Are you a pet dog trainer who sometimes has service-dogs-in-training (SDiTs) in your classes? Or are you training your own service dog? This post is for you! It is about one simple change to make in basic manners training for SDiT teams.
I sometimes hear from clients and trainers, “Manners and obedience are the same for a service dog as for a pet dog, so the dog can take a class with any trainer.” To a certain extent, this is true. All SDiTs need to know basics like sit, down, come, walk on a loose leash, leave it, eye contact, hand targeting, etc. These can be trained well by any competent, positive trainer.
However, the focus of training and the skills that may be the most useful can vary a great deal. This is why I offer the Service Dog Foundations class (learn more or register) in manners and obedience for SDiTs. For most SDiTs, handler focus, leave it, and a relaxed down in any environment are a lot more useful and important than polite greetings and sit-stays.
In particular, for teams taking basic manners classes with pet dog trainers, there is one simple change to the curriculum that can help service dog owner-trainers. This little change may significantly reduce future training time and hassle for the average SDiT owner-trainer.
Obedience trainers usually work a lot on “loose leash walking” or “polite leash,” starting in the first basic manners class and continuing to CGC or advanced obedience classes. We start by training the dog to keep some slack in the leash, to walk on one side of the handler (usually the left), and to sit when the team comes to a stop. It is this last piece of the chain — referred to as an “auto sit” or a default sit — that creates the problem for SDiTs.
The purpose of the auto-sit is for the dog to clearly demonstrate that she realizes the team has stopped and is under control. The sit can be useful in preventing the dog from wandering or forging. It can help both members of the team to notice that they are at a stop and thereby foster better communication.
The trouble with auto-sits for service dogs
When I trained my first service dog for myself, I trained an auto-sit because that’s what the books recommended for basic obedience. I later regretted training that auto-sit. With my next two service dogs, I trained a stand-stay at stops instead.
I was physically disabled. One of my training goals was to occasionally be able to go to the grocery store without human assistance. Because of my disabilities, my dog wore a backpack in which I stored water, medication, my wallet, etc., and into which I’d load some small grocery items.
The first problem was that most grocery stores have very slippery linoleum tile floors. When my dog sat in the store, to stay sitting, she had to use considerable energy not to slide into a down. Meanwhile every time she sat, too, the pack would slide down her back, rocking her momentum off-center and making it harder to stay sitting. So I ended up having to choose between allowing her sit to slide into a down, remembering to cue her to down when we stopped, or watching her struggle to maintain the sit. I eventually started cueing her to down if we’d be stopped for more than a few seconds, but it all would have been easier for us if she’d just stayed standing.
The second issue — a problem for some SDiT teams I work with — is that an auto-sit can interfere with one of the main reasons the handler needs a service dog. Many people want their service dog to assist in some way with balance or steadiness. For example, if you have vertigo, dizziness, migraines, poor proprioception, or even psychiatric issues involving panic, dissociation, anxeity, etc., you may want your dog to walk and stand next to you to help you feel steadier on your feet. For many people, simply resting their hand lightly on the dog’s shoulder helps them feel more centered. Those with balance issues may sometimes need to stop to get their bearings. If that dog has been trained to do an auto-sit, when the handler stops to cope with dizziness or other issues, and the dogs sits, their balance touch-stone has just moved away.
I am working with two teams right now where the dog was trained to auto-sit in basic manners classes and we are now trying to retrain the dog to stand at stops. Both dogs are making progress. However, it takes a lot of time and work. Further, because the “sit” was trained from puppyhood as the default behavior, the dogs tend revert to it in times of uncertainty. (Indeed, for service dogs, sits have much less utility in general as compared to a relaxed “down,” which is a crucial skill for service dogs.)
Of course, for some SDiT teams, the auto-sit is perfectly fine and serves the purpose of keeping the dog under control. An auto-sit can be great for small dogs, for example. For other service dog teams, however, it is counterproductive.
When should you train an auto-sit?
Dog trainers can save everyone time and hassle by asking, before the course begins, if a dog is being trained as a service dog. (I include this question in my class registration form.) Dogs being trained as pet can be trained an auto-sit.
You can also confidently train an auto-sit in any future service dog that clearly could never be used for any sort of balance work or carrying gear in a pack, such as toy and small-breed dogs.
For medium-sized dogs, the handler’s size and the dog’s future job is part of the equation: if the handler is petite and/or wants to have the dog wear a small pack, proceed as if with a large dog (below). If the handler is tall and therefore could not use the dog as a touch-stone for balance and doesn’t need the dog to carry gear in a pack, you can train the auto-sit.
For large breed dogs, if the owner/handler thinks they may want to use the dog for balance at all or to wear a pack, I recommend training an auto-stand. In fact, because I’ve worked with clients who originally did not plan to have the dog do balance work and then changed their minds months or years into the training, if the handler reveals that they have balance issues or conditions that can affect steadiness on the feet (migraines, dizziness, or even sometimes panic attacks), I would encourage them to train an auto-stand regardless.
What about you? Are there other common manners and obedience behaviors for pets that you do differently for service dogs? Post in the comments!
Are you training a service dog that has already completed one or more basic manners and obedience classes? Get your dog to the next level with our upcoming Northampton Service Dog Foundations class.