Putting a behavior on cue is typically a straightforward process. Trainers choose a word or gesture as the cue, and introduce it when the dog begins to offer the behavior reliably. The trainer should give the cue just before the dog offers the behavior. Once the behavior is happening consistently in response to the cue, it is important for trainers to take time to generalize the new cue by practicing with distractions and in various contexts. While this process is basically the same as when training pet and performance dogs, there are some unique considerations when selecting and training cues for service dogs.
The handler’s disability
Trainers need to consider the handler’s disability when choosing a cue. If the handler has difficulty with speech, they may find it much easier to give cues using hand signals. On the other hand, if the handler’s disability limits the use of their hands, they may need to use verbal cues or give cues with another part of their body. For some individuals with disabilities, leg movements, head movements, torso movements or even eye movements may serve as cues. In some cases, the handler will need behaviors to be on both visual and verbal cues in order to have multiple options according to their specific situation and needs.
Some tasks lend themselves better to specific kinds of cues. For example, to cue the dog to retrieve a dropped object, using a visual cue like pointing to the object can make the task easier for the dog to perform. Additionally, the choice of words used as a cue can make an important difference on how a task is perceived by the public. For instance, a cue like “watch my back” — to prompt the dog to stand behind the handler — could lead a passerby to believe the dog is guarding the handler. A neutral term like “behind” would be much less likely to cause concerns.
With some tasks, the logistics or mechanics of the behavior will make some types of cues easier to use than others. For instance, if a dog needs to leave the handler to approach a tether on a door, and then pull and hold the door open, verbal cues may be the only option, because the dog is likely facing away from the handler and unable to see a visual cue.
Cues for foundation behaviors
When building upon a foundation behavior to train a task, the choice of the foundational cue may make the training process easier or more difficult for some dogs. For instance, the nature of a hearing alert involves teaching the dog to respond to a sound. An alarm is often used when training the first alert. The trainer gives the cue for the dog to perform an alert behavior, like nose-touching the handler, after the alarm rings. If the trainer uses a visual cue for this first stage, it will be difficult to cue the dog to perform the alert during the training process at times when the dog is not watching the handler. Additionally, a verbal cue may encourage the dog to remain focused on the sounds in the training context.
Discretion in public
Service dogs are expected to be discreet in public access. The way the handler gives the dog cues is an important aspect of this. If the handler is speaking to the dog in a formal, stilted way as though the dog was competing in obedience, the team will draw much more attention than if the handler speaks to the dog softly in a more conversational way. Consider two teams in a supermarket who need the service dog to retrieve dropped items: One says, “Rover, fetch.” The other asks the dog, “Would you pick that up please?” A person in another aisle will immediately be aware that there is a dog in the store in the first case. You can learn more about these more subtle cues in my blog post on Sneaky Cues.
Other options for discreet cues include using small, subtle movements as visual cues, or even tactile cues. For instance, Michelle Pouliot has given presentations on training dogs to respond to collar cues, using very gentle pressure on the dog’s collar as cues to move and change their orientation around their handlers.
When training service dogs, there are often so many different tasks needed that it is tempting to move along to the next task before the previously trained task is reliably on cue. This risks the behaviors never really being solidly performed on cue. Because service dogs need to perform tasks in a variety of contexts, often with the handler in different positions relative to the dog, it is especially important for the trainer to take time to make sure the behaviors are being fluently and reliably performed on cue. Generalizing cues is not usually the most exciting aspect of training, but it an important one to make sure the dog is able to perform the tasks needed reliably in working contexts.