Updated: Feb 8
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!
A service dog can help their partner by interrupting a variety of behaviors, whether it’s self harm, dissociation, a meltdown, or something else. It’s important to teach interrupts using a method that the dog you’re working with is most comfortable with, whether that’s pawing, bumping with a nose, barking, or even jumping up on their handler.
In order to train a dog how to perform the work behavior of Interrupting, 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.
NOTE: We’re going to focus on having your dog use their paw to interrupt, however it can be trained with a wide variety of behaviors, as mentioned above.
2. Next, you’ll turn that behavior into something that can interrupt:
Every behavior will be slightly different to change into an interrupting behavior, but you’ll want to change them into a behavior that is preferably cued by just a word, with the end result is your dog touching your body (not your hand).
Ask for a Paw with your hand over your knee and place their paw on your leg after they give it into your hand.
Then ask for a Paw and remove your hand last second so their paw lands on your knee directly. Mark and reward.
You can then change this cue if you always want “Paw” into your hand, such as “Interrupt” by saying the new cue (“Interrupt”), then the old one (“Paw”). After several successes in a row, remove the old cue and just use the new one.
Put a sticky note on your leg or arm and ask for a Touch.
Shrink the sticky note by folding it in half and ask for a Touch.
Fold it in half again, still asking for a Touch.
Remove the sticky note and ask for a Touch in the same place. You can point to it at first to help them figure out what you want, but you want to fade out the pointing, too.
Now change the cue (such as to Interrupt) by saying the new cue (“Interrupt”), then the old one (“Touch”). After several successes in a row, remove the old cue and just use the new one.
3. Pretend the behavior that needs to be interrupted (such as by breathing quickly if you know hyperventilating is part of your meltdowns) and then ask for an Interrupt. Mark and reward.
If necessary, you can wait a few seconds after asking for an Interrupt and remind your dog what they need to do with the old cue (such as “Touch” or “Paw”). If that’s necessary work on this until you can just ask for an Interrupt.
4. If possible, work with your dog so that they’ll respond to someone else saying “Interrupt” (doing the same behavior to you), while you mark and reward. You may need to start at the beginning with someone else pointing to you and work their way back to where you are with your dog.
5. When your dog does the behavior during an actual episode, reward them as soon as you can after their behavior (and mark it, if possible).
If you have someone who has worked with you and your dog, have them request an Interrupt when an episode happens. They can then mark and, if necessary, reward your dog.
6. Continue to practice with fake episodes from time to time so that you can mark and reward in a timely manner, reinforcing the right behavior.