Mental Stress in Service Dogs

Written by Barbara Handelman M.Ed, CDBC

Working dogs give their hearts and souls to meeting their disabled handlers’ needs. The relationship between dogs and their handlers is deeply personal, interdependent, and intimate. This article addresses reducing mental stress for service dogs and improving the welfare of working dogs. While physical stress also impacts working dogs, it is not the subject of this article.

Handlers often miss or misinterpret signs of stress in their dogs. In response, they may use positive punishment or react emotionally. Positive punishment is an aversive stimulus added concurrent with or immediately after the target behavior such that the behavior is less likely to occur in the future. In the face of punishment, dogs learn what they should not do. Frustration and stress may ensue if the dog cannot elicit a positive response from their trainer. Positive reinforcement strengthens both appropriate behavior and continued performance of correct responses to cues.

Mental stress can be subtle or obvious, momentary or pervasive. Sometimes it can be resolved by refreshing trained skills, taking a break in work routines, or by introducing a new tactic into the training regimen. Stress can also, if not relieved, start the slippery slide toward retiring a talented working dog or dropping an otherwise promising canine candidate from specialized training.

Stress is a major contributor to service dogs failing to complete training, or being retired prematurely from the workforce.  It is vital that service dog trainers and handlers understand canine behavior in order to become familiar with signs of stress in dogs, which is why I will be offering a comprehensive online course addressing this topic and a wealth of other service dog-related material here, starting October 2018.

Because of the close bond that exists between handlers and service dogs, human emotions or attitudes are often attributed to the canine partner’s behavior. A dog’s failure to pay attention, or non-response to a familiar cue for a fluent skill, may be experienced by the human as a personal affront. The handler may think, “My dog is blowing me off,” or “He is being stubborn, tuning me out, no longer cares about me,” etc. In fact, the reasons for these supposed failures run much deeper and have far more to do with the dog’s own mental stress levels and are rarely, if ever, a statement of attitude toward their handler.

Even very confident dogs with solid and appropriate working dog temperaments may become stressed during their service dog careers. The following are just some of the causes:

  • Steps in training task performances were skipped or inadequately practiced.
  • A trainer mistook the quickness with which the dog performed new skills for solid and fluent learning.
  • Trainer was in a hurry to “get rid of the treats” or other forms of primary reinforcement.
  • Intermittent reinforcement was introduced too soon or used too often without substituting an appropriate secondary reinforcer in its place.
  • The dog did not have sufficient opportunity to practice skills taking the four Ds into consideration: distraction, distance, duration, difficulty.
  • The trainer has not sufficiently reinforced the links in chained behaviors or tasks in a wide enough variety of conditions.
  • The level of environmental distraction was greater than the dog’s ability to maintain focus without a high level of reinforcement.
  • The handler did not recognize their dog’s refusal to accept and eat reinforcing treats as a sign of stress.
  • The handler did not use treats of a high enough value to capture a dog’s interest in the face of high-level distractions or other environmental challenges.
  • The handler’s reaction, be it anger, impatience, disappointment, or confusion, stressed the dog and slowed their performance or caused his failure to respond at all.

Handlers should recognize these subtle stress behaviors: yawning, lip-licking, tongue flicks, turning head away, looking away, tail lowering, laying ears back, breaking eye contact, and shaking off. If a handler takes these behaviors as a personal affront and displays a negative response (such as stiff or assertive body language, annoyed or angry facial expressions, or a harsh tone of voice) a downward spiral can ensue.

Notice signs of stress: ears back, yawns, lip licking and tongue flicks.

What finesse Piper lacks here in his early days of training, he makes up for with enthusiasm.

If the handler’s annoyance escalates, the dog may become less confident and respond to cues more slowly. The perplexing descent starts off intermittently, and subtly, so it is crucial that handlers possess sufficient self-awareness to catch the signs and engage professional help early. “Eyes on the ground” to observe the team can help to define the issue and prevent further deterioration of the dog’s behavior and the quality of the team’s relationship.

A case in point

Piper, a mixed-breed dog, came to me at about 10 months old. He had been a stray for an unknown period of time. He spent substantial time in a shelter until the day he was scheduled for euthanasia. Thankfully, he was instead scooped up from the shelter and placed in a terrific, experienced foster home, where my fortuitously timed search led me to discover him.

Piper was in Arkansas and I was in Vermont. His dedicated foster “mother” agreed to spend a month helping me evaluate his potential as a working dog candidate, long distance. She video recorded many outings to venues I suggested. These included a trip to a petting farm with all manner of critters from horses to pigs, cats, chickens, other dogs, and children comfortable with dogs, as well as a street festival where there was lots of noise and many small children, a ride in an office building elevator, playtime with familiar and stranger dogs, and a one-on-one session with a professional trainer to assess Piper’s trainability.

From observing the videos of those outings, I learned that Piper was essentially unflappable, highly social with people of all ages, friendly with dogs and cats, a fast learner, and a true diamond in the rough.

When Piper arrived, I quickly discovered just how bright he is. He seems to learn at the speed of light and is unusually curious about and exceptionally observant of his environment. What he lacked in training (he’d had little that I could discern) he made up for with gregarious good humor, friendliness, and an eagerness to achieve and receive praise and rewards.

We embarked on lots of socialization expeditions and frequent positive reinforcement training sessions at home. We also met weekly with a training partner and her dog. In those training sessions, we practiced many skills interspersed with playtime with humans and dog-to-dog free play. Piper and I worked diligently to make up for time we’d lost to his puppyhood of making up his own rules.

Stress did not appear a troublesome issue until our third year together. Previously, he was a cheerful dog at home, in training, and in public access outings. Several times, I heard the comment as we passed strangers, “That is the happiest working dog I’ve ever seen.” His tail was wagging, his tongue lolling, and his ears perked forward but relaxed in their half-mast position.

Happily moving through hospital corridors with me in my chair. Tail wagging, focused eye contact but also keeping his feet a respectful distance from the chair tires.

Piper working next to the wheelchair, off lead, we are both relaxed and there are few distractions.

Piper performed tasks reliably, except on the odd occasion when he didn’t, which I attributed then to distraction, or some other external factor. Eventually those instances of non-performance became troubling and more frequent.

When Piper’s enthusiasm and reliability with tasks faltered I called upon Dee Ganley, a service dog trainer and canine behavior consultant, for help. She helped me assess what was happening. I observed Dee handling Piper, and saw his happy confident attitude reappear. I observed that it was easier for him to work with an able bodied, ambulatory handler than with me in my power wheelchair.

Piper working with Dee Ganley at Home Depot amidst Christmas shoppers. He is remarkably relaxed, and obviously focused on Dee and her treats!

Working a dog from a power wheelchair resembles a dance. However, the dance includes both choreography and improvisation—not only because of the chair’s mechanical movements, but also because the handler’s inconsistent health, energy, and mood affect their attentiveness. At times, I have difficulty keeping track of Piper’s feet and other body parts while driving the chair. He has to be vigilant for his own safety, a concern he doesn’t have when working with an ambulatory handler. Piper accommodates for those variables in me, but they are stressful for him. Previously, I failed to take that stress into account.

The realization of how my health affects Piper’s performance reminded me of a canine agility seminar I attended with agility world champion Elicia Calhoun. Elicia was teaching a group of disabled agility competitors and their dogs. Most of those dogs also worked as the handlers’ service dogs. As a group, we asked Elicia how we might get better performances from our dogs when they seemed reluctant or slow on our especially health-challenged days. We complained that their focus seemed more on us than on the agility courses. A problem we unanimously felt needed to be “fixed.”

Elicia offered us this simple wisdom: “Accept the changes in your dogs’ performances that occur on your ‘bad’ days as a gift signifying the depth of the human/animal bond you share. Don’t seek to banish the signs of their apparent compassion; rather, you should cherish it.” From Elicia’s words we realized that our dogs’ awareness of and responsiveness to our physical condition is both humbling and empowering: It is a strength to appreciate, not a problem to fix.

With that wise counsel in mind, how can handlers help their service dogs feel less stressed by changes in the handlers’ pain, or other debilitating symptoms? The answer lies in training. Service dog training never ends. Skills need polishing throughout the dog’s working life. For many, reducing their rate of reinforcement is not a relevant goal.

In the last 18 months, unusually stressful events occurred in my life. Concurrently, my health declined. Seeing Piper work confidently with Dee had alerted me to how day-to-day changes in my health impact Piper. My increased pain and other symptoms became more prevalent stressors affecting Piper’s working performance. I realized that when I am less well, he needs more of my attention, not less. Most importantly, he needs higher rates of positive reinforcement.

There are disabled handlers who are otherwise healthy individuals. For example, handlers whose debilitating condition is stable—such as some who are permanently blind, deaf, or hard of hearing—may be able to offer their dogs consistent alertness, energy, and feedback. Such handlers may indeed be able to attain a goal of variable rates of reinforcement, and decreased presence of treats or other primary reinforcers.

Dogs mitigating mobility challenges for handlers whose health ebbs and wanes, whose debilitating conditions progress, and dogs working for people with mental illness may have handlers unable provide their dogs with consistent expectations, feedback, or reinforcement.

I know that Piper understands cues and, in most situations, can perform tasks fluently and in the face of varying degrees of distraction. I must also accept that my own disabling conditions are significant stressors that affect Piper’s day-to-day performance. I must not take his distraction, hesitation, slow or non-performance as a personal affront. It is not an indictment of our relationship or of my training ability. His stress demands my attention to higher rates of reinforcement, and supportive verbal feedback. With that added input from me, his stress visibly decreases.

I recently invited fellow service dog trainer and behavior consultant Jane Jackson to observe Piper and me. We met at one of the venues Piper and I visit most frequently, the local medical center. There, Jane observed Piper’s signs of stress in action: tongue flicks, yawns, breaking off eye contact, shake-offs, slow and non-responses to cues.

First consult with Jane Jackson. Piper “tuned out,” he yawned, turned his head away, and did not respond to the cue to “take your bed” offered before filming began. I gave a hand signal for “sit,” no response, cued down (easiest and most consistent cued behavior) and he responded, got a treat, did a sit, and a quick down with treats following. He had reengaged. I cued, “take your bed” to which he promptly responded.

On two visits to the medical center, Jane captured video clips of Piper’s and my performances. Video is an invaluable tool that allowed me to see for myself what Jane’s “eyes on the ground” witnessed. I, with much experience and expertise, had missed indicators of Piper’s stress (he was regularly giving slow, latent, or non-responses to familiar cues for previously fluent behaviors). I also took Piper’s slow responses to cues personally; I feared they meant that our partnership was deteriorating and might suggest I had failed in the training process.

Before Jane’s consult, I was at a loss. I did not know how best to respond to Piper’s apparent “tuning out.” Jane suggested using the method described as a least reinforcing signal/scenario (LRS), in which “when the dog gives us the wrong response (or no response) we provide a neutral response (i.e., don’t move, make noise, change facial expression, etc.) for an interval equivalent to the time of a single click and then offer the dog an immediate, easy opportunity for new reinforcement.”

Jane also shared her own experience using behavioral momentum:

“When I’m struggling to get a response to something I’m confident the animal knows, then I use the behavioral momentum of: easy behavior click/treat-> easy behavior click/treat -> easy behavior click/treat. Then I ask for the harder behavior in hopes that the first three cues and responses have gotten the dog focusing and happily re-engaged in being reinforced.”

My goal is to practice behavioral momentum at the beginning of each outing. I want to ensure that Piper and I are tuned in to each other before I ask for tasks. Of course, sometimes it’s still hard to get fully tuned in to one another, especially if we are rushing to be on time. At least now I do a better job of recognizing and responding to Piper’s stress signals when we are not in sync.

Here we are playing with “behavioral momentum.” Such games get me and Piper in sync with each other, and ready to “work.”

Piper happily retrieving his bed!

I watch for an enthusiastic, even rhythm of cue/behavior/click/treat. If Piper hesitates, or offers slow or no response to a cue, I employ an LRS. We then go back to a treat and click for each touch, then a quick performance of three touches for one treat, until I see that he is fully engaged in the game. The LRS for Piper is a two-second stop-action interval with no opportunity to earn reinforcement. Only when he has reengaged do we move on to a cue for the task I need him to perform. We’ve added a step to our partnership’s choreography. It is well worth the brief disruption in flow from one activity to another.

Piper was cued twice to retrieve my keys once verbally, and once by pointing. Instead of responding he sat and stared at me. He also turned his head away, side to side, a sign of very mild stress. I did a LRS. It may appear in the video as if I have closed my eyes, during that quick stop-action moment, but in fact I am looking down in order to watch him. After no more than 2 seconds, I cued him to do behavioral momentum hand touching. I then cued him again to get the keys, which he enthusiastically picked up and returned to me.

Exuberant attention from members of the public distracts and stresses many service dog teams, including ours. It is safe to assume that Piper’s gregarious nature helped him survive his life as a stray. Excessive friendliness is a significant problem in a service dog. Piper is no exception. “Do Not Pet Me” patches on his working vest are insufficient to effectively ward off his admirers. Working with my now-retired service dog, Nate, a large, black-faced, all-business-attitude, German Shepherd Dog was a different experience. From a distance, people commented on Nate’s handsome and dynamic presence. But few strangers physically rushed in to befriend him. If someone did approach, Nate’s attitude was most often neutral bordering on indifferent. He is friendly and accepting but doesn’t have Piper’s innate need to interact with everyone he encounters.

A classic moment of a child intruding while a service dog is on duty. Piper was quietly relaxing in a public place. His attention to the child was momentary but he did turn to check in with me, probably because Jane and I began animatedly talking about what had just happened.

Piper’s ability to focus on me has been hard-won through training. He learned to make and sustain eye contact in highly distracting settings. Now, he often spontaneously checks in with me by making eye contact, for which he is consistently rewarded.

Piper is curiously watching people go by. He spontaneously turns to make eye-contact with me. I was just reaching for a treat as the video clip ends.

Having the LRS and behavioral momentum methods to follow released me and Piper from the stressful stuck place we had occupied briefly but nonetheless for too long. His stress displays have decreased and quick responses to cues for trained tasks have taken their place.

Piper is totally relaxed in the busy hospital corridor while Jane and I have a lively conversation.

I also now recognize that for both Piper’s and my own sake, I need to keep outings short, and not plan several errands or appointments for a single day. When I do too much, it negatively affects us both. Since implementing these changes, Piper’s cheerful attitude has returned and his displays of stress signals have decreased exponentially.


Whether an owner-trainer is a novice or a pro, they need skilled and behavior-knowledgeable “eyes on the ground” to help assess problems as they emerge. Objective professional help is essential to assess the owner-trainer’s relationship with the dog and develop training strategies that correct problems that intrude on the dog and handler’s working partnership.

Professional trainers preparing dogs for disabled handlers must understand the nature of the disabled handler’s disability. Where necessary, it is imperative to prepare the service-dog-in-training to adapt to varying levels of energy and inconsistent reinforcement from their handler. Trainers must also include lessons for handlers on how to compensate for those variables. Ideally, the professional trainer should remain available to the team long after the dog’s placement. Scheduled training “tune-ups” are invaluable. Optimally, handlers should have access to professional trainers when issues arise over the course of the dog’s working life.

One must never forget that service dogs are sentient beings. Unlike inanimate assistive devices, dogs are supreme observers of human behavior and highly aware of changes in human moods—they are also keenly alert to signs of their human’s physical and mental stress or distress.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, handlers need to be more attuned to their dogs on their worst days than they are on the days when they feel their best. That is both a tall order and not always an achievable goal. As compensation, dogs benefit from a relaxed excursion within a day or two after a particularly challenging work expedition. Such outings need to be devoted to the dog, not appointments or errands. The handler’s attention should prioritize the dog’s needs, and reinforcement should be offered at a high and consistent rate.

Successful service dogs benefit from careful selection, socialization, and training. Yet, 50% of those dogs selected fail while in training and are dropped from candidacy. Another significant percentage begin working careers that are ultimately shortened by the impact of stress or health problems. Stress inevitably influences working dogs’ lives. Stress cannot be totally avoided or eliminated. But these effects can be mitigated by recognizing the signs of stress and carefully designing training plans that reduce the impact of stress on the mental health and confidence of working dogs. Service dogs also deserve ample opportunities to just be dogs. Off-lead exploration and playtime, in a safe environment, offers a great antidote to mental stress.

Represented here are the six dogs who have been my service dog partners, Pan, Moon, Luca, Nate, Gusto and Piper. They are each, in their own way, enjoying an opportunity to just be dogs.


Further reading


Handelman, B. (2008). Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook. Online: Direct Book Service

Handelman, B. Understanding Canine Behavior. Online course, offered through

Least reinforcing stimulus

Life with Riley and Stella (2012). Least Reinforcing Stimulus. Life with Riley and Stella Blog 02/05/12.

Hunter, M. (2012). Training Lessons from the Aquatic World. Stale Cheerios Blog, 04/07/12.

Fun for Animals (2013) Least Reinforcing Scenario: A proactive training program. Facebook post, 7/1/2013.


Barbara Handelman, M.Ed., CDBC will launch a new online course “Service Dog Training” in October 2018.  This comprehensive course covers selection of canine candidates, socialization, public access and task training along with many other topics. The course has three tiers for students with different levels of interest. More information is available here. Barbara is also the author of Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, and creator of the DVD series Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog. Her online course, “Understanding Canine Behavior,” based on her book, is available here. For more information email