Service Dog “Find Person” Protocol for Human Helpers

Like virtually every dog trainer I know, I find training people much more difficult than training dogs. With a dog, I have a clear goal in mind, and I have learned how to break the desired behavior down, step by step, so that I communicate what I’m looking for very clearly. With people,  it’s too easy to rely too much on our shared language which often leads to assumptions that they understand what I’m asking (whether or not I’ve explained it adequately).

If you read this blog regularly, you’re probably aware that I’ve been sending Barnum to find my personal care assistants, either to deliver messages in a pouch attached by Velcro to Barnum’s collar, or to alert them that I need them ASAP. (As discussed recently in this post and shown on video in this post.) We are at the “proofing” stage of this behavior, meaning that it’s reliable enough that I am mostly actually using it and occasionally testing it to see if there are still any weaknesses in his reliable performance of the skill.

In the course of proofing, I discovered that I was communicating much more effectively with Barnum about what I want him to do than I was with the people involved about what I want them to do. So, I typed out this instruction sheet for my PCA (personal care assistants), and it’s posted in the kitchen. They have found it helpful, and I thought you might find it useful (if this is a behavior you want to teach) or simply of interest if you want to learn a bit more about the ins and outs of training this behavior.

Barnum’s “Where’s Person?” Protocol

If you KNOW I have sent Barnum to you (known training situation):

  • Wait for him to nudge you. If he DOESN’T nudge, point to your leg and say NUDGE.
  • When he nudges (whether you’ve cued him or not), say YES! And give him a treat.
  • Ask him to SIT.
  • Let him stay in the sit for a few moments (even if you’ve removed a pouch).
  • Say YES and give him a treat.
  • Say WHERE’S SHARON? It’s important to end with WHERE’S SHARON? Because I listen for that to know whether Barnum did the behavior, and because you saying that also tells HIM that he has earned treats from me.

If you DON’T Know If I’ve Sent Him (“Cold” Practice or REAL Situations) . . .

If he nudges you or he’s wearing a pouch, that tells you I definitely sent him.

If you’re not sure, try to be aware of Barnum’s body language/the situation.

Here are some clues I probably did NOT send him to you:

  • He wanders into the kitchen
  • He seems more interested in the food prep you’re doing (especially prepping dog treats) than anything else

In this case, please come check with me, and I will call him and keep him from hanging out and begging food from you, because this is not a behavior I want him to learn/practice.

These are CLUES I probably DID send him to you:

  • You heard him OPEN MY DOOR to get to you
  • He is RUNNING or trotting in to you with EXCITEMENT/purpose
  • He is STARING at you

If the above apply, please follow these steps:

  • If he nudges you, say YES and treat. If no treats are available, say Good boy!
  • Immediately, tell him to SIT!
  • Look for a pouch on his collar. If it’s there, take the pouch.
  • Find him a treat. Tell him YES! Then give him the treat.
  • ASK HIM WHERE’S SHARON? (And if there’s no pouch, follow him back to me.)

Happy (people and dog) training!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (this was one of my favorite jobs), and Barnum SD/SDiT (this IS my favorite job!)

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7 Responses to “Service Dog “Find Person” Protocol for Human Helpers”


  1. 1 fridawrites August 13, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    Wow, this is so useful–my dog has learned this behavior just as you describe (treats on both ends), but outside of practice, my family isn’t getting it when G goes to them for an actual need, even with the nudge. This may help cue them what to pay attention to; they need to wonder if they see him suddenly appear if he’s wandering/become curious while he’s more off duty or if a need has come up.

    I really like the way you break things down and want to devote some time to the materials (levels) you mention next week.

    • 2 Sharon Wachsler August 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm

      @Fridawrites
      Thank you for commenting. I’m so glad to hear this was useful. I wasn’t sure whether it would be for others. But I do think I often forget to explain to people who are helping me train, or who I am relying on to understand what my SD is “telling” them how to learn to read “Dog.”
      The breaking things down bit by bit is something I learned from Sue Ailsby and her new Levels book — Steps to Success. Highly recommend it!

  2. 3 eileenanddogs August 15, 2012 at 7:13 am

    My favorite part is your list of things that will help the humans determine whether Barnum has been sent or is arriving on his own. Not only that specific list, but what it represents. That type of observation is really a great thing to practice and good for other people to learn. Everybody benefits when humans learn to really observe dog behavior. What may be obvious to you because of your experience with dogs and bond with Barnum may be a new language for others.

    • 4 Sharon Wachsler August 15, 2012 at 11:05 am

      Yes, I just got an email from another SD trainer who said, “Do people really need this? Aren’t they able to tell when he’s coming to get them?” But in fact some of my PCAs did say this was very helpful to them, especially those who are not “dog people.”

      I have been learning, in the course of training Barnum, just how NOT intuitive it is to most people to read dogs — unless they are trainers, usually. With Jersey and Gadget, I did almost all their training by myself, so I didn’t get the “why are you doing THAT?” questions from other people about training with them. But I’m learning that what seems obvious to me in dog training is not at all obvious for people who don’t “read Dog.”

  3. 5 brilliantmindbrokenbody August 16, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    I trained Hudson to jump on the fiance when he’s told to go get him. He usually runs back to me afterwards, because my school said over and over that no one else should give Hudson treats. I think it made that particular behavior harder to train, and I’m not sure it would have done any harm to the rest of his training, but whatever.

    I saw an ad for a product today that totally shocked (then disgusted) me. Downy is now making a product they call ‘Unstoppables,’ which are super heavily scented so that they stay scented despite being used for things like drying off or exercising. Holy crap, why do people need their stuff to always smell?!

    You’re one of the only people I know who would get why I was so put out.

    ~Kali

    • 6 Sharon Wachsler August 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm

      When I was training Jersey, I had read SD training books that said over and over that only I must be the source of all food. I followed that rule (and all rules I was told) to the letter.

      Later on I discovered that having other people give Jersey a treat for certain behaviors was actually quite helpful and did not in the least diminish her devotion to me or how much she listened to me. I think you are right that in teaching Hudson to jump on your fiance, it would be faster and more effective to have him give him treats as well as you giving him treats.

      I am working on an article for IAADP’s newsletter about how I trained this in case it’s ever useful for you to do further training on Hudson’s pouncing. ;-)

      Good Lord, that Downy product sounds hideous. It’s already impossible to get fragrances out of clothes that were washed in scented detergent or fabric softener. Yee gads. They’re trying to poison us all.

      • 7 brilliantmindbrokenbody August 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm

        Makes sense to me.

        The jumping thing was actually something I decided on for a different reason. The fiance’s office tends to be extremely messy, and Hudson is a bit picky about what he’ll step on. Add to that the fact that the fiance gets super-focused on things and it’s hard to get his attention in that state. The school ALSO has our dogs pretty firmly non-barking, so having Hudson bark at the fiance is not an option (and in his really focused state, I’m not sure he’d notice that, as we live in a neighborhood where dogs bark, y’know?)

        So my first proposal was that Hudson nudge the fiance, but the fiance said that if he was super-focused or asleep, that might not wake him up. Hence, the decision for a jump-up as the end of that cue. It wasn’t very hard to train, as Hudson already liked the fiance and very quickly defined the fiance and I (and then my aide, and then our roommate) as ‘pack’. I suspect he’ll mope for a bit when the fiance and I move out of area, though the fiance and I are clearly his core pack. He’s happy when the others are around, but he’ll break a stay to say hello to the fiance if the fiance has been away overnight or longer.

        I cannot come up with any reasonable justification for this product. I mean, I can tell it’s for the same people who put fresh dryer sheets in their gym bag because it smells ‘ewwie’ until they get it home. You know the type, eh? (Or, for your sake, I hope you DON’T know the type, but at least know OF it!) But for heaven’s sake, creating this new product?! Gah! If it’s being sold, it’ll have more users than just those people who like sticking the dryer sheet in their gym bag.


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