playful tone of voice may help some dogs relax.
Minimizing and Mitigating Daily Stress
In addition to incorporating stress-reduction strategies in training sessions, have handlers implement strategies that foster relaxation into their daily routines. This can reduce the dog’s overall stress level. For instance, owners can feed a service dog some of their food out of an interactive toy, and they should strive to provide sufficient quiet down time, playtime, chew toys and massage. These strategies can help decrease the service dog in training’s overall stress level.
Dogs who experience lower levels of stress in their day-to-day lives are better equipped to handle the inevitable stressors they will encounter during training, because they are starting with a more solid foundation of emotional well-being. This means that implementing these small daily strategies will make it less likely that the handler will need to use any of the management interventions described above. So, make sure you are counseling owner-trainers about daily stress-reduction activities in addition to situational stress relief strategies.