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  • Writer's pictureJenny Stamm

Alert to Visual Cue

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Service dogs must be trained in certain behaviors to help their specific disabled partner. If the behavior is triggered with a command (visual or verbal), it’s called a “task.” If the behavior is triggered via an environmental cue (a sound, a change in the partner’s body, etc.), it’s called “work.”

This is part of a series on various service dog tasks/work behaviors, their purpose, and how to train them. You can find a glossary of terms here and the whole list of behaviors covered (so far) here. There are so many behaviors and ways to train those behaviors, but I hope to cover the most important ones. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!

Alert to Visual Cue

Alerts are considered work behaviors as they are triggered by something other than a direct verbal or hand signal. These can be audible cues (such as an alarm), visual cues (such as a flashing light), or even scent cues (such as body chemistry changes when a seizure occurs) that trigger some specific behavior. An example is a service dog recognizing a shaking leg as a sign of anxiety and going to put deep pressure against the shaking leg.

Note: An audible cue is generally the easiest to teach, followed by a visual cue, with scent cues the most complicated to train.

In order to train a dog how to perform an alert to a visual cue, follow the below steps. Mark (clicker or “yes”) and reward for correct responses and only move onto the next step when the previous one is consistent and reliable.

1) Train a behavior that you want the alert to be (such as pawing at you, bumping you with their nose, jumping into your lap, etc.). We’ll use “Touch” as an example, but you can easily use any cue that works best for you and your dog.

a. Every dog is different and will more readily react in one way over another. Sometimes it’s easiest (and best) to work with how the dog wants to alert rather than how you want them to alert. For example, my dog prefers bumping me with his nose over pawing, so that is in more of his alerts.

2) Pair the visual cue (e.g. picking at lips, leg shaking, etc.) with the alert behavior. You can do this by faking the behavior, then requesting Touch (by verbal and/or hand signal).

3) After your dog is consistently Touching with the visual cue, request Touch without the verbal cue. Then without the hand signal.

a. Your goal here is to have your dog Touch you automatically, without having to be asked for it.

b. If your dog is doing well with the request, but doesn’t seem to be getting it without the request, start your visual cue, give them up to 5 seconds to try to figure it out for themselves, then request Touch. If you do that twice in a row with failure, practice with the request at least 3 more successful times before trying again.

4) Generalize this behavior by practicing in new locations (even different rooms of the house) and by using the visual cue at unexpected times.

a. When you first move to a new location or you have more distraction around, feel free to move back to asking for Touch for a few times, but then try to move up to automatically giving it again. It should be faster the 2nd time, even faster the 3rd, etc.

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