It’s a busy evening at the gym. Sweat glistens off many foreheads as people lift weights, run on treadmills, and operate the weight machines. Many types of people in all stages of physical fitness are there working out. Liby is no exception as she and Josh, her diabetic alert dog, make their way up the stairs and head over to the free weight section to get an upper-body workout in. Josh lays calmly as Liby determinedly lifts dumbbells in front of one of the many gym mirrors. There are all sorts of smells, sights, and noises in the gym. Loud, upbeat music blares over the speakers. The sound of a dozen treadmills and bikes whir in the background. A group of teenagers crowding around the chest press machine laugh loudly.
Suddenly, Josh sits up and nudges Liby. Ignoring Josh, Liby continues to lift her dumbbells. Josh tries again. He bumps Liby with his nose. Finally, Liby
puts her dumbbells down and sits down to get on Josh’s level. “Check!” she tells him, he sniffs the air near her face and then nudges her again. Liby then gets out her glucose tablets and takes a few. She knows that Josh is telling her that her blood sugar is getting low and she takes her medicine to raise her sugar level. She tells Josh, “Good boy!” and gives him a tasty treat out of one of her pockets.
Training a service dog is no joke. They have to be well-behaved in order to perform complex tasks under all imaginable circumstances. These animals must be alert to notice the signs for when they must perform. Complex tasks to aid their person take priority over what they were previously doing. That is why service dog training requires a special dog, patience, and time.
Once the perfect dog is found, there are multiple stages of training. Many of the stage can overlap and be learned at the same time. The stages are summarized into two main parts:
1) Obedience training
2) Task training
Most organizations start training service dogs beginning with obedience training. Obedience teaches the basic commands such as “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “come,” “heel,” and “leave – it.” After the dog has the basic concept of each command, they are taught to obey in more difficult situations. Distractions are incorporated, distance is added, and certain commands are taught off-leash. Additional practical obedience commands are taught, such as, to “focus,” return to heel, and going to a dog bed.
After the obedience training is complete, the dog is expected to be able to walk at the handler’s side with a loose leash, obey sit and down commands, and come when called. The dog must show no resentment, excitement, or shyness when approached by a stranger, ignore other animals, and stay in place. The dog should be able to perform no
matter the environment or the distractions present. Further, the dog should behave without any training aids such as special training collars or treats. Trainers often transition to specialized service dog task training once obedience training is complete.
Task training usually starts after the obedience training, but the foundational basics to the tasks may be taught simultaneously as the obedience. Because the tasks that service dogs perform are often complex in nature, these skills are
taught in small steps. The foundational steps to most service dog tasks are usually divided into 6 basic commands:
1) “Paw” – the dog is taught to offer its paw
2) “Bump” – the dog is taught to use its nose to nudge an item or person
3) “Tug” – the dog is taught to pull on a tug toy
4) “Take -it” – the dog is taught to pick up an item
5) “Bring – it” the dog is taught to bring an item in its mouth
6) “Drop -it” – the dog is taught to drop an item
Some of these commands are not needed depending on the type of service being trained. Other commands such as “speak” (to bark for help) might also be considered. However, many of these six are the first steps to teaching medical alert, hearing alert, and mobility assistance. After the first step of a skill is taught, other steps are added until the whole task has been taught. For example, a trainer may desire to teach a dog to go get help for a person experiencing a seizure. The dog is first taught to run a short distance to another person and back again to the seizing person. Then the dog is taught to run a longer distance to the person for help. Next, the “helping” person goes to another room out of sight allowing the dog to learn to find help when “help” is not in sight. Finally, the dog may be taught to bark at the “helping” person to get their attention and learn to bark until they get that person’s attention without giving up. A single task has the potential to get very complex and the dog must learn to connect each individual step in a string of “if this,” “than that” scenarios. Once the concept of each task is taught, distractions and distance are added. Then the dog is taken to different environments and taught to perform the task in different types of locations. Depending on the dog and the complexity of the tasks, this training could take months to master.
As one can see, just like there are layers to an onion, service dog training has multiple layers starting with the basics and progressing in complexity. Each layer adds to the next. Within these layers, there are two main categories to the training: obedience and task training. They are often taught separately, but can be taught simultaneously as long as the dog is not overwhelmed. Because service dog training is so complex, it requires a very special dog along with lots of patience and many hours of training.