What do checking in with their owner, waiting at curbs, and lying down while their owner waits in line have in common? These are all examples of default behaviors. Default behaviors are behaviors the dog offers automatically, without a cue. They are an important part of the work of service dogs.
Attention is an important default behavior for service dogs. Eye contact with the handler is a common default behavior that is taught to dogs competing in obedience trials. While service dogs do not need the intense eye contact used in competition, they need to check in with their owners regularly as they work together. A behavior as subtle as a check-in can be easy to miss, so clients need to remember to notice their dogs checking in, and continue intermittently rewarding them in order to maintain this behavior over time.
Many default behaviors are part of public access manners. For example, lying down or sitting by the owner’s side when the owner is not moving, and stopping and waiting at curbs and doorways are behaviors that allow the dog to be close to their handler but unobtrusive and out of the way of the general public.
Some default behaviors are actually tasks. For instance, many service dogs are trained to pick up specific items, such as car keys or the dog’s leash, if they are dropped accidentally. Service dogs who work with people who have seizures or impaired mobility may be taught a default response to an owner’s fall, for example to lie down next to the owner
Default behaviors are often cued when they are first introduced to the dog. For example, to train my dogs to sit when I open the car door, I initially simply cued “sit” after opening the door. I did this until the dogs began to anticipate the cue in that context, and then I began waiting for them to offer the behavior without the cue.
Default behaviors need a long history of reinforcement to ensure they will be offered regularly. For this reason, when working with owner-trainers you will want to identify needed defaults relatively early in the training process. When sufficiently trained, default behaviors are easy to take for granted, because the dog offers them so frequently as part of the team’s daily routine. Therefore, owner-trainers will need to be reminded of the importance of rewarding these critical behaviors intermittently to make sure their dog continues to perform them reliably throughout their working career.