How to train a service dog anxiety alert/response

by Veronica Morris, PhD with Bradley W. Morris, MA, CPhil

In a parking garage, the silhouette of a woman walking away from the viewer with a small dog strongly contrasts against her surroundings.

It’s easier than you might think to train your dog to recognize and respond to your anxiety, depression, flashbacks, dissociative states, or other psychiatric issues. In this article I will talk about two methods I’ve used over the years to train my service dogs to recognize and respond to my anxiety, but the same method can be used for many types of psychiatric or other episodes.

Within the service dog community, there has been some debate about what constitutes an alert vs. a response. This article will not delve into that. The US Department of Justice doesn’t define alerts or responses. Instead they focus on two things: recognition and response (in a way that mitigates your disability). Therefore this article will focus on training your service dog to recognize and respond to your anxiety.

The two methods I have used to train my dogs to recognize and respond to my anxiety are association with anxiety and responding to tells.

A short-haired woman walks through Ikea with a short-clipped gray Standard Poodle wearing a service dog vest and attached to the woman with a hands-free, over-the-shoulder leash. The woman and dog look into each others' eyes.

Association with anxiety

The first step is to get your dog to recognize that something is going on that is different from your baseline behavior or state. When I would notice I was anxious or having a panic attack, starting immediately when I got the dog (as young as 8 weeks old!), I’d call them over and give them really yummy special treats while I was having issues. If your dog is more motivated by tug toys or scritches than treats, use whatever is rewarding for them. Pretty soon, my dogs would start noticing my high anxiety times and come running over on their own.

Next it was about training what behavior I wanted them to do. I found that both Ollie and Hestia offered behaviors on their own. I would be anxious, they would come over, and they would offer behaviors all on their own. Ollie’s offered behavior was barking, which made me worse, so I had to change it—more on that later. Hestia’s offered behavior was focused, persistent licking, so I just said “that’ll work” and kept it.

What works for you depends on what mitigates your disability. You might just want an anxiety notification so you end up doing breathing exercises or taking anxiety medication you otherwise wouldn’t, or you might want your dog to do something that directly helps relieve the anxiety.

So decide what behavior you want your dog to do. It could be a lick, nudge, touch, paws up, spinning in circles, anything really that works for you as a team. Train that behavior without associating it with anxiety until you have it down reliably. Then every time you are anxious and your dog comes running over, delay giving treats until you ask them to do the behavior and they do it successfully. Then keep asking for the behavior and rewarding for that behavior over and over again during your issue—but never so much that they get bored.

Changing a behavior that is offered is fairly straightforward. When the dog comes running over to you during your anxiety episode, before they start doing their offered behavior, ask for the preferred behavior and reward. If they offer the inappropriate behavior on their own, ignore it, ask for the preferred behavior, and reward. As the offered behavior is not rewarded, it will start to extinguish. At the same time, the preferred behavior will become more common, since it’s rewarded.

You will notice that when you get anxious, your dog will start not only running over to you, but going ahead and doing this behavior in order to get the yummy treats. When your dog does this, give them a jackpot! This means give them lots of treats in quick succession and praise lavishly while you are doing so.

A long-haired woman walks through in a hotel meeting room with a short-clipped gray Standard Poodle wearing a service dog bandana and attached to the woman with a hands-free, over-the-shoulder leash. The woman looks at the dog as he takes a treat from her backwardly cupped left hand.

One of my issues is that my anxiety rises for a while before getting unmanageable, but I don’t tend to notice it as it grows unless I am pushed to stop and think about it. I want my dog to let me know when it’s rising so it can be stopped or slowed. For training, this means I need some way to start to make sure my dog’s behavior reliably tracks with my rising anxiety and not something separate.

So at this point, you can start making a log. Every time your dog comes over to you and does the behavior, regardless of what you think your anxiety level is that second, reward the behavior and note it in your log. Then do a self-check right away—monitor your breathing, your heart rate, and try to assess what you’ve been thinking about and feeling. This will help you tell if you are actually anxious or not.

Note the time and context in the log any time you know you are having anxiety symptoms, regardless of when or whether your dog just did the behavior. Having this log of your dog’s behavior and your anxiety levels will help you figure out if your dog is actually picking up on your anxiety or if they’re just randomly doing the behavior. The log can also help you figure out any lag time between your dog’s behavior and when you can verify you’re having an anxiety issue.

Once you’ve figured out whether there’s a lag time and how much it tends to be, do a self-check before giving the treat when the dog comes over and offers the behavior. If you can verify you are having an anxiety issue, then reward a lot.

If you sometimes have a lag time and can’t verify any significant anxiety, you’re going to stretch out the reward process. This will let you verify your anxiety before you go all-in with rewarding. Slowly start delaying the reward by a few seconds at a time until you build up to your usual lag time between your dog’s advance warning of your anxiety and when you can verify it. Then reward when you can detect your anxiety issue. If you get to the time you know you should have had verifiable anxiety if you were going to, but you don’t, then don’t reward. This will help refine in your dog’s head that they are only being rewarded for the anxiety issue.

I did this training with Ollie and Hestia and both picked up on it very quickly. I got Ollie at 8 weeks old and Hestia at 16 weeks old. Both were recognizing and responding to my anxiety reliably by about 6–7 months old. At first they only got the big ones where I had major anxiety, but over time they started picking up on the small issues, too.

They picked up on the small issues and gave advance warning based on signals they picked up from my body. I don’t know what those signals are, but they might be things such as cortisol levels, heart rate, breathing, or other chemical changes in my body that might have a scent they can discern.

Here is a video playlist on how to teach this (the last two videos belong to the next section on responding to tells):

Responding to tells

The second method involves a “tell”, or a behavior of yours that others can notice when you are going into an anxiety state. This can be a useful method if the first method doesn’t work so well for you—or even as a complement. I used this method with Hestia because it worked with her across the room from me, since the association method only worked for when we were close.

Ask your friends and family members what you do when you start to get anxious. For me, it is rubbing my hands on my legs in a circular way. I don’t have to be in a panic attack to rub my legs, it is a sign of any simmering anxiety. Tells can be a lot of things, a particular way of breathing, a phrase you say often, a motion you make with your body, anything really.

So first you train the behavior you want the dog to do in response to your tell.

Then it is a simple matter of adding a new cue—it’s just that this isn’t going to be a standard vocal cue, but whatever your tell is. Give the new cue (for me, rubbing my legs), immediately after this ask for the behavior you want (using the old cue), then reward. Repeat repeat repeat. Gradually start putting some space between the new and old cues to give the new connection a workout.

Seen through a brick passage, a woman smiles as she holds in her arms a small white and black dog with wideset eyes and a smushed face. The slightly pudgy puppy goofily looks at the camera with its mouth ajar.So in my situation, I’d rub my legs, wait a second, and then give the old cue word for jumping up on my chest. Gradually lengthen and vary the time between the new and old cue, giving your dog a couple of seconds to think about what you are asking them to do. Dogs will pretty quickly pick up on the fact that the new cue means the same thing as the old one. Jackpot when they do it on their own with just the new cue, and repeat to solidify.

Context and considerations

You don’t have to know exactly what your dog is recognizing in order to train through a brute association between their behavior and your anxiety, or any other change from a physiological baseline. It could be the scent of stress hormones, a change in your tone of voice, a different way of moving, etc. This makes it useful in that the dog can choose whatever reliable signal works for them, but it’s limited because you have to actually undergo episodes in order to train. Dogs are not great at generalizing, so if you want your dog to help you in a store and not just at home, be sure to extend the training elsewhere as you make training progress!

Training a response to tells can be done with any particular behavior your dog is capable of recognizing and that you’re capable of simulating. If you wanted your dog to help you when you fall down or become catatonic, you can simply pretend (safely) that it’s happening and get your dog to react reliably across different contexts. A friend or family member can be a big help when training for assistance for when you’re incapacitated, by rewarding the right behavior with a treat placed on you. This response-to-tells training is more targeted and allows you to train outside of actually having symptoms, which is helpful if they are rare or you find training especially difficult while symptomatic.

These two methods together should help you train your dog to reliably recognize and respond to almost any psychiatric or other issue that you might need warning for or assistance with. As always, it’s a good idea to review your training with a professional dog trainer. This can help avoid basic training issues and iron out wrinkles that are more easily detected by a third party. Happy training!

In a wide-open area in DC's Union station, a smiling woman in a deeply bright blue dress and red shoes twirls while holding a small white and black dog under her arm. She and the dog are in color and in focus, while the background is in black and white except for the gold architectural highlights in the semi-circular cutouts of the wall in the distance far behind them.