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Canine Revolution

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How to train your dog to be a service dog

Written by

Lexy Smith

Written by

Lexy Smith

Lexy’s goal at Canine Revolution is to provide dogs and their owners with a strong communication system to ensure that they are confident in each other’s ability to navigate through any life situations they will encounter.

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Dogs are not only great as household pets and companions, but they can also provide many helpful services for people who need them.  No matter what service you are looking to train a dog for, it’s important to keep some considerations in mind when choosing which puppy you are going to train for the service work.  When choosing a puppy or dog for service work, we want to make sure that we are selecting a dog with an even temperament, without major anxieties or insecurities present.  For example, if you’re looking to train a dog to alert others when you’re having a heart attack, you don’t want to choose a dog that is insecure in busy environments as the insecurity can cause them to not perform the task.  The ideal service pup would be confident, even-tempered, and well socialized.

Depending on what service you need, there will be different processes for training in order to cater to that specific disability.

Diabetic Alert Dog

A service dog can be trained to detect when your blood sugar levels are dropping so that you can take the necessary precautions before your blood sugar levels drop dangerously low.  There is a scent given off in your saliva when your blood sugar levels are changing that can be used to condition your dog to perform certain behavior when they detect the scent. 

To start, you are going to want to collect saliva samples when your blood sugar is at 70. When the blood sugar level is at 70, the blood sugar level would be considered dropping but not emergency low.  These saliva samples could be gathered with cotton balls and then frozen to be used over time.  Once saliva samples are collected, they can then be used to train your dog to perform a specific behavior when they detect the scent. 

First, you want to make sure that you teach the dog the signal (behavior) you would like them to perform.  This should be done before bringing the saliva samples into the training.  For example, if you would like your dog to bark when your levels are dropping then they would need to know “Speak” prior to bringing scent into the mix.  To teach your dog to speak, you would need to heavily reward your dog anytime that they bark.  Try to encourage your dog to bark by getting them excited or amped up until they bark.  Make sure to have rewards on hand and reward your dog for barking.  Once you have found a method that makes your dog bark, start to add in the word “Speak” prior to making them bark.  After repetitions of saying “Speak” and then rewarding your dog for barking, they will learn the Speak command.  Then we can add in the saliva samples. 

To begin, have your dog smell the cotton balls with the saliva sample and make sure they get the scent.  Then, tell your dog to “Speak” and heavily reward them for doing so.  Do many repetitions of this over and over where your dog is getting the scent then barking after smelling the samples.  Over time, then you can slowly fade out the “Speak” command until your dog is catching the scent and then speaking on their own.  The same process would be used for any other signal you would want your dog to perform in place of the “Speak” command.

Seizure Alert Dogs

For seizures, a dog could perform a couple of different tasks either before or after a seizure.  These tasks would include alerting someone if their owner is having a seizure or providing comfort and assistance after their owner comes out of the seizure. 

To teach a dog to alert someone if you are having a seizure, you can either collect saliva samples when you have a seizure or you can have someone simulate a seizure.  Your body emits specific pheromones when you have a seizure so the saliva samples can be used in the same way as described in the Diabetes section. 

If you are going with the seizure simulation route, your dog needs to witness as many of the simulated seizures as possible.  They would then need to be taught to perform the task when they witness the seizure.  For example, if you want your dog to bark to alert other people when you’re having a seizure, you would need to have the dog witness the simulated seizure and then be told the “Speak” command (for more details on how to train the Speak command, see the “Diabetes” section). 

This would need to be done repeatedly and then have the “Speak” command faded out until the dog witnesses the seizures and then automatically starts barking.  This is done over time and over many witnesses of the simulated seizures where the “Speak” command is used until the dog is classically conditioned to bark anytime they see the seizure. 

If you would like your dog to provide comfort after coming out of a seizure, you would need to reward your dog anytime that they make contact with you at the conclusion of your seizure.  This will teach them that contact with you equals rewards and after doing this for many repetitions, they will begin to make contact with you more and more.  Then you can slowly fade out the food rewards once your dog makes contact with you every time you come out of a seizure.

Anxiety/PTSD Service Dog (psychiatric service dog)

Teaching your service dog to help you through anxiety attacks or PTSD is a very similar process to diabetes.  Dogs can smell the chemical alteration that happens inside the body when heart rate increases (the common indicator of anxiety).  Like in the diabetes example, you are going to teach your dog the task you would like them to perform whenever they detect the change in heart rate. 

A good task for your dog to do when you have anxiety is deep pressure therapy.  This would be your dog applying pressure on your lap and laying there in order to provide comfort through anxiety attacks.  To teach your dog “Pressure”, you would start by luring your dog into the down position across your lap.  Practice this multiple times until your dog becomes fluid and comfortable going into the down position across your lap. 

Next, add in the command “pressure” before luring your dog onto your lap.  After practicing this repeatedly and rewarding successful repetitions, your dog will then learn to go into the down position on your lap when you say “pressure”.  Once again you will slowly fade out the food rewards through many repetitions over time until your dog goes into the down position across your lap just when you say “pressure”. 

Lastly, you will need to connect “pressure” to your anxiety.  Every time you start to feel anxious, as your heart rate increases, instruct your dog to “pressure” and reward them for doing so.  Through repetition and practice, your dog will understand to perform “pressure” when they detect the increase in heart rate that comes with anxiety. 

Another option would be collecting sweat samples when you are experiencing anxiety and freezing them (just like you would for diabetes).  Then use these sweat samples to provide your dog with a scent and then use the command “pressure”.  Every time that your dog smells the sweat samples, instruct them to “pressure” and reward them for doing so. 

Over time and through many sessions, you can slowly fade out food rewards and then slowly fade out the verbal command.  After that, your dog would be classically conditioned to perform pressure anytime they smell the pheromones that your body puts off when you are experiencing anxiety.

Medical Response Service Dog

Training your dog to alert 911, or other emergency contacts, for any other illness you may have can also be extremely useful for you.  You would first need to purchase a Service Animal Alert or a touch screen device that can be programmed to call 911 if pressed.  Next, you would want to teach your dog to press either button, depending on which device you choose.  Whichever one you choose, you would reward your dog for either nudging the object with their nose or paw. 

After practicing multiple times where your dog nudges the object and then gets rewarded, we are going to increase our expectations.  So, in order to attain the food reward, your dog would now have to press the button.  Once they press the button, make sure to reward them and then practice multiple times until your dog is consistently pressing the button successfully. 

The next step would be to pair the button with the medical issue.  For any medical issue you have, you would need to be able to instruct the dog to press the button when your medical condition is triggered.  You may need to enlist someone’s help for this part, to ensure your safety.  After a good deal of sessions where the medical condition is being triggered followed by the instruction to push the button, your dog will learn to push the button any time that the specific behavior, caused by your illness, is happening.

Retrieval Dog

Regardless of the service you may need your dog to do, it can be extremely helpful to also train them to retrieve a specific item or medicine for you.  To train your dog to retrieve, you will find the best results if you work in an empty room or space with no distractions.  Have the item you want your dog to retrieve and place it somewhere in the open room, someplace that is easy for your dog to see. 

The goal is for your dog to become interested in the object and go up to touch it.  Once your dog touches the item, make sure to reward them with high-value rewards.  After many repetitions where your dog is now quickly going to the item and touching it, increase your expectation so that they now have to pick up the item.  Make sure to reward them every time that they go up to the item and pick it up. 

After multiple repetitions of this behavior, increase your expectation so that your dog now has to pick up the item and bring it to you.  It can be useful to have already taught your dog the “Come” command so that once they pick up the item, you can say “Come” so that they know to return to you with the item. 

After multiple repetitions of your dog picking up the item and bringing it to you, start placing the behavior on command by saying “Retrieve” before allowing your dog to get the item and bring it to you.  Once your dog becomes proficient at retrieving the item when you say “Retrieve”, you can know to add the retrieve command to the specific service you have your dog trained to do.  For example, after coming out of a seizure, you can say “Retrieve” so that your dog goes to get your medicine.

In Conclusion

Training a service dog is not an easy task.  It is a long process as there must be many repetitions of behavior.  Training with your dog will not only improve your bond but will also pay off in the long run when the service training is complete.  Remember to be patient and stay calm, confident, and relaxed as you’re training your dog in order to have the best results and the most positive experience. 

Keep in mind, service dog training will take lots of time and dedication but it will be worth it to make your life easier and make you feel more confident knowing that your dog knows how to handle your specific needs when you need them.  Not to mention, your dog will also have their instinctual needs filled as they are given a job to do and provided with proper mental stimulation.  You can’t go wrong with having training instilled with your dog!

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