Public access training

I see so many people pushing their young dogs, taking them out too early, and then them burning out as a result and not being able to be service dogs. So I decided to write up how I go about public access training my dogs in training.

I start out hanging out outside of a store, giving treats for focusing whenever people and carts come by.  

Then I walk into the store about 10 feet, turn around and leave.  Repeat. I stay at this stage for a few weeks at least.

Then walk into the store and hang out for a few minutes in the entrance (5 min tops!) and then leave.  Repeat for a few weeks at least.

I gradually increase distance into the store and duration, but not at the same time.

So I might walk around the produce section for that 5 minutes to increase distance in the store.

Then the next time I go into the store, I might hang out at the entrance for 10 minutes.

Gradually over months I build up to working longer and farther in the store.

I also keep training sessions short.  In the beginning when I’m first doing public access, I’ll only do a couple 5 minute sessions with a break in between.  Later on as I get more advanced I work up to a total of about 30 min of training, which might include several trips into the store (I don’t count break time between in-store trips).

Brad coined the phrase “psychological shock absorbers” and I really love this phrase.  It means that our dogs must be trained slowly and carefully so that they develop the ability to handle things, whatever things come their way.

Because public access work is really stressful!  It doesn’t seem that different to us to go into no pet places because we are used to it.  But to a dog it is a whole new world.  A world with strange sights, sounds, and smells, and with a huge deal of unpredictability.  Our dogs must be able to handle this chaos and uncertainty mentally or else they will get too stressed and burn out or act out.

I also wanted to emphasize how important it is to train and not shop when you’re doing public access training!

It’s SO much easier to start out like you can hold out, as my great-grandmother used to say.  She would always tell about how when she got married, she refused to cook for her husband every night for the first year just so that he wouldn’t expect her to cook every night for the rest of their lives.  “Start out like you can hold out” she would tell me, with lots of examples!

So if you go into a store and focus on your shopping, your attention is away from your dog and your dog will develop bad habits.  If you’re looking at the ingredients on the cereal box, your dog is learning that when you’re occupied, they can sniff around the food, solicit attention, grab something from the floor, or generally not behave as you want them to behave, because you won’t notice.  These things are self-reinforcing.  That means that the dog is getting rewarded in their brain by doing these things, and so you are teaching your dog to do these things when you are looking at a cereal box.

Instead when we are doing public access training, we need to be focused on our dogs at all times, making sure they understand at all times how to behave.  

I didn’t shop for at least the first year of public access training, maybe even longer.  I just trained in stores when I had my service dog in training with me.  I would follow Brad as he shopped, and order stuff online so that I didn’t have to shop.  Still to this day sometimes Hestia has bad days and I can’t shop.  I have to have Brad do the shopping while I focus on training Hestia.

Then when your dog is solid in the store, you have to start training them what to do when you need to read that cereal box.  You don’t just jump into shopping, you have to train them into it.  So you have them sit-stay and you pick up a box, reward. 

Move on to picking up the box and pretending you’re looking at it while you’re actually watching your dog, reward for good behavior, let them know that you see them when they try to take advantage of you not looking at them.  Do this for longer and longer.  

Still to this day, 5 years in, I bring treats and reward Hestia occasionally for behaving while I am looking at items on the shelf.

So remember, don’t shop at first.  Train.  Add in shopping later.

I hope this method of going slowly helps others! It really is he best way to go to avoid burnout. I generally don’t start taking my puppies out to no-pet places until they are 6-9 months old. Gotta develop those psychological shock absorbers so that in the future, when there’s chaos (and there will be!), they will not be stressed.

Veronica, a woman with brown hair wearing a brown dress, stands in a grocery store holding treats in one hand and looking down at a small white and black Japanese Chin wearing a green bandana. Hestia is looking up at Veronica expectantly, as they are in the middle of a training session inside the store.

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