Public access training is the most demanding aspect of preparing a dog for service work. When we think about public access training, the first hurdles that come to mind are the challenges this work poses for the dog. Service dog candidates need to be selected carefully and trained extensively to perform reliably in public access. However, preparing a team for public access also involves educating the handler. Working with service dogs in complex public settings is challenging and requires skills and knowledge on the handler’s part as well.
Here are three important public access skills service dog handlers need.
To be able to identify and respond to their dog’s signs of stress
Even confident, experienced working service dogs will occasionally be stressed in public settings. Service dog handlers need to be able to recognize their dog’s indications of stress and respond effectively to address their dog’s needs. There is a lot of multitasking involved in effectively handling a service dog in public. The handler needs to be aware of the environment as well as the dog’s behavior and body language. Additionally, the handler needs to know how best to respond when the dog is stressed. Appropriate responses vary depending on the degree of the dog’s stress level as well as the context. Possible responses might include cuing simple, familiar behaviors, offering the dog some high-value treats, moving the dog away from the situation briefly or, if the dog is very stressed, taking the dog home. In some cases, the dog may need additional training or desensitization. Skilled service dog handlers can also recognize when their dog needs a day off from public access or some additional enrichment or down time.
Trainers working with service dog handlers can help by educating handlers on signs of stress and teach handlers to check in on their service dog while working in public access. Service dog handlers new to public access can easily be distracted by the environment and may miss indications of stress in their dog. In these cases, it can help to have handlers check in on a time schedule, for instance, by cuing some simple behaviors every 20 minutes and observing their dog’s responses. Additionally, teaching the handler to implement public access breaks on a schedule can help proactively reduce the dog’s stress levels and ensure the dog is having opportunities to decompress even if the handler missed the dog’s stress signs.
To be ready to respond to questions from the public and business owners
Service dogs always attract attention, and whether the handler appreciates it or not, additional interaction with the public is unavoidable when working with a service dog. Handlers need to be ready to answer questions from business owners and the general public about their service dog.
It can be helpful to prepare teams by having volunteers role play so the handler can practice answering questions quickly. Handlers also need to be prepared to politely but confidently assert that the service dog should not be distracted or petted while working. This can be easier for some individuals than others. Some service dog handlers may find that carrying small business cards or fact sheets with information about the service dog helps them address these situations more smoothly.
To be ready to handle unexpected situations
What if the service dog suddenly gets sick and vomits in a supermarket? What if a business owner is completely uninformed and insists that the service dog is not allowed in a store? What if the building catches fire? This unlikely event actually occurred to me when I was with my service dog in a hotel once. Fortunately, my service dog was very calm among the loud fire engines, and we were able to evacuate easily.
As with addressing questions from the public, setting up role play and rehearsal can be helpful in preparing handlers to navigate a wide range of situations. While it’s impossible to envision every possible scenario, practicing responses to a variety of unexpected situations is important. Also, an open line of communication between trainer and handler will assure that the handler feels comfortable reaching out if they have questions about how to handle unexpected situations that may arise.
It is common to focus all of our energy as service dog trainers on making sure the dogs we work with are ready for public access work. However, both ends of the leash need to learn how to work successfully in these sometimes challenging settings. Education is the first step, but trainers should be prepared to assess the handler’s readiness along with the dog’s. Your assessment strategies may include checklists, rubrics or simply noting observations of what the handler is doing especially well and what they find challenging. By taking the time to educate and assess both members of the team, service dog trainers can help ensure that they are really ready to work in public successfully.