There are many different kinds of service dog tasks that involve alerting. Service dogs working with people with PTSD are often trained to alert to their handler’s anxiety. Hearing dogs alert their handlers to sounds, while service dogs helping people with diabetes alert their owner to changes in their blood sugar level.
Four Important Alert Training Tips
- Take time to select and train the alert behavior carefully. Whether the alert is a paw touch, a nose nudge or another behavior, it is important that the dog is able to perform it on cue. In some cases, the behavior may need to be on both a visual and verbal cue. The alert behavior needs to be fluent and precise. The behavior chosen should be one that the owner will readily notice and is easy for the dog to perform frequently.
- Plan for the entire training loop, including the not-alerting component. Be prepared to heavily reward the absence of an alert while training. Otherwise, the dog will offer alerts when they are not needed. Incorporating an incompatible behavior like a go-to-place in the training process may be useful.
- Take time to generalize the alert with a wide variety of distractions. Practice in various settings and with the owner in different positions relative to the dog. For example, will the dog alert if the owner is lying down, sitting and standing? The initial training for many alerts goes quickly, but the generalization can take weeks and even months of work. The behavior will not be useful if it has not been fully generalized.
- It is nearly impossible not to accidentally cue the dog to alert while training with inadvertent body language. Take steps to ensure you have not created a Clever Hans situation and you are not unintentionally cuing the dog. When working with hearing dogs, wear earplugs to evaluate the dog’s performance. When working with dogs performing scent alerts, practice when you are not aware of the location or presence of the target odor.
Alert training is challenging but also rewarding. These tasks can impact a service dog handler’s health and safety, so it is critical for trainers to proceed carefully. Trainers should work in communication with the client’s healthcare provider when selecting and training alert tasks. The area of scent-based alert training is still very new. Some of the research on diabetic alert dogs, for instance, raises questions about the reliability of dogs’ performance. A service dog does not replace the need for well-researched medical strategies and treatments.
Sometimes, an alert behavior will be followed by a response task, like retrieving medication or getting help from a caregiver. While these response tasks may not get as much attention as alerts, they can be just as valuable as the alerts for some individuals. Make sure that you and your client have a clear shared vision of the full cycle of behaviors surrounding alert tasks, so that their dog is working in a way that suits their needs.