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Service Dog Tasks: Get Help

Jim had just got back from basketball. Sweaty and tired he drug his feet into the kitchen and slowly filled a glass of orange juice. His diabetic alert and response service dog, Sunny, had been nudging Jim with his nose almost the whole way back home alerting him to low blood sugar.

“Jim, are you home?” his mother called from her home office. “Yeah!” Jim called back. His mom was a travel agent and worked mostly remote. She had taken this job specifically to be more available to her teenage son who had type 1 diabetes.

Although Jim knew his mom was there for him, all he really needed was a sugar boost and he would be fine, but he had run out of his sugar medicine in the car and had to wait till he got home to get something. However, even with a few sips of his juice, he began to feel very weak. His vision began to blur. Urgently, Sunny began to nudge him more persistently but Jim no longer responded to her alerts. Jim needed help.

Without further ado, Sunny turned quickly and trotted to Jim’s mom’s office where her door was cracked open. Sunny nudged the door open and pattered up to her where she was typing avidly at the computer. “Ruff!” barked Sunny.

“What is it?” asked mom, turning to look at the service dog. Having acquired mom’s attention, Sunny turned toward the door pausing to look back to make sure she was following. Jim’s mom knew what this was. They had practiced this task many times when Sunny was in training. But this time, it might just be the real thing.

After making sure again mom was following, Sunny had darted out of the room and back to Jim’s side where he had collapsed onto the ground unconscious.

Walking quickly over, Jim’s mom knelt down beside her son.

“Good job, Sunny” she praised while dialing 911 on her cell phone.

Later that evening, after the paramedics had left. Jim and mom gave Sunny a bit of prime rib for dinner.

“You saved me, girl.” Jim whispered as he tenderly kissed Sunny’s golden head.

The task name, “Go get help,” speaks for itself. The service dog recognizes the cue and responds by retrieving “help” whether it be a family member, friend, professional, or stranger. Involving several steps and variables, this command may seem a bit more challenging but with practice it can be a lifesaving task to teach.

The task contains different smaller tasks that are strung together in what is called a “behavioral chain.” This means that one task cues the next task and so on until the end task. “Go get help” has 3 individual tasks. To start, the cue is the handler’s unresponsiveness or a command, “Go get (help, mom, “name”, etc.).

The next task is for the dog to find the helping person. Next the dog must alert that person that help is needed and that they should follow the dog. Finally, the dog should then bring “help” back to the handler. If “help” is reluctant to follow, the dog may have to alert the person again or wait until the person follows.

Now that we have broken down the task into its smaller components, let’s look at how to teach the dog each individual task and then how to put it all together for one final behavior. There are a few methods to teach this but we will focus on just one in this post.

For this task, you will need your helping person, a long line (35-30 feet is fine) and some low-value treats and high value treats (favorite treats).

You will want to divide the task up in two parts to start:

Part 1) Teaching the dog to retrieve someone


Part 2) Teaching the dog to alert the helper

Part 1: Teaching the Dog to Retrieve Someone

Step 1) Have your dog next to you on the long line with your helper standing about 5 feet away holding the section of the long line about five feet from the clip attached to the dog. Keep just a loop of slack in the line while you hold the handled end of the long line.

Step 2) Cue “Go find ____ (help, friend’s name, etc)”

Step 3) Your helper should then call your dog over to them giving the dog a low-value treat. If the dog is confused, this is where your long line will come in handy as the helper can pull slightly on the line while encouraging the dog to move forward. Together, these cues are often enough to help the dog understand what is wanted.

Step 4) Next, call your dog back to yourself and have the helper follow behind the dog. Once all three of you are gathered, lavishly praise the dog with both of you giving the dog high-value treats. Soon your dog will get the idea that uniting all three of you is the goal.

Step 5) Practice until your dog goes to the helper when cued initially without help and returns without guidance back to you without the helper.

Now you are ready to proceed to part 2 of the training.

Part 2: Teaching the Dog to Alert the Helper

Step 1) Pick an alert cue. You will want to find a cue that your dog does not offer under normal circumstances. This is to prevent your dog falsely alerting someone when you (the handler) are not in need of help. For example, if your dog often nudges or nuzzles you or others for attention, you will not want to use this behavior as an alert as false alerts will most likely occur. You will also want to find a cue that will get someone’s attention quickly. A paw swipe or a bark does this well. Common alert cues are listed below:

Common Alert Cues

  • Pawing a leg

  • Barking

  • Chin rest on a leg or foot

  • Picking up a bringsel that has a message such as “follow me”

  • Pressing a buzzer

You will want to choose the alert that best fits your situation. If you are alerting a stranger, you will want to use an alert that makes the message clear what is asked of that person such as the bringsel with “follow me.”

If you perceive your dog using this task at home or in a familiar place with previously trained helpers around, a bark would be an effective way to get that person’s attention to follow. However, if this task is needed in a more unpredictable environment, a bark might seem obtrusive to a stranger and they may be deterred from helping.

Knowing, all of this, pick your alert to fit the situation.

Step 2) Train the alert. We will not go into detail here on how to train an alert as each alert has a different method and this post would get too complex. However, keep your eye out for a future post on how to train various alert behaviors.

Step 3) Have the helper cue your dog to alert. Once the dog alerts, the helper should reward lavishly with praise and treats.

Step 4) Continue practicing until your dog alerts the helper consistently when cued.

Now that the individual components of the task are trained, let’s put them all together to make the behavioral chain.

Putting Parts 1 and 2 Together

Now, that your dog can retrieve help and alert the helper separately, you can combine these two tasks into one individual behavioral chain.

Do this by starting back at the long line where you and your helper are standing 5 feet apart with your dog waiting for the “go find help” command by you.

Step 1) Cue “go find help!”

Step 2) This time when the dog goes to the helper, the helper should not immediately give the dog a treat. Instead, the helper should cue the alert behavior. Once the dog alerts, the helper should praise lavishly giving several low-value treats.

Step 3) Now, you should cue your dog to return to you and have the helper follow. Together, reward the dog for a job well done.

Step 4) Keep practicing this routine until the dog leaves you on cue, arrives at the helper, alerts the helper, and comes back to you with the helper in tow with just the initial cue of “go find help.”

Good job! Your dog has all 3 of the basic steps down and can perform them on one cue alone. Give yourself a pat on the back, treat yourself to an ice cream sundae, go on a shopping trip – you deserve a reward for all the hard work you put in to get to this point!

Finally, at this stage of the training, you can add more variables such as distance, different locations, and/or different helpers. You should also train for the scenario that the helper does not immediately respond to the dog’s alert to follow. Lastly, you will want to change your cue if you perceive that you may be unresponsive when you need your dog to go get help.

Let’s start with adding distance and off leash.

Adding Distance and Off-leash

Step 1) On the long line, slowly increase your distance by adding 3 feet apart from your helper until your dog can go back and forth the distance of the long line.

Step 2) When your dog can go back and forth at maximal distance with minimal help consistently, put your dog on a normal leash and go the same distance but let him/her drag the leash. The leash is there just for back up in case the dog gets off track and needs some guidance.

Step 3) If step 2 is a success, add more distance but each of you stay where your dog can see you both.

Step 4) Once distance is easy for your dog, try taking off the leash completely. Keep in mind, if you add distractions, you may need to go back on leash until your dog is reliable at ignoring the distractions.

Step 5) Now, try having one of you go out of sight – just around a corner and nearby. Practice until you or your helper can hide in easy places nearby and your dog can find both of you easily.

Step 6) Finally, practice with one of you all out of sight and at a distance such as in another room or up/downstairs.

Remember, if your dog struggles with one step, go back to the previous one. Chances are that the dog did not understand the previous step as much as you thought. Slow is faster in the long run!

Good job! Your dog can now find and alert the helper off leash and at a distance!

Now let’s train scenarios where everything does not pan out perfectly as will most likely happen in real world scenarios. I like to call these the “What Ifs.”

Training the What Ifs

The main “what if” that comes up is what if the helper does not immediately follow?

To teach your dog to be persistent, you will want to train and act out this scenario.

Start with your helper busy in another room. When the dog alerts, this time the helper should not immediately respond to the dog. The helper should wait to see what the dog does if they do not respond. If the dog leaves the room and returns to the handler anyways, you will need to revisit the alerting behavior and practice this more. You can also have the helper ignore the dog and then wait a few seconds and then cue the dog to alert again and then proceed as normal. Start by only ignoring the dog briefly and following after two alerts. Once this has been practiced consistently, the helper can ignore the dog for longer periods and wait for multiple alerts before following.

Again, if one step seems to stump your dog, go back to the previous one!

Before moving on, I want to mention that there are many more variables that you might want to train for depending on the circumstances you will expect your dog to perform under. Consider these other what ifs:

What if #2: What if someone tries to deter the dog? What if #3: What if there are toys or food or other distractions or obstacles in between the dog?

What if #4: What if I need my dog to perform this with strangers or in different locations?

You might have even thought of other scenarios you should be prepared for. These are all good questions and should be trained for. However, due to an attempt to keep this post at a easy-readable length, we will not cover those questions here. In any case, it is a good idea to keep them in mind and plan for those events.

Teaching the Unresponsive Cue

One last issue we will address in teaching the “go find help” behavior is how to transition your cue from a verbal command to a cue of unresponsiveness. This means that your dog will recognize that you need help based off of your body langue rather than your verbal language. This nonverbal cue should be the signs and symptoms of your disability such as having a seizure or just general unresponsiveness to your dog. If you chose unresponsiveness where the criteria is that you just are not moving or responding to anything around, you will find it easiest if your dog medically alerts. For instance, if your blood pressure is low this might cause you to experience syncopal episodes. If your dog is medically alerting you to your low blood pressure, your dog will be quicker to recognize that you are unresponsive because he/she can tell that you are not responding to his/her alerts to low blood pressure.

In this way, you can add this unresponsiveness as your cue by having your dog alert you to your condition and then verbally cue your dog to go get help. After you have made a pattern of asking for help after your dog medically alerts, have your dog medically alert but then don’t respond. If you have practiced enough, your dog should then automatically go get help.

To wrap it up, in this blog we talked about how to teach your dog to go get help. You learned the different steps to teach your dog to alert and you learned how to teach your dog to retrieve someone. Next, you added distance and freedom from the leash. Lastly, we talked about how to teach your dog to persistently alert the helper and how to respond to a nonverbal cue. Now that you have the concept down, happy tails in training!

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