Service Dog Task Terms & Tips
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 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!
This list will give you some basic terms and tips for training your dog using mostly positive reinforcement.
Use a reward (normally a treat) from your dog’s nose to guide them into the position you want. They will generally receive the lure as a reward at the beginning of new behaviors.
Use a sharp, short sound to indicate the instant that your dog has done what you’re looking for. The recommended way to do this is by using a clicker or the word “yes.”
Something your dog loves so that they want to work. Generally, we recommend treats. Remember that just because your dog loves their kibble doesn’t mean it’s high enough value to work for, though. So, you may want to consider “higher value” treats, such as small bits of string cheese or hot dog, especially for harder behaviors.
You can also reward with toys or other things that your dog loves, but these generally take a bit longer, so will slow training down. It’s recommended to use these only when a behavior is very well known already or if you can’t find any food that your dog will take with excitement.
ALWAYS Setup for Success
Your goal is to have a dog that wants to work for you. With that in mind, you always want to set your dog up for success. This means that you should move slowly and if your dog is failing (aka not receiving a reward while you’re still training a new behavior), move back a step and help them succeed. You may move forward in smaller steps, but make sure your dog is succeeding or everyone will get frustrated.
Dogs' best sense is their nose, followed by their eyesight and then their ears. This means that audio cues (such as saying the word "Sit") don't process as well as a visual or scent cue. So, to set your dog up for success, only say audio cues ONE TIME per 5 or so seconds. If you find that your dog doesn't respond, it means that they don't understand the behavior well enough, and you should go back a step instead of repeating the cue over and over again.
Duration / Distance
When you start adding duration and/or distance to a behavior, add slowly and mix it up. If the behavior only gets harder and harder (further or longer), your dog very well may give up and stop responding altogether. Instead, randomize your length/distance such as 1 sec, 3 sec, 2 sec, 5 sec, 4 sec, 2 se, 6 sec, etc.
NEVER force your dog
Especially with young dogs, forcing a dog to do something (by pushing, dragging, or otherwise forcefully moving them) will very likely end up with a dog who is afraid of or resistant to something. Often, it will be the thing you forced, but sometimes it will be something else in the environment (such as brooms because there was a broom nearby at the time).
Slow is Fast / Fast is Slow
Especially when it comes to service dogs, we want to make sure that the behaviors are well implanted. So, move slowly and make sure the basics/foundation behaviors are very strong before moving on. By going too fast (either adding too many behaviors to a young puppy or by trying to jump ahead too quickly on a behavior), you will set your dog up for failure and everyone will be frustrated in the future, even if it works at the beginning.