Introducing new gear to your Service Dog can be stressful for both you and your dog, but it really doesn’t have to be. Here are 10 tips that will help make the process easier – on both of you.
It doesn’t really matter what the new piece of equipment is. Whether it is a new mobility harness, a head halter such as a Gentle Leader, or a snazzy pair of boots, the general process is the same.
- Start Young: The best thing you can do to help your Service Dog accept new gear readily is to start teaching them to not to fear new things when they are young. The younger you can start, the better. You don’t have to introduce the exact equipment at this point, otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. The idea is just to get them used to new things. With a puppy, this can be particularly fun. Put socks on her or snap a pic with him in a hat. The goal is to teach your dog early that new things are okay.
- Start Slow: Not all of us have the luxury of raising our dogs from a puppy. Even if you did, you may run across the need to introduce some new kind of gear that you just haven’t prepared for. Even if you have worked your Service Dog since they were just a wee pup, the importance of starting slow cannot be overstated.
- Let Your Dog Check It Out First: Part of starting slow is letting your dog get used to the new gear before you actually try to put it into use. A new mobility harness can be scary if your dog has never seen one before. Let him examine the new item, whatever it may be. Let him sniff at it and get used to it just being in his environment first before moving on. You can even give treats as your dog is sniffing the new equipment to reinforce that it’s a positive thing.
- Make It A Good Experience: This is another thing you always want to keep in mind. Once your dog has a bad experience with a new piece of equipment, you have created a mental association that will take a long time to undo. Dogs have good memories, so be sure you make their first interactions with new equipment are good ones.
- Keep Yourself Calm: Remember that your dog picks up on your emotions. Service Dogs are especially attuned to their partners. Whatever you are feeling will travel right down the leash. This means you don’t want to let your dog know that you are nervous about trying out something new. If you are anxious, your dog will think there is something to be anxious about too. If you are calm and positive, your dog will pick up on that as well.
- Use Special Treats: Treats are the way to many a dog’s heart. The higher the value, the better. Pick a treat that your dog LOVES, and only offer that treat when you are using the new gear. A piece of hot dog or chicken may be just the thing to convince your Service Dog that “hey, maybe these boots aren’t so bad after all.” If your dog isn’t particularly food motivated, a special toy or whatever makes your dog the happiest can have the same effect. The idea here is that you want your dog to learn to equate the new gear with getting his favorite thing. This way he doesn’t see his boots and think “here’s those things that feel weird on my feet.” Instead, he sees the boots and thinks “treats are coming!”
- Throw A Party: When your dog is trying out the new gear and things are going well, let him know you are happy! Give him lots of pets and cuddles. Let him know that you are happy with him and his acceptance of the new equipment.
- Use Your Voice: When you are first starting out, keep your voice calm and reassuring. However, once your Service Dog is making progress, make sure to use your voice to let your dog know how good he is doing. Dogs react positively to a higher pitched voice. Go ahead and let yourself sound a little silly, and in the process let your dog know that he is doing a good job.
- Start Short: Don’t toss a new harness on your dog and head out for an eight-hour day at the office. Start in very short intervals and work your way up. Not only is this important to give your dog time to get used to new things, when it comes to some equipment it can be important physically. It is the same principle as breaking in a new pair of shoes. When it comes to a harness, your dog also needs a chance to build up the new muscles he will now be using.
- Don’t Push Too Hard: This is an important one to remember. If your dog starts to show signs of stress, back off and try again another time. Pushing too hard won’t help you make progress any faster, actually, it will make the process take longer in the long run. Always remember to listen to your dog and never push him too far too soon.
Keeping these 10 tips in mind can help you introduce new gear to your Service Dog without causing either one of you any more stress than it has to. New things always take some time to get used to, but you can make the transition easier. Before you know it you and your Service Dog will be comfortable with your new equipment.