(9) Dog Speak: The common commands of service dogs

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly:

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)


 Typical service dog commands

When Tigger, William’s first service dog came into our lives, I expected to receive operating instructions and a list of commands to use. Instead, the trainer handed us a leash with the dog on the end. He wished us good luck. While William knew dogs, I needed a course for dog dummies.

Tigger and Molly came with the same basic commands: sit, down, heal, come, and stay (Tigger never did get the knack of stay  but, of course, he was a Tigger). Trained for brace and balance, Molly was fluent with stand, brace, swing (to turn around and position herself on your left), and front (to help William get out of his chair or up from the floor). Other commands Molly knew were release, relax, dress (to position herself for us to put on or remove her service vest), get busy (for her private matters), go to your place (doggie time out), and my personal favorite—leave it when she sticks her nose in my laptop or face. She also responds to the hand signals for each command—when we can remember them.

In reading Until Tuesday, Luis Carlos Montalvan said his well-trained service dog came to him, knowing about 35 commands. After years of bonding and working together, his dog obeyed approximately 85 commands. An impressive vocabulary, indeed!

I thought Molly would have been trained with obedience to commands such as fetch, get help, turn on the light, and answer the phone. Not so, her trainer explained.

“We train to the specifically stated need. There is only so much a dog can learn in six months,” said Molly’s trainer. “She’s smart and will learn.”

Really?  “How?” I said, dubious of his response.

“Get a book on training your dog. Take small steps and reward her with a treat or affection.”

My first priority for her to learn was help William. If he struggled getting up from a chair in another room, I could send her to help if she understood this command. The trainer explained that to teach her this, we were to sit in chairs about ten feet from one another. Then, connect Molly to a rope with William holding one end and Molly with me on the other end (tie Molly to the rope—not the wife). Next, we use the command help William. William is to tug on the rope gently. Reward Molly when she looks at him. Each practice session, have William gently tug on the rope and bring Molly closer to him when speaking the command. Be sure to reward her for each step she makes towards him.

The positive reinforcement method works for any command you might want your dog to learn. This applies to service dogs and non-service dogs, as those of you with pets are aware.

While we began the process of teaching her help William, we no longer needed to teach her the command because she developed a deep love for William. We realized that William only needs to give the command come and she runs to his side.

Molly taking a nap with WilliamSo what is William’s favorite command?

Come,he said, “so Molly can be near me.”

Yup, they have bonded!

One of the unintentional PTSD benefits of dog speak (giving commands) with Molly is that she will not respond to any command given in a gruff or angry voice. She is impervious to yelling. Unless we speak in soft tones, she ignores us. For a veteran with PTSD, anger and rage may be hidden beneath the surface. They erupt with little provocation and a disobedient dog can certainly trigger them. With Molly, obedience requires self-control and no anger on our part—just a soft voice. Molly’s insistence on a calm voice to respond to commands changed both of us. It affects how we talk to one another and to her. If an argument erupts, she barks until we stop and until calmness returns to our home.

Maybe this blog should be titled, “People Speak: Training your humans to be nice.”

Looking for Resources to Train Your Dog?

You might want to start with these

  • A Modern Dog’s Life: How to do the best for your dog by Paul McGreevy
  • From Shelter to Service Dog: A practical guide to behavioral rehabilitation by Rick and Heather Dillender
  • Partners in Independence: A success story of dogs and the disabled by Ed and Toni Eames
  • Teamwork I, Revised and Expanded Edition by Stewart Nordensson and Lydia Kelley
  • Teamwork II: A dog training manual for people with disabilities by Stewart Nordensson and Lydia Kelley
  • Training Your Diabetic Alert Dog by Rita Martinez and Sue Barns
  • Training Your Own Psychiatric Service Dog by Katie Gonzalez
  • Unleashed: Proven training methods to build a relationship of respect with your dog by Brad Pattison
  • Working Like Dogs: The service dog guidebook by Marcie Davis

Post your Comments :

What unusual commands have you taught your dog? Please comment below. 

About the blogger

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her husband, William, and dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.