Working with a service dog in a small space is challenging. Store aisles can have objects and food on low shelves that are tempting for a dog to sniff. Add in adaptive equipment like a wheelchair or walker, and there is even less space to maneuver. Service dog trainers can help teams be ready by teaching the dog to move and work comfortably in many different positions around the owner.
Here are some skills to work on:
- Walking backward. In some narrow aisles there may not be enough space for the dog and handler to turn around. Service dogs need to be able to walk backward in case they encounter this.
- Returning to the owner’s side on cue from various positions. Trainers who compete in dog sports like rally are familiar with training dogs to return to heel position on a cue. While a service dog does not need to perform this behavior for competition, it is still important for the dog to be able to return to the owner’s side on cue after performing a needed task. Service dogs may need to move out away from the owner in various directions and positions to perform their work. Trainers need to help teams practice having the service dog return to the owner’s side from many different positions to ensure the dog generalizes the behavior.
- Following behind the owner. Some spaces and doorways are so narrow that there is no space for the dog to walk next to the owner, and the dog may need to follow the owner instead. The service dog needs to be able to walk behind the owner in these situations.
- Walking on both sides of the owner. While owners may have one side where they prefer to work with their dog, the service dog needs to be able to change sides if needed.
- Positioning in front of the owner. Although this position is not needed quite as frequently as some others, it still may prove helpful at times. For instance, if someone is passing by in a narrow aisle, the owner may need the dog to move in front to give space to that person.
- Moving under furniture. Service dogs may need to lie down under a table or chair in a restaurant, office or classroom. It is important for the dog to be willing, comfortable and relaxed if this is needed.
There are a number of strategies and tools that can be used to teach these positions. A platform is one excellent tool to teach the dog various positions relative to the handler. Agility tunnels can help dogs learn to go under objects. Targeting, luring and even simple shaping techniques can also be helpful in the training process. Although service dogs do not need to perform these behaviors with the precision needed for competition, they need to perform the behaviors quickly and reliably in a wide range of situations.