Service Dogs (SDs) for folks with EDS can be a useful tool, as well as companion and friend. If you talk to your reacher, they lock you up in a padded cell. Talk to your SD and people think you and she are cute.

In training your dog, there are some key elements to remember.

First you need to know what you dog is willing to work for. Treats are the number one reward. Other dogs want a special toy that they only get after a practice session. Food motivated dogs are the best to work with, since they will do anything thing for a bite of goodies. Make the treat for practice sessions something extra special, something the dog will soon connect to ‘I did something right!’ I rank this one first because in order to teach something, you need to know the reward.

The second thing to know is: what you want your SD to do? Some tasks can be combined, such as retrieval and putting the item your lap. Think it through and decide which one you should start with or do next. I won’t get detailed about techniques such as clicker training, that’s for another time.

If your dog is not food motivated, you’ll have to work at finding just what that motivator is. For Joella, food was not worth it for her. But paper, now that was a treat! I found a treat she would work for, but it wasn’t her ‘Oh Wow!’. At the end of each session, we made a big to-do about her getting an unlined index card. She thought that was better than any treat, even a hot dog.

For me, deciding what to have Joella do was easy. I drop things. All the time and all sorts of stuff. I realized that the number one thing I drop the most is my keys. They were the first thing Joella and I worked with. Even now she can hear the keys rattle and will look up at me, knowing I’m a klutz and she will be needed. Some dogs don’t like the feel/taste of metal in their mouths so you might have to get a leather or heavy cloth fob/tab for your keyring.

With practice sessions, always always always end on a good note. If your dog just is not getting the concept, switch to an easy one and end there when she gets it right. Even if the dog didn’t ‘get’ a thing, praise and treat as if she did. You want the dog to want to try again later!

I taught Joella to get things by doing basic ‘fetch’ games. If your dog is not a natural retriever, don’t expect her to be thrilled to be your dropsy slave. I got Joella interested in chasing down her stuffed elephant. I only threw it a short distance, maybe maximum of ten foot. Then I switched to a sock with several other socks stuffed into it. Once she was bringing that back from wherever, I moved on to more ‘real’ objects.

I began tossing pens, keys, coins, an old dead phone, whatever I could find. I wanted them to be different sizes, weight and materials. Once she was retrieving anything I threw, I stopped throwing and just dropped it. That was confusing for her for the first few tries. Where’s the fun in not running after it? That reward is the fun! That praise and admiration from you is the fun!

Next I started dropping things outside of practice sessions, asking Joella to get it. In return, she got a bit of paper. Later, as she got older, she discovered cheese was worth more than paper.

As you work toward these goals, don’t forget to NAME everything. Get the PEN, Joella. Get my KEYS. Hey! You got the KEYS! Look at you with the PEN!

Once your dog has some sort of idea that each item has its own name, you can work on discrimination between objects. Put down the keys, the pen and the cup (or whatever items work best for you and your dog). Pick an item to ask for, using that item repeatedly until the dog understand which one you want to receive. You may have to ‘help’ them find that item until they figure it out.

One thing I worked on with Joella was to understand ‘the other one’. I did it by working with pairs, especially shoes. She’d bring me one and I’d tell her to ‘get the other one’. Then, when working with discrimination, I would tell her ‘not that one. get the other one’. This comes in handy when I need her to get something off a bottom shelf at the store.

Looking back at all the things I taught Joella to retrieve and those that she retrieves by name, the best thing I ever taught her was to get her leash. In public, people think that’s just the best thing ever. It was the easiest thing I taught her, too. She’ll pick it up and put it in my hand. Sometimes, if she knows she has an audience, she’ll go give the leash to someone else!

Be prepared for that, by the way. They are show offs, all of them. Under that cape and on the end of that leash is a dog, don’t forget that. Joella loves to show off when she is being watched. She likes to put her foot onto something and scoot it around before picking it up. She likes picking things up and giving it to someone else. Also, when we are seated, like in a restaurant, but she knows she is being watched and talked about at another table, she’ll do ‘the dead bug’ (lay on her back) to look cute and get attention.

An online friend has a German Shepherd Dog as her service dog. When they go out to a restaurant, he often will wait until he knows everyone is watching, then he’ll lay down exhaling a loud sigh, as if his life is such torture!

If you want an always on, perfect duty Service Dog, you probably won’t find one. They are dogs. They get bored. And they like to have fun. This doesn’t mean you reward such behavior. Yelling and fussing is, in its own way, rewarding the behavior. Instead, turn that ‘bad’ habit into something else. I turned Joella’s desire to show off by making the Dead Bug behavior into a trick. She’ll do it on command. Often I ask her to do it before she has a chance to do it herself. That keeps ME in control of my monster.

There is a limit, however, to this unwanted behaviors. The dog cannot disturb others around her or interfere with the goods or services of the business you are in. Joella is never allowed to do the Dead Bug in an aisle way, for example. While there is a dog at the end of that leash, that dog is a Service Dog. Each and every time you and she are out in public, you represent all other SDs. You and your dog are a team so train and act like one!

Needs updating. Recheck later and remind me if still not done.


Originally published in EDSToday newsletter issue #11.
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