One of the most commonly asked questions is, “when is my Service Dog in Training ready for public access?” While that’s a question only you or your dog’s trainer can answer, here are 5 vital public access skills every Service Dog or Service Dog in Training needs to know before beginning work in public.
Public Access Skills: Down-Stay
A rock-solid down-stay is the mainstay of many Service Dogs’ work in public. While there may be brief interludes of task work, many Service Dogs are expected to quietly chill near their handler, under a desk or on a bed until they’re expressly needed. A Service Dog needs the ability to quietly relax in any environment without being intrusive, and a down-stay is usually the default method for most handlers and trainers. Service Dogs aren’t robots, and some shifting is to be expected, especially if your Service Dog or SDiT is place trained to a mat or bed. That being said, most Service Dogs need to be able to quietly rest for 2 or more hours at a time, which is the length of an average movie, college class or time spent working without a break.
Down stay training begins early, with reinforcement for calm, quiet behavior. Formal “stays” can be taught via many methods, but many people have success with gradually lengthening and rewarding the amount of time their dog spends in one place.
Public Access Skills: Under
“Under” is a behavior that consists of your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training moving fully under a table, bench or chair on cue, with his/her body full tucked beneath the object or your legs as much as if feasibly possible, size depending. The purpose of this public access skill is to prevent your Service Dog from being an obstruction, to facilitate or ease travel (such as on a bus, plane or train) and to help your canine assistant be unobtrusive while in public. One of the biggest compliments a Service Dog handler or trainer can receive is, “I didn’t even know a dog was there!”
To begin teaching “under,” it’s helpful to utilize a low table, like a coffee or end table. Lure your Service Dog in Training or Service Dog candidate under the table, from one side to the other, and tell them to down. “Down” should be built into your partner’s under, and your partner should remain “under” until she’s released, just like a stay.
Public Access Skills: Leave It
“Leave it” means “disregard entirely and do not engage in any way, shape, form or fashion.” It’s vital not only for your partner’s safety, but also for basic public access manners. “Leave it” can be used to discourage inappropriate sniffing, being overly social with another person or dog, picking up food off the floor, or engaging with distractions. It’s important that “leave it” be properly practiced and reinforced with a plethora of distractions before trying to use the command in new places, as dogs don’t generalize behaviors or concepts well.
There are many methods of teaching leave it, but one way to begin involves offering your dog praise and a treat for redirecting from a distraction to you. When you notice your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training starting to automatically offer eye contact when faced with a distraction, you can add a verbal cue.
Public Access Skills: Heeling or Loose Leash Walking
Regardless of what you call it, the ability for your Service Dog in Training or Service Dog to be in public without dragging you, straining at the leash, coughing, choking, trying to get to distractions, etc is vital. No dog is perfect, and like any skill, loose leash walking is perfected via practice. This part of the public access skills actually involves many pieces: ignoring distractions, being focused on the handler, impulse control, being responsive to direction changes, etc. Service Dogs need to be able to walk for several minutes at a time, focused on their handler or trainer, able to ignore distractions, before starting work in public.
Note: that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. That means they have the basic skills necessary to redirect to the handler in the face of distraction, even if it requires verbal cueing, luring with a treat, an assistive training device or other method of securing your partner’s attention and focus, like backing away from the distraction until your partner is again able to focus on you and move with you. The point of this public access skill is that you shouldn’t have to fight your partner for attention. Before working in public, you and your SDiT/Service Dog need to have already figured out how to proof distractions, redirect focus and reward sustained focus.
With time, this focus exercise turns into effortless loose leash walking, but everyone starts somewhere. 🙂
Public Access Skills: House Training
This public access skill is non-negotiable. Your Service Dog must be house trained, and your Service Dog in Training, if young, must be housebroken to a schedule with regular opportunities to go outside so good habits are built. Your partner needs to be accident free and offer a clear indication that you, the handler or trainer, can read, when they need to go outside.
House training is one of the few directly stated points in federal Service Dog law that can allow a business to remove your Service Dog from the premises, so make sure your partner is ready for an outing before beginning it.
Public Access Skills: Final Considerations
Many people will ask, “How can I prepare my dog for public access without working them in public?” What’s important to realize is that your partner needs basic obedience skills before working in public, so that you guys can focus on the public-specific behaviors, manners and training without worrying about basic manners and skills. The skills above (heeling, down stays, etc) form the foundation of public access training, and they can be practiced at home and polished so that when you get in public, you already have the competence and confidence to not have to worry about fighting over food, basic distractions or stays.
Do they need to be perfect? No. Even very young puppies can go on short, 10-15 minute outings where they work one age-specific exercises, like, remaining sitting with the handler when someone walks by. It’s all about proper foundation and reinforcing, but it’s best to figure out the basics out of the public eye.