Oz Working Dogs - Assistance & Working Dog Equipment

For assistance/service dog equipment, as well as guide, therapy, detection, search & rescue, police and dogs in training equipment check out my website http://www.ozworkingdogs.com.au - I make and sell vests, capes, belly bands, harnesses, handles and more... and will post to the world!

FAQs & Glossary

What is an Assistance (or Service) Dog?

An Assistance dog is a very highly trained dog who works with a disabled handler in order to help alleviate that handler's disability. The dog and handler team is granted by law the rights to public access - but only as a team. If the dog was to be with a non-disabled person, it would not be allowed public access. In order to be classed as an assistance dog, and to be given this right of public access, the dog must measure up to certain standards. These differ in different countries, so for exact details you would need to look up the details, but generally speaking, the dog must never relieve itself in public unless on command, it shouldn't approach people while 'working' with its handler, it shouldn't draw attention to itself by being noisy or with other unruly behaviour, shouldn't try to eat food in restaurants or shops, and shouldn't show any sign of behaviour problems like aggression/fear etc. These are the very basic standards that are pretty much common throughout the parts of the world that have accepted standards. Many countries have further requirements, but this is the least you can expect. Generally, the dog is leashed or harnessed in some fashion, and often wears some sort of identifying cape or patch.

In addition to these standards of general behaviour, an assistance dog must alleviate the disability of its handler by being trained to perform tasks - often three. For instance, in my case, a formal assistance retrieve is one of them, because I bend over with difficulty. A 'lean' command, where the dog leans against me when I am standing for long periods to provide support is another example. Only if a dog is trained to do tasks such as these, plus is trained to the high standards of public access as I already mentioned, can a dog be considered an assistance dog.

Training is not quick! Nor can any dog become an assistance dog. Even the big programs that breed dogs specifically to be assistance dogs, and have expert trainers, only have a pass rate of 50-60%. Basic obedience is covered for the first year of life. Then after that public access and task training can usually commence, and the dog is officially known as an Assistance dog trainee (or a Service dog in training - SDIT). Depending upon the complexity of the work the dog will be required to do, it can take up to another year to complete public access and task training.

Finally, if the dog is considered suitable, and their personality hasn't changed  for the worse as they have grown up (dogs personalities do change!), they can take their place as a working assistance dog.

Why a Golden Retriever? Why a male?

Golden Retrievers are one of two breeds used commonly for assistance, guide and hearing dog work - the other of course being the Labrador. They are friendly dogs, eager to please, get along well with children, tend not to bark much, are intelligent and gentle. They were originally bred in Scotland as a gundog for retrieving shot birds, so they have a 'soft mouth' - bred that way so they wouldn't damage the birds they were retrieving. They are medium-large dogs, and the males tend to be on the large side.

  • All these aspects are criteria I am interested in. As I am an owner trainer in a country without many owner trainers, I thought it would be useful to have a breed that is likely to be more readily accepted as an assistance dog than one of the rarer assistance dog breeds - say, a standard poodle or something. 
  • My previous dog was a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and I have heard the friendly temperament of the two breeds compared many times before, and I loved that friendliness, so definitely wanted another friendly, happy dog. 
  • Clicker training a dog who is eager to please makes the training process a lot easier!
  • I really hope to have children fairly soon, so wanted a breed of dog who would be good with kids.
  • I have a lot of headaches and migraines, I did not want a yappy/barky breed, like a hound!
  • As a dog who will need training to a high level, I need a breed with a high degree of intelligence. Goldens are rated #4 in The Intelligence of Dogs by Stanley Coren, behind the Border Collie, Poodle and German Shepherd (accuracy of testing is debatable of course, but it shows *something* at least).
  • As someone who experiences a lot of body pain I want a dog who can at least be trained to be gentle, or is gentle by nature (I don't expect him to be gentle until he settles down in age a bit!)
  • He will be doing a lot of retrieving for me, so a soft mouth is a great thing for him to have so he doesn't mark/crush etc what he is retrieving.
  • I need a large-ish dog in order to help me with my mobility issues. I wanted a male because they are a couple of inches taller than the females, are heavier and are broader in the chest.
Why clicker training?

I firmly believe in positive training techniques. Not only because I believe it is more humane and better for the dog, but because I believe it is more effective! Clicker training stimulates your dogs creativity and allows him to enjoy training like in no other way. If you can think up a trick, clicker training will allow you to train it - the possibilities are endless! Because it is so fantastic at trick training, it works wonders at assistance dog training, because many of the behaviours assistance dogs have to learn are almost like tricks. Watch this video and you will see how clicker training works, and what I mean by like tricks!  This video is from the Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs supernaturalbc2008's Youtube channel, which is a fantastic resource for assistance/service dog training videos.

The technique used on the video is called shaping, where you click/treat when the dog does something close to the behaviour you want, over and over again. The dog keeps on offering behaviours closer to what you want because he wants your treats. It is a very effective technique, and not just for trick like behaviour. It also works wonderfully for obedience behaviours like sit, down, come etc. This technique of clicking and treating is something called operant conditioning.

Why the name "Knightley"?

The name Knightley is a name taken from the character of Mr Knightley from the book Emma by Jane Austen, written in 1814. I read my first Jane Austen at maybe the age of 12, and then was caught up in the romance of the 1995 BBC adaption of Pride and Prejudice which certainly encouraged my interest. Mr Knightley is one of my favourite characters from her books, a truly decent man who sees the world in a rational and insightful way, and cares deeply about those around him. Sometimes I call my Knightley, Mr Knightley for a giggle. If my Knightley turns out half as sweet and kind as the character then I will be a lucky woman.

What are these 'levels' you keep talking about?

I have used a training program to train Knightley's basic behaviours before we start his advanced training. It was written by a fantastic clicker trainer called Sue Ailsby and is called Training Levels: Steps to Success. After many years of supporting her followers using the free online Training Levels, she has released a pair of books (also available electronically) with a lot more training material included. The levels have done a truly fantastic job at creating a well mannered dog to live with, but also a dog that learns quickly. If you want to know more about Sue Ailsby and her levels, scroll up to the top of this page and you'll find a link in the tabs called "Training Levels", and the page there is all about them.

Where do you live?

A view of Canberra in 1939, from 'Old' Parliament House
(it was only ever built as a temporary parliament, but lasted
much much longer than anyone had planned it to!) across the
Molonglo River to the War Memorial. Little did Canberra
know but it was about to stop growing for a good while, sadly.
I live in Canberra, which is the capital of Australia (no, it isn't Sydney or Melbourne!). It is in the south eastern part of Australia, about 2.5 hours drive inland. It is an unusual city in that when Australia became a country instead of a collection of colonies (federation occurred in very recently really, in 1901), the states of New South Wales (capital Sydney) and Victoria (Melbourne) both thought their big cities should be the capital of the country. It was actually one of the sticking points in Australia becoming modern Australia! Compromise was reached when they decided to site a brand new city somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne. 

The closest that I could get to the same view today. Old Parliament
House in the foreground. The Molonglo River has been dammed to
form a lake (looking a bit grey and miserable in this photo) as it
flooded all the time anyway. Anzac Parade in front of the War
Memorial has been finished, and while you can't see in, behind the
camera is "New" Parliament House.
After considering many sites, the result was eventually Canberra. Canberra has been planned from the beginning, and continues to be a planned city. It was officially founded in 1913 (centenary next year) and became the functional administrative centre in 1927, but the two world wars significantly slowed down its development as a city. Despite this Canberra has completely changed from what was once bush and a few lonely farms. Canberra is sited on land belonging to the nation of indigenous people called Ngunnawal. Many of the names of places, rivers and suburbs around Canberra come from the Ngunnawal language.

Canberra is obviously a big government administrative centre, but also has a big arts and culture scene, has great restaurants, and wonderful access to natural beauty on our doorstep. I consider myself lucky to live here.

This is very much a work in progress, but if you have a suggestion of what I should add next, please go ahead and comment. I haven't yet gone over most of these definitions, and the vast majority are my own, so if you disagree with any, or would like to see changes, please do chime in!

The Qs are the actual cues that I use for the behaviours.

Assistance Dog
A dog that has been intensively trained to work with a disabled handler to help ameliorate their disability by providing them with help such as mobility assistance, allergen detection, epilepsy fit detection, diabetes monitoring, counter-balance assistance, autism support and much much more. Guide Dogs, Psychiatric Service Dogs (such as for PTSD) and Hearing Dogs also come under the heading of Assistance Dogs. Dogs specifically for medical disabilities are generally further defined as service dogs.
A small device with a metal component that makes a sharp clicking sound when depressed. They usually are in plastic housing, and often come with wrist bands to keep them handy. The clicker is used to mark desireable behaviour of your dog, which you then follow with a treat. This is part of operant conditioning.
Come / Recall
The handler calls the dog to them with a verbal and/or physical cue. For a formal recall, the dog comes to sit at the handlers feet. The behaviour is usually ended with a finish.
The dog starts at the handlers left side. Upon cue and/or hand signal the dog travels directly forward until it reaches an object acting as a pole, upon which it goes around the object, then travels back to its handler, where it sits in front. I end the behaviour with a finish. 
Q = go round
All four of the dogs feet are on the floor, and in addition the dogs belly is in complete contact with the floor and light cannot be seen under the dog at any time throughout the behaviour. 
Q = down
Hip dysplasia
A malformation of the hip joint in dogs which has a partial genetic base. Being overweight, too much jumping/stairs when young and the joint is being formed, and bad nutrition can account for other causes, although the genetic link is very strong.
The dog holds an object given by its handler, either with or without the handler also holding the object. If possible, the dog holds the object on its pre-molars just behind its canines. This is a precursor when training an assistance type retrieve.
Q = get it 
Operant conditioning
A process of behavior modification in which the likelihood of a specific behaviour is increased or decreased through positive or negative reinforcement (eg food) every time a behavior is offered, so that the dog (or other pet, or human!) comes to associate the pleasure or displeasure of the reinforcement with the behaviour (eg every time the dog moves into a sit position it gets food, therefore sit is a pleasurable behaviour to engage in).
Paw targeting, the dog will use its paw to target whatever is offered, whether it be a hand, a target disc or a solid object.   
Q = paw
The dog is completely relaxed and limp with no tension, making no noise, and is not worried. The dog is lying on its side, its legs all out to the side. 
Q = relax
Relaxation Protocol
A protocol designed by Karen Overall to teach dogs to relax. It is designed around a 15 day cycle, where you do a set series of behaviours, mostly keeping the dog in a sit whilst you do other things, such as walking away, counting aloud, clapping, walking to the door and so on. It teaches your dog to be patient and not get upset, and also teaches you to give your dog lots of feedback. Good for those especially uptight dogs.
Service Dog
A dog that has been intensively trained to work with a disabled handler to help ameliorate their disability by providing them with help such as mobility assistance, allergen detection, epilepsy fit detection, diabetes monitoring, counter-balance assistance, autism support dog and much much more. In Australia we call these dogs Assistance Dogs. 
Shake paws. The dog offers his right paw to shake hands with it. 
Q = shake
Using operant conditioning (usually clicker training) in order to slowly form (ie, 'shape') a behaviour into what you wish it to be by rewarding successive changes that are closer and closer to what you wish the final behaviour to be, and steering it in any direction you wish. The advantage of shaping is, if you have patience, anything the dog is physically capable of is eminently trainable!
All four of the dogs feet are on the floor, and in addition the dogs behind is also on the floor. 
Q = sit  
All four feet of the dog maintain contact with the floor at all times throughout the behaviour - there is no dancing around, no stepping on the spot. The feet must be glued to the floor. 
Q = stand
Nose targeting, the dog will touch whatever target is offered with its nose, whether it be a hand, a target wand or a solid object. 
Q = touch
Training Levels
A dog training manual based on the principles of positive reinforcement and and operant conditioning written by the well known trainer Sue Ailsby. There are both new and old Training Levels - the old is available free on Sue's website, and the new, much revised, is only available in a two book volume set by order from Sue's website. The Training Levels are equally perfect as a primer for an assistance dog prospect, for a puppy intended for dogsports or for a well behaved household pet.
The dog calls upon its self control specifically when commanded to, but this behaviour is intended to become a way of life for the dog, so that he is able to choose a path in life where he has control of himself without going crazy, chasing things, eating every in his path. The cue should work for many situations, so that the dog will leave food alone, leave other dogs alone, leave rubbish on a path alone, leave a leash alone and more. A perfect example is putting a nice raw sausage in front of the dog and cueing it with zen. When well taught the dog should be quite relaxed, focused on its handler and not at all wanting to go to the sausage.... the sausage should basically be poison.  
Q = leave it


  1. Hi there Lyssa,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. You have your head screwed on correctly about what to expect with service dogs.

    I trained my own Mobility dog, she went on to gain public access about three years ago.

    You wrote on Training Levels about Knightley's appetite and I was wondering if he is overfed?

    Reading the blog you said you were feeding four meals a day (hope this is cute down to 3 now).

    Try feeding the nourishing food from his meals and cut out the treats if you can, wasted calories. Cindy got her entire food by hand, no food bowls at all apart from milk.

    Try using your pups preferred reinforcer, you can do it sitting on the floor without getting knocked over. He will still have a soft mouth.

    ~Pat Robards
    Gosford - Oz

  2. Thanks for your comments Pat! Nice to know my writings are enjoyed. Quite a few seem to read my blog but few comment so it's hard to know.

    Yep, we are down to three times a day now for meals. I only did four times a day for the first two weeks. I am working on making his meals a little less 'yummy' so maybe the treats will become more attractive to him. He is nicely lean at the moment, and we are following a slow growth plan and he is well within those tolerances. So he is definitely not being overfed. I know sometimes he is hungry, and it puzzles me why he isn't more enthusiastic about things like running after the particularly yummy treats.

    I planned from the start to just use his kibble for his clicker training, but that completely failed, he wouldn't do a thing for it. I am going through a process at the moment to teach him to like it more, and that includes hand feeding.

    Anyway, thanks for your input, all I can do is persevere with a mixture of food and toys, and hope he grows up more food motivated!