Teaching Dogs to Fetch the Phone in a Crisis

Five years ago, I wrote an article about what I’ve learned the hard way about limitations on a service dog’s ability to “save the day” by bringing a disabled person a portable phone in an emergency. The article provided insight on how dogs think and it suggested strategies for overcoming the inherent problems that exist.

Last week, someone sent me a sobering newspaper article in which Murphy’s Law in connection with the phone retrieval task nearly cost someone his life. Because of this near-tragedy and the fact we have hundreds of new readers, I’ve decided to re-visit the subject, updating my original piece, expanding the training advice, with the goal of improving the safety of assistance dog partners who rely on this task.

I hope to never read another newspaper story like the following.

Disabled man trapped in bathtub 6 days

The Hamilton Spectator, September 8, 2003

Highlands Ranch; Colo. – A disabled man who slipped and fell in his bathtub was trapped there for six days before he was rescued by a van driver who arrived at the house for a scheduled trip.

Bruce Ashworth, 55, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, fell Aug. 29 and was unable to reach the safety handles on the bathtub to rescue himself. His service dog, Libby, brought a phone to him, but the battery wasn’t charged.

Ashworth managed to reach a cleaning spray bottle, which he rinsed out and used to drink water.

As the days stretched on, he said he drifted in and out of consciousness, and Libby would lick his face to wake him up. Ashworth worried he would die.

Then, on Thursday, Julie Johnson, who drives a van for elderly and disabled people, arrived to pick up the retired engineer for a scheduled trip. When no one answered the door, she asked a neighbour to call 911, then through a dog-door she unlocked a door into the home. She found Ashworth in the bathtub, barely coherent.

Firefighters took him to a hospital.

The Emergency Phone Task

A crucial part of my independent living plan is to have a service dog trained to bring a portable phone to any room in the house, even into the shower, so I will always be able to call for help in a medical crisis. It is a task that has given me the courage to live on my own instead of moving in with relatives. However, I had to learn “the hard way” over the last twelve years how much I didn’t know about a dog’s capabilities and limitations and human folly before this task truly became a dependable safety measure.

I started out teaching the phone task as an object command. That was pretty easy. Then I asked my dog to find the portable phone when it wasn’t it plain sight on the living room floor ten feet in front of my wheelchair. I expected the dog to learn to search a half dozen possible locations where the portable phone might have been left by the last person to use it. This idea proved to have too many drawbacks for emergency use. For example, if the object happened to be sitting on a counter, table or dresser top, above the dog’s eye level, the dog would almost certainly pass by it without noticing it.

On the other hand, having the dog go to the same place each time to fetch the phone only worked in the first year if I remembered to put the portable phone back on the battery charger after each use. If the portable phone was on the couch or end table, a mere two feet away from the battery charger, it was apparently invisible to Nikki for all intents and purposes.

My service dog’s behavior reminded me of the classic experiment conducted by scientists in the 1940’s who were investigating canine vision. The dogs quickly learned to go into a room and push the lever on a box to get a dog biscuit. It didn’t seem to matter if the lights were on or off. The dogs found the lever in the dark as easily as they did with the lights on. After many successful trials, the box was turned a quarter-turn to the right. The lever was in plain view. All of the dogs went directly to the place where the lever used to be and pathetically pawed the air. None of them ever learned to utilize the lever in it’s new location. There was nothing wrong with their eyesight. The conclusion drawn was that dogs just don’t rely on their vision the same way that people do.

To me it illustrates the power that force of habit can have on a dog’s reasoning powers. If we repeatedly condition a dog to go a certain place and perform a certain action, like picking up a phone from a battery charger to obtain a reward, this habitual response to our command will eventually becomes an irresistible compulsion. In a good way, it can blind a dog to any and all distractions that might deflect him from his mission, like a pet cat crossing his path or a food that is left unguarded due to the collapse of his human partner. At the same time, however, it also blinds him to something we might wish he would see, such as the phone sitting on a nearby piece of furniture. He will reach the battery charger and be utterly baffled by the absence of the portable phone. It will not occur to him to search the room or the house of his own accord. Nor will he automatically go to another location where he could find another plastic phone similar in shape and color, not of his own volition. He is obsessively fixated on carrying out the job we conditioned him to do. It is up to us to make the best of this idiosyncrasy.

As a service dog trainer who volunteers her skills to a service dog program, I’ve personally been able to experiment with teaching the phone retrieval task to twelve service dog candidates over the years. I’ve concluded the most effective way to obtain a reliable performance is for you to purchase a portable phone for emergency use only. Locate its battery charger on the floor in a spot where people won’t stumble over it. I keep mine on the floor between the couch and a bookcase in my den, by way of example. Make it a “place command” so the dog will always go to that same location when he hears the command word “Phone”. (You could use any command word, such as “Ringer” or “Charger” or “Get Help!” if you already taught your dog the word “Phone” as an object command.)

Begin by training a service dog candidate to retrieve the Emergency Phone from a distance of five feet away from the battery charger, then ten feet, then fifteen feet, gradually increasing the distance in small increments, till you reach your favorite armchair. When the dog masters the job of bringing the phone to you in your armchair without dropping it, go back and start over, teaching him in increments of five feet, “the path” to your bedroom. Don’t rush it. Build up his confidence at each step along the way with lavish praise and/or treats, making him feel like a hero. Then select another part of the house, the kitchen perhaps, and repeat this foundation training. After that, the dog will probably generalize and be quite willing to retrieve the Emergency Phone if sent to get it from any room in your home, even from the bathroom or basement, when he hears the specific command associated in his mind with the location of that particular phone.

At one time I thought this level of training would suffice. However, practicing this particular task under ideal conditions week in and week out as I once did is living in a fool’s paradise. A medical crisis or some other calamity rarely will occur under textbook perfect conditions. Therefore most important phase of the training still lies ahead. I draw upon my own experiences and that of students and friends whose service dogs did not complete the task when needed, when I urge you to give the dog the extra training suggested to prepare him to cope with real life situations.

Assistance dog emergency trainingMurphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law says Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. The one time you really need the dog to perform this task could be the one time you forget to return the emergency phone to the battery charger after a training session. Other things may go wrong, such as a family member shutting the door to that room earlier in the day, cutting off your service dog’s access to the phone. Recognize that Murphy’s Law is a real danger and while you can’t anticipate everything, there are important steps you can take help ensure you live to tell the tale.

  • Locate the Emergency Phone in a room with two or more entrances.   Some extra training beforehand could make a crucial difference. Encourage the dog to go to that second entrance during training sessions if the first is cut-off by a closed door or puppy gate. He can learn to do this! Practice this at least once a week so the dog remembers what to do if he encounters this common problem during a real crisis. Also teach him to squeeze through the door if it is only open partway, then when it is only slightly ajar. Use high value food like liver treats or cheese as incentive to overcome any reluctance he may initially show due to lack of confidence.
  • Put obstacles in the dog’s path during training and practice sessions.   A discarded newspaper lying atop the phone will stymy most dogs on first encounter. If a pillow falls off the couch and lies in front of the battery charger in such a way, the dog would have to step on it in order to pickup the phone, this obstacle may cause so much initial confusion, your dog will be incapable of completing the task. An unfamiliar object in the pickup or delivery path like a large cardboard box or a wheelchair the service dog must squeeze by or something the dog dislikes, like the vacuum cleaner half blocking the entry to the room can inhibit a service dog from performing as desired. If the dog encounters such things during training and several times a month during subsequent practice sessions with high value treats “for courage,” the dog can gain the confidence to cope with such obstacles. Without this extra training, however, it is almost certain a service dog will fail.
  • Create a “Back-up Plan.”   A handler should never “put all their eggs in one basket” due to Murphy’s Law. Suppose the phone is dead when the dog delivers it? It happens. The battery might finally die or someone unplugs the battery charger and forgets to plug it back in after vacuuming the room. A circuit breaker may be tripped …..the list of what can go wrong is endless! So plan ahead.

    A dog can be trained to fetch a different phone or a small shortwave radio as a backup plan. The most important thing to know is that you must locate the backup unit in place that is not in the same area of the home as the emergency phone. It would be best if the dog must go in the opposite direction from your living room to get the backup unit than he would to get the primary emergency phone when first training him on the back up unit. You will have to choose a different command than “Phone” for the back up unit so he does not mix up which location to go to.

    Another option is to utilize a directed retrieve approach to obtaining the second phone in a crisis. You can’t use the same command as you do for the primary phone or it will confuse your dog. I use the command “Find It”, by way of example, for it allows me to send the dog to any of three phones scattered throughout my home. I play the game, you are getting “hot”, you are getting “cold” with my tone of voice and I also use pointing to assist the dog to go to site of another portable phone. I often teach the command “UP” to get him to put his paws up on a table or counter or stereo so I can direct him to fetch one of the phones I have up there during practice sessions. Practice your back up plan faithfully, so you can gain the dog’s cooperation if Murphy’s Law has rendered your primary emergency phone unusable.

    An alternative back up task is to teach the dog to push a button on a device that reaches an ambulance dispatcher, if the individual signs up for such a service, which costs about $25 per month. Or purchase a K-9 Rescue Phone which calls 911 if the dog paws the white button ($250 www.ablephone.com).   Teach these as a place command, using the five foot increment “path” building technique till your dog can be sent from any room in the home to operate the device.

    A second emergency “backup phone” would be cheaper, of course, a one time expense of $19 -$25.

  • Substitute Plan for times when the dog is unavailable.  If the dog is in the backyard or at a veterinarian’s office overnight or locked behind a puppy gate till his muddy paws dry off, anyone who has a life threatening medical problem or someone who could need assistance with something that can’t wait, like tipping over, if paralyzed ought to have an alternative way to summon help. It is not realistic to believe a service dog will there 24 hours per day, 365 days a year.

    Advance arrangements to have a neighbor frequently check on the disabled person if the dog is away for the night is one possibility. Having a disabled person carry the portable phone on his or her belt or wheelchair whenever the dog is not in the house would be another. It would be beneficial if trainers addressed this problem while teaching a new assistance dog partner how to motivate the dog to perform the task. Owner trainers need to give it some thought too. The downside of having a service dog that performs the phone retrieval task in an emergency is that all of us (e.g. the disabled person, friends and family members) may become too complacent, assuming the dog will always be there ready to help.

  • Demonstrate This Task   It is said a picture is worth a thousand words. The best way to educate a cleaning lady, family members, visitors, home health care aides and others to avoid using the Emergency Phone, avoid shutting the door(s) to the room and to avoid putting obstacles in the dog’s path is to treat them to a demonstration of this task while you impress upon them the importance of their cooperation. Also it gives you a chance to work the dog in the presence of a distraction (e.g. other people) which will strengthen his ability to concentrate on this task.
  • The Pact   If you are going to rely on your service dog in an emergency, he must be able to rely on you. It is stressful for a service dog to be sent for the Emergency Phone and to find himself unable to complete his mission as the phone is missing. Make a resolution to always return the portable emergency phone to the charger after each practice session and to check the setup before going to bed each night.
  • The Club  This is a wonderful task, one worth all the extra training involved with regard to Murphy’s Law, something else I’ve learned “the hard way.” I now belong to the “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for this dog,” Club, as a result of my dog’s success in a real crisis. Someday, you may join this Club too. Dedicating time to a little extra training now could make a world of difference to the outcome on the inevitable day when you send your service dog for the Emergency Phone in earnest.
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