Shaping Service Dogs to Overcome Fear of Unknown Surfaces
A central tenet of service dog training is fostering non-reactivity to various stimuli to ensure a resilient and reliable service dog for the client. Service dogs should remain relatively unfazed by dogs passing by, people talking to them, and other types of environmental stimuli. One aspect of service dog training that is not written about too often is the task of building resilience toward different types of surfaces, such as shiny mall floors, glass flooring, grates, manhole covers, wobbly construction boards, puddles and the like. While there are a variety of approaches to building such resilience, the shaping technique, based on progressive micro-steps, is one of the most effective ways to overcome fear of surfaces in service dogs.
Typically, service dog training is divided into two main components: puppy training, which relies on amateur dog handlers and puppy raisers, and advanced training, led by qualified service dog instructors. For the duration of a service dog’s training experience, it is essential to help the pups become confident in all types of situations and help alleviate stress wherever possible. In service dogs, an aversion to certain surfaces could negatively impact their work and ultimately undermine their successful completion of service dog training; therefore, it is important to build confidence in approaching them from an early age.
Using the example of surfaces, a dog that does not like certain surfaces might start making dangerous decisions in order to avoid them. For example, they might push their handler into the street to avoid a grate, or walk them into an oncoming person on the sidewalk in order to go around a puddle. Surface aversion can also be compounded by trigger stacking, the cumulative effect of multiple stressors resulting in a negative reaction. Imagine a dog has an aversion to walking over grates. Now imagine that dog is in a busy environment, hears a loud noise, has their toes stepped on, and eventually has to walk over a grate they are already fearful of. The stress of the grate might just send them over the edge to a point where they are now so stressed they cannot perform their task anymore.
Trainers may employ a variety of approaches to the task of having dogs walk over surfaces they are trying to avoid. One such method is the use of leash pressure to get the dog to step onto the surface. This approach carries some risks, though. Often times it increases the fear, resulting in the avoidance of the surface from a greater distance at the next approach. If the dog does it but reluctantly so, the stress that comes from those repressed feelings will likely affect their work otherwise. It takes a lot of skill to use leash pressure in a more communicative way that uses very minimal force. Even with the deftest skill, it is not the most fun way for dogs to learn, and the more fun learning is the better the learned task sticks.
Another possible technique is to prompt a dog forward by throwing food onto the surface. However, there is a risk that the dog recognizes the true intention of the action and feels pressured to complete it. In addition, there is also a risk of developing bad habits, such as picking food off the floor, which is highly undesirable in a service dog context. In theory, such consequences can be avoided if a specific marker is used, or if it is otherwise made clear to the dog that only under certain circumstances are they to pick food up off the floor. However, this requires a lot of handler skill and effort, and therefore it is generally not encouraged for amateur handlers such as puppy raisers to throw food on the floor as a training strategy.
An alternative and preferable approach is to lure the dog onto the surface with food in your hand. This technique may be effective in addressing mild fear, but there are two major downsides to this approach. First, the dog might not realize until they have stepped on it that the handler is luring them onto a surface they hope to avoid—such delayed realization may result in a panicked rush off the surface, and subsequent reluctance to try again the next time. Second, luring inherently relies on applying a considerable amount of pressure on the dog. It is likely that the dog recognizes that their handler is trying to make them walk over the surface they are trying to avoid. This pressure can make the dog reluctant to participate, and it can even affect the dog-handler relationship.
One of the most effective approaches to help dogs become more comfortable with surfaces is the shaping technique, which relies on dividing the task into small, manageable pieces, and working the dog through each micro-step progressively based on successful completion of the previous step (for more details about shaping visit here). While other approaches may be successful faster, I have found that dogs taught through shaping typically show greater long-term resilience and confidence in approaching undesirable surfaces. This approach relies on turning the training task into a game for the dogs, making for a more pleasurable experience for them and therefore increasing their motivation to participate. If done right, shaping inherently reduces the pressure to move at a specified pace during the training process, only progressing to the next step once the dog has confidently mastered the previous one, thus creating a less stressful learning environment for the dog.
Shaping is not an easy skill to master as a trainer, and can be even more difficult for an amateur handler. Successful use of the shaping technique relies on cultivating a low-pressure environment and making the process of learning enjoyable. In order to accomplish this, the handler should temporarily let go of the end goal, to minimize the pressure on the dog and truly allow them to go at their own pace.
For this approach to be successful, it is best to begin with surfaces that do not incite fear in the dog. In our puppy raising program at BC & Alberta Guide Dogs, puppy raisers are taught shaping techniques that can be practiced in an informal home setting to introduce both dogs and handlers to the concept of shaping. In class, the handlers are taught to shape their dogs to lie on a soft surface such as a towel, and instructed to practice shaping their dog to lie on other similar surfaces around the home, such as beds or blankets. Dogs that have previously experienced and enjoyed the exercise of being shaped to lie on their bed usually catch on quickly when you try to shape them to walk onto a surface they are unsure of.
The trainer in this video is Puppy Training Supervisor, Samantha Jagt. She is my counterpart on Vancouver Island.
Puppy raisers may be skeptical about the use of this approach as opposed to more traditional techniques such as luring or leash guidance. An effective way to get them motivated is to show them how much fun the dogs have when doing the exercise, and to show enthusiasm for it as a trainer by emphasizing the mental stimulation of the task and identifying signs of excitement in the dog upon successful completion of the task. Many times, when the shaping process is concluded, the dogs naturally initiate another repetition all on their own, and may even take it one step further as if to say, “Let’s keep going! Look what I just did…!” When the training session is enjoyable for the dog, they are motivated to complete tasks and retain this confidence in a real-world setting.
A common example of a problematic surface is various types of grates. Typically, puppies are gently exposed to them early on to develop a familiarity with these surfaces, but every now and then there are pups who would avoid grates if given the choice. If a puppy avoids a surface the first time they encounter it, we suggest handlers just move on and try it again another time. If it becomes a trend and the dog repeatedly shows issues with a certain surface, one should try to help the dog work through it. Sometimes it’s simply a preference, and other times you might be dealing with a fearful dog that has had a negative experience with such a grate before. The following step-by step shaping methodology has been effective in helping dogs in our program overcome their reluctance or fear, and has repeatedly resulted in dogs showing enthusiasm for the previously avoided surface.
First, it is important to give the dog lots of leash length so that they have the choice whether to approach or avoid.
Second, the handler should start moving toward the edge of the platform themselves and wait.
Third, the handler should wait for and reward incremental movements from the dog toward getting onto the surface, taking care to move to the next micro-step at the dog’s pace once they have confidently completed the previous one. At BC & Alberta Guide Dogs we generally reward away from the surface. This is to reset the dog for the next repetition but also to avoid over-exposure to a surface the dog might be unsure of. There is something to be said for rewarding the dog on the surface to build value for it and one might choose to do so instead, especially when working on station behaviour that is not one that the dog is unsure of. Depending on the dog, a shaping plan might look as follows:
- Dog steps within 1 ft of the grate
- Steps within 0.5 ft of the grate
- Sniffs the grate (I always pay for this step, but only once in order to avoid it becoming part of the behaviour)
- Steps right in front of the grate
- Puts one foot on the grate
- Puts two feet on the grate
- Puts three feet on the grate
- Puts four feet on the grate
- Walks farther onto the grate
- Walks right into the middle of the grate
- Walks the entire length of the grate without veering to the side
This is the very first shaping session for this 4-month-old pup. The dog is quite excitable and jumpy as I work with her; I believe this is because we are working in front of an audience and directly after a handler change.
It’s important to note that even when the shaping technique is used, handlers can accidentally put too much pressure on dogs, undermining the process and reducing its effectiveness. One should not discount how much pressure handlers are able to apply to dogs with body language alone. For some dogs, the shaping plan described above would not work because the dog might experience the trainer walking up to the grate as pressure to get on. In such a case, the handler should stay at the dog’s level or behind, and wait for the dog to initiate movement toward the grate on their own. Often times the handler can walk towards the surface or shift their body weight into the desired direction to help out a bit and to encourage the dog to take it one step further, but sometimes this can have the exact opposite effect, causing the dog to retreat. Most service dog candidates are confident enough to walk right up to the surface without issue and they respond well to body cues; if these traits are not present in the dog, then I might start to question their suitability for service dog work.
If at any moment the dog gets uncomfortable again and tries to retreat, the handler should let them, move away with them, potentially give them a short break, and then try again. Giving dogs such choice usually results in more enthusiastic participation moving forward, whereas preventing the dog from moving away can increase their fear and create reluctance to try again. If a dog has shown avoidance, for example after putting the second foot onto the grate, the handler should let the dog retreat, then guide the dog back for another repetition but go back one step in the shaping plan and reward the dog for putting just one foot onto the grate. If the dog has shown great enthusiasm again, you might be able to move on to the next step right away. If the dog still shows some reluctance, either repeat the current step a few more times or back up even further within your shaping plan.
If done correctly, it doesn’t usually take very long for dogs to start seeking out the grates all on their own, which commonly happens within the first training session. It looks as if some magical force is driving them to repeatedly step onto the grate. As most trainers probably know, this magical force is called “reinforcement history.”
While amateur handlers such as puppy raisers can be taught a skillset around shaping dogs to manage neutral surfaces such as beds or towels, it is preferable to have the professional trainer take over the handling when working the dog through a surface the dog is afraid of. It is important to set a positive tone around shaping, to ensure the dog finishes a session feeling empowered. Handlers with little experience in shaping can easily frustrate or pressure their dogs. Once a dog shows enthusiasm for the task, the trainer can hand the leash back over to the puppy raiser and let them finish the process, provided the trainer feels confident in the handler’s abilities.
The only drawback of this exercise is that it may inadvertently place too much value on a surface, resulting in the dog constantly seeking it out or pulling toward it. However, this problem generally subsides once the handler stops reinforcing the dog. If withholding reinforcement is not enough, then it can be treated like any other distraction. It is important to note that the avoidance does not tend to resurface if reinforcement stops because at this point the dog has forgotten all about their negative associations with the surface.
Shaping, when executed properly, can be a low-risk and effective technique to overcoming fear of surfaces and building confidence in dogs and amateur handlers alike. It empowers the dog to go at their own pace and carries much less risk of fallout compared to other common methods.
Born and raised in Switzerland alongside two Tibetan Terriers and a menagerie of other pets, Matthias Lenz always dreamed of working with animals. His experiences traveling, working and living abroad eventually led him to Vancouver, Canada, where he started working with dogs. He is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner and certified professional dog walker. After several years training pet dogs, he transitioned into his work with service dogs. In his current role as Puppy Training Supervisor for BC & Alberta Guide Dogs, he is responsible for recruiting, training and instructing volunteer puppy raisers on how to raise, train and prepare service dog puppies for Guide-, Autism- and PTSD service dog work.