Usually, the idea of public access training for a service dog brings to mind taking a dog in training out to a public location like a shop or café. While real-world practice is certainly important for service dogs in training, rehearsals in a controlled setting are extremely valuable as well. Rehearsals allow owners to use food rewards generously – which may not always be appropriate in settings like restaurants – and they also give owners an opportunity to practice in a low-stress environment. These practice opportunities can be set up in a training facility and may even be incorporated into a group training class.
- Set up a table and chairs to practice a restaurant situation. Have some drinks and a snack, and even get someone to take the handler’s order. Practice a long down under the chair or table, ignoring food. Discuss strategies to prevent the dog from shaking off when standing up or leaving.
- Practice “leave it” with low-value food items on counters and shelves. Service dogs need to ignore distractions even if the owner is focused on something else. To facilitate this, a helper can click when the dog ignores the items so the owner can practice rewarding without directly looking at the dog.
- Rehearse routines needed for traveling. Have volunteers walking around with rolling and handheld suitcases. Someone in a uniform can help the team role play going through TSA screening.
When out in public, owners are often asked questions about the service dog, and this too is something that they will benefit from practicing. Have the owner rehearse a response for a variety of different types of interactions with members of the public and business owners. Remember that people’s questions can be intrusive or sometimes even downright rude, so your practice should include questions of this nature, even if you would never ask them yourself! Always keep in mind the handler’s right to privacy. For instance, if you are working on answering a business owner’s questions about the tasks the service dog performs, help owners choose tasks that do not reveal much about the owner’s medical situation. In some cases, it may be better to do these rehearsals in a private lesson rather than a group setting.
There are nearly endless possible scenarios that can be practiced in a controlled, low-stress environment to set up the dog and handler for success. It may help to have the owner-trainer jot down public access scenarios they encounter in daily life that you might not think to practice with them. Even better, having them keep a journal of their activities for a few weeks can provide you with insights regarding specific tasks to practice as they work toward public access with their service dog.
When you give feedback, focus on the positive. Share what the team is doing well. Keep it fun and silly, so owners and their dogs both learn in a relaxed setting. Even if some aspects of public access work seem daunting to an owner-trainer, the process of preparing for it doesn’t have to be.