Okay, this takes serious time and engagement! The best way I heard this explained in the service dog training class is that Truman needs to have the MOST fun with Sophia. In the early stages, every time he is around her he should be getting a treat, attention or praise. If you have other kids, you have the added responsibility of making sure your other children don’t accidentally bond more with the dog than this child it is providing service for. If this happens it is called cross-bonding. I have spent as much time fending off my other kids from giving attention to the new dog as I do encouraging Sophia and Truman to be a team.
A few ways that we have encouraged this are to build Truman right into her daily routine.
1. Good Night Story. Build your service dog right into an existing bed time routine. If you read a book at night, train the dog to “lap” on you and/or your child while reading the book. The consistency of your child’s routine will make great practice for the dog. If your child is high functioning, have the child read a book to the dog. Sophia loves to read Clifford to Truman!
2. Evening Snack. If your child has any type of evening snack, make a special treat for the dog to participate. For example, if the dog likes peanut butter, save this snack for this event each night. Put some peanut butter in their Kong chew toy and give to them while your child has their snack. Over time, show your child how to prepare the snack for the dog.
3. Keep a Candy Dish for Treats! As soon as we got home, it became clear that treats needed to be accessible. Place a candy dish with a secure top in your child’s bedroom (if your sure they won’t eat them) and in other common areas in the house. This can become a chore for your child to keep the treat jars full and gives them access to give treats to the dog as often as they want. This is a great independent skill for them to learn.
4. Dog Chores: Each morning, I make a list of chores or tasks that each child needs to complete when they get home from school. Sophia looks for this note as soon as she gets home each day. As my other kids have chores like laundry and dishes, Sophia gets tasks like these:
- “Brush Truman 15 times” – encourages grooming and counting skills
- “Get water for Truman” – Set a pitcher near the water bowl. Then show the child how to fill the pitcher with water and pour into the bowl. This helps with motor skills and can be useful when they learn to pour juice or milk.
- “Show Truman where all of the sinks are” – You might want to put a treat in their hand and have them give the treat to the dog each time they find a sink. For some, this will be a hard task to find the sink themselves. It will also help your child learn to call the dog and get the dog to follow your child. You can easily replace “sinks” with “chairs” as you build vocabulary for your child.
- “Clean Truman’s Dishes” – Fill up the sink with water and soap and let them help clean the dog food and water bowls. This is a great daily living task and it is great to practice on something that is very durable like stainless steel. They can then dry the bowl and put it back on the floor.
- “Measure Truman” – Give them a soft tape measure and show them how to measure his legs and back. You can teach skills for measuring while marking his growth right next to their growth chart on the wall!
- “Practice Tricks” – If your child can give commands, have them practice a certain trick.
- “Play Fetch with Truman While Counting” – Playing fetch is a great way to practice skills like throwing and coordination. Each time the child throws the ball, have them use a piece of sidewalk chalk to make a mark on the cement. Ask them to throw it five times, each time keeping count. This is a skill not just for counting but recognizing when they have reached their goal. You can also adapt to use the alphabet. Say “A” as you throw the ball. Then have them write the letter A with chalk. Next do B and so on.
- “Teach Truman the Rules in Our House”- For higher functioning kids, get them to teach the dog anything they have learned themselves. It will be amazing to see what your child remembers and forgets! Teaching something always reinforces something learned so this can be adapted to anything you are working on with your child at the time.
5. Photos: Use photo albums and photos on the walls that show your child and the dog together. Keep them up near places they spend a lot of time such as near their bed, on the bathroom mirror, or on a table in the family room.
6. Show and Tell: If your child does not already bring the dog to school, see if you can arrange a way to bring him for show and tell. It is also important, if your child is verbal, to help them make their own introductions of the dog to people they meet in public. Part of having the dog is to encourage social interactions they might not have without the dog. This does happen but you need to coach your child through this a few times.
7. Walks: Walks are great for everyone! I have also realized that a quick way to calm down a hyper dog is to take him for a nice brisk walk. Fresh air is also a great thing so find a way to incorporate a daily walk into the routine. If your child can’t handle much, start with a walk to a neighbor’s house and back. Even if it is five minutes, it is a walk and it is a routine. Once you get that established, build on it and stretch it over time. A five minute walk that is a success is important. Just build another longer walk for your dog to really get the exercise it needs. You may also be able to teach the child to prepare the harness on the dog. This may turn a five minute walk into a 30 minute event in your evening routine.
8. Cuddle Time: If you have a play time where you get on the floor and wrestle or cuddle, encourage the dog to participate appropriately. Truman naturally crawled into bed with Sophia one night and laid next to her just like I would have. So cute! It’s important to model and encourage interactions with the dog.
The most important thing is to observe what is happening so you encourage any thing that you want to happen that is not and change anything that hinders the bonding process. It does take a lot of energy but the pay off is big so keep with it! Post your questions if you need more suggestions and I’ll be happy to help any way I can.