Service dogs need to pull to perform tasks like opening a door, opening a drawer, pulling a zipper and helping their owner take off a jacket. Pulling is useful for handlers with disabilities, and it is also a behavior many service dogs enjoy doing. Here are three tips for getting started training this important task.
Focus on Control
While shaking and hard tugging are appropriate in play, service dogs need to pull in a controlled way to perform tasks safely and effectively. If a service dog pulls on their handler’s sleeve in an uncontrolled way when helping them take off a jacket, the person could get hurt. When you start working on teaching the dog to pull, begin by marking and rewarding immediately after the dog puts a small amount of tension on the tether. Slowly work toward marking and rewarding for increased duration and tension to help ensure the finished pulling behavior is controlled.
Choose Your Tether Material Carefully
With a low-key dog who is not very excitable, you may need to use a tether that is similar to a tug toy in order to encourage the dog to pull. However, if you are working with a more excitable dog, then choosing a tether material that the dog is less likely to want to play with can make a big difference. Also consider the length of the tether and how stiff it is. Material that is very floppy and long is going to be more likely to elicit uncontrolled pulling than stiffer material. You may need to experiment to see what works best for the individual dog.
Play can be useful when working on teaching dogs to pull, but as when using play when teaching a retrieve, it needs to be incorporated carefully. Most dogs will pull back on a tug toy when the owner pulls. If the dog you are working with is not pulling firmly enough in a training context, incorporate a low-intensity tug game in the training session to build the dog’s enthusiasm and confidence. Fade the use of play quickly, as soon as the dog starts offering the firm pulling behavior you are looking for.
On the other hand, if you are working with a dog who tends to get too excited by pulling, you can use controlled play sessions to reward the dog for quick responses to cues like “drop” and “hold” (hold the tether without pulling). If the dog does not respond, briefly end the game, and then resume. You may need to start by playing at a very low intensity, so the dog is successful.
Pulling is a service dog skill that has a Goldilocks aspect to it. If the dog does not pull forcefully enough the task will not be accomplished, but if the dog pulls too hard it could be unsafe. With careful planning and good timing, trainers can achieve that “just right” balance and teach a useful and fun service dog task.