Public Access Training is a Training Field Trip
There is a lot more to public access training (PAT) than bringing your dog with you. We take children on school field trips to places where they can learn something specific. We have chaperones, and we are not trying to get anything else done on a school field trip. If we bring our dogs with us but are not 100 percent focused on training, our dogs may learn things we don’t want them to learn:
- “What works at home doesn’t work in public. At home if I sit, I get a treat. Here, if I sit, she doesn’t notice (because she’s talking to her boss). So I won’t sit away from home.”
- “Being in public is exciting (or scary)! I’m freaked out, but my person can’t take me home because she’s running errands. I’m learning that I should freak out in public.”
- “I get to do what I want! She’s busy taking a test. I’ll just sniff people who walk past.”
What Is the Purpose of a PAT “Field Trip”?
- Training the dog to generalize. The dog knows what “sit” means in your home, but does she know what “sit” means in the car, in the parking lot, in the store, at the park?
- Build positive associations with strange places so she begins to take them in stride.
- Work with distractions. Can she focus on you at the pet store, surrounded by people, dogs, food, and toys? On the sidewalk of a city street with buses going past? In the country at a farm stand, with cows and horses nearby?
How Can You Make Field Trips Successful?
There are several “moving parts” to a successful PAT trip that you’ll need to coordinate:
What Your Dog Knows
- Your dog should already know some behaviors very well at home. In public, focus your training on the skills your dog is rock-solid on at home, even if it’s just “sit.”
- Your dog feels safe and relaxed enough to think. If he’s scanning the environment for dangers or enticements, he won’t care about the cookie you give him for sitting.
- Your dog already has excellent focus (eye contact) with you when asked around lower-level distractions. Once he can focus on you in the yard or on walks, you can try at your workplace, school, or at the grocery store.
What YOU Know
- Your training plan. It should include…
- Which specific behaviors you plan to work on: Heel? Eye contact? Sit? Leave it?
- What emotional associations are forming? If your dog is worried about shopping carts, you might give several pieces of meat after each one goes by. Once she’s happy to see a cart, start training Sit around shopping carts.
- Your criteria: Are you working on speed (a prompt Sit) or on duration (a Sit-Stay) or on distraction (Sit when I ask even when a friendly person walks by)?
- Be physically ready. BEFORE you let the dog out of the car, do you have your treats handy? Is your thumb on the clicker? Is the leash comfortable in your hand?
- Be mentally ready: focused on your dog. To reinforce the behaviors you want, you need to notice them as they occur. Likewise, to keep your dog from learning things you don’t want her to learn, you’ll need to interrupt or redirect her if she starts trying them out.
- Quit while the behavior is good. A successful session ends before the dog’s behavior starts to go downhill. Offer just the amount of challenge he can succeed at, not more.
TIP: It usually takes MANY training field trips before you can “multitask” and combine your life’s activities with your dog’s training.
Best Places for PAT Field Trips
Start with locations that are easier versions of the public situation you’ll want to train in future. Start with locales that are less busy or noisy than usual, and when you have plenty of time:
- Your friend’s house – less chaotic than public spaces, but still not your dog’s home
- School or work after hours – you can focus on your dog and the space is less distracting
- Well-managed group training classes – your dog can practice focusing on you around other people and dogs, and you don’t have to uphold social niceties because you’re there train
- Store back entrances or loading docks – usually less activity than the main entrance
- Outdoor spaces during bad weather – fewer people, more space for you and your dog
Double-Tasking: When to bring your dog with you on errands
When your dog has shown on several previous training field trips that he can perform the behaviors you want reliably, without undue stress, and with some lasting power, you can start combining “real life” with training. Usually the skills that make this possible are…
- A reliable long down-stay or go-to-mat
- A reliable/consistent loose-leash walk
- Reliable cued AND default eye contact/focus (including around distractions)
- Reliable cued AND default “leave it”
Parting Tip: Slow Is Fast
We may try to bring our service-dogs-in-training with us to be efficient – to get two things (life AND dog training) done at the same time. But if our dog is not learning what we want him to learn, we will later have to spend more time retraining that behavior. That is the opposite of efficient! Instead, go slow and build good behaviors slowly over time. In the long run, you will reach your goal of having a well-trained service dog more quickly. Then you will have your dog’s lifetime to go everywhere together with ease!