People with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Both dogs and handlers have been more isolated and are likely not to have been out and about in busy environments. Over the next months, as more and more people are vaccinated, we will begin to adjust to yet another “new normal” of increased activity in public locations. This is, of course, an exciting and positive change for people with disabilities, but can be a big adjustment for their service dogs. Service dog trainers need to be ready to support their teams to facilitate this transition.
Reintroduce public access work slowly.
This is a good time to remind handlers that public access work is stressful and demanding for service dogs. Their dogs are beyond merely rusty at this point. With possibly over a year of living mostly in isolation, teams need to restart very slowly. Even fully working service dogs may need to be treated as though they are “in training.”
Begin working in environments that are simpler and easier for the dog, and work for brief periods of time. For instance, start with a ten-minute visit to a computer supply store at a non-busy time or a hardware store the team has worked in many times. This is the wrong time introduce a location the team has never previously worked in. In addition to being short, first trips out should only include a single location, not three or four places. Teams should proceed slowly, working up to more complex environments and public transportation. It is important to educate or remind handlers to watch the dog for indications of stress and incorporate stress-reduction strategies into the dog’s daily routines.
Reassessment is important.
Many service dog programs and trainers implement annual public access testing for working teams. Even experienced, working service dogs benefit from brush-up training sessions and re-evaluation and assessment. Owners may also need to be reminded how to practice handling their dog in public settings.
Young dogs who were in training need close attention and reassessment during this time, even if they previously did very well in public access work. When the world fully reopens, it will have been well over a year since the dog was exposed to dense crowds. Assessments done in socially distanced environments over the past year may not accurately reflect the more mature dog’s reactions and behavior in crowded settings.
Prepare the dog at home.
Handlers will benefit from a reminder of the importance of practicing basics. Trainers can instruct handlers to take time to solidify basic training at home and in quiet settings. This sets a firm foundation to work on before adding distractions. Owners can set up distractions in their home environment to prepare the dog: Things like battery-operated toys that make different sounds, changing the position of furniture, or providing interesting surfaces like textured carpet or a large plastic bag to walk on can serve as mild distractions in a familiar setting.
Evaluate complex task training.
Trainers also need to check in on teams’ task training. While the dog may have practiced tasks that were needed at home during isolation, they will likely need to revisit tasks the dog performed in public, and these may need to be retrained. Dogs may not effectively perform important behaviors like alerts and longer behavior chains with the distractions of public access work. Set up training sessions to revisit these essentials and help the team practice both foundation behaviors and complex chains.
Prepare for the uncertain future.
Work with clients to set up a manageable schedule and strategize ways to maintain the dog’s performance. Keep in mind that some localities may need to temporarily close again. Changes in public health situations are impossible to predict. Trainers can help teams plan for unexpected fluctuations in the reopening process. Setting up a regular schedule for training follow-ups, using virtual and in-person (when safe) sessions, can help teams maintain their training over time.
The mental health aspects of the pandemic will likely be felt even after reopening. If the owner has felt increased anxiety or stress, the service dog may as well. Some people with disabilities may themselves need to relearn how to navigate the world with their disability. Incorporating games, tricks and low-key public access trips like parks can help reduce stress on service dogs and their handlers, and help both successfully face the challenges of reopening.