Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Part 2: SSD and Good Canine Manners

Service dogs are assistants, not pets, so they go through extensive training to learn the skills they need to serve their partners. Because they are so important to individuals' lives, we have high standards for the characteristics, manners and skills our service dogs must have.

To be successful in teaching the dogs good manners, we begin training and set the rules for good manners from the moment puppies are born. In an ideal situation, we manage the puppy's environment so there is nothing they can get into trouble with. As they grow, we use clicker training to teach good manners and reinforce good behaviors. However, the ideal situation does not always happen, and even when you're using clicker training, you may still have to deal with bad manners or behaviors and use some form of punishment. Simply ignoring the behavior will only work if the dog is only seeking attention, if the behavior is not reinforced in any other way and everyone is ignoring the behavior, and if the behavior is new and can be easily stopped.

Since ignoring behaviors does not necessarily work all of the time, we sometimes have to use some form of punishment. By "punishment," we do NOT mean anything harsh or harmful to the dog. SSD does not condone any punishment that is painful or harmful in any way to the dog. However, we do believe there are times when verbal correction or mild physical pressure are necessary to correct a dog's behavior. Punishment can be either positive or negative. Positive punishment involves adding something to the dog's environment, while negative punishment involves removing something the dog desires, such as stopping playtime when a puppy starts nipping. The stoppage of playtime is enough punishment for the puppy to get the message that she shouldn't nip.

Above all, when correcting behaviors and teaching good manners, it's important to be consistent. In order to assist their partner, service dogs must learn which behaviors are acceptable and which ones are never acceptable. They can learn this if their trainers consistently correct bad behaviors and reward good ones.

In our next post, we'll share some of the specific guidelines we have for some of the behaviors and manners we require in our service dogs and tips on how to train dogs in good manners.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Part 1: Characteristics of a Successful Service Dog

When we're choosing the dogs that will become service dogs, we have certain characteristics that we look for. Our dogs must be:
  • Adaptable
  • Confident
  • Friendly
  • Polite
  • Easy to live with

Dogs that exhibit these traits are much more likely to become successful service dogs.


Service dogs must be able to relax during downtime. While service dogs are working dogs, they do not have to work all the time. They do have play time and time to relax. Typically, downtime occurs when the partner or handler removes their treat pouch. However, some partners may not be able to remove their treat pouch or they may need to keep a cup of treats near them all the time. In that case, the dog must be able to recognize work time from relaxing time.

Dogs must also be able to easily adjust to new people, surroundings and events. No matter what environment they're in, they must be comfortable and not get excited or nervous. Their human partner depends on them for assistance, and in order to do that successfully, dogs must be able to ignore distractions and take everything in stride. A dog that gets stressed out in new environments may not be able to give their partner the support they need, while an even-tempered, adaptable dog will be able to continue working regardless of their surroundings.


As service dogs, our dogs will need to interact with people who may have unique mannerisms or use adaptive equipment. They must be confident when approaching and interacting with people. Service dogs must also be able to encounter any environment with confidence. For example, a balance dog assisting his partner to walk down a path cannot swerve to avoid a grate. A sudden movement may cause his partner to fall. Instead, he must be able to calmly and confidently walk over the grate while continuing to support his partner.


As you might expect for a dog that's serving people, service dogs must be friendly and interested in people, and they should want to cooperate with their partner. However, we don't want our dogs to be so friendly that they leave their partner's side to greet people. Dogs need to have a balance of friendliness and self-control.


When you walk into someone else's house or room or borrow someone else's things, it's polite to respect their space and belongings. You wouldn't run pell-mell around their house or cause damage. Similarly, service dogs must respect people's space and belongings, including those of their partner.

Easy To Live With

One of the goals of a service dog is to assist their partner to become more independent. Their job is to make daily life easier, not more complicated. Service dogs should be quiet and save rough dog play for outside. They should get along with their partner's pets, whether dogs, cats or other animals. Dogs must stay off furniture and beds unless invited up. For the safety of both dog and partner, service dogs should also wait patiently when doors are opened rather than bolt right through. All of our service dogs are housebroken and will toilet on cue both on and off leash and on different surfaces. They must also be well-behaved even when they are not with their partner. They should be able to be left alone, uncrated, for at least two hours without disturbing the house.

These basic characteristics and behaviors, learned through extensive training, make a dog more likely to be successful on their journey to becoming a service dog. In our next post, we'll share some of the specific training our dogs go through to learn these appropriate behaviors and manners.

Monday, May 4, 2009

What Makes a Good Service Dog

Service dogs play an important role in people's lives. They are so much more than just loving friends - they change the lives of their partners through their assistance. With the assistance of their service dog, individuals who may have had to depend on other people to help them are able to perform tasks for themselves. Service dogs provide support and independence and enrich lives.

Because they will play such an important role in individuals' lives, the dogs must meet certain criteria in order to become service dogs. We breed, raise and train Labrador retrievers to become service dogs. We use Labs because of their intelligence, agility and gentle, even temperament. Labs tend to be cheerfully obedient and genuinely enjoy cooperating with people. Also, Labs are known for having "soft" mouths, meaning they can pick things up with their mouth without puncturing or marking them in any way. This is especially important because service dogs may often be retrieving things for their partners.

All of our dogs begin training from the moment they are born. We begin interacting with the puppies to get them used to being around people. When the puppies are eight weeks old, they go to puppy raisers - volunteers who raise the puppies and train them in some of the skills and manners they will need to be good service dogs. The puppies also attend puppy classes, and once they are 15-18 months old, they enter advanced training. We'll share more about puppy raisers in a future post. For now, if you'd like more information, please visit our puppy raiser page.

Not just any dog can become a service dog. In fact, some of the dogs we specially raise and train do not have the right characteristics to become service dogs. For example, SSD Honeycrip and SSD Penny were discharged from our service dog training. While both of these dogs had excellent manners, they had a tendency to intently follow their noses, making them too olfactory and intense for service dog work. However, their olfactory skills made them perfect candidates to be accelerant dogs, and they both now have careers with the New York State Troopers as accelerant dogs working at the United Nations. Other dogs that do not become service dogs may become therapy dogs or companion dogs or may even be adopted as pets. No matter what direction their "careers" take them, all of our dogs find loving homes.

However, in order to become service dogs, our dogs must meet certain criteria and display certain characteristics that tell us they will be able to fully serve their prospective partners. This new blog series will talk about the characteristics we look for in all of our service dogs and the training our dogs go through on their journey. We hope you learn a little more about what our service dogs do and maybe even find some training tips you can use with your own dogs.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Clicker Training Part 6: Generalizing Behaviors

One of the strongest benefits of clicker training is its ability to train dogs to generalize behaviors. It's extremely important for service dogs to be able to generalize behaviors so they can perform them in any environment. Service dogs are working dogs and they must be able to consistently perform behaviors regardless of environment or potential distractions. That means they must lie quietly under a table at a restaurant without barking, begging for food or scavenging from the floor. That means they must walk calmly on a loose leash next to their partner through a crowded mall or park. That means they must have excellent manners. The goal of training is to teach self control, which generalizes to any environment.

Why is generalizing a behavior important? Dogs, like humans, are creatures of habit. Once they learn where and when to perform a certain behavior, they will almost unfailingly continue giving that behavior in that same environment. This in itself is not a problem. You may want your dog to always give the same behavior in the same environment. The problem appears when you want your dog to perform that same behavior in a different environment. If he hasn't generalized the behavior, he may not be able to perform it as well, or maybe not at all, in the new environment. For example, let's say that you've always trained your dog to come when you're outside in the yard. Your dog is romping in the yard and having a great time, but it's time to come back into the house. While you're standing at your door, you call for your dog to come, clicking and treating when he comes. Soon your dog become super-trained to always come immediately as soon as you call him to come to the house. He now associates "come" with "come back inside the house" because that's how you always practiced this behavior. Now let's say you're standing in your living room and you call your dog (who is already in the house) to come. He'll probably look at you as if to say "Why are you saying 'come'? I'm already in the house." He may not respond by coming to you because in his mind, he has already performed the behavior just by being inside the house. So it's important to practice behaviors in many different environments so your dog learns to perform them regardless of where he is and what's happening around him.

To help your dog generalize a behavior, practice clicker training at different times of the day, in different rooms of the house. You should practice outside in your yard, or while you take a walk. Is a friend coming to visit? Take a few minutes to practice a behavior so your dog gets used to performing it no matter who is around.

Once your dog has generalized a behavior and can perform it in any environment, he is more likey to continue performing that behavior many years down the road.