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Service Dog Success Takes a Team Effort

Trainers often talk about how important it is to train the dog and the owner if the goal is to have a dog that retains his skills over the years. This concept of strengthening communication between the handler and the dog is of paramount importance when developing service dog teams. The dog has to enjoy working with the owner and perceive the task work as a series of games in order to want to do the work over a long time in a variety of settings. Here are three examples of how dogs and their owners are adapting their training to assure that they will be effective teams.

Joe suffered a stroke three years ago, leaving him partially paralyzed on his left side and wheelchair-bound. He acquired a Labrador retriever puppy, and his two housemates were assigned the job of training the dog to become his service dog. During the first 15 months of the puppy’s life, they had two private trainers. Neither trainer used positive rewards training or interacted with Joe; neither had Joe help with training the puppy. The trainers focused solely on training the dog.

At home, Joe wouldn’t practice with the dog, because it was so frustrating for him. One housemate, David, assumed the training and soon discovered the dog had absolutely no interest in performing obedience skills in the presence of the trainer. The dog elicited fearful stress signs each time he went to class.

Meanwhile, Joe was getting more depressed, because the dog never seem to respond to his commands. David brought the dog and Joe to me for training. At the first class, I made a point that all the cuing we would give to the dog would be given from a seated position. I insisted on this so the dog could get used to receiving commands from Joe in his wheelchair. Learning commands from a standing handler is so different from understanding commands from someone in a seated position, because the seated body looks so different.

We also made sure that Joe had most of the food rewards, so he would become the most desirable person for the dog during focus exercises. We taught everybody in the house to use the same hand signals and cues for the dog using clicker training. The housemates started walking the dog on their right side, matching where the dog would need to walk beside the wheelchair.

By the third session, Joe was successfully getting the dog to sit, lie down, and heel at the proper speed beside his wheelchair. The rapid progression of the dog’s skills and the encouragement that Joe got each time the dog responded to his commands were enough to get him laughing. He was eager to attend all the classes to see how much farther he could progress with his dog each week. The housemates said Joe hadn’t been so happy since his stroke. I told them, “The dog is just as happy! Look at his wagging tail. He thinks classes are a blast!”

Sometimes my clients have soft voices, and getting the dog to hear their commands from a distance can be challenging. We are training Simon to retrieve items for George, who has Parkinson’s disease. George has an extremely soft voice, so Simon is being trained to respond to a bell that George can ring when he wants Simon to come to him and pick something up or take a message to his wife elsewhere. George is the only one allowed to ring the bell. He pairs the bell ringing with food treats when Simon comes to him. The sound of the bell replaces George’s voice and carries much farther.

Macy is a 3-year-old retired show dog that is being trained to assist 14-year-old Kim who has developmental delays and cerebral palsy. It took two weeks for Kim to have enough courage to pet Macy. She was not interested in dropping treats on the ground for the dog or holding the dog’s leash. However, she was excited about having a new dog and told everyone about Macy. She just didn’t know how to interact with the dog. Her younger brother and mother did most of the training for the first few weeks as a dog adjusted to the new family setting.

At each successive class, the young lady held the leash for a longer portion of the class and gave the dog a few commands. By the fourth week, she was comfortable petting the dog and talking to the dog. By the fifth week, she would hold the leash for an entire hour class and give Macy the commands. Kim loved having the permission to use her bossy voice if the dog was not obeying her commands. We increased the time that she would spend with Macy to bond by having her pick up the dog’s dinner bowl and setting it down for the dog each evening.

Kim loves to read, so she reads a story to her dog each evening and takes her dog with her to the library. Macy waits underneath a desk while Kim selects a book to read. All of this is in preparation for having Macy accompany Kim to school.

Training “both ends of the leash” guarantees lasting results and happy dog handlers.

Jean Cary is the Service Dog Tutor, She works with clients on the San Francisco peninsula to adapt their dogs for mobility and psychiatric assistance. She has trained family dogs and therapy dogs for the past 30 years. You can contact her at 650-593-9622 or

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Main article photo by: swong95765