Working The Basics With Your

Assistance Or Therapy Dog In Training

Have you been working with your therapy or assistance dog in training for weeks, maybe even months on a particular behavior or command and they just don't see it to get it? Does it feel as though every time you make progress, you immediately take two steps back?


In this article, I'm going to discuss and give tips on how to work through the very frustrating experience of feeling like you're not making any progress in your assistance or therapy dog's training. 

I'll let you in on a secret, this work can be challenging. Teaching the basics isn't hard at the core, what's difficult is teaching your dog basic commands and behaviors which they can perform reliably in any condition without the need for you to hold their paw through it.


What's even more satisfying is to teach our dog how to assess the situation and for them to perform these commands without the need of you telling them at every step of the way what they should be doing. We're training dogs here, not robots, that means we see our dogs as thinking beings who are capable of making decisions and choices on their own.

If you work with and train enough dog's there's a good chance you'll experience the grind of working through a command that your dog just doesn't seem to get. I've had many experiences with all of the dogs I've raised and trained over the years that went through a period of stagnant progression or even regression. 

What are some examples of what I'm talking about? 


One of the more common examples of a dog not performing a command properly is in the
"Heel" (dog lines up on the left side of handler) or "Sit" commands. Ideally, the dog should have their shoulders in line with their handler's knees and their body should be parallel with the handler.

What often happens is instead of being nice and parallel with the handler, the dog positions their but out and away from the handler. This is just one example I see (which there are many) where the dog picks up funky habits that really do a disservice to them and their handler.


I want to make sure you don't have to go through the same frustration and mistakes I've gone through while training your future assistance or therapy dog. I can say personally, I have certainly pulled my hair out in the past, trying to understand why my dogs are doing what they're doing but the way I work through correcting these behaviors is always the same. 

Your Dog Just Doesn't Know What You Want

What I find to be the issue at the bare bones of it is that your dog just doesn't really understand what it is that you want. If left uncorrected, a pattern of behavior a dog is showing in their commands eventually becomes what the dog believes is what their handler would like them to do.


When a dog is first learning a command or behavior, they are problem-solving what it is we would like them to do. A behavior that starts off as throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks can become a tough habit to break if we accidentally mark the behavior with positive reinforcement.


 What starts out as confusion on your dog's part can quickly turn into a confident automatic pattern a dog performs due to a misunderstanding of what they believe their handler wants.  


How do we correct these patterns or prevent them from happening in the first place with our future assistance or therapy dogs? In my opinion, it all comes back to teaching and going back to the basis. I know that's not necessarily what people want to hear, especially if it's a basic command, like "Sit", "Down", or even walking nicely on a loose leash.


I know, I know, working the basics can be boring, it's not sexy and it doesn't impress people but before you leave and move onto the next training article, let me make my case. 


Helping your dog understand on a foundational level what it is you want them to do is vital.

Two camps 

Over the years, I've noticed two camps of handlers when it comes to their dogs displaying undesirable behaviors or patterns. The first camp falls into complacency where they don't bother with it anymore because they're unsure of how to correct the problem. The second camp, the one I tended to be in, is to constantly be stressing about what their dog is doing. 

I was always trying to fix a problem that would pop up in my dog's training and it felt like I was on a hamster wheel. No sooner would I feel like I had ironed out a wrinkle in my dog's training and a new variation would pop up to replace it.


Countless times I would feel like a total failure in my ability to train my dogs. The apex of this feeling was during the time that I was training my last dog Kit whom many of you have met or have heard me tell stories about. Kit was an amazingly smart dog, by 4 months of age she had learned and was able to perform over 30  commands and was taking classes with our adult dogs (and absolutely crushing it).


The problem that developed for Kit was she always liked to add little bits of flair to all of her commands. The frustration only became worse as she got older because I kept teaching her more difficult commands that built upon the commands she had previously learned. 

I was so focused on progressing Kit's command list that I didn't stop to critically evaluate if she fully understood what it was I wanted and expected of her when she performed commands. Kit was a smart enough dog that she was able to decode what I wanted about 85% of the way. The trouble was, those last 15% of translation loss was the difference between performing a command consistently and correctly versus being able to stumble through it with grace.


It wasn't until Kit moved on from my home was I able to reflect on my time with her and see what changes I wanted to make did I realize my very obvious mistake.


I didn't spend enough time on the basics.


Mastering The Basics With Your Assistance Or Therapy Dog In Training

It's up to us as the leader of our team to teach and show our dogs what we would like them to do and guide them through the learning process until they've mastered it. Once they master it, keep returning to the basics in different environments to deepen the understanding.

In the time since Kit I've been fortunate enough to work with hundreds of dogs. Any time we run into a hiccup or hurdle, my first question to myself is, "Does the dog understand what we are asking?".

By intentionally getting back to the basics, you and your dog are able to be present with the actual movements and activities you'd like them to do, leading to a greater understanding between the two of you. Skipping these steps or trying to move past them creates a feedback loop wherein you creep back into the same problem over and over again. Really work the basic skills, not only at home but out in public to help make sure they have it down and they fully understand what you're asking.


As I mentioned above, I get it, we all want to get through the basic stuff so we can start working on the cool things like teaching our dogs to wave, crawl, or even do math. But if your dog doesn't understand those basic pieces, it's going to make all of those other commands much, much harder.


The number of things you can do with your dog, by simply teaching them to walk on a loose leash right next to you is huge. You can go to so many places! You can have your dog with you and in the grocery store, the coffee shop, or the home improvement store, and they can be right next to you and share in your adventure.

Don't feel like these basic things are boring because they're so, so important to the overall success of your dog as an assistance or therapy dog. 

Create A Desirable Behavior One Step At A Time

As you're working through the basics, be aware it's better to go for a short amount of time, as opposed to trying to grind through it. Let's use walking on a loose leash as an example. If you walks two, five, or even ten steps, and your dog does it perfectly, that's going to teach them so much more about what it is you want, rather than you trying to walk a block and struggle with your dog, while they pull or darting all over the place. In the beginning, just work on taking one step and having your dog right next to you in the perfect position.

As your dog builds confidence and understanding of what you'd like, you'll eventually walk longer and longer distances. Creating 
a very clear expectation to your dog.

If you have the expectation that your dog is to walk right next to you, you're halfway there. But if your dog just thinks that they can do whatever they want, well, that's exactly what they're going to do.

Create The Expectation With Your Future Assistance Or Therapy Dog

Anytime you pick up your dog's leash, expect that your dog is going to do everything perfectly. Your expectations will have to be on a sliding scale of course depending on your dog's age and where they're at in their training.


If your dog is still working with a lure and learning basic commands for the first time, expect that they follow the lure perfectly. When picking up your dog's leash for a training session, bring an attitude of "they're going to get through the command and I'm going to be able to teach them that.".


Mindset is key with dog training, because if you're constantly thinking, "Oh, my dog is just going to pull on the leash or my dog can't do a down." well, that's what they're gonna get because that's what you believe.


If you don't believe your dog can do it, you're not going to enforce or work with them to make sure that they're able to do the commands. The majority of the work we do with our dog is nonverbal and our energy travels down the leash. Make sure that you are picking up that leash with the expectation that your dog is going to be able to do these things. 

Rules In The Relationship With Our Dog

Something that I've been noticing more and more that actually stemmed from a conversation I was having with friends around relationships; We have people and groups of people we can show different faces and different personalities to depending on the dynamics of the relationship.


I think this is really a great way to look at dog training because every relationship has a set of rules and expectations for them. When you are feeding your dog in the house, there are certain rules that are spoken and unspoken, and the two of you are operating by those set of rules.


I bring this up because I don't want you to be surprised in the beginning when you're retraining commands and there's pushback because your dog has been doing something for so long and now all of a sudden you're changing the rules.


It will always be easier to have clear rules and expectations with your dog right from the start then trying to change them once other rules are in place.

This is why I can pick up the leash of someone else's dog and very quickly teach that dog to walk on a loose leash. The relationship and the expectations of what is going to happen haven't been written yet, the dog and I don't have history.


When I pick up the leash, we're starting fresh. When I hand the leash back to the dog's handler, the dog usually goes right back to what they were doing previously.


I think we need to recognize this and not beat ourselves up if we're having these types of struggles, because they're very real.


If your dog is doing something with you, but not with someone else, remember you have history and a relationship with your dog. As you're teaching a command, there's going to be strong resistance at times so be persistent and keep practicing.

If you're getting overwhelmed or frustrated with your dog, don't be afraid to just put your dog in a crate or a tie-down, take a break, and take a breath.


In 15 or 20 minutes, come back and retry the commands with a nice calm attitude and demeanor. Remember, it's better to have a short amount of time with perfection or close to perfection, as opposed to going for a really long amount of time and being really, really sloppy.


You're going to have a lot more progress with your dog by making sure that they are doing exactly what it is that you want. So keep up with it, make sure that you are giving yourself some grace. You're doing great, you're doing what you need to do, especially if you've been following along with the training tip series.


If you're looking for more help and/or guidance, check out our video library, it covers commands, behaviors, and theory specifically for assistance and therapy dogs. 


Make sure to just keep up at it. If you're getting frustrated, take a deep breath, you're doing great. It's a progression, it doesn't happen overnight.

With love,

Dogtor Emerald

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