Friday, January 23, 2009

38. Improving the Bond with Your Service Dog

A fairly common complaint among assistance dog owners who have family involved with the dog, is that the dog prefers the company of one or more other family members. This may occur for several reasons. The family members may be more ‘fun’ than you-that is they play fun games with the dog and ask less of them behavior-wise. The dog may have a natural preference for a specific sex or type of personality. You may not interact with them as often or as enthusiastically as other family members. She may notice that you do not control the resources s/he wants or needs. You may have left her a for a few weeks with another person and she disowned you. There are many other possibilities why a dog bonds to others, not you. Without a strong bond, your service dog will not be as eager to work with you, and may defer to others in the home. So what can you to do improve the bond?

2 Steps to Try
1. For a time, (may be several months or more) ask family members to reduce their interaction with the dog, then once a strong bond has been formed, they can gradually resume some (but not all) of their activities with the dog. You keep doing the activities that your dog values most. These are the ones that have the most meaning to her. Perhaps that is feeding or maybe play (or maybe something else).

When family comes and goes, it also helps if they try to make their arrivals and departures less emotionally charged, as you would for a separation anxiety dog. Asking family members to avoid eye contact, physical contact (petting etc) and not talking to the dog until after the dog has calmed down (about 10 minutes) helps to lessen the excitement about their arrival and departure. You still interact normally with your dog as that enthusiasm for you what you want to maintain.

2. Take on the role of doing things with her: providing for her needs, feeding her, training her, playing with her, exercising her, and massaging her (see post 38A) can all help to develop and strengthen the service dog bond.

All of these things she enjoys. The more positive interaction you have with her, the more of a bond that will develop. Start with taking on (or exchanging with family)one high value activity, then add more as needed. If you can, start with the activities that are the most meaningful to your dog as they will have the most impact on your bond. That way, once the bond has developed, there will still be some lesser value activities for family members to do. A simple way do make this easy for yourself to take the plunge is take a trip with your dog. Out of your normal environment, your dog will need to rely on you for direction, resources such as food, walks etc, and learns that YOU are the best thing since a bunny in a field!)

Here are Some Specific Ideas on How to Handle Activities:

During actual training sessions, it is helpful to have family members not make eye contact with, speak to or otherwise interact with the dog except as necessary and as directed by you. They should not step in and help except when asked. You are the trainer and you decide what behavior you are training. They can assist in physically setting up equipment and pose as 'strangers' for training but any interaction with the dog is directed by you (unless in emergency situations). It is up to you to set your dog up for success. Your dog should look to you for direction and rewards.

You can employ the Premack Principle any time you interact with your dog. The Premack principle is simply pairing a highly desirable activity with a less desirable activity and the less desirable activity then becomes more enjoyable for the dog.

What this means is that the dog sees interacting with you as less fun than say playing a game of fetch. If your spouse normally does that with the dog, you take it over. Because you become the only one playing that game with the dog, the dog starts seeing you as more fun. For some people with some disabilities, activities like this may be a challenge, but if you are creative, you can make it work. Instead of playing in the yard, take it to the basement where the dog can still get excited and has room to run. Can’t throw a ball? Ask your child to be the thrower but you give the cue to get it and the dog must deliver the ball back to you (your lap or hand). You then give the ball to your child to throw again. Your child says nothing to the dog and avoids eye contact if possible. Or buy or ask someone to rig up a ball thrower that you control and use it in the yard.

Feeding your dog twice a day can be a bonding experience. You can either hand feed, that is give your dog her food handful by handful, or you can ask her to do tricks or tasks or even use the daily ration of kibble as training treats.

During exercise, serotonin, a chemical made by the dog’s body during heart-raising exercise, makes the dog feel good. If you are the one to provide exercise, your dog will start to associate you with exercise-and fell good about being with you.

Some dogs really like a massage. Take time once a day to sit down and relax with your dog in arm’s reach. Give her a gentle massage starting from the base of the ears, moving down the neck, down the back (either side of the spine) and down each leg and tail. If you find a spot that your dog enjoys, spend some time there. Some dogs love the base of their neck rubbed, others the base of their tail or their belly. If you find a sensitive spot, work around it until you have a better relationship and your dog will let you massage lightly near it. Feet are often sensitive spots for dogs.

You might need to be creative in how you can access your dog. Try placing her crate beside your wheelchair and place her mat on top of it and cue her to jump up. Or maybe you have a grooming table you can use for this process. If you have trouble controlling your hand strength or fingers, move your fists in circles, or use a towel and pretend you are drying her off when she is wet. Physical contact is how the mother dog bonds with her puppies.

The Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF) Program
A great way to have your dog bond with you is to use the NILIF program. More commonly used for dogs with behavior issues it works very well for bonding.

The NILIF program asks your dog to work for any resources that he values such as food, going in or out doors, going for car rides, going for a walk etc. Just cue a behavior that your dog already knows before giving her the desired resource. For example, your dog wants to go out into the yard and stands by the door. Cue a down before opening the door. Or your dog wants to go for a walk, cue a stay as you open the door and only release her when you are ready for her to come out with you. Here are a couple of links that describe this process. Start with a few, then add more behaviors and rewards as she is successful. Always accompany the reward with praise and/or petting.

One good link

Another good link

Tethering a dog to you on a 6 foot line may help with small puppies but be sure to do it for short periods only. Tethering a dog or puppy to you for long periods is exhausting for both you and the dog and does not allow the dog needed down-time to relax. It would be like having your service dog working for that whole time.

We find it better to simply keep your dog in the same room as you, perhaps using doors or baby gates as barriers. Place a dog bed or crate nearby so your dog has somewhere comfy to sleep while he is waiting for interaction with you. With time and other bonding activities above, you can remove the barriers and your dog will choose to stay near with you.

If you take the time to find out what your dog really enjoys, and spend time doing those things with your dog, and the more you can provide care, training, play and physical interaction with your dog, the stronger your dog bond will be, even if there are other people in your home.