Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tip: Teaching Your Social Service Dog to Focus on You and Ignore Strangers

All service dogs need to be comfortable being approached by and interacting with strangers as well as being handler by groomers, veterinarians etc. However, that does not mean that you want your service dog hanging on their every word, lavishing attention on them or even mugging them for attention, food or toys.

If you have a dog who really enjoys interacting with the public (highly human social dog), the behavior is self-rewarding and you would prefer your dog to be more focussed on you, make sure that all rewards come from you and never from the strangers. Choose high value rewards as well, especially in the beginning. 

If all rewards come from you, you will find that your dog naturally turns to you after a brief directed greeting, when in doubt of what to do or to be reinforced after doing a service task. 

How to Approach Training: 

For interactions with the public, start with a person the dog is familiar with.  Cue the dog to hand target the friend (toe, knee or offered hand), but the reward always comes from you. That way, the dog must turn to you, is rewarded in position while standing in front of you and is ready to perform a cue to do "something else". Work your way up to a person unknown to the dog, then to friendly strangers you meet who can follow instructions well. Always start with highly controlled situations and work to less controlled situations as the dog shows success.

That "something else" could be a sit or down to prevent over-interest or over-engagement in the other person, eye contact with you, or a cue for the dog to do a task for you that does not involve the other person. As the dog is successful in doing those behaviors, start incorporating cues that do involve the other person (such as carrying an object from that person back to you), but the person, instead of being a magnet of the dog's attention, becomes another object in the process of the dog completing the task. You may want to to start with some fun tasks like running around the person, walking between their legs, weaving between two people, doing send outs to a paw target to do a behavior past the person and return to you etc. Be creative.

A quick beginners tip is to engage your dog in simple behaviors that can be rewarded with a high rate of reinforcement when first learning how to focus on you (and minimizing interaction with the stranger). With success, you can decrease the rate of reinforcement and add in duration type behaviors such as a sit stay or down stay between the simple tasks. Then ask for slightly more complicated tasks working your way up the level of difficulty.