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Service Dog Tasks for PTSD

by Jean Cary, Service Dog Tutor

Post- traumatic stress syndrome or PTSD is manifested in a variety symptoms including high anxiety, difficulty sleeping, fear of crowds, mood swings, nervousness when entering new environments, self-harming behavior (such as chewing fingers, scratching, biting), and migraine headaches. Some clients experience panic attacks during which they freeze, unable to move.

When the client is working with their service dog, these symptoms can be minimized or completely mitigated. With a service dog at the handler’s side, the handler realizes that he has a partner and is not alone. This team approach makes situations less anxiety-provoking. Focusing on the actions of the dog helps the person come back to reality if they are caught up in a swirl of negative thoughts. With a trained service dog many handlers are able to re-enter full participation in society from grocery shopping to holding down a job to better relationships with their family members and friends. Here are some of the tasks that the dog can be trained to do to help person with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

1.The dog can assist the person to get out of bed in the morning by being cued to the sound of the alarm clock to come to the person and lick them on their face or hands until they wake up. The dog can play with the owner by bringing a toy into the bed. This motivates the owner to get out of bed.

2. If the person is having difficulty sleeping at night, having a dog in bed with them can be very comforting. The dog can wake the person up from a nightmare. Then the owner can place their hands or head across the dogs chest and try to mirror the breathing rhythm of the dog to slow down their own heart rate.

3. If a person has migraines, they can lay down and have the dog place his head across the top of their head. The heat of the dog’s head is distracting from the pain of the migraine.

4. Some people experience self-harming behaviors when they are highly anxious such as chewing their fingers, biting themselves or scratching themselves. Their dog can be taught to interrupt these self-harming behaviors with persistent nuzzling of the hands.

5. There are several ways that the dog can provide calming during severe anxiety attacks. If the person is standing the dog can put their paws on the person shoulders. If the person is sitting the dog can rest his chin on the person’s legs or drape his body over the lap of the person. If the owner is lying down when anxiety attack happens, the dog can drape its body across the person’s chest. All of these behaviors create a calming effect using deep pressure which is very comforting.

6. Another effective way to interrupt an anxiety attack is for the handler to train the dog to their particular anxiety cues such as legs jiggling up and down, fidgeting with their fingers or chewing their hair. Then the dog is taught to come to their side and nuzzle their hands until they get the owner’s attention. The owner can pet the dog 10 times with right hand down the length of the dog’s body and 10 times with his left hand down the length of the dog’s body. This physical activity distracts the person from the anxiety provoking incident.

7. Entering an empty house can be a very fearful experience for a person who is unsure of his environment. The dog can be taught to “check the perimeter”. The dog goes into each room in the house and makes sure that there’s nobody in the house.

8. When a person is anxious about traveling through crowds or in unfamiliar places, using the Touch command with the dog helps ground the person in reality and reminds the person that they are part of a team and not walking solo through the environment.

9. For people who experience anxiety in crowded settings the dogs can be taught to provide a barrier between individuals and the handler by blocking the handler on the front side or providing cover for the back of the handler. When teaching the dog to create a barrier between handler and other people, the dog is taught to stand in front of the handler by using hand targeting to either position the dog directly in front of the handler facing outward or across the front of the handler. The dog can either sit, lie down or stand in this position.

10. With training the dog can “Cover” the handler’s back and prevent people from walking up too close to the back of the person and surprising them. The dog must not must not wander and must stay directly behind the handler. It is best to train this with a wall behind the handler, so the dog gets used to being very close to his handler. Then the handler says, “Watch my back.” or “Cover” as people walk by.

A good source of training videos for this is the Service Dog Vlog on YouTube

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Developing a Service Dog Team

By Jean Cary, Service Dog Tutor

Trainers often talk about how important it is to train both the dog and the owner if the goal is to have a dog who retains his skills over the years. This concept of strengthening communication between the handler and the dog is of paramount importance when developing service dog teams. The dog has to enjoy working with the owner and perceive the task work as a series of games in order to want to do the work over a long period of time in a variety of settings. Here are three examples of how dogs and their owners are adapting their training to assure that they will be effective teams in the future.

Joe suffered a stroke three years ago leaving him partially paralyzed on his left side and wheelchair-bound. He acquired a Labrador retriever puppy and had his two housemates assigned with the job of training the dog to become a service dog for him. During the first 15 months of the puppy's life they had two private trainers. Neither trainer to used positive rewards training, nor interacted with Joe, or helped him with training the puppy. The trainers focused solely on training the dog. One housemate became so upset at the training methods that he refused to attend the classes. Joe didn't want to observe the classes either because he refused to watch his dog being jerked around by the trainers. At home Joe wouldn't practice with the dog because it was so frustrating for him. The other housemate, David, assumed the training of the dog and soon discovered the dog had absolutely no interest in performing obedience skills in the presence of the trainer. The dog elicited fearful stress signs each time he went to class. Meanwhile, Joe was getting more depressed because the dog never seem to respond to his commands. The housemate, David, brought the dog and Joe to me for training after hearing about my positive training techniques and the use of games to train service dogs. At the first class I made a point that all the cuing we would give to the dog would be given
from a seated position. This way the dog would get used to receiving commands from Joe in his wheelchair. (Dogs' primary way of communication is by observing changes in the silhouette of other dogs or their handlers. Learning commands from a standing handler is completely different from understanding commands given from someone in a seated position because their body looks so different.) We also made sure that Joe had most of the food rewards, so he would become the most desirable person for the dog to pay attention to during focus exercises. We taught everybody in the house to use the same hand signals and cues for the dog using clicker training. The housemates started walking the dog on their right side matching where the dog would need to walk beside the wheelchair. By the third session Joe was successfully getting the dog to sit, lie down, and heel at the proper speed beside his wheelchair. The rapid progression of the dog's skills and the encouragement that Joe got each time the dog responded to his commands was enough to get him laughing. Now he was eager to attend all the classes to see how much farther he could progress with his dog each week. The housemates said Joe hadn't been so happy since his stroke. I told them, "The dog is just as happy! Look at his wagging tail. He thinks classes are a blast!"

Sometimes my clients have soft voices and getting the dog to hear their commands from a distance can be challenging. We are training Simon to retrieve items for George who has Parkinson's disease. George has an extremely soft voice, so Simon is being trained to respond to a bell that George can ring when he wants the dog to come to him and either pick something up or take a message to his wife in another part of the house. George is the only one allowed to ring the bell. George pairs the bell ringing with food treats when the dog comes to him. The sound of the bell now replaces George's voice and will carry much farther both through the house and across the yard.

Macy is a three-year-old retired show dog who is being trained to assist 14-year-old Kim who has developmental delays and some cerebral palsy. It took two weeks for Kim to have enough courage to start to pet Macy. She was not interested in either dropping treats on the ground for the dog or holding the dog's leash. However, she was excited about having a new dog and would tell everyone about Macy. She just didn't really know how to interact with the dog. Her younger brother and mother did most of the training for the first few weeks as a dog adjusted to the new family setting. At each successive class the young lady held the leash for a longer portion of the class and gave the dog a few commands. By the fourth week she was comfortable petting the dog and talking to the dog. By the fifth week she would hold the leash for an entire hour class and give Macy the commands. Kim loved having the permission to use her bossy voice if the dog was not obeying her commands! We increased the time that she would spend with Macy to bond by having her pick up the dog's dinner bowl and setting it down for the dog each evening. Kim loves to read, so she reads a story to her dog each evening and takes her dog with her to the library. Macy waits underneath a desk while Kim selects a book to read. All of this is in preparation for having Macy accompany Kim to school.

Training "both ends of the leash" guarantees lasting results and happy dog handlers.

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Service Dogs for Children with Autism 

By Jean Cary, Service Dog Tutor

During the past decade more information has surfaced about the benefits of service dogs in families with autistic children. An autistic child’s behavior is often very isolating and these specially trained dogs offer a calming influence, facilitating social interaction both within the family and with the community.

Children with autism are inclined to pay more attention to the inanimate world than the animate world. They often lack the skills to decipher human emotions. However, a dog’s presence is difficult to ignore and once interaction with the dog begins, the child starts to develop empathy. The dog’s presence also gently encourages the child to shift attention from the inanimate to the animate. Playing a simple game of rolling a ball back and forth to the dog may open up social avenues with other children. Now the child has a “draw” for the interest of other kids who would like to interact with the dog and join in the game.

Service dogs stay with the child all day, smoothing the normally anxiety-provoking transitions from activities at home to school to therapy sessions. When the autistic child is having an “out of control” day, the reassuring presence of the dog helps the child focus on the activities around him while decreasing the frequency of his emotional and behavioral outbursts.

Even children who lack verbal skills are motivated to talk to their dog. The child’s ability to direct the dog with simple commands of “come”, “sit” and “down” becomes empowering and increases self-esteem. This verbal practice may transfer to enhanced communication skills with strangers as the child proudly introduces his service dog.

Parents are often thrilled when their restless child begins to sleep through the night while the dog’s body is pressed next to the child or the dog’s head is draped over the child’s chest. This gentle warm pressure is calming. Although many children with autism exhibit a strong aversion to physical contact, they seem to enjoy the tactile stimulation afforded by petting a dog. As the child forms a bond with his service dog, he will seek out the dog for companionship and confide to the dog in ways never shown to family members.

For children who wander, the dog can track and find the child or simply circle around the child to prevent him from leaving a designated perimeter of safety. Often the autistic child is tethered to the service dog when they are in public and the parent can command the dog to “lie down and stay” to act as an anchor for the child.

The selection of an appropriate puppy to be trained as a service dog for a child starts with a reputable breeder who has eliminated aggressive or dominant puppies from consideration. The most desirable puppy will be more oriented towards people than the environment. These service dogs also need to be the more sensitive or “softer” puppies in the litter, so they will accept the child as the leader. Also, the dog must have consistent and even-tempered patience if he is to work with a child prone to erratic behavior. An overly submissive dog might resort to “fear biting “ during a child’s meltdown. The puppy in the litter that has good eye contact with people and is the most consistent in greeting the child will probably bond the quickest with the family. More attention should be paid to the individual traits of the pup and its’ lineage than to its’ sex because pups neutered or spayed by six months exhibit few behavioral differences. A service dog trainer will teach the dog the specific tasks required and tailor the dog’s behavior to the family’s dynamics.

Whether the service dog arrives at the home as a trained two to three year old dog or as an untrained puppy, the family is committing to a twelve to fourteen year span of continuous training, health care and exercise for the well being of the dog. In return, they develop an enduring bond with the dog and gain a playmate for their child.

Dogs remind us to find joy in play and to see every day as a gift. Dogs never to attempt to ‘fix” or change a person. Their power lies in their unconditional acceptance of the person, the place and the moment.

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Using the Family Dog to Prevent Falls

By Jean Cary, Service Dog Tutor

Injuries from falls are the most common cause for a person to need the services of a caregiver. Some studies cite a percentage as high as 40% of adults over 70 years of age being unable to return home or live independently after a fall. Among adults over sixty-five, falls are the leading cause of injury or death. Much of the instruction during the rehabilitation process is geared towards learning to cope with new physical limitations and preventing future falls. Medical personnel may recommend that ramps and grab bars should be installed at home for added safety.

One novel approach to help prevent future falls is to train the client’s companion animal to help keep them from falling again. A dog with well-honed obedience skills can be taught to stop at the top and bottom of the stairs and at the edges of curbs, reminding the owner to concentrate on looking for uneven footing and to hold onto a handrail. Clients who are ambulating with a walker should make sure their dog is trained to only walk on one side of them, and ensuring that the dog doesn’t dash across the front of the walker or snag a cane. A dog trained to retrieve dropped objects (keys, T.V. remote, mail) provides a convenient service to its owner while decreasing the chance the owner will suffer a loss of balance when bending over to pick up something. A large breed dog can be trained to “Stand” and “Brace” besides its owner, offering a platform for rising from sitting to standing. People with Parkinson’s disease or Multiple Sclerosis can also use their dog as a balance aide to steady them as they climb stairs.

Service Dog Articles
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