When we think about safety and service dog training, typically the first thing that comes to mind is the handler’s safety: for example, making sure the handler is not injured while training the dog a basic skill or that the task the dog is being trained to do is performed safely. However, the dog’s safety is important too. Here are three behaviors that service dogs need to be taught for their safety:
Not to eat dropped medication.
A service dog handler may need to take medication several times a day. For the dog’s safety it is critical that the dog not eat any medication that has been accidentally dropped. If the handler has a disability that impacts their coordination or senses, they may be more likely to drop medication. In some cases, it is helpful to train the dog to perform a behavior that alerts the handler to the dropped pills, such as a sitting next to the pills. For the dog’s safety, service dog handlers should practice this skill without actual medications. Empty gel caps can be used for training, for instance.
Wait at open doorways.
Pet dog trainers are used to entering and exiting homes carefully, sometimes in an awkward sideways position, to prevent the dog from slipping out. However, this can be more challenging for service dog handlers who may have impaired mobility, fatigue or dizziness. The handler may need to have doors left fully open for longer in order to safely exit or enter. Additionally, service dog handlers may have personal care attendants, rehabilitation therapists or other healthcare providers who may leave a door wide open when entering or exiting the home. For these reasons it is important for service dogs to be trained not to exit even if the door is left wide open. A default sit-stay, down-stay or even go to mat behavior can be trained as an automatic response when the door is open. Trainers can set up safe practice opportunities with the dog on a long line and volunteers entering and exiting the home to make sure the dog performs reliably.
An appropriate response if the leash is dropped.
Service dogs working in public access spend much more time on a leash than pet dogs. Service dog handlers may accidentally drop the leash in a busy, complex environment. Many service dog trainers teach dogs a default behavior of retrieving the leash if this occurs. Another option is to train the dog to alert the handler — via a nose nudge, a sit or another behavior — that the leash has been dropped. If the service dog’s handler finds it difficult to hold on to the leash, it may be helpful to revisit the material, size or width of the leash itself. There are a variety of leashes and leash handles that can make it easier for some people with disabilities to hold on to the leash for prolonged periods of time.
Since these behaviors are important in ensuring the service dog’s safety, they should be introduced early in the training process. Trainers need to take the time to generalize each skill in a variety of settings, and also make sure the handler knows how to practice and maintain the safety behaviors over time.