We crowdsourced from our lovely community members on this one. Together, we created a list of experiences for getting service dogs in training ready for the world. The exposure checklist at the bottom of this page combines with the intro article to be a valuable resource for your training. You can also personalize the list by adding your own items!
What is an exposure checklist?
Most places have a “socialization checklist” that they advise using as a guide for things your dog should experience when training to be a service dog.
However, the term “socialization” isn’t a great way to frame this aspect of training service dogs. The word implies that the dog should be “social” to the things in the checklist, which is actually not ideal overall. You don’t want your dog excitedly engaging with things on this checklist. Instead you want to expose them to the things on this list in a manner so that they’re able to calmly and safely be around them, while not necessarily interacting with them.
So we call ours an “exposure checklist”. The document at the end of this webpage is not meant to be an exact or exhaustive list of everything your dog should experience. Instead, it’s a helpful guide to the variety of experiences that a service dog should eventually be able to handle.
Common mistakes in exposures
A common mistake many people make when going through recommended exposures is that they just throw the dog into the situation. It’s important to prepare your dog and slowly introduce these new and potentially scary things so that your dog is never over a threshold of fear. They need to be able to calmly accept and get used to the things on this list.
If you rush your dog, you will end up with more fear and retraining to do than if you did things slowly the first time. Hence the phrase “slow is fast”. When you go slowly within each training session—at whatever speed your dog needs to stay under threshold and keep learning—their progress will be faster overall toward being a fully trained service dog.
It’s important not to be too exciting while you’re going through these exposures. If you use treats that are too high-value, require your dog to look at you all the time, or get your dog playfully agitated, they won’t even notice the things you’re trying to expose them to. In their mind, they’re just exposed to the distraction! Distraction can be a useful training method for some situations, but be sure your dog isn’t totally consumed by the distraction when your goal is an exposure.
It is also important to never use aversive training methods when doing exposure training (or any time in training your service dog). Aversive training uses fear or pain, or a related threat.
Aversive methods are unnecessary, but they sometimes succeed in producing a dog that appears well-behaved. Unfortunately, they can easily teach a dog to hide their feelings, which can then unsafely burst out at inappropriate times. We’ll cover some of the other options that should be more positive for you and your dog.
The engage/disengage game
A great tool for exposure training is the “engage/disengage game” (this might instead be called the “observe/disengage game”). The end result of this game is that when your dog looks at something potentially scary, new, unusual, or disturbing, they automatically look back to you. This is the ideal response to so many things in a service dog’s life—to notice what is going on, and calmly redirect their attention to their handler. If you’re blind or have low-vision, you may want to substitute a nose bump or other behavior, as appropriate.
It’s best to use a clicker to train the engage/disengage game. A clicker is a small handheld device that makes a click noise when you press on it. By associating the click noise with a treat every time, the dog learns that the click noise marks the exact time they are doing something that they will get a reward for in a couple of seconds. More than a verbal reward on its own, the click really helps mark precisely what the dog is doing that you like.
Be sure to first “load the clicker” with positive associations in a separate training session at home and then at the beginning of a few of your first (easy) exposure sessions. This isn’t anything fancy, but is simply clicking and treating repeatedly to get your dog to understand that “click = treat”, before understanding that “clicked behavior = rewarded behavior”.
Some people give up on clicker training because they skip this introduction and their dog is overwhelmed by being initially exposed to the clicker at the same time as you’re expecting something else from them. You don’t want the click to be unfamiliar or scary to your dog when you head out into the world, or it can be counterproductive!
The iClick clicker is a popular choice, as it is quieter than most other clickers and is easily used by people with various physical abilities. If a clicker doesn’t work for you, using a marker word like a high pitched “yes!” can work okay. In the below description, if you choose not to use a clicker, use your marker word anytime we say to click.
To train the engage/disengage game, start out sitting somewhere that there will be mild distractions, like a somewhat busy street. Every time something distracting goes by (a truck, a car, a person walking a dog, etc.), click and treat when your dog looks at the distracting thing. Pretty soon your dog will realize that you want them to look at the distracting thing.
Remember to keep your training sessions short, no more than 5–10 minutes at a time. Repeat them several times a day and over the course of many days.
Pretty soon your dog will get the idea that when something new appears, you want them to look at a distracting thing, and after that, they get a treat from you.
Next, when something new appears, wait until your dog both looks at the unexpected thing and then looks back to you (looking for their treat) in order to click and treat. This will train your dog that when something unexpected happens, they should notice it and then check in with you.
Here is a personal story from Veronica about how the engage/disengage game helped in a scary situation when she was working with her service dog Sabrina:
“I was walking past a construction site with Sabrina one morning when suddenly a giant I-beam fell from two stories up. It landed a few feet away from us, just on the other side of the construction barrier. I jumped and screamed. Due to her training, Sabrina calmly looked at the fallen I-beam, and then back to me for her treat.”
The importance of body language
Before you start exposure training, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with dog body language so that you can tell when your dog is fearful. Watch Youtube videos or read articles or books on dog body language for more in-depth information on this very essential component to service dog training.
In general, if your dog starts licking their lips, yawning a lot, grabbing treats roughly, putting their ears back, putting their tail down, looking away pointedly, or showing the whites of their eyes, your dog is fearful or stressed. If you see these behaviors, you are too close or going too fast with your exposures. Move back 10–20 feet, or start with a less distracting or scary environment.
If you push past these fear behaviors, your dog can start to shut down. To most people, a dog that is shut down looks like a well-behaved dog. They are generally standing or sitting there looking at nothing, doing nothing, just existing. This is actually a very bad sign. This means your dog has reached their internal limit and has shut down their emotions because they are too stressed. Getting your dog to this stage will likely leave your dog even more scared or worried about the things they are experiencing, which means that eventually you’ll have to go back even further and do even more re-training to overcome their new fears.
So always keep it light, keep it easy, keep the overall stimulation relatively low and below threshold. If your dog is showing fearful body language, back off until they are calm, happy, and easily taking treats. Remember that you can’t train it all in a day.
When exposing your dog to the things listed in the PDF checklist below, use the engage/disengage game while practicing a slow approach to the new things. So don’t just walk up to something new and potentially scary like a busy street with trucks and busses whizzing by.
Start out 20 feet away and keep an eye on your dog’s body language. If they are stressed, go farther away. If possible, do the engage/disengage game with the things you’re exposing your dog to.
If you are working on a surface or a location, sometimes the engage/disengage game isn’t very applicable. In this case, work on easy obedience or tricks that your dog enjoys doing while exposing them to the surface or location.
The focus should be on the dog noticing what is going on in their environment, and still being able to check in with and/or do cued behaviors for you. This requires a balancing act on your part, which takes practice and can evolve as you and your dog get used to training with each other.
This list can be used for dogs of any age, however keep in mind that prior to four months old, a puppy’s brain is very open to new experiences. If you get your dog as a puppy, try to have your dog experience as many of these things as possible before the age of four months. You will likely have to re-expose them at a later date, especially as fear stages occur, but starting out early will give their brains a wider range of “normal” things to expect in an environment.
We’ve asked members of our free online Peer Guidance Group for the top exposures they recommend for your service dog prospect. Their suggestions are noted with the contributor’s name (and sometimes the name of their dog) afterward.
The exposures are broken down into four categories: surfaces, people, places, and things. Feel free to add your own ideas at the bottom! You can either print the checklist or check off the items digitally in the PDF.
Document your training! Everyone should keep training records in whatever way does the job and works for them. The photo collection below shows what happens when an avid photographer is married to a service dog user who loves to get pictures of her training outings. We hope this inspires some creativity with your training.