10 Things I’ve Learned About Training Service Dogs

I’m happy to welcome back psychotherapist and author Kassandra Lamb. Today, Kassandra shares interesting information about training service dogs and her new release, To Bark or Not to Bark.

Here’s Kassandra!

When I set out to write a cozy mystery series about a service dog trainer, I didn’t quite realize what I was getting myself into. I assumed that, between my psychology background and having trained my own pets through the years, I’d be able to wing it when describing the tasks the dogs do and how my protagonist, Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha) trains them.

I quickly discovered that, while my knowledge of behavior modification helped, I would need to do a considerable amount of research. Now, 12 books later, I’ve learned quite a lot about training service dogs, although I’m still far from an expert. Here are 10 things I’ve learned about training these dogs:

1. Pick the right dog.

Not just any dog can be a good service dog. The dogs need to have certain personality traits. They need to be intelligent, people-oriented and eager to please. But they cannot be easily distracted, particularly territorial, nor at all aggressive toward other dogs or strangers. Some service dog trainers, like my protagonist Marcia, prefer mixed breed dogs because they are often healthier and live longer. Otherwise, the breed usually depends on the needs of the eventual owner.

For example, Marcia trains dogs for military veterans, some of whom also have physical challenges. So she usually picks larger breeds that are strong enough to help a person who has fallen down and needs help getting up.

2. Teach/review basics like sit, lie down, come, and stay.

Of course, a service dog needs to have good manners, and teaching/reviewing these basics will give the trainer a sense of how easily the dog will learn the more complicated tasks.

3. Teach the on-duty signal.

First and foremost, the dog needs to know when they are on duty and should be paying close attention to their handler. The on-duty signal may be repeated at times to refocus the dog if s/he seems to be getting distracted.

For Marcia and the fictitious agency she trains for, I’ve borrowed the on-duty signal used by K9 for Warriors in Jacksonville, Florida—hand held parallel to the ground, palm down. The dog touches their nose to the palm to acknowledge that they are on duty.

4. Start with something dogs do naturally.

Dogs love to chase things, play tug-of-war, etc. Activities like these can be used as a jumping-off point when teaching a new task.

For example, to teach a dog to open cabinet or refrigerator doors, the trainer might tie a rope in a loop on the handle and encourage the dog to grab it and pull, giving a verbal command such as “open,” followed by a reward each time the dog pulls the door open. Then the trainer shortens the rope a little bit at a time, and repeats this whole process again, until the rope is wrapped tightly around the handle. Eventually, the trainer removes the rope and says, “Open.” A bright dog will grab the cabinet or fridge handle itself at this point.

5. Chunk it down.

More complicated tasks are broken down into sub-tasks and the dog is trained to do each of those. For example, Dolly, the dog in my new release, has been trained to “clear” a room and identify who is in the room, friend or stranger, before her phobic veteran enters.

Marcia and her assistant first taught Dolly to run into the room and around its perimeter, then come back to the door and sit. (The actual training of this dog occurred in the last book, One Flew Over the Chow-Chow’s Nest.) Next, they taught her to sit down in front of anyone who is in the room. Then they added a second person and taught her to sit for a few seconds, then go to the second person and sit there.

The toughest part of the task was getting Dolly to bark if she didn’t recognize the person’s scent. First, Carla, Marcia’s assistant, taught her to bark once on command. Then they had to recruit people the dog had never met to sit in the room. They gave the command to “bark” when the person was a stranger to her, but withheld that order when it was someone Dolly knew.

Since she is a border collie—thought to be the brightest of dog breeds—she eventually got it that she should only bark when she didn’t know that person’s scent.

6. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

As you can imagine, it would take a lot of repetition for Dolly to get that idea. But lots of repetition is also necessary so that the response to the commands becomes automatic for the dog (and later for his/her owner; the humans have to be trained, also, in how to work with the dog).

7. Always be clear about when the dog is on duty and when they are not.

The owner/handler needs to make a very clear distinction here. The dogs are taught a release signal that tells them they are off-duty, and the handler needs to expect the dog to be all-business until such time as that release signal is given.

But it’s also very important that the handler not allow the dog to be treated like a pet when they are on duty.

That is why one shouldn’t approach a service animal and try to pet or play with them. If you do that, you are making the owner/handler’s life more difficult, because they then have to work harder to keep the dog focused.

8. Make sure you are using the right rewards.

A word or two about rewards. Often the reward used is a food treat, but there may be other things used as well.

A lot of trainers use clickers. They teach the dog to associate the clicking sound with a treat, and over time, the click itself becomes a reward for the dog. I don’t have Marcia use a clicker because I honestly don’t know that much about them. Rather than make a mistake, I opted to have Marcia train for a woman, Mattie Jones, who is old-fashioned and doesn’t like clickers. (You can avoid all kinds of pitfalls when writing fiction, because it is fiction—you get to make stuff up.)

Some dogs do not respond well to food treats, believe it or not. Then the trainer has to figure out what else will motivate them. In one of my books, I decided to have Marcia make a mistake (to make her more realistic) and pick a dog that is not all that teachable. His name is Rocky and she decides it’s an apt name, since he seems as dumb as a rock.

But, as all too often happens when writing fiction, the characters took over and wrote that scene a little differently than I’d intended. Marcia is trying to teach Rocky the on-duty signal by holding a treat against the palm of her hand with her thumb.

This gets the dog to initially touch her palm. After several repetitions, the palm is held out without the treat and a bright dog will almost always touch it anyway. Then she gives the dog a treat with her other hand.

Rocky, however, took the treat from under her thumb initially but then lost interest and did nothing the next time she held out her hand. I don’t know if what happened next was Marcia’s idea or Rocky’s—but she held her hand out without a treat, and lo and behold, he touched it. She quickly praised him and he wagged his tail furiously.

Every time, she held out her hand, let him touch the palm, then immediately praised him, he was delighted. Eureka! Rocky wasn’t dumb, he was just more motivated by praise then by food treats.

9. Do not give rewards other than when the dog does a desired task.

Whatever reward the dog responds to best should only be given when the dog is on duty and does a desired task. Again, this is to avoid confusion.

If the reward is a food treat, then those treats are only given under these circumstances. Never randomly at other times. In Rocky’s case, Marcia had to be careful that she only told him he was a “good boy” when he was on duty.

10. Make the rewards intermittent.

This is something I already knew about behavior modification. After the desired behavior is deeply ingrained, the trainer only rewards it some of the time, not all of the time.

Why is this? Because, believe it or not, intermittent reinforcement works better than constant reinforcement.

If the dog is used to getting a treat every time they do something, then the treat is not forthcoming for several times, they will stop doing the task. But if the dog only receives a reward some of the times they do the task, then they come to expect that a reward will eventually appear if they keep doing the task.

This new book is the next to the last in the series, and I’m going to miss these characters (two- and four-legged). But I’m also going to miss learning more about service dogs and their training. To me, it is a truly fascinating subject.


Service dog trainer Marcia Banks tackles a locked room mystery in a haunted house, while training the recipient of her latest dog.

The border collie, Dolly has been trained to clear rooms for an agoraphobic Marine who was ambushed in a bombed-out building. But the phantom attackers in his psyche become the least of his troubles when Marcia finds his ex-wife’s corpse in his master bedroom, with the door bolted from the inside.

Was it suicide or murder? Marcia can’t see her client as a killer, but the local sheriff can.

Then the Marine reports hearing his ex calling for him to join her on the other side of the grave. Is his house really haunted, or is he hallucinating?

Bottom line: Marcia has lost a client to suicide before. She’s not going to lose another!

Buy Links

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Author Bio and Links

In her youth, Kassandra Lamb had two great passions—psychology and writing. Advised that writers need day jobs—and being partial to eating—she studied psychology. Her career as a psychotherapist and college professor taught her much about the dark side of human nature, but also much about resilience, perseverance, and the healing power of laughter. Now retired, she spends most of her time in an alternate universe populated by her fictional characters. The portal to this universe (aka her computer) is located in North Central Florida where her husband and dog catch occasional glimpses of her.

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11 responses to “10 Things I’ve Learned About Training Service Dogs

  1. Pingback: 10 Things I've Learned About Training Service Dogs - Misterio Press

    • Me neither, Jacquie. When I started researching it, I was really amazed at how much is involved. It takes at least 6 months of intensive training to produce a really well-trained service dog.

  2. I’ve always had a lot of dogs, and demand good manners. Right now I have a service cat for my husband. She only works at night when I’m sleeping. Thanks for the tip regarding treats. I may have been over filling her, hence the expanding waist line. Hers, not mine.

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