by Heather Walker
It’s important to train a service dog to be skilled and feel comfortable going and staying under objects of all shapes and sizes. As a first-time dog owner and owner-trainer, I wanted to perfect this skill from the start.
Personally, I was terrified my service dog in training (SDIT), Phoenix, was not going to fit anywhere—ever. At ten weeks old, she was 21 pounds, and by nine months she was a solid 71 pounds. I knew she wasn’t going to be the largest dog, but she was going to be large!
Our game plan
What I thought was most important was to let her get comfortable on her own, in small steps, and make it game-like. There were three skills we focused on over several sessions: 1) objects being placed above her 2) her going under objects 3) and body awareness for small and tight spaces.
While focusing on these three main areas, I stuck to the three Ds of dog training: duration, distance, and distraction. Our training was always positive and rewards-based.
1) Placing objects above my dog
From the start, I wanted Phoenix to feel comfortable with objects being above her. This started with something as simple as lifting a small, empty cardboard box over her head while giving her a treat.
We made our best progress by having her lie next to my clothes dresser, desk, or vanity, when I would then pull drawers out over her head.
I started with the drawer farthest away from her head. As she became comfortable with this, I worked on the lower drawers and would gradually increase the time she had the drawers overhead by leaving them open longer. This was another opportunity to reward her with treats, and I also allowed her to pass the time by chewing on a toy.
2) My dog going under objects
To get Phoenix comfortable going under objects, I started with a large table that had nothing else underneath it. I would have her go under and come back out.
In addition to her being under objects, she needed to be calm and not stressed in this position.
She was going to need to be comfortable when objects were being moved or manipulated around her. This could be as simple as a cup being moved on a table or a desk drawer being opened and shut, to being under an exam table while a doctor is checking me over.
I thought it was best to introduce these different types of scenarios while she still had plenty of space under a large table. I could start by walking up and setting an object on the table and walking away.
I used dozens of different soundtracks to mimic real life situations—hospital settings, office parties, children running around—just to name a few. It is easy to find soundtracks on websites like YouTube.
I enlisted the help of others by having them talk to me while I sat at the same large table or having them pretend to be a server and bring food back and forth.
3) Increasing body awareness
As Phoenix became comfortable in her “under” space, I gradually decreased the size and height of the objects. This is where body awareness becomes important.
Using the same large table, I would have Phoenix wait while I set a cardboard box underneath the table. I would then ask her to go under.
At first this was a small box that did not take up much space, but still required some effort for her to reposition her body. I would then take that same cardboard box and make it take up more space or even turn it catty-corner.
I would allow my SDIT all the time she needed to go under and position herself, even if that meant coming out from under and starting again.
This is one of the ways it felt game-like. No pressure. Just letting her figure out how to make it work. And from there we got creative!
Awkward-shaped items, items sat in the middle of the space, adding additional items while she’s under, and moving to smaller tables, desks, chairs and so on. I set up obstacle courses in the house. Using chairs and tables in the living room and kitchen.
We played these games outside and in other environments as well. Whether it was a setup in the backyard, asking her to go under a random bench while we were on a walk, or practicing while waiting in the lobby of a doctor’s office, the training opportunities were endless.
Phoenix always amazes when no one realizes she is tucked under a chair or desk, or whenever she slinks into a minimal space and curls up comfortably.
There is a particular time I like sharing when everything we had worked on came together perfectly. My son had an event at his school. It took place in the theater’s classroom. I was unprepared for bleachers, folding chairs, and only two chairs being available (not end seats either). I had no choice but to follow my mom.
I was in such a daze, and I looked behind me for my SDIT thinking there was no way we were going to get past all these people and fit into these seats. To my great surprise, she was already under the chairs! All I had to do was sit down.
The pride and relief I felt were overwhelming. Everything we had been working for came together.