Taskmasters! Training Primitive Dogs to be Service Dogs

Primitive dog service dog task training…

Does the mere look of this phrase seem complicated and intimidating? Or maybe you’re laughing at me, as your brain screams, “Why, Courtney, why!?” Well one of my goals as a trainer is to make service dog training more accessible to those who need it, and that owner training a primitive service prospect shouldn’t be a notion that strikes fear into the hearts of handlers. I’m here to tell you it is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of what I get to do. Yes, the behaviors these dogs perform are the result of months of consistent work, long days, and not without some discomfort (needle puppy teeth, anyone?), but I’m here to break the stigma surrounding non traditional breeds in working roles. As the familiar proverb goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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An Endearing Assistant

As I always say, “a service dog is a trick dog with a practical application.” When it comes down to it, a service task is a trick. Teaching our dogs to perform these tidbits is of course productive, aside from making us smile. Trick training is a fun way to build our relationships with our dogs and provide them with engaging mental stimulation at the same time! But what is it exactly that makes them so enjoyably “cute?” Favorites that come to mind include “sit pretty”, “dance”, “shake hands”, and “give me a kiss.” We are giggling at our pups imitating human behavior! Service tasks are no different: I’m asking my subject to develop a human like feature.

A Helpful Anthropomorphism

With each trick he knows, my service dog Chiyo often replaces parts of my own body that can’t perform as well as he can. He carries bags of groceries, goes into the fridge to grab me a bottle of water, and unloads the utensils from the dishwasher, remembering to always close the door when he’s finished. Even now, as I’m typing this and he’s alerting me that it is now time to take my medicine, I’ve taught him to play doctor. A lifesaving trick. My dog doesn’t know he’s helping me function, or that he’s doing human things. To him, he is playing a game with me. Over time, he has become very good at the rules of the game, even when I sometimes need those rules to change.

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Good, bad dog!

Chiyo stays fluid and adaptable. Instead of getting confused when I switch criteria, he rolls with it. That Shiba determination is the same resilience we must cultivate as handlers and trainers in the face of challenge. Disabilities are organic, and dynamic. Some are progressive, or degenerative, and everyday can be drastically different than the last. There are some days a person might not need their dog to come help do the shopping, and other times the dog needs to do double duty to compensate for his partner’s tougher days. This is why it’s beneficial to start with a puppy. A clean slate with no pre-programmed manners. Many service tasks are built on “disobedient” or “rude” behaviors that we discourage when raising pets. Jumping up, putting things in their mouth, and pushing their way into cabinets are normally naughty puppy antics that tasking dogs need to perform regularly. Its especially funny every time I hear my mom lovingly coo at my students’ videos, “it’s like they’re little people!”, well in another context, you’d be scolding, “bad dog! Drop it!” When a service puppy prospect picks up my shoe? Treat. The 8 week old just took the pen out of my hand? Good girl! Puppy jumped up on the file drawer I left ajar? You guessed it-- I love it. Who better to be good at being “bad” than a primitive puppy! My student Shibas have never shied away from trying novel things or offering more, and often skip the middle steps straight to the target.

That Feral Focus

How do we get all those endearingly helpful behaviors you see in videos and in public? It all starts with one glance. If you’ve ever trained any dog before, you know that getting your dog to look at you is the building block from which all cues stem. If I were to draw a tree diagram of all the words and tasks my service students learn, at the center would be “focus.” It’s a delicate balancing act, because although I want the curious, prying, primitive personality type to satisfy the work drive requirement for a prospect, I also need that pensive, stare-deep-into-your-soul calmness that is rooted inside the confident dog. It can be rare to find those raw materials coexisting in one body, as statistics show us that service dog wash out rate is dauntingly high!

But I’ve found that primitives embody these traits more than the average person would suspect. They have an inherent sense of when it is appropriate to use which attribute, when to mix them, and at just what percentage. Focus + Drive = Sweet Spot. Those are the things you can not teach, only encourage. It's why our ancient breeds have been so good at the jobs they’ve done for thousands of years. My job, in essence, is to harness that primitiveness, develop it, and shape it. I think of it like cooking: when you start with quality raw ingredients, you can bake the most delicious service cake.

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Playing with Blocks

So what comes after “focus?” Through free shaping and luring, anything your heart desires. Let’s take the retrieval task for example. Lots of puppies will be naturally inclined to fetch, or at least have the instinct to put anything and everything in their mouths. If I get one that does it on their own, cool! We have a built in feature that I can refine through rewards. I’ll use this type of puppy that readily mouths objects to describe the process.

  1. The puppy takes a small object, like a pen, from my hand.

  2. Before they drop it, I quickly take the pen back. Treat!

  3. Repeat this a whole bunch of times in succession.

  4. Know when to quit before the puppy’s attention span quits first. Always end on a high!

I’ll do formal sessions of this about four times a day, and with primitive puppies, they start to anticipate what I’ll do next before long. They start to expect that I’m going to reward them when I take the object from their mouths, so they begin offering me the object and bringing it to me from further distances. I call each of these progressive steps “Blocks” The first Block is “focus.” Another Block is “take it”—the act where the puppy takes the object from me. The next Block is “give”, then “bring”, and so forth. Each of these Blocks functions as a stand alone cue, but are also links in a chain to form more complex behaviors. When I teach a dog to do laundry, I first need him to have the Blocks of “get it”, “bring”, and “drop it.” Chain those together and you have a dog who can pick up an object from one place, bring it to a different location, and deposit it in an area of your choice. It depends on the dog how fast we can build our Block foundation of tasks, but with primitive dogs, the connection we form in training is often so strong, its almost psychic. I like to use Chiyo as an example of a dog who seems to already know what I’m going to ask him to do, even when I was teaching him new tricks. They get inside your head, especially when its your own dog who already shares a bond with you. This is another big reason to love owner training with your primitive breed, but it’s not just for service tasks! The Blocks of training translate to any sport or pastime that you and your dog share.

Thanks to the internet, I’ve been seeing that service primitives are on the rise. Through the sharing of videos we are reaching more eyes and making those seers into believers. There’s just something about watching a baby Shiba fetching medication right in front of you that makes you realize not only can it be done, but that you can do it, too! Moreover, what I hope you take away from this article today is that when given the opportunity, the primitive dog will amaze you. This is the calling to get back to our roots. At the core of our heritage and evolution, stands the guardian, the hunter, the wise ancient descendants of the wolf. Let us realize that our world,with all its gadgets and gizmos, still has a very real need for dogs with jobs. Our primitive dogs,in the making for millennia, have been up for the job of helping us since our shared beginning. Its up to us to let them.

MannersCourtney Hume