Are you a pet dog trainer who sometimes has service-dogs-in-training (SDiTs) in your classes? Or are you owner-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.
Differences between Pet and Service Dog Manners Training
Many people believe that manners training and obedience classes can be the same for service dogs and pet dogs. But is this always true?
To a certain extent, yes, all SDiTs need to know basics like sit, down, come, walk on a loose leash, leave it, eye contact, hand targeting (“touch”), etc. These can be trained well by any competent, positive trainer.
However, even when starting with a young puppy, basic obedience or dog manners classes will have some gaps. (We’ve designed our DISC classes to fill these gaps.)
Here are some of the differences between training a pet dog and a service dog, even when starting with a young dog or puppy:
- Service Dogs in Training (SDiTs) need to learn public access skills like curling up into a small space when riding a bus or flying on a plane; ignoring members of the public during access challenges; and a default “settle” when not working
- SDiTs, whether they are psychiatric service dogs (PSDs), mobility service dogs, medical alert service dogs, or PTSD service dogs for veterans, also need to learn foundation skills for tasks
- SDiTs need a high level of reliability around real-life distractions, much more so than pet dogs
- The focus of training can also vary, even with basic manners. For most SDiTs, attention on their handler, leave it, and a relaxed down in any environment are a lot more useful and important than polite greetings, recall on a woods trail, 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 can make future training faster and easier if you are training your own service dog.
Obedience trainers usually work a lot on “loose leash walking” or “polite leash,” starting in the first basic manners class and continuing to Canine Good Citizen or advanced obedience classes. They often train 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. When it works well, the sit is useful in preventing the dog from wandering or forging. It helps both members of the team to notice that they are at a stop and thereby foster better communication.
However, for many service dogs, there are drawbacks to consider, too.
The trouble with auto-sits for service dogs
When I trained my first service dog for myself, I was physically disabled, using a mobility scooter or wheelchair. An important service dog goal for me was to go to the grocery store without human assistance. My dog carried a backpack with my water, medication, wallet, and a few small grocery items.
I trained my first service dog to do an auto-sit because that’s what the books recommended for basic obedience.
Grocery stores have slippery floors. When my dog sat, to stay sitting she had to use considerable energy not to slide into a down. This was even worse with the backpack. Every time she sat, the pack would slide down her back, rocking her momentum off-center. If I didn’t want her to struggle to maintain her Sit, I either had to allowing her to break the Sit by sliding into a Down or remember to cue her to Down when we stopped. I eventually switched to cueing a Down when we stopped for more than a few seconds, but it would have been easier for both of us if she’d remained in a Stand.
The second issue 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 a mobility service dog or medical alert service dog, you might have vertigo, dizziness, migraines, or poor proprioception. If you have a psychiatric service dog, you may experience panic attacks, dissociation, or anxiety. In any of these scenarios, you may want your dog to walk and stand next to you to help you feel steadier on your feet. For many people with disabilities, simply resting your hand lightly on the dog’s shoulder helps you feel more centered. If you have balance issues, you may sometimes need to stop to get your bearings. If that dog has been trained to do an auto-sit, when you stop to cope with dizziness or other issues, and the dog sits, your touchstone has just moved away.
What is a Default Behavior?
A default behavior is the behavior your dog offers when he thinks you want something from him (or, more to the point, he wants something from you, like a cookie!). Usually the first behavior a dog learns and/or the behavior that has been rewarded the most often, becomes the dog’s default. Since we often train Sit first and then reward the dog for sitting under a variety of circumstances (sit for a treat, sit for petting, sit before you go outside), it’s a common default for pet dogs.
I have worked with service dog teams where the dog was trained to auto-sit in basic obedience classes and we had to retrain the dog to stand at stops. The dogs do make progress in learning to stand instead. However, it takes a lot of time and work. Further, because most pet trainers train the Sit from puppyhood as the dog’s default behavior, the dogs tend to revert to it in times of uncertainty. For service dogs, it is often preferable for a relaxed Down to be the default skill. Our PEARL DISC classes start puppies and young dogs on a default “settle” — a long, relaxed down-stay around distraction.
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?
Are you a dog trainer who offers pet manners classes? If so, you can help your clients by asking, before the course begins, if their dog is being trained as a service dog. Dogs being trained as pets can be trained an auto-sit without concern.
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 touchstone 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 several 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.
If you’re a pet trainer who would like additional tips on training future service dog in your manners classes or obedience lessons, check out our free webinar, “Can you help me train my service dog?” or our free eBook on basic manners do’s and don’ts for future service dogs.
If you’re training your own service dog and want to be sure to get their training started on the right paw, register for our PEARL DISC (Dogs In Service Certification) course.