Tale of Tails

Assistance Dogs Off Duty


Author: Dory Adelie

Different Views

Some people perceive that because assistance dogs usually help their handler both at home and when out and about, they don’t get any time “not working”. Others even believe it is “cruel” to work a dog at all; that handlers are “making” their dog work against their will because they “can’t give consent” and it is taking advantage of them. Usually, the dogs are actually getting a fair amount of down time (time not working/time off duty) because they are not required 24/7 and/or they have large portions of rest or play time.

Po and Eli playing while off duty out on a walk

Off Duty, Rest or Down Time

I personally believe there is a distinction between “rest”, “off duty” and “down time”. Rest can happen whilst working, and indicates that they are physically resting in a down-stay but are ready to work at any moment. Off duty indicates that they are fully not working, they are being a pet, and often they will be playing/running on a walk or similar. When off-duty they are not wearing their gear and are not in non-dog friendly areas. I actually consider down time to be the best descriptor of what Sparrow has, because when we are not out officially working, she will often come to me if I show behaviours that she is trained to respond to, but she is free to roam, play, sleep etc. within whatever space (sometimes it is one room, sometimes it is the whole house). Recently she was on a technically “off duty” walk but because it was just us, she still responds if necessary and when I bent forward from breathlessness and dizziness, she stopped sniffing the ground in the distance and came running to respond and lean against me.

Work & Play

Sparrow performing DPT automatically whilst technically “not working” at home

A lot of people ask about how you can let a dog have their playtime but them still be able to support you with your difficulties and task for you. Many people get round this by calling their dog to them mid-play and giving an appropriate command for a task/work. Some even use a command to indicate them to start working e.g. “come help” or “working”. Dogs who provide natural alerts to their handler’s issues based on scent (e.g. for low sugar, high heart rate) or who are very aware/high drive dogs, will often choose to leave what they are doing or wake up from rest to come to their handler’s aid. It really varies between dogs and their temperament and tasks as to whether they need to be asked to perform a task or if it is done naturally (either way is fine).

Making the Distinction for your Dog

To help with the distinction between “working” and not when out in public, it is recommended that they have working gear when working and that this comes off when they are “not working”/”off duty”. It is also worth teaching assistance dogs a release command for them to play/do as they wish (within reason!) so that they can come out of “working mode”. While some use “release”, I personally use “break” with Sparrow, and usually if I say that she will wait, and then go hurtling off to go zoomies or she’ll come for cuddles if we’re home or get a toy or whatever. Note this isn’t a recall release command (like “here” or “come”), it is an indication that what is required of them whilst working e.g. focus, heeling, calmness, is no longer required (within safety limits of course – this is not a free-for-all for them to act aggressively or disobey commands). Do not establish this until your dog can recall off lead, otherwise you’re in for a tough time! I recommend taking any working gear off at this point, to reinforce the difference, and to make sure not to confuse things for others who may see you.

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