Dogs to the rescue
Reacting appropriately to the sound of a smoke or fire alarm is an important skill to teach a dog, especially a Service Dog assisting a person with a hearing impairment. Pet dogs can also be taught to recognize these alarms, and to alert owners who are such heavy sleepers that they would not wake up on their own.
Before starting this training with your dog, consider the following:
- In order to find you in bed, your dog must not be crated and must have the freedom to move around your home.
- Dogs must be physically able to get up on your bed to make contact with you. Assess carefully your dog's size, age, and fitness.
- If loud noises terrify your dog and send him into hiding, learning to recognize an alarm and alert you may not be a reasonable goal.
Choose an alert
Decide how your dog should alert you. If the volume of a smoke alarm isn't enough to wake you, maybe a barking dog would not be successful either. Instead, the dog could learn one of the following alerts:
- Lick your face
- Step on your body and/or walk around on top of you
- Nudge under your neck with his snout (or his entire head, in the case of a small dog)
Each of these alerts needs to be repeated until success is achieved—until you are awake!
When choosing an alert, take into consideration your dog's natural behavior. For instance, if he is rarely willing to lick you, the first alert may not be a reliable choice. If you have a dog that frequently walks on you before settling onto your lap, the second alert could be a realistic option. Some dogs naturally use their snouts to push around toys, burrow under blankets, or manipulate human hands into petting them; the third alert could be a smart choice for those dogs.
This article will focus on the third alert, nudging with a snout, since I've taught that behavior to two dogs: a miniature pinscher and a Doberman pinscher.
Once you define the alert behavior, it's time to begin training. Depending on the size of the dog, the size of your bed, and your position on the bed, it may not be possible for the dog to reach you with his snout from the floor. If this is the case, and/or if your dog has never before been permitted on your bed, you must show him that coming onto the bed is no longer taboo.
Pat the bed and, verbally, invite your dog up on the bed. If he jumps onto the bed, or at least makes contact with his front paws, click and treat. Work on this first step until your dog is happy and reliable about coming up on the bed when invited.
The next step is to teach the nudging motion. Begin by lying on your back, on top of the bed covers. Show your dog a treat and then tuck it just barely under your neck, on the side nearest to your dog. If your dog is very polite, you may have to invite him to take the treat. If possible, click as he snuffles at your neck and just before he actually gets the treat. Repeat 10 times, or until you see your dog performing this step with ease.
Now tuck the treat under your neck so that it's a little harder to reach. Click when your dog makes a good nudging effort and just before he gains access to the treat. Gradually tuck the treat further under your neck, until it's on the far side and your dog has to burrow more assertively under your neck to access it.
Switch from luring to capturing—and intensify the movement
When your dog is burrowing under your neck with ease, stop using the food lure. Instead, begin capturing the desired behavior with clicks and treats.
When your dog can wedge his snout or head completely under your neck in an assertive way, begin holding out for some additional movement of his head. Click and treat when that happens. Gradually select for more vigorous movements or nudges under your neck, until your dog is happily and reliably nudging under your neck for an extended period of time. Deciding how much nudging is "enough" means figuring out how much effort your dog needs to make in order to wake you from deep sleep.
Variations and obstacles
It's time to introduce different "sleeping" positions when your dog has mastered nudging while you are lying on your back. Cycle through the same nudging training steps while you lie on your left side, on your right side, and on your stomach.
You will need to shape for more tenacious behavior, too, so that your dog will find you and then repeatedly nudge under your neck—even if pillows or blankets are in the way. Make it a fun game for him to locate your neck in more challenging situations.
Insert the cue
Once you have trained vigorous and sustained nudging behavior, it's time to add the cue—the smoke or fire alarm. At this stage of the training, it would be very helpful to add an assistant who can trigger the alarm.
The first few times the alarm sounds your dog will probably be distracted by it. Try to focus his attention on you; if necessary, put a yummy treat just under your neck to jump-start the nudging. Make sure your neck is easily accessible, too. Fade the use of the food lure after about 2 or 3 repetitions.
At first, don't expect the same intensity of nudging as had been established before, since a new distraction (the alarm) has surfaced. But after about 5-10 consecutive pairings of the alarm cue and the nudging behavior, you can rebuild the intensity of the nudging behavior back up to its former level very quickly through differential reinforcement.
Your dog must learn to wait for the cue (the alarm sound) before initiating the nudging behavior. Have your assistant trigger the alarm at random times; continue to reinforce the dog for nudging appropriately. During the first few rounds of training, try using a quiet "wait" cue when the alarm is silent in order to gently discourage off-cue performances of the nudging.
From this point on, never reinforce the nudging unless the cue is given first. With continued practice, your dog will learn the connection between the cue and the desired action.
To polish this behavior, keep the following points in mind:
- Vary your body position in the bed.
- Adjust your body position during the nudging.
- Practice with pillows in different positions, including over your head.
- Make it more challenging for your dog to access your neck by covering your head with your blanket.
- Practice in different beds, if desired, and while resting on the sofa or a reclining chair.
- Trigger the alarm randomly: when the dog is on the bed, off the bed but in the room, or in an entirely different room.
- Differentially reinforce for short latency. You can do this by triggering the alarm and then setting a limit on the amount of time you give your dog to start nudging. If he takes too long to get started, shut off the alarm and try again later.
- Differentially reinforce for nudging vigor and tenacity.
- Practice triggering the alarm at different times of the day, and also at night.
- Have your assistant trigger the alarm occasionally when you are really sleeping, so that your dog gets "real-life" training.
Recognizing a smoke or fire alarm and being able to alert a sleeping person is a valuable new skill for a dog. The potential value is well worth its training effort—it could be a lifesaver one day.