Having a well adjusted dog starts with a puppy coming to enjoy a variety of new things. It’s official term is “socialization”. Laurie Luck over at Smart Dog University is a fabulous trainer, and I love to read her blog. This is a bit of a flashback in time, back when she was raising Talos the Dane puppy to become a grown up Great Dane Service dog. But these truths are timeless:
The key to introducing your dog to something novel is to do it incrementally, to do it systematically, and to always (and I mean always!) go at your dog’s pace. If you see signs of anxiety (tucked tail, ears back, lip licking, hiding behind your legs), STOP! Move further away, speak calmly and quietly to your dog, and try to feed some extra yummy treats. If your dog isn’t eating those delicious treats, you know he’s still too stressed. Move even farther away. Keep moving away until the dog’s body language is more relaxed and until he’s able to take treats. http://smartdog.typepad.com/smart_dog/2009/12/fear-not-video.html#
Each dog or puppy will have their own set of triggers. For my late Kenai, it was the post office. He could hear those mechanical noises he feared so much, but couldn’t see what was causing them. For some dogs, it is people rushing up to them head-on.
There is no such thing as a “perfect” service dog, to be honest. They are living creatures, and have their own quirks like any other. But assistance dogs really have to be as close to perfect in their behavior as possible.
They live and work in an unnatural world. A human world is chock full of unnatural things, like mechanical sounds, chemical smells, and people acting in ways that don’t make sense to a dog. After all, dogs didn’t invent cars!
All dogs have to become fluent in the ways of the human world and human quirks to be a part of it, through exposure and socialization. Just going to the pet store is an excursion into an unnatural world. But service dogs have to become at home in it.
Otherwise, they will often find it a struggle to focus and complete the tasks that make them a service dog for a disabled handler. So how you expose a service dog candidate or service dog in training to some new experience really does matter in the long term. Bad experiences last, so if you’re having a bad hair day yourself, let the outing wait.
It is really helpful to have made a written list of every type of surface, sound, smell, and sight that you can think of. Just take stairs: there are wide stairs, narrow stairs, spiral stairs, tall stairs, concrete stairs, metal stairs, wood stairs… A dog’s senses of their environment are much more acute than ours, so they will notice the feel underfoot and height, the trace smells of shoes and the like.
Those things are background to us, and service dogs have to be regularly exposed to almost everything for it to fade into the background the way it does for us. Essentially, they have to be desensitized. These experiences have to continue long after puppyhood for them to remain familiar and comfortable, too. But the first exposures are the most important.