by Katie Jesseph
The most challenging part of training most service dogs is public access training. It takes a lot of practice to train a dog to reliably behave in both your everyday haunts and in totally new environments.
There are different stages as you work your way up in this training. One of the most significant transitions for service dogs in training is when they start to train in no-pets places—the kind that don’t normally allow dogs.
This article will help you make sure both you and your dog are ready. There are four sections: one to help you gauge when to make the training transition to no-pets places, the next to help you understand how public access training progresses, a section that details how to train from arriving in a car to going through a store, and a final section that’s full of general tips to keep in mind during public access training.
Making the transition to no-pets places
Below I’ll explain the transitions in public access training. But first, we can ask: how will you know when your dog is ready for one of these public access training transitions?
If you are working with a professional trainer (highly recommended), talk with them, it’s always helpful to get an outside opinion. Next, I recommend completing some type of assessment. This provides you with standardized and external criteria to evaluate your dog’s ability level.
Psychiatric Service Dog Partners provides a fantastic SDIT (service dog in training) Manners Evaluation that helps you determine if your service dog in training is ready for no-pets places. It can be used along the way from the beginning, so you can chart progress and focus your training, too. PSDP also has a Public Access Test you can use later to help you know when your service dog in training meets the community’s criteria for service dogs.
If you do all the steps below with basic pet-friendly places and semi-pet-friendly places, and you go through PSDP’s SDIT Manners Evaluation, that’s when you’re probably ready for truly no-pets locations.
The transition to no-pets places is significant mostly because of the laws that kick in and the increased responsibility you and your dog will have as representatives of the service dog (in training) community. So on paper, the transition from pet-friendly to no-pets places can seem like a big deal. But if you work your way up to it, this won’t necessarily feel like a sudden change in the actual training that you and your dog do.
You can think of public access training as three basic stages based on location type: (1) basic pet-friendly places, (2) semi-pet-friendly places, and (3) no-pets places. But when you’re planning your training, it’s definitely good to think about specific trips from your dog’s perspective. Dogs don’t make those three distinctions. Situations can be challenging or easy for a dog based on the location/environment, what’s going on there at the moment, and how you’re handling them.
When you’re training a dog to be a service dog, it’s ideal to start with basic pet-friendly places. It’s not so bad if your dog is still learning manners in public parks and pet stores.
Before I jump into no-pets places from basic pet-friendly places, I like to start at locations that happen to be pet-friendly but feel like non-pet-friendly stores. Examples of these semi-pet-friendly places include specific locations of Academy Sports, TJ Maxx, Joanne’s, Home Depot, local farm or hardware stores, Lowe’s, etc. Not all locations of these stores are pet-friendly, so if your state doesn’t recognize service dogs in training, make sure to check and see if the store in your town is pet-friendly.
Once your dog improves enough in semi-pet-friendly places, you’ll begin training your dog in no-pets places. PSDP’s SDIT Manners Evaluation can really help give you confidence for this transition.
Long before you actually make the transition, look ahead to see how access is going to work in no-pets places where you live. This involves laws and permissions.
Check your local service dog in training laws. You can use the state law table on animallaw.info to find summaries for each of the 50 US states. Some states grant public access rights to people with service dogs in training and some do not.
If your state does give you public access rights with your service dog in training, be sure you’re complying with any of your state’s requirements and that your dog is ready for no-pets places. If your state does not give you public access rights with your service dog in training, when your dog is ready, you can ask a business owner or manager for permission to train at their location. Remember the person’s name, in case you’re asked!
Since the three stages of training are on a continuum and your dog doesn’t make those distinctions, there is not some grand difference in the actual training among the stages. This means the training advice below essentially applies to all stages (or location types) of public access training. Getting more advanced means exposing your dog to more types of experiences and repeating those experiences, regardless of where they are. It especially means staying in touch with your dog so you know what needs improvement and how to find the best path forward, tailored to you and your dog.
Training from car to inside the store
When preparing to go to your training location, you should think of training as starting when you get into your vehicle. It’s important for service dogs to be comfortable in cars (or whatever mode of transportation you mainly use) and they need to be able to load and unload on cue. If your dog is struggling with car- or transportation-related anxiety, make sure to address that separately.
Assuming your dog is able to be calmly transported and exit on cue, the next thing you’ll want to do is assess their body language and have them perform some barometer behaviors when you arrive at your destination.
While you are still in the parking lot, observe your dog for any signs of stress. These could include, but not be limited to: excessive panting, whining, tucked tail, cowering, shaking off repeatedly, yawning, or pacing/restless movements. You should also watch for these stress indicators during transport and the whole time you’re training. Body language is the most powerful form of communication our dogs have.
If your dog seems a little anxious when you first arrive somewhere, try playing a quick orientation game. Throw a treat on the ground. When your dog reorients to you, click or use your marker word, then throw another treat. If you’re worried this will accidentally teach your dog to pick stuff up off the ground, pair tossing the treat with a “get it” cue.
Do this a couple times and see if your dog seems a little calmer. If your dog still seems anxious you may need to come back another day. If your dog’s body language is loose and neutral, then you can move on to asking for some barometer behaviors.
Barometer behaviors are cues/responses your dog is familiar and comfortable performing in a number of environments. Some commonly used barometer behaviors are things like: sit, touch, lie down, or shake. It can be helpful to do a couple of these and I like to make sure I mix in my dog’s favorite cue to start off on a good note.
Take your time making your way into the store. Watch for leash tension and don’t feel rushed. I like to stop, in a safe area, about half way up to the store to make sure my dog stops with me and is able to do a couple barometer behaviors again.
If your dog seems overly excited, try walking back towards your car. Play another orientation game and walk back to the halfway point. The section of parking lot from your car to the halfway point will no longer be novel so it should be easier for your dog to focus.
If at this point your dog is successfully focusing, try the next section of the parking lot, from the halfway point to the doors. When you get near the doors, step off to the side and make sure your dog stops with you. Ask again for some barometer behaviors. Making these occasional stops provides you with a great opportunity to check in on your dog and make sure they aren’t showing any signs of stress.
The first few times you go somewhere new you may need to spend a fair amount of time training just in the parking lot. You may go from car to halfway point and back, then halfway point to the front doors and back. Repeating this pattern may take up your whole session, and if that’s the case that’s totally okay!
The commotion around store entrances can be stimulating and scary for a dog. By standing or sitting off to the side near the doorway, you can begin getting your dog used to the flow of people and especially their shopping carts. Make sure your dog is in a safe place and can watch people going in and out while staying calm.
Doorways themselves are an area that many dogs struggle with, specifically sliding glass doors. Your dog may not seem overly stressed and is instead a little unsure, but curious about the doors. If that’s the case, practice going through the doors a few times until they seem comfortable. Make sure to build a positive association with lots of yummy treats.
If your dog has been able to calmly walk through the parking lot and doorway, next you’ll want to work on walking around the store. Don’t attempt going too far into the building right off the bat. Repeat the pattern of walking a little way in and then walking back towards the doors.
On your first trip, I wouldn’t plan to spend more than 5 minutes in the actual stores. Every couple minutes, stop and ask for a barometer behavior. Check in with your dog, just like you want them to check in with you.
One way to break things down is to plan on introducing a store in three parts. Day one you work in the parking lot. Day two you work in the parking lot and the entryway. Day three you do the parking lot, entryway, and then spend 2–3 minutes inside. From there you can work on building the amount of time in the store.
It’s important not to increase the time too quickly. I generally try not to do more than a couple minutes more each visit.
Don’t feel like you have to continually increase your training time. If you spend 10 minutes in the store and your dog is successful, but the next day you spend 12 minutes and they struggle, try dropping the time back to 10 minutes or less on your next outing.
Training is not a linear process. You may take a couple steps forward and then a couple steps backward. You may hit training plateaus or developmental hiccups, like an adolescent fear period. All of that is normal and to be expected, so don’t get discouraged.
General advice for public access training
Before you head out to your training location, make sure all your dog’s needs have been met. Here are a few things to consider before you leave the house:
- Has your dog had enough exercise?
- Does your dog train better before or after a small meal?
- If they train better after eating, have they been fed?
- Has your dog had every opportunity to go the bathroom?
In the beginning of any new type of public access training, your outings with your dog should mostly be extremely short and be purely for training purposes. Try really hard to avoid just bringing your service dog in training along while you’re out running an errand in a place they haven’t mastered. When your dog isn’t reliably behaved in a situation, they need your attention and guidance to build those good behavior patterns for the future. It’s much harder to retrain unwanted patterns that develop early.
That’s why we say that “slow is fast”. Break it down as much as necessary so your dog can be successful. Doing “less”, but making it a positive experience with lots of wins for you and your dog, is better than completing an entire trip through the store.
I’ve found it’s helpful to set a timer on my phone or watch when I first start doing public access outings with my dog. I tend to lose track of time when I’m training and it’s important not to push your dog too hard with long training sessions. Setting a timer helps ensure you end on a good note before your dog gets bored or overwhelmed. Start with 10-minute outings and build from there.
Taking the time to let your dog get used to new things is just as important if not more important than training things like heel or sit. Pay close attention and make sure that your dog isn’t overly stressed while you work with them around novel items or situations. There can be a fine line between desensitizing and flooding a dog who’s over threshold.
Flooding is when a dog is so scared they shut down and give up because they don’t believe they can get away from whatever is scaring them. That is never the goal when training our service dogs! It can be hard to know sometimes if your dog is over threshold, especially when you are first training together. Here are some easy ways to determine if your dog is over threshold: they won’t take treats, they are cowering and moving slowly, they are pulling on the leash and trying to flee from whatever has scared them, they are frozen and won’t move, they start barking or whining and can’t be redirected, they try to hide behind you.
We covered stress signs in the previous section. If your dog is showing stress signs, that’s another indicator that you may need to take a step back because your dog is overwhelmed. An overwhelmed dog usually can’t learn anything good.
One way that people accidentally put their dog over threshold is by luring the dog towards something they are afraid of. On top of causing the dog to go over threshold, this can also “poison the lure”. This means your dog will stop wanting to follow food because they associate following it with something scary. I prefer taking a slightly different approach. Instead of luring, I click or use a marker word and then reward any time my dog chooses to interact with the “scary” item.
An example: you walk up to sliding glass doors and your dog shies away. Calmly step off to the side and click and reward when they look at the door, take a step towards the door, sniff the door, etc. It’s critical to keep this type of exercise short and positive, ending with a success and hopefully without any bad experience.
If you think your dog is over threshold at any time, create space between you and the thing that has scared them. If they are still showing signs of stress, you probably need to end the training session. If they recover quickly, ask for a behavior you know they’ll be successful at and reward it heavily while moving away from whatever caused them stress. This will provide a quick little confidence boost and help you end on a good note.
Sometimes we have to weigh perfect behavior with helping our dogs build emotional or psychological shock absorbers. For example, we don’t want our service dogs to do lots of sniffing while they work, but let’s say your dog comes across something new that they are unsure of, like a blow-up Santa Claus at Christmas time. In this situation I would consider it more important to let my dog investigate and maybe sniff the decoration rather than demanding a perfect heel.
Building confidence in a service dog is one of the most important things you can do when training. That’s why I’m such a fan of positive training methods. It makes training a fun adventure and a team activity rather than “work” for our dogs where they feel pressure to guess the right answer in hopes of avoiding punishment.
Be willing to alter your training plans to accommodate where your dog is at. If on your first outing, you only train in the parking lot, that’s fine! Come back the next day and try to do the parking lot and the entryway of the store. Then come back another day and try to do the parking lot, the entryway and a couple minutes in the actual store. The most important thing is to go at a pace that allows your dog to be successful.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. It’s better to practice something the right way for a shorter amount of time than to practice for longer while the dog is stressed or performing unwanted behaviors. The goal should always be to keep your dog under threshold, engaged with you, and happy to work. This builds good habits and positive associations that are invaluable to the success of a service dog in training.
Never go somewhere you can’t leave if your dog seems overwhelmed or stressed. Leaving if you think your dog is over threshold isn’t failure, it’s making sure your dog avoids unnecessary experiences that open the door to bad behavior. When you stay in a situation that’s too much for your dog, all you do is create stress for them and for yourself. This makes coming back and training next time a lot harder on both of you.
One way you can help set yourself up for success is to consider taking a trusted partner or friend on your initial outings. Having someone with you who can run interference with the public can be a big help. I’ve found that I’m better able to focus on my dog if I’m not also worried about having to deal with lots of questions.
Practice what you’ll say if questions arise so you both feel prepared. You may also want to consider having a card or flyer that says a little about your service dog in training and what service dogs do in general. PSDP has some great examples of flyers and helpful tips on answering common questions from the public. Doing those two things really helped lower my anxiety in the beginning, which resulted in much better training sessions.
As you plan your outing, consider going to stores during off times so that they are less busy. I wouldn’t start off by going to Walmart at noon on a Sunday. That’s overwhelming for me so I know it’s going to be overwhelming for my dog.
Video: sporting goods stores can have a lot of unusual items and displays to walk past
I also take into consideration how much room we’ll have to train. I prefer stores like Lowe’s to start with because they have nice wide aisles and I don’t have to worry about either my dog or myself bumping into something or getting stuck in a narrow aisle with no room to move around.
Keep in mind that when you are first starting public access training in a new situation, you should plan to use lots of high value treats. These are distracting environments that require a lot of mental focus on the part of your dog. You always want to make sure that the value of the reinforcement you’re using is higher than the level of distraction your dog is facing. Your rate of reinforcement will also need to be higher than when you’re at home.
Heavily reward your dog for any behavior you want to cultivate. It might make you feel like a PEZ dispenser, but it won’t always be necessary to use so many treats. There’s no do-over for these initial experiences, so do everything in your power to make them amazing for your dog.
Remember that dogs don’t naturally generalize. Just because they are doing fabulous with one store doesn’t mean they will automatically apply those skills to a new store. When you are first working on public access training in a new place, plan to use the same pattern discussed above at each new location.
It can be helpful to do group dog classes and visit some pet stores from the beginning of your training and throughout, in ways that make sense for your dog’s age and evolving needs. For many dogs, a group class or pet store is going to be much more distracting than somewhere like the post office. This will make some no-pets places feel almost easy by comparison—and can help bolster you and your dog’s confidence.
Take into consideration the type of store you’ll be going to when you start planning your training session. For example, your dog may do really well in hardware stores but PetSmart might still be distracting. That’s very normal. Calibrate your expectations to match the level of environmental difficulty your dog is going to experience. Eventually your dog will generalize their public access behavior, but it takes time and consistency.
One last piece of advice: expect setbacks.
Your dog will have off days, you will have off days. That’s okay! If you’re having an off day, take a step back and reassess the situation. Ask yourself if you need to be using a higher value reinforcer? Do you need to make your training sessions shorter? Has your dog had enough exercise?
Evaluating what isn’t working is critical to improving your training in the future. When our dogs don’t listen or struggle with something, that’s just information that we can use in the future to help them be more successful!