A Service Dog’s tasks are limited only by the ability of the dog to learn and you to teach. A small dog cannot be expected to hold open a large door and a large dog cannot be expected to never get in the way. And unless you work/train your dog on a regular basis, don’t expect her to remember everything you taught her originally.

My Service Dog (SD), Joella, was six months old when I got her. She came with plenty of mental baggage of her own. Early on, a door swung shut and hit her in the back of the leg and she’s been nervous with them ever since. Over time, she’s gotten better but still doesn’t trust them. Automatic doors at grocery stores and the like, she’s not afraid of. (And–don’t tell her I am telling you this–once she walked into a door she thought was going to automatically open. She immediately looked at me as if I did it on purpose. She can give the dirtiest looks!)

As with any SD team, Jo and I learn tasks together. Some she learned quickly, others she is still working on. And there are times when I can’t seem think of a way to teach her a task. Often it is not the dog that needs to learn something, but rather the other people in your household. Everyone who may interact with your dog needs to learn the same commands and reactions. For example, ‘down’ means to lay down; ‘off’ means to get off/down from the bed or wherever. Consistency is key when training any dog, SD or not.

My partner and I have been working on a task for well over a year now. I want to train Joella to go get Lorna and for Lorna to follow her back to me. Jo will already go get our deaf dogs from the lot. And she will go to wherever Lorna is when I tell her to go get her. But Lorna, bless her heart, often doesn’t pay Jo attention. (Jo is one of six dogs.) We’re working on both teaching Joella to touch Lorna differently and for Lorna to realize the touch is different. Sometimes, I’m not sure which one is tougher.

We’ve tried different ways and think we have finally found one that will work in most situations. Jo is supposed to go to Lorna and then step on Lorna’s foot. Just like every other task to be trained, we broke it down into steps. First Jo had to learn who Lorna is. I had to call her by her name and emphasize it. It would do no good to call her ‘Hon’ every day then expect Jo to understand who ‘Lorna’ is.

Next I had to work on ‘go get Lorna’. Jo already knew ‘go get my shoes’ so it wasn’t a reach for her to grasp this. At the same time, we also worked on ‘take it to Lorna’. When we were practicing, I’d go with Jo to find Lorna, then get all happy and excited. Then I had to teach Lorna to be all happy and excited too. That meant that if I decide to work with Jo while Lorna is cooking dinner, Lorna still has to stop, get thrilled, and pay attention. I try to not do it at that time of day very often since it tends to get the cook upset.

Next we worked on her going alone to Lorna. This meant Lorna had to be watching for her. This worked out best when Joella carried something to her. I’d give it to Jo, say ‘Go take it to Lorna’. When Jo charged out of the room, I had to yell across the house “Jo has something for you.” Once Jo had that down, we had to work on Jo taking something from Lorna and bringing it to me. Problem is, Lorna usually says “Take it to your mama” but I don’t think Jo knows who or what ‘mama’ is. She has, however, figured out that ‘take it to’ means going to the other human.

Getting Lorna’s attention is turning out to be the most difficult. Jo expects Lorna to be all excited when she is coming to get her. But unless Lorna knows this is a different type of visit, she doesn’t get all excited. Some people use an object as a marker. When the SD appears while carrying, say, a red hankie, that means she was sent. The problem with that, at least with me, is that I don’t always have any one given object with me at all times. (and yes, I am hard to train too)

We worked on Jo touching Lorna’s hand. But, that is something she did naturally so there was no difference in it. We tried having Jo bark but she’s not much of a ‘bark on command’ type of dog. We came up with the idea of touching Lorna’s foot because that is a place Jo rarely touches yet is usually within reach. We are still working on it since most of the time I can yell for Lorna easier than sending Jo. But, in case of an emergency, it is an excellent task for any Service Dog.

What I need to do is give Lorna a book to read, sit her down in a chair, and work with Jo on touching her foot. Once Jo has it down and knows ‘touch Lorna’ and/or ‘get Lorna’, we would then work on Lorna reacting appropriately. Next, Jo and I would move across the room, and start over. After that, we’d move to another room, slowly going further and further away. Each session, we would start next to Lorna and move in quicker steps further away. In time, both of them will figure it out.

I hope these articles lead you to thinking about Service Dogs. Perhaps getting your own, a new task or a twist on an old one, and perhaps to even deciding you won’t get a dog to train on your own or one from an organization. Like I’ve said before, a Service Dog is the cutest reacher you’ll ever have.


Originally published in EDSToday newsletter issue #13.
Other related articles can be found on the ‘Published Work’ page of this site.