Shaping natural behaviors into tasks and work  (aka: how to train my attentive pet to be a service dog?) 

Shaping a dog’s behavior is one of the most effective positive training methods, because it involves no correction, punishment, or fear on the part of the dog and turns daily living into an adventure of praise, treats, and clicks.  It’s easy on the dog, and easy on the human.  When psychiatric work and tasks are involved, it’s the simplest way to turn your concerned pet into a service animal who can help you get through the day wherever your day takes you. 

Elsa, waiting patiently for the doctor to summon her human

Sounds great, you may say, but how do you do it? 

In the simplest terms, shaping behavior involves waiting to see the behavior you want, rewarding it, and, once the behavior is reliably repeating giving it a name or a cue.  Eventually, you can combine shaped behaviors into more complex sequences.  By encouraging the dog to develop creativity in attempting to please you and earn rewards, you are encouraging the type of initiative that a service dog needs in order to act on your disability when you may not be aware yet of your need.  

Yes, it’s that simple.  It requires participation on your part and attention to your dog, but that’s what’s best for both of you anyway, right? 

The most important things to remember are: 

  • Break your task or work down into the smallest increments (Sit-Wait-Shake) (notice or recognize keys-go to keys-grab keys-carry keys-carry keys to you) 
  • Wait for the dog to perform the action or any movement in the right direction of the action (When teaching down, reward any lowering of the body to start.)  
  • Reliably reward the action and partial actions 
  • Do not punish the dog for failing 
  • Keep reinforcing the behavior
  • Only once the dog has the complete action down, move on to the next step (When “down” is reliable, you can begin to work on rolling over or crawling, or when “sit” is reliable, you can work on where, or how fast.)  

Psychiatric support tasks that are often simple to shape with an already concerned dog include: 

Deep pressure:  When a condition flares up, does your dog come to you and make contact?  Does your dog lean against you or hop on your lap?   It’s a few simple steps from there to training your dog where to make contact with you and how to hold still there for your benefit. 

Tactile stimulation: Does your dog paw or lick when your condition flares up?  Encourage the behavior to continue until you issue a signal, direct what part of your body the behavior should make contact with, or encourage the behavior to be more gentle or insistent. 

Medical alert: Does your dog react to an oncoming episode?  This may require help from someone who knows you well to shape if you aren’t aware of oncoming episodes yourself, but you can encourage the dog to make a consistent alert when he or she senses the chemical and physical changes leading up to an episode.  First encourage the dog to recognize the episode, then train the dog to come (if they aren’t already), and finally reward only the behavior you want the dog to perform in response to the episode.  Once that is reliable, if needed, work on the dog’s persistence to keep going until he or she receives an “I’m okay” signal.   Depending on the severity of your condition, you may want to combine medical alert with “get help” 

Get Help: Some dogs already seek out a second household member when something is wrong.  In those dogs, shape and encourage the behavior.  Otherwise, this task is a good candidate for “lure and shape” training where the second person lures the dog to them after a certain duration of medical alert and rewards the dog.  Then reward the dog for leading the second person to the disabled individual.  People who live alone can train “get help” by pressing a medical alert button with the paw. 

These are only a few of the tasks and work you train your service dog to reliably perform through shaping. There is disagreement in the field whether pet dogs should ever be considered for service work, but I have found that pet dogs who already exhibit sensitivity toward their owner’s mental health or Autism Spectrum Disorder flare ups are generally easy to shape into performing a reliable work or task response. 

The biggest challenge with training pets for service is in socialization and exposure to a wider variety of places and situations if they’ve been kept largely in the house and yard.  That’s a topic for another day and another post.  

In the mean time, here’s a great article with more details on shaping as a training technique (and the science behind it) from Whole Dog Journal.

And remember: a working dog is a happy dog! 

Elsa takes a well-earned nap while Fruit Bat waits for the next adventure!

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