Sometimes people have a sense that a service dog could help them or a family member, but are not sure what that help would look like. If you have a disability, love dogs, and have a strong feeling that a service dog could make a big difference in your life, but you’re not sure what the dog should be trained to do, this post can help you think about that.
The first step in figuring out what to train your dog to is to step away from the question of the dog entirely. Instead, start with the question, “What do I want to be better in my life?”
Make Your Wish List
Probably during the course of your week, situations arise when you think, “I wish I (or my family member) could…” or “I wish it was easier to…” or “If only this didn’t happen…”
These thoughts may be fleeting, but they can serve as a foundation for brainstorming what help would look like. When you notice yourself wishing that something was easier or more doable, write it down. You may not know yet how or if a dog could help with this, but identifying the problem is key in assessing a canine solution. Keep a list in a handy place (a journal by your bed or a memo on your cell) and make a note when a wish arises. These ideas about what would make life safer, healthier, freer, or more functional and productive will serve as the basis for a plan about what a service dog can do for you.
What Can Dogs Do?
The good news is that a dog can be trained to do anything that it is physically and mentally capable of doing. And even if a dog can’t accomplish a skill one way, there are usually a variety of ways to train a dog to solve the same problem. What might work for one dog and handler might not work for another, so the tasks you train will depend on the team.
What is meant by “physically capable”?
Physically capable has to do with the size, strength, and weight of the dog as well as considerations relating to its health and age. We cannot ask a Papillion to wear a five-pound backpack or to retrieve a liter of soda from the refrigerator. But we could ask that same dog to retrieve a pill box or a coin purse. We could train it to turn on a lamp that had a touch-activated base or a light with a switch extender.
It is very important to wait to train any weight-bearing task (wearing a backpack, jumping, pulling) until your dog has physically matured (growth plates have closed). Your dog should also be given a clean bill of health by your vet, sometimes including certain diagnostic tests (x-rays, eye tests) before certain types of service dog training.
Finally, there may be tasks that your dog is capable of training and performing now that may well cause injury or chronic issues a few years later. This is why it’s important to work with an experienced service dog trainer or dog sports trainer to come up with a plan that is safe and healthy, long-term, for your dog as well as you. If you are not working with a trainer, make sure to consult your veterinarian or your dog’s breeder about the exact tasks you are training and what the dog is physically being asked to do to make sure it is safe.
What is meant by “mentally capable”?
This is not about how smart the dog is. It has to do with the dog’s emotional state and temperament. A dog that is afraid of strangers cannot be asked to bring a note to the nearest person when you have an emergency or to work in stores or other public venues. In fact, a dog that is too nervous around new things or situations may not even be able to “sit” or “lay down” in the grocery store. Service dogs need to be mentally and physically healthy.
One of the most common problems that arises for service-dog owner-trainers is to have knowledge and focus on the reward-and-punishment aspects of training (operant conditioning) but not to have adequate information on the dog’s emotional state and how it can affect the dog’s work and training. An understanding of dog body language is critical to successful team training.
Work Backwards from Problem to Solution
Your wish list might have items like these:
- I’m so tired before I go to sleep. I wish I didn’t have to get out of bed at night.
- My knees hurt so much when I climb stairs. I wish I didn’t have to carry the laundry up from the basement.
- I wish my mother could go grocery shopping on her own.
- I wish I remembered to turn off pots on the stove before they burn.
- My child gets panic attacks when he goes out. He feels overwhelmed and forgets how to get back home or to his car.
There are usually multiple potential solutions to any given problem. What solution you come up with will depend on your needs, your situation, and the best solution to the problem! For some problems, a service dog is not the best or only answer. For other situations, it is.
Creativity and consistent, skilled training is crucial for training your service dog!
For example, using the sample wishes above, we might come up with any number of solutions:
- What is making me need to get out of bed before I go to sleep? I need to turn off my bedroom light. I can train my dog to turn off the light. Or I can install a remote light switch next to my bed.
- It’s too hard to carry the laundry up from the basement. I can train my dog to carry the laundry up from the basement. Maybe it would work best to put the laundry in a bag and have the dog pull the bag up the stairs. Maybe it would be best to have the dog carry one item at a time and deliver it to a laundry basket upstairs. Maybe my dog should pull a cart with the laundry around the outside of the house. Maybe I’d rather get a personal assistant or homemaker to do the laundry.
- What is preventing my mother from going grocery shopping on her own? She doesn’t like not knowing if someone’s coming up behind her in the store. It’s too hard to get the bags of groceries from the car to the house. She gets disoriented in the store and needs her medication. We can train the dog to walk behind her in the store so nobody else can be directly behind her. We can train the dog to carry canvas grocery bags from the car into the house. The dog can wear a backpack to carry her water and medication.
- How can I remember to check the stove before I burn my food? I can set a timer when I start my food, but then when I hear the timer, I turn it off and then immediately forget to go and check the stove. I can train my dog, as soon as he hears the timer, to nudge my hand continually until I go to the stove. Or I can train my dog to sit by the stove as soon as I turn it on as a visual reminder that I need to go back to the stove. The long process of training my dog to do these tasks will also help me be more aware of remembering when the stove is on.
- When my son gets panic attacks, what often helps him is deep pressure. It may help him feel calmer and safer if the dog lies on top of him. Sometimes he forgets to take his medication, so he needs his dog to nudge him until he takes his pills out of the dog’s pack. It may help him remember to breathe if the dog rests her chin in his hand and he feels her warm breath on his palm. He may feel more grounded and in control if the dog presses his foot with her paw. When he can’t find his way home or to his car, the dog can lead him back to his home or car.
Give Yourself Time
It can be tempting to jump into training as soon as you have some ideas, but it’s better to go slow. First of all, before training assistance skills, you’ll need to train your dog to have excellent obedience and manners anyway. This will also allow you to get to know your dog and his training and learning style, which can help you choose the better option between two different ways to accomplish the same task. It is also better to hone your own training skills on unimportant tricks or minor tasks before you come up with a lesson plan to teach the tasks that really matter. Build a solid foundation of two-way communication and learning with your dog. Then you’ll be ready to tackle whatever service tasks come your way!
Assess the Best “Doggy” Way to Do a Task
Dogs have a very different physicality than people do. Here are two examples:
- The way a dog opens a door differs not just that they use their mouth or paw instead of a hand, but also the angle of approach, their height, weight, and strength. These physical differences need to be understood in your training approach.
- When deciding how you want your dog to carry things for you, think about where the dog will work, how much she’ll carry, and her size and temperament. A large, enthusiastic dog with wagging tail pulling a cart in a small grocery store will knock things off shelves. A smaller, calmer dog wearing a pack is better. But for moving large loads on a farm, a draft dog pulling a wagon makes the most sense.
What dogs are capable of doing to assist humans is an almost limitless list. What about you? Do you have other examples of creative and unusual assistance tasks?