Service Dog Working Relationship

You often hear “Treat your Service Dog like a Service Dog and Not a Pet”.    What you don’t hear is how do you do that.


Another often heard idea is that “You Must Bond with your Service Dog”.
  • What if you don’t?
  • What happens then?
  • Will he not work for you?
Then of course there’s the “You must be a Good Leader”.
  • How many 5 year old’s can really become their dogs Leader? – None!
  • So does that mean the Service Dog won’t work for a 5 year old?

The Answer to all these questions can be found in defining and creating a Working Relationship with your Service Dog.

Working Relationship –

Oxford Dictionary definition —

  • The relationship between people who interact because of work;
  • A level of cooperation sufficient to allow work to be done, progress to be made, etc.;
  • A functional or effective relationship.

What is the Definition of a Service Dog –

A Service Dog is a type of Assistance Dog specifically trained to help people who have disabilities, such as hearing, visual, motor, endocrine, psychiatric etc.

Great working relationships are the foundation upon which you build outstanding performance in your Service Dog.

Building a High Performance Team requires, Good Communication, Respect, Trust, Boundaries and Cooperation.

Human behavior will influence the Service Dog behavior by changing the emotional valence and arousal of the dog.

  • The dog’s perception of his handler will affect performance.
  • Positive association yields positive performance.
  • Negative association yields negative performance.
  • Top performing dogs choose to work for their handler because the handler is important to them.

Service Dogs choose to work because of the Emotional Value (pleasure) that they receive in performing the task.

It is not as many people believe for the resources they receive as rewards such as food treats, toys, physical praise.

It is the connection and bond that exists after the resources are gone.

How is the Working Relationship built?

 The goal is to engage the dog and establish Active Participation.  The more you engage with the dog and actively participate with each other, the more your mutual  understanding and bond will grow and strengthen over time.

Activities such as Obedience Training, Walking, Hiking, Play are the mechanical skills that will bring you both closer to each other.


Obedience Training –

Obedience Training is what opens the doorway to communication with your Service Dog.  It will become the mutual language. Once you speak the same language you can develop Focus.

Focus – is the essential foundation to building the relationship.

  • Focus is attention and eye contact. If you have the dog’s eyes you have his brain.
  • When you ask for his eye contact and attention to command – you can teach him to IGNORE everything else in his environment no matter what. This is essential for all Service Dogs.

The Walk  – So much is written about how to teach a dog to Heel on leash.  However not much is understood as to why this is important.

  • It is important because the handler is controlling the space in which the dog travels.
  • It is the handler who sets the pace and directs the location.
  • It is the handler communicating who is in charge and leading the way.

Stay in position -The handler decides what he and his dog will do at any given moment.

  • Service Dogs must lay quietly at the handler’s feet while in many public venues.
  • It is the handler that controls time.

Recall to the handler –  The dogs chooses to do what the handler commands instead of what the dog desires.  The handler should be THE most important thing in a Service Dogs life!

Play – Engaging your dog’s Natural Instincts (Drive) for Play and Prey encourages them to chase, catch and seek out resources.

  • Play Drive – Is the dogs desire to to gain physical contact with the handler, or other dogs.
  • Dogs invite other dogs to “play” through a specific behavior called Beckhov’s Bow or sometimes called Puppy Play Bow.
  • Once a dog bows and is accepted by another dog, play is understood by both dogs as just play regardless of mouthing and vocalizations of growling, barking.
  • The Beckhov’s Bow is useful in engaging a dog to play.

Prey Drive – Is the dogs desire to chase, grasp and subdue prey.  Prey Drive can be further broken down in to the subtotal of it’s whole.

  1. Retrieve Drive. The desire to bring prey back to the handler.
  2. Air Scenting. This is the impulse to hunt by lifting the nose and sniffing air currents for a desired odor. This is the primary drive engaged with Diabetic Alert Dogs.
  3. Tracking. This is the impulse to hunt by putting the nose down to the ground to trail or track odors (rafts) left behind by the passage of prey.

Understanding the importance of playing with your Service Dog is key to a successful working relationship.

  • There are various APPROPRIATE ways to play with your dog.
  • There are also INAPPROPRIATE was to play with your Service Dog.
  • Your emotional valence is critically important. Be enthusiastic and excited when engaging your dog in play But try not to be overwhelming.
  • Use a happy upbeat tone of voice to encourage interest in playing.
  • Don’t play games that frustrate your dog to the point of losing interest. Light teasing with a toy will get his attention but no extended keep away or grabbing toys from his mouth.
  • Frequent short games are more productive than playing until your dog is exhausted or loses interest. Stop while he’s still having fun.  Make him excited about playing with you.
Appropriate Games –

Retrieve – Retrieving is the foundation for many Service Dog tasks.  Tasks such as fetching a Blood Glucose Meter, Glucose Tabs, Juice, Phone.  It is also an excellent way to exercise your dog and strengthen your bond with him at the same time. Retrieve requires the dog to Send Away from the handler, Pick up an item, Bring back to the handler, Drop on Command.

Once the dog has learned the behavior add obstacles such as jumps, tunnels and including Drop on Recall Behavior.  Sequences require building teamwork and trust.

Hide and Seek – Teaching your Service Dog Hide and Seek is a fun way to teach him that staying close to you is rewarding.  It also increases your dogs attention to you and helps establish that you truly are the provider of all things good in his life.  Dogs are born instinctive hunters.  What better way to engage your dog than to make you the object of the hunt.

Shell Game – This problem solving game is mentally stimulating to the dogs brain but also a fun way to engage his nose.

  1. Use three Red Solo Cups
  2. Have the dog watch you as you place a treat under one of the cups.
  3. Shuffle the cups around.
  4. Encourage your dog to “Find It” underneath the cup.

Play for Pay – Making your dog work for his meal is one of the easiest ways you can make your dog perform some basic known commands.

  1. Call your dog to you.
  2. Ask him to Sit place a handful of food 2-3 feet in front of him.
  3. Once calm, Release him to the food.
  4. Repeat until the appropriate amount of food is consumed.

In nature dogs Must work to find food.  The dogs very survival depends on his ability to hunt, capture and subdue a prey animal.  The psychology of the dog depends on his working for food.  Service Dogs should NEVER be fed from a bowl!

Inappropriate Games –


Never play the chase game with your Service Dog.  This can ruin your dog’s recall.  Playing Chase teaches the dog that you moving toward him means “Game On – Let’s Run”.  The dog can dash away from you and into the street or other unsafe area.


This is certainly a controversial position but in my experience dogs become highly aroused when playing tug.  For most people the game rules are not clearly understood and the risk of creating a behavior that carries heavy consequences simply isn’t worth the risk.  Dogs aroused beyond threshold can manifest poor self-control.  In a highly aroused state a dog can mistake a hand for a tug item.  By allowing the dog to “win” and keep control of the tug item, the dog can exhibit resource guarding behaviors.

Free Play with Unknown Dogs

It is a mistake to assume that all dogs at the dog park are well trained and mannered.  All too often fights break out.  Your dog may be attacked.  Generally these fights do not just involve two dogs but a pack mentality takes hold and it can be many dogs against one.

All dogs are born with a Defense Drive which means Fight or Flight instinct.  When a dog is thrust into a dog park situation he is forced into Defense Drive immediately.  He will be approached by the other dogs and assessed by the other dogs and (depending on your dog’s response) may be invited to join the existing pack.

If your dog doesn’t understand Pack Structure and feels threatened he may seek you out for protection.  If you encourage him to play and don’t provide for his needs your dog will be in conflict and he will lose his confidence in you as his leader.

When your dog is approached by a dog that is acting in an aggressive manor You must take on the role of protecting your dog.  I highly recommend carrying Pepper Spray to break up a fight.  Once a dog is attacked by another dog, he could become a dog aggressive dog himself.  And this ONLY has to happen ONCE for a permanent temperament change to happen in some dogs.

Dog Parks are also havens for every dog related illness in your community.  Diseases such as Canine Influenza, Parvovirus, Distemper and Kennel Cough. Parasites such as fleas, ticks, Giardia are easy to pick up.

The Most Important reason why Service Dogs should NOT be allowed free play with other dogs is simply it undermines your importance to the dog and his training.

  • You should be the center of your dogs universe. The provider of all things good in his life.  Why would you give that title away to other dogs?
  • Dogs are contextual learners, meaning if you allow him to interact and play with other dogs he WILL learn that other dogs means he’s off the clock.

Example: You take your Service Dog to your friend’s house, who owns a friendly pet dog.  You allow the dogs to meet and greet and release your dog to “Play” with the friendly pet dog.  The dogs start playing a game of chase and tackle.  Many things happen that you simply are unaware of.

  • Your dog is NOT focusing on you.
  • The game can turn highly aroused and lead to injury.
  • Your dog is learning that in this presence of other dogs, he isn’t working. This can easily be carried over to other contexts such as Public Venues where other pet/working dogs are present. This can also manifest into attention seeking/play initiating behaviors towards other dogs.
Inappropriate Games For Diabetic Alert Dogs “Hide the Scent Sample”
  • NEVER hide Low or High Blood Glucose Saliva Samples under rugs, towels, in closets, drawers, blankets, furniture.
  • DADs need to know that the desired odor of a low or high blood glucose is ALWAYS on their person PERIOD.
  • If you insist on playing this game you are undermining your dogs trust. Your dog trusts that YOU are the source and creator of the odor and that YOU are the ONLY source of REWARD for alerting on that desired odor.
Affection –    

Successful Service Dog Teams all have one trait in common.  The dynamics of the relationship are well defined for both the human and the dog.

The most desired reward you can give to your dog is your attention and affection.  He who controls the affection controls the relationship.  An old saying from years gone by is “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free”.

Consider these different scenarios.

  1. The human approaches the dog sleeping on the floor. The human lowers himself to eye level to the dog and speaks softly to the dog and kisses the dog on the side of his face while stroking his head.  The dog wakes and snaps the human in the face.     Was the dog at fault?       Who controls this relationship?
  1. The human wishing to share affection with the dog, calls the dog to him. The human opens his palm to the dog.  The dog responds with tail wagging and soft body language.  The human then strokes the dog.    Who controls this relationship?
  1. The human is sitting in a chair and the dog jumps up onto the human’s lap, eagerly licking the humans face. The human responds by petting the dog, and talking as if he’s cooing an infant.    Who controls this relationship?
  1. The dog jumps up onto the humans bed, snuggles up next to his human, the human moves over to afford the dog space and comfort.  Who controls this relationship?
  1. The human invites the dog to join him on the couch. The human instructs the dog to lay next to him and the human shares affection with the dog.  The dog is then told to get down off of the couch.  The dog complies and lays at the humans feet.    Who controls this relationship?

Many dog lovers see their dogs as surrogate humans that wear fur coats and generously shower affection onto their dogs.  This can and does affect the working relationship.

  • It undermines the nature of your desired relationship and lessons the value of your reward.
  • The affection (reward) will have little meaning to the dog.
  • Affection is the most difficult resource for humans to control, however it is the most important.

A dog does not need to love his handler to establish a Working Relationship with him.

Many military dogs, Drug detection dogs, Explosive Detection Dogs, Obedience Trial Champions are ONLY taken from their kennels for training and/or work.

Military dogs are not taken to a handlers home. They live on base in a kennel. These dog’s entire lives revolve around training and work.  Often these are 8-12 hour work shifts.

Working dogs once taken from their kennels are eager to work.

Their entire lives revolve around training and playing games.

Commands are never ignored or repeated.

Behaviors are carried out with precision.

Compliance to commands is expected and reinforced with games, treats and affection.

If you think these dogs don’t enjoy their life you’ve never actually watched them work.


So what does it mean when a Service Dog Trainer says to  “Treat your Service Dog like a Service Dog and Not a Pet”?

It means First and Foremost to establish a Working Relationship with your Service Dog.

The bonding will take care of itself.

Service Dog handlers who maintain successful working relationships with their dogs feel pride in their dog’s abilities and the positive impact that they have on their lives.



28 thoughts on “Service Dog Working Relationship”

  1. I like the specific examples of how to interact appropriately with your service dog. I didn’t realize the importance of obedience in establishing the working relationship.

    How will I be notified of any new posts on this blog?

  2. Wow Lily that is great information and you really explain everything very detailed! I love the refreshing reminders and knowing that most of the things you told us to do are still working clearly! This is great information for any dog owner! It makes me know we are doing things right! And one or two things we need to do 😊.
    Thank you !

  3. Чем тросотличается от канатов, веревок и шнуров. Читайте статью от специалистов

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