An anxiety alert is a commonly needed task for service dogs trained to help people with PTSD, other mental illnesses and conditions that cause anxiety. By performing an anxiety alert quickly, a service dog can help their person address their anxiety before it escalates. There are some important considerations for trainers to keep in mind when working on this important task.
1. Communicate with the Client’s Mental Health Provider
People with disabilities are often aware of the importance of discussing their decision to use a service dog with their health care provider. However, the communication should also extend to the specific tasks that the service dog will perform. These conversations should include everything from choosing the tasks to how the tasks will be performed. Ideally, the client, the service dog trainer and the mental health professional work as a collaborative team, staying in ongoing communication regarding the training of the service dog.
When it comes to anxiety alerts, the mental health provider should also be consulted to advise the client on what to do after the dog alerts. Possible responses might include leaving the situation, deep breathing, petting the dog or calling the therapist or a caregiver. The mental health provider can advise the training team about what is best for the individual.
2. Carefully Choose an Alert Behavior
Service dogs who perform anxiety alerts are often trained to alert by touching their owner with their nose or paw. For an alert to be effective, it is important that that the client notices it quickly. Also, the alert needs to be a behavior that the dog can perform easily in various contexts. The dog may need to be persistent and perform the alert repeatedly until the person responds.
However, an alert behavior that works well for one person could be annoying or even anxiety-provoking for another. There are many different ways that a dog can perform an alert. The dog can rest their chin on their person’s lap, lean on their person, or even perform a behavior that does not involve direct physical contact, like sitting and facing their person. As with most service dog tasks, the individual’s needs determine which alert behavior is the most appropriate.
3. Generalize the Alert to Different Contexts
With all task training, generalizing the skill so the dog performs reliably in different settings is an important part of the process. Service dogs tend to perform alerts readily in a training context, since they are focused on their handlers during training sessions. The challenge is having the dog perform the alert when the dog is distracted or working in a complex setting. Consider a service dog lying down under a restaurant table. The dog’s view of the handler’s face and body may be obstructed. The dog may be distracted by the scent of food. Will the service dog still perform the alert in this context? Taking the time to set up practice and rehearsal situations can help trainers make sure that the service dog performs the task when needed.
A Final Note
Service dogs who perform anxiety alerts are invaluable for their handlers. Because an anxiety alert is a task that can be introduced quickly, it is tempting for owner-trainers to jump into teaching it early in the service dog training process. However, given the importance of this task, service dog trainers can help guide their clients properly by working in communication with the client’s mental health provider, selecting the alert behavior carefully, and taking the time to generalize the skill in various environments. Thoughtful planning of the training process can help ensure that this task is trained in the way that is most appropriate and helpful for the owner.
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