by Linden Gue
I thought we were doing just fine. I was wrong.
Many years ago, I was new to service dog handling and training. My SDIT was a 15-month-old German Shepherd who was confident, sweet, happy, and a joy to work with.
Following advice from experienced handler-trainers, we started working on obedience first. She was a star!
I began public access training by walking my dog outside stores. We sat and watched the automatic doors open and close and people rush past.
We played what I called the “cart game”. With my SDIT heeling at my side, I retrieved wayward carts from the parking lot and walked them to their proper corrals. This helped my dog become accustomed to the rattle of the cart.
When we started training indoors in a public space, we entered a quiet store and exited immediately. Over and over.
In later training sessions, we extended our time by finding a quiet, out-of-the-way spot to practice sit, down, and stay. Next, we advanced to heeling up and down an aisle at different speeds.
My dog seemed to be doing very well. She eagerly followed cues and she seemed to enjoy training sessions. Sounds like we were on track, yes?
We were fortunate to have a service dog training group with other more experienced handler-trainers. Our first outing with the group was outdoors at a small festival. We practiced heeling in a row, in a line in a nearby field before heeling through the festival, dodging people and exposing the dogs to the colors, sounds, and activity of children and adults enjoying themselves.
Our second outing was a meet-up at a Walmart. We began with heeling exercises in the pungent garden section in pairs and groups.
We heeled through the busy aisles, dodging carts and people—some walking slow, some walking quickly. Children wanted to pet the dogs. We all trained for about 45 minutes.
At one point, a small girl ran up and smacked my dog on the back above her tail and rushed off. What a shock! Sadly, this sort of behavior by the public isn’t unusual. My SDIT took it in stride, just looking back as the child dashed away.
I thought we were doing beautifully! My service dog was listening to cues, heeling fairly well. Her behavior was excellent for being so new to public access training.
I was wrong.
The experienced trainers were watching those of us who were new. Watching our dogs, watching our teamwork.
One of them turned to me and said “Your dog is stressed.”
Other trainers added similar comments. “She is overstimulated. She needs a break.”
But she was following cues, behaving politely. What were they seeing that I was not? I was confused and defensive.
I was very confident that I was leading my SDIT’s public access training responsibly. Hadn’t I started slow? We hadn’t even gone into stores until she was accustomed to the activity at the automatic doors. And I exposed my SDIT very gradually before moving about the environment, watching, being so very careful.
“What are you seeing that I am not?!” I challenged their perspective.
I swallowed my defensiveness and looked closely at my SDIT. True, her deep brown eyes seemed a bit darker than usual. Her tail was indeed raised, but that wasn’t unusual when she was interested. Was it?
Panting? My SDIT tended to pant even when unstimulated at home in a relaxed environment.
Then I saw a difference. Panting at home didn’t produce saliva like that. It was slowly dripping onto the floor.
I wasn’t certain, but I chose to trust the other handlers. I pivoted and we heeled to the exit at a fast pace.
I took her out to a green area and lengthened her leash. We played. I gave her treats. We walked up and down the sidewalk. We played some more. Then, we sat on the grass and I loved on her. Her eyes were lighter. She was panting without dripping. She had a very satisfied look on her face.
They had been right. I was wrong.
I had participated in the outing too long for her level of public access training. I had risked allowing overstimulation to impact the careful exposure we had trained up to that point.
After our break, I took my SDIT back into Walmart for a very brief heel past the check stands and out again. I wanted to end our outing on a positive note.
The other handlers discussed the situation with me, and I came away with a very clear lesson.
It might seem that a well behaved SDIT is a comfortable one. However, canine behavior such as obedience, paying attention to the handler, and being polite in human space does not tell the entire story. I needed to be aware of the tiny clues my dog displayed. I needed to learn about dog body language and practice applying that knowledge.
Some dogs display obvious clues. Some dogs are hard to gauge without strong awareness of their specific signs.
I scaled back our public access training and proceeded at an even slower pace than before.
I was fortunate to have experienced handlers who were willing to tell me a hard truth and help me work past my defensive resistance.
Don’t merely judge your dog’s comfort level with training by how they obey cues or behave appropriately for the situation. Look deeper and do it often. Training to create the psychological buffer our service dogs need so they can work for us in chaotic situations is hard and time-consuming.
Retraining is much harder.