Veterans With Dogs: Force Free Training

guest blog by Becky Aggett

Becky Aggett, the Training Manager at Veterans With Dogs has a wealth of knowledge and many years of experience in training dogs to be life changers for this wonderful charity. Veterans With Dogs provide assistance dogs for ex-military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions.

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At Veterans With Dogs, our dogs provide companionship, routine, and a sense of purpose, they can also help by giving confidence in public places. The dogs are taught specific tasks to help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, these include, waking from nightmares, alerting to raising levels of anxiety, interrupting flashbacks, medication reminders, and help to provide grounding.

All our training methods are based around force-free option-based learning. Our dogs work because they want to not because they have to. 

Focusing on what we prefer the dog to do and rewarding this instead of focusing on what we do not want the dog to do. We offer the dog a choice, if the dog makes the right choice, this behaviour is reinforced with something positive. If the dog makes the wrong choice, then we make the choice we want them to choose more attractive. We redirect any undesirable behaviour; we never use punishment with the dogs at all.

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Rewards do not always come in the form of treats, it might be, praise, freedom, play, toys, or affection, all these things can be directed to help the dog make the right choices. Our dogs trust their people, they are not in intimidated or wary of them they are keen to try new things. This enables our dogs to feel confident enough to communicate when they sense something is wrong.

Our dogs work to a very high standard and must pass a public access test before working in public, using these methods we achieve these standards without causing stress to the dog or the owner, training should always be a pleasure for both.

If something isn't working, we teach our veterans to stand back and look at what is wrong in that training session. Is the dog too tired? Too thirsty? Or simply overexcited? Would having a rest or changing location set them up for success. It is important not to keep forcing the dog to perform something but to step back and address why it is not working. We use the motto ‘set up for success’ with all aspects of our training for the dog, the veterans, and the staff.

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Part of the mutually beneficial relationship is ensuring all our dogs needs are met, are they on the right food? Are they exercised enough and in the right way? Have they got enough enrichment and foraging opportunities? Enough social interaction with other dogs? When the dog’s needs are met it enables them to be available to support a person in need. We ensure all our dogs have enough time to be a dog and play in-between work. Making a truly balanced dog also makes the training easier and ensures the dogs can be themselves

Communication is something that is extremely important for our assistance dogs, there is often a lot of focus on communicating what we want the dog to do or in many cases not to do. However, it is also extremely important to focus on what the dogs are trying to tell us. Learning how to understand if our dog has a need for a comfort break or water, a need to run free, a need for reassurance. With our assistance dogs, the dog will often notice when something isn't right with their human. We can teach the owners the skills to recognise what the dogs are telling them and then what action to take. We also teach the dogs appropriate ways to get their veteran's attention or subtle ways to provide comfort when they are anxious or struggling. We harness the dog’s natural ability and help them develop their skills to be able to comfort or interrupt their owner in distress. Most dogs can read their human’s emotions and physiological changes, but the owner needs to be able to understand what their dog is telling them. 

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When you combine all these elements you get a truly wonderful partnership, Our training ethos increases the bond between veteran and their dog. Trust is built. Communication runs both ways dogs and owners understand each others behavioural changes and subtle cues . Both parties can provide comfort and support because neither is frustrated or stressed. 

To find out more about the incredible work our friends at Veterans With Dogs do, click here.