Dog training industry leaders are talking about giving dogs choices in training, husbandry and in their daily lives. Having the opportunity to make choices is essential to dog’s behavioral health.
The behaviors service dogs are trained to help a person with a disability, service dog “tasks,” are chosen based on the owner’s needs. What if the service dog in training is anxious, reticent, stressed by or simply dislikes to perform a desired task? Does the service dog in training have input in the task selection? How can we balance the owner’s needs with the dog’s?
It is often possible to teach a dog to accept and even like something he previously did not. Trainers routinely do this when teaching dogs to pick up items of different textures and materials like metal. Many dogs who are initially hesitant to pick up metal items can become more comfortable when the trainer proceeds slowly and uses high value rewards. Trainers often start with easier (smaller) metal items or may wrap metal with fabric or another material the dog is comfortable holding initially in the training process – slowly transitioning away from the fabric over time. However, this approach is not practical, preferable nor necessarily do-able in every situation.
Giving Dogs Choices
One way to give a service dog in training a choice is to allow the dog to have some control on the way the task is performed. For instance, teach the dog two ways to push a button, with a paw and with the nose. Then allow the dog to choose either approach when performing the behavior in the environment. It may make no impact on the end result for the person, and the dog may much prefer doing it one way versus another.
Training techniques that involve allowing the animal to make choices, such as Chirag Patel’s bucket game can also be included in the training process. The bucket game can be applied to behaviors like accepting a hug for an ESA or for a service dog helping a person with mental illness.
Sometimes it’s worth considering changing the task or teaching several alternatives. For instance, consider a task referred to as DPT (deep pressure therapy) where the dog is cued to lie down directly on the owner. Some dogs thrive on close contact, my own dog Sulu would prefer it if he lived on my lap. Other dogs just don’t enjoy prolonged close contact, or are physically uncomfortable (may be too warm) when lying on a person. Dogs, like people, may feel differently at different times: wanting to be close sometimes and preferring space other times. Close contact with an agitated or upset person or child can be stressful for the dog.
If a dog’s body language and behavior indicates that a particular task is stressful for the dog, don’t force the issue. Consider alternatives.With a little creativity, there are nearly always a number of alternatives that may both help the person and be more comfortable for the dog.
Appropriate alternatives to DPT, as with all tasks, vary depending on the needs of the individual. Some options may include having the dog retrieve a therapeutic weighted blanket/lap pad, a weighted vest or stuffed animal (for a child), having the dog lean on the person (instead of fully lying down on them), teaching the dog to put his/her chin or paw on the person, or having the dog alert a caregiver that help is needed. Trainers may decide to teach the dog a couple of options and then allow the dog to choose. Also, allowing the dog to decide when to end behaviors that involve direct contact can help as well.
Of course, service dog candidates need to be selected not just with consideration for their suitability for public access, but also for their comfort in performing the desired tasks. However, as we all know, there is no perfect selection process and a dog may be a wonderful candidate who has individual preferences. Acknowledging the dog’s needs and preferences when choosing how a task is performed can end up being beneficial to both, the handler and the dog. It can help promote the dog’s behavioral health, give the person increased awareness of meeting the dog’s behavioral needs, and prevent the dog from developing stress related behavior problems over time.