With any relationship, bonding provides the foundation upon which everything else rests. A new Service Dog partnership isn’t any different. Proper bonding from the very beginning allows teams to move forward with confidence, both for work and training. Keep reading to learn tips and ideas that facilitate relationship building with your canine partner.
Note: These bonding tips do not replace the official bonding protocol(s) provided by your Service Dog’s organization or program. Always follow the guidelines and procedures required by the organization placing your Service Dog. These tips are meant to supplement or enhance other bonding protocols.
In particular, owner trainers, Service Dog candidate evaluators, and others in similar situations might benefit from the ideas presented. Additionally, established Service Dog teams can utilize the bonding tips to help build or rebuild their team’s focus and performance.
Bond (noun, verb) – (1) the formation of a close relationship; (2) the attaching of one thing to another; (3) to join one thing securely to another; (4) a strong force of attraction holding one thing to another
Common Service Dog Bonding Fear: “What If My New Service Dog Doesn’t Like Me?!”
New Service Dog handlers often worry about whether or not their new Service Dog likes them. Early interactions between dog and human frequently contribute to this fear since, in the beginning, many Service Dogs focus on their trainer and ignore the new handler. Furthermore, a fledgling Service Dog team’s first few weeks together usually involves many mishaps, miscommunications, and misadventures.
Tackling this fear requires new Service Dog handlers and organization placement specialists to remember something very simple: the newly graduated Service Dog and brand new handler likely do not know each other yet. For evaluators and owner trainers, the same holds true — all new candidates and Service Dogs in Training (SDiTs) start as strangers.
Bonding Requires Building a Relationship
Like any relationship, going from “stranger” to “acquaintance” to “friend” to “partner” involves getting to know each other. In the beginning, new Service Dog teams learn each partner’s likes and dislikes. They learn about preferred schedules and how to interact with each other. The human half of the team learns how to communicate with their dog.
Likewise, the recently partnered Service Dog masters their new handler’s nuances in speech, delivery, and body language. Until the two learn to reliably convey information, cues, needs, and desires, they aren’t truly a team. In other words, until the new Service Dog and handler know each other, they can’t and don’t have a relationship.
Building a relationship and, consequently, creating a seamless, functioning Service Dog partnership, involves lots of bonding. Bonding requires dog and handler to get to know each other and learn to communicate. Getting to know each other results from time spent together, positive interactions, and clear, consistent communication.
That being the case, effective Service Dog bonding protocols do 3 things:
- Create opportunities for oodles of practice, training, and interaction
- Enhance communication skills, connections, and synergy
- Build positive associations and subsequently, a link, between Service Dog and handler and vice versa
Service Dog Bonding Tip #1: Tethering and Umbilical Training
One of the top tips for building and strengthening bonds is “spend lots of time together.” For newly formed Service Dog teams, time together results in a cascade of relationship building opportunities. By spending time together, both members of the team get to know each other, learn to communicate, and start integrating the other into daily routines. Indeed, almost every facet of bonding requires interaction and time together.
One of the easiest ways to help a new Service Dog adjust to new environments, expectations, and schedules is “tethering.” Tether training, also known as umbilical training, uses a 3- to 6-foot leash or specially made tether to keep a dog in close proximity to their handler. Lots of tethers have a snap on both ends. Many use chew-proof materials like lightweight coated cabled in the design.
Commonly used with puppies and young Service Dogs in Training, tether training offers many benefits. For these young SDiTs and new candidates, a tether assists puppy raisers and trainers with housebreaking, teaching manners, and building calm, relaxed behavior. For fully trained and newly partnered Service Dogs, tethering creates strong handler focus, assists in routine development, strengthens bonding, and facilitates relationship building.
When specifically used as a bonding tool, the handler or trainer usually attaches the tether to their belt. Some handlers prefer looping the tether around a sturdy object like a desk leg or clipping it into an anchored o-ring in the baseboard. If you attach your Service Dog to furniture or a stationary ring, remember to take the Service Dog with you when you move from the area!
Benefits of Tether Training
Tethering allows the handler to comfortably keep their hands free and to focus on work or activities. Simultaneously, it conditions the dog to move when the handler moves and rest when the handler rests. The two are never further than a few feet apart. As a result, they get quality time together all day, every day! Constantly keeping a new Service Dog within the handler’s space expedites the bonding process in 3 major ways.
First, the handler and tethered Service Dog frequently interact. Since the Service Dog remains within arms’ reach, the handler pets and talks to the dog more often. Bonding relies on consistent positive interactions between handler and Service Dog over a period of time. Consequently, each time the handler engages their new partner in an enjoyable way contributes to the budding relationship’s foundation.
In a like manner, tether training builds teamwork. Partnerships require two parts to work together as a single unit. Tethering requires the handler and dog to navigate each other and the environment as a unit. Without awareness of each other, the two will frequently be in each other’s way. As a result, the constant close proximity means the two new team members get ample practice moving with and around each other.
Finally, tethering forces the dog and handler to utilize the dog’s skills and behaviors. The handler must communicate with the dog using the proper cues and commands. In a like manner, the dog must learn to focus on and respond to the handler. Since the Service Dog remains so close, the handler can frequently and easily train and practice throughout the day.
Service Dog Bonding Tip #2: Hand Feed All Meals
Most reputable Service Dog trainers, organizations, and programs use science-based dog training methods. Operant conditioning forms the backbone of most science-based methodologies, with particular emphasis on positive reinforcement. In order to create the highest chance of success with these methods, most evaluators and trainers select or breed Service Dog candidates with high food drive, lots of socialability, and just enough energy to enthusiastically learn and perform for hours a day.
These traits, along with many others, allow Service Dog trainers to harness the dog’s people focus, food drive, and energy in order to build rapid, reliable skills the dog performs eagerly and happily. Most Service Dogs learn dozens of behaviors encompassing manners, obedience, public access, and task training. Some Service Dogs perform complex, multistep tasks for their disabled handlers, like retrieving beverages or medications from the fridge.
Maintaining Service Dog Skills Requires Regular Practice
Training all of these behaviors and creating reliable, distraction proofed performance requires hundreds upon hundreds of hours of careful skill building, instruction, and practice. Keeping these skills calls for frequent, regular practice and use. The old adage “use it or lose it” definitely applies to a Service Dog’s obedience, public access skills, and task training. The more complex or precise a behavior is, the more practice it takes to keep the skill honed.
In the beginning, a new Service Dog team has an unquantifiable number of new cues, skills, behaviors, and tasks to learn, practice, and polish. This undertaking goes far beyond merely memorizing a list of commands. In addition to mastering verbal and nonverbal cues, the new Service Dog handler must also learn and utilize training and behavior theory.
Without an understanding of criteria, rate of reinforcement, and many other dog training concepts, a new handler can quickly create sloppy or unreliable responses from their canine partner. Even worse, a handler could poison cues or completely untrain behaviors. For these reasons and others, new Service Dog teams need as much practice together as they can get.
Only experience allows the handler to develop the necessary communication skills, timing, and teamwork necessary for maintaining complex Service Dog training. The only way to gain experience is by doing, practicing, trying, failing, and doing some more.
Hand Feeding Meals Offers Multiple Bonding Benefits
As mentioned above, honing a Service Dog team’s performance and skills requires practice. Thankfully, Service Dogs with a high food drive make this process easy! Since they happily perform and learn for small tidbits of food, handlers can use mealtimes as a way to get lots of extra practice and build a relationship.
A key part of bonding relies upon convincing the dog that the handler is a source of all good things. Food is a good thing in the mind of a high food drive dog. Consequently, the handler directly delivering the food one piece or small handful at a time builds powerful associations for the dog. These positive associations along with the quality time spent interacting during training sessions, serve to deepen, enhance, and strengthen bonding.
In addition to strengthening growing bonds between Service Dog and handler, hand feeding meals also offers a convenient way to reinforce behaviors all day long. Placing the Service Dog’s entire daily allotment of kibble in a pouch or baggie allows the handler to carry the food and keep it close at all times. As a result, the handler can frequently reward their canine partner for proper responses and performance.
What’s a Reinforcement Schedule and What Does It Have to Do With Bonding?
A high rate of reinforcement for a job well done rapidly builds communication skills between dog and handler. Frequent rewards keep the Service Dog engaged, enthusiastic, and interested. The dog gains experience with the new handler’s unique delivery and communication style. Not to mention, the handler benefits from practicing commands, cues, and timing. Training this way not only builds value for the dog but also allows the handler regular opportunities to polish performance and expectations.
Dog training professionals and behaviorists recommend multiple short training sessions. Take every opportunity to practice commands and cues naturally throughout your day. As an example, reinforce proper loading and unloading from vehicles. Reward sharp, focused heeling as you navigate cubicles or a crowd. Hand the Service Dog frequent treats for relaxing properly for long periods during work or school.
Train formally two or three times a day for one or two minutes at a time. During these sessions, work on more complex behaviors, skills, and tasks. Some examples include cue recognition, generalizing behaviors, and distraction proofing tasks. Regular practice results in the Service Dog being able to better read the handler and anticipate needs.
All throughout the day, handlers can dip into their dog’s meal. At the end of the day, whatever kibble is left over can be fed to the dog in large handfuls. Sticking to hand feeding strongly reinforces the connection between dog and handler. Additionally, these sessions build value for interacting and focusing on the handler.
As new Service Dog teams gain familiarity with each other, handlers will have to reward their dog less frequently. “Variable reinforcement” is a fancy dog training term for “treat the dog randomly for a job well done.” This schedule of reinforcement is best for maintaining known behaviors and preventing loss of skills.
Service Dog Bonding Tip #3: Do More Than Just Train or Work
Service Dogs work for their handler with a disability. They perform trained tasks to mitigate the results of their handler’s disability. A well-trained Service Dog offers independence, freedom, increased quality of life, and peace of mind. Many Service Dogs remain on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. These unique, highly trained dogs definitely work hard.
However, Service Dogs also love hard and live hard. The same traits that help them excel as Service Dogs also create a need for interaction, play, and downtime. A working dog who only works risks burnout, just like humans. As a direct result of burnout, performance decreases, health declines, and previously sharp skills become unreliable or non-existent.
Keeping your Service Dog close and regular training with lots of reinforcement, along with routine use of your canine partner’s skills and tasks, contribute to a strong bond. Quality time outside of work and training also enhances a Service Dog team’s relationship and partnership.
Teams Are Made Up of Individuals With Varying Needs
Every Service Dog team is unique, as are the individuals that make up the team. Dogs have a plethora of personality types. Even more than just personality, every dog varies in play style, physicality, exercise requirements, and desire for interaction. Some dogs need time to run in circles and goof off every single day, whereas other dogs delight in snuggling with their handler or getting brushed.
The longer a Service Dog and handler are partnered, the better they’ll know each other. Spending time playing, grooming, snuggling, or exploring allows a new handler to learn their dog’s preferences. All of these out-of-work activities also result in quality time spent together, which, of course, further enhances team bonding. It’s a win-win!
Service Dog Bonding in a Nutshell
All in all, a strong bond between Service Dog and handler results from lots of quality time spent together enjoying various activities. Good teamwork also requires clear communication from all parties involved. As the two individuals merge into one team, performance becomes fluid, reliable, and symbiotic.
This type of partnership only happens through familiarity. Familiarity comes from interaction and experience. Experience comes from time invested, exposure, and practice. In the end, it all cycles back to time spent. Create opportunities to reinforce your Service Dog for remaining close or for checking in. A Service Dog who is off doing their own thing isn’t receptive to cues or their handler’s needs.
Tethering makes proximity a habit, while also allowing dozens of micro training sessions a day. It’s a useful tool for fostering communication and providing lots of interaction. Ultimately though, no matter how you decide to go about bonding with your Service Dog, just remember that you’re forming a relationship. For this reason, your main goal should always be to enhance and improve. Use methods that build positive associations and create good times, and you and your new Service Dog will become a solid team before you know it!