When service dog trainers ask their clients which tasks they need a service dog to perform, they often are given a very long list. People sometimes hope their dog will perform tasks they have heard of online via social media, forums for people with disabilities or other websites, or even tasks they saw on the news or heard about from a friend. While accommodating a client’s preferences is often worthwhile, selecting service dog tasks is a critically important aspect of service dog work that requires special considerations:
What are the handler’s disability needs?
The handler’s disability needs are, obviously, the focus of service dog tasks. Handlers and trainers need to consider the specific ways the disability affects the handler and whether there are ways the service dog can assist.
Is the desired task realistic and doable for their service dog or for any service dog?
Handlers may request tasks that they heard about from sources that did not provide reliable information. The achievements of dogs can make for big, sensational news that often is not based in scientific fact. For example, medical alert dogs are increasing in popularity, but there is little or no scientific evidence to support a dog’s ability to perform some of these alerts. In other cases, a task may not be realistic for a particular dog. For example, a very small service dog cannot be expected to open a heavy door.
Does the task pose any potential risks to the handler?
No service dog task is 100% free of risk; however, some tasks pose more risks than others. For example, tasks that involve having the dog assist the handler with balance or with getting up from a fall can be dangerous if the dog does not perform as trained. Good questions to consider include: What are the consequences to the handler should the dog fail to perform the task as trained? Are there safer ways to meet the handler’s needs?
Dog trainers are not human healthcare experts, so this is where consulting with the client’s healthcare provider on the details of the tasks being considered is important. The healthcare provider may be able to better identify potential risks to the client that the trainer and individual have not considered.
Do the tasks pose potential risks to the dog?
In addition to posing risks to the handler, balance and brace tasks can also be risky to the service dog. Working in communication with a veterinarian can help to identify whether a task like balance and brace is safe for a particular dog.
Even seemingly innocuous tasks like retrieves can be risky, for instance if the service dog breaks a prescription bottle while retrieving it and ingests medication. Sometimes there are ways to mitigate the risk by changing some aspect of the task, like by placing the medication in a secure bag and having the dog retrieve that instead. Also, sometimes training can be adjusted to make a task safer. In this case, taking the time to carefully train the dog to pick up and hold items gently but securely, and without chewing, would reduce the risk to the dog.
Is the desired task the best way to address the handler’s needs?
Sometimes clients will request that a service dog be trained to assist via a task when there is actually a more effective or reliable way to meet a need. Increasingly there are technologies that may be better for some situations. For example, there is technology specifically designed to alert a caregiver if a person with dementia wanders. This technology also allows for two-way communication with the individual and gives caregivers the person’s location via GPS. Technology is continuing to expand in the role of medicine: everything from alerting a caregiver to an individual’s seizure to nightmare interruption. The existence of these tools is another reason that communicating with the client’s healthcare provider regarding desired tasks is so important. Together you can make sure that the tasks selected really are the best way to address the client’s challenges.
How long will it take to train the task?
Both service dog programs and trainers who work with owner trainers have real-world challenges when it comes to training service dogs. Service dog program trainers may be working with multiple dogs and have limited time to teach the dogs the skills needed. Trainers working with owner-trainers may be pressured by both the time needed and the handler’s budget. Having these practical discussions with clients is important in identifying which tasks will really make the biggest difference, and it will allow you to prioritize spending time training those to fluency. Less-needed tasks can be trained later to ensure enough time is spent on those tasks that will be the most helpful.
Service dog task selection is an exciting part of service dog training for handlers and trainers. It can be tempting to jump right into the training without fully considering whether the tasks the owner wants really are the best fit for the team. This first step of examining the tasks is a critical one, and doing a thorough job will allow you and your client to make progress together efficiently and safely.