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Assistance Dog Tasks

By Joan Froling
Copyrighted (c) October 29, 2003

       Pioneers of the assistance dog concept in the 20th century have greatly enriched the lives of thousands of disabled persons worldwide with their discoveries. They devised mutually beneficial ways for assistance dogs and disabled people to work together to overcome or mitigate the difficulties imposed by certain disabling conditions.

       Teamwork with a dog schooled to perform useful tasks empowers disabled individuals to function with greater self sufficiency, to prevent injuries, to summon help in a crisis, and to be aware of events in the environment. This report identifies over one hundred possible tasks that guide, hearing and service dogs can master to assist with daily life activities and safety concerns. Today, an estimated 20,000 teams in the USA and thousands in other countries from Europe to Japan to South Africa to Australia and New Zealand are reaping this legacy of empowerment.

Section I Guide Dog Tasks

Section II Hearing Dog Tasks

Section III Service Dog Tasks



       Although it is uncommon to discuss guide dog work in terms of Tasks being performed, a guide dog's four to six month education involves mastering a set of tasks which, taken together, allow a blind or visually impaired individual to negotiate the unseen environment with greater safety and independence. One guide dog user of my acquaintance neatly summarized the work performed guide dogs as follows: "Guide dogs take directional commands and institute a path of travel, indicate changes in elevation, indicate and avoid oncoming traffic, navigate around obstacles and locate objects on command."

       The human partner makes most of the decisions for the team, giving the dog directions and determining, after listening to the flow of traffic, the most optimal time to cross each street. Guide dogs are carefully conditioned to refuse the "Forward" command under certain circumstances where it would be unsafe to proceed, something termed "intelligent disobedience." A dog does not have the reasoning power to comprehend the inherent danger in traffic. The net effect of the conditioning, however, is a habitual reaction from the dog to specific stimuli which substantially improves team safety. It should be noted this skill deteriorates over time if the handler forgets to appropriately praise the dog for avoiding a situation. Like other assistance dogs, a guide dog relies heavily on the team leader's feedback, especially praise, to reinforce and motivate desired behaviors. 

       The tasks or duties listed below have been grouped into three primary skill categories. Obstacle Avoidance, Signaling Changes in Elevation and Locating Objects. The majority of guide dogs work through a harness with a U-shaped handle, that attaches to the harness and allows for vertical and some lateral movement. Some but not all may learn to do leash guiding as well. Whenever navigating around obstacles, the dog is schooled to return to the original path of travel as soon as possible. This may include moving into a road to walk around something then locating the safer pedestrian path once clear of the obstacle. Schools in North America vary in how much work is put into the tasks listed under Locating Objects. Some handlers put in extra work on "Find" command tasks with very impressive results. While a few owner trainers and private trainers include retrieving in a guide dog's repertoire, the guide dog schools no longer teach it as a mandatory skill, so it has been listed under the title, "Other Possible Tasks."


  • Navigate around stationary obstacles like a lamp post, parking meters, pillars
  • Navigate around hazards like an open manhole and deep potholes
  • Navigate around low hanging obstacles like awnings or a tree branch to avoid a collision
  • Avoid moving objects such as bicycles, people, strollers, shopping carts, wheelchairs
  • Leash guiding around obstacles indoors or outdoors for a short distance
  • Intelligent Disobedience as in refusing a command to go forward into the road if there is oncoming traffic or intersecting traffic in the team's path. The dog is also trained to halt, abruptly, rather than collide with a vehicle that intersects the team's path when it enters the intersection during the team's crossing


  • Halt or Sit to indicate every curb
  • Halt to indicate descending stairs at the top of a flight of stairs 
  • Halt to indicate steps up into a building or patio area
  • Halt to warn of edge of subway or train platform
  • Halt to warn of approach to edge of cliff, ditch, other outdoor drop-offs 
  • Halt when confronted by a barrier such as at construction site
  • Intelligent disobedience - refuse a command to go forward if there is a drop-off


  • Find an exit from a room; indicate door knob
  • Find the elevator bank 
  • Find specific entrances and/or exits
  • Find an empty seat, bench, or unoccupied area
  • Find a customary seat in a particular classroom
  • Follow a designated person such as a waiter to restaurant table, clerk to elevator, etc. 
  • Locate specified destination such as store in mall, hotel room or home from a distance, once all other decision points such as intersecting streets, hallways, etc. have been passed


  • Retrieve dropped objects
  • Find desired object like the morning newspaper on the porch


       Dogs trained solely for guide dog work are sometimes partnered with deaf blind students or mobility impaired blind students by schools specializing in such placements. In the last decade, some ground breaking experiments have taken place, combining the role of a hearing dog with that of a guide dog for deaf blind students or combining a guide dog's work with wheelchair pulling and/or other service dog tasks. This inspiring research has expanded the frontiers of knowledge as to a guide dog's capabilities and may someday give new options to disabled people with dual impairments.


       Hearing dogs are schooled to alert to the specific sounds needed by their partners, primarily in the home setting. Some hearing dogs also work outside the home, alerting to specific sounds in public settings. Most are shelter dogs who receive three to six months of schooling from providers or dedicated owner trainers on sound alerts, obedience and public access manners.

       It is a common misconception that hearing dogs typically alert a deaf or hard of hearing person to sounds by barking at them. Barking or growling is generally undesirable as it may not be heard by the deaf partner, will unnerve or frighten other people and if the handler shows approval, it can easily worsen the dog's fear or over protectiveness, which usually is the underlying cause of this response.

       Instead of barking hearing dogs are trained to get the attention of their human partner by touch, (either a nose nudge or pawing) then the dog leads the partner to the source of the specific sound. Some trainers may teach the dog to lie down next to their partner to indicate a smoke alarm after alerting the partner to the event with a touch. Leading the partner toward the sound in the case of a fire alarm may not be safe. For that reason a number of handlers prefer to have the dog indicate the smoke alarm indirectly and to wait for the human to decide what the next response should be. Responding to specific sounds in public or in a moving vehicle also requires a slight adjustment of the customary response to suit the location.

       Some hearing dogs master additional tasks, enhancing communication between family members. This can be especially helpful in households with a child, those where more than one member has a hearing impairment or households where one or more members are non verbal.


  • Doorbell ringing
  • Knock on front door
  • Rapping on patio door or window
  • Smoke Alarm sounding
  • Wind up minute timer, oven or microwave timer going off
  • Baby crying
  • Family member or other calling the name of the dog's partner
  • Child calling "mommy" [or other name, if applicable, such as daddy, grandpa, aunt]
  • Phone ringing
  • Alarm clock buzzing
  • Computer equipment beeps
  • Horn honking in garage or driveway
  • Arrival of School Bus


  • Siren of police car, fire truck or ambulance and indicate direction
  • Smoke alarm in workplace
  • Distinguish phone ringing on partner's desk at work from all other phones in workplace
  • Name of partner if coworker, friend, family member calls out that name
  • Cell phone or beeper
  • Smoke alarm in hotel or work
  • Fire drill at school or work
  • Vehicle honking to attract attention


  • Retrieve unheard dropped objects like keys , coins, or other objects
  • To enhance security when the team arrives home after dark, the dog enters the home first to turn on a light, nudging the metal base of a lamp with a touch lamp device 
  • Carry a note from the partner to another household member, searching the house to find that individual
  • Carry messages between spouses, utilizing objects which signify dinner is ready or that the person needs help right away, and so forth.
  • Have the dog find and return with the hearing impaired person.
  • Warn of a vehicle approaching from behind, or making a sudden turn. A task that applies the intelligent disobedience principle to hearing dog work


       Service dogs generally receive six months to a year of schooling on tasks, obedience and public access manners. Most dogs placed by non profits since the 1970's have been trained to assist people who have a wide variety of mobility impairments. Some teams have mastered up to fifty tasks, enjoying the challenge of such an advanced education. The list of tasks in this section are a broad sampling of what has been developed over the past quarter century to address daily living needs and safety issues.

       A number of the traditional tasks listed below are proving useful to individuals with hidden disabilities such as a seizure disorder, a psychiatric disorder, a potentially life threatening medical problem or conditions which cause chronic pain. Creative providers, graduates and owner trainers who are expanding the service dog concept into these additional areas will hopefully share the experimental tasks they develop with the larger community someday, providing task training particulars so others can benefit. In some cases, a responsible third party, usually a parent or a spouse, facilitates the interactions between a disabled person and his or her service dog to optimize the benefits to be obtained from including a service dog in the independent living plan of that individual.

       A myth that ought to be challenged is the belief on the part of some that service dogs are only for the most severely impaired or end stage of a degenerative disease like MS. Someone who is considered much more moderately disabled, struggling with the difficulties of living alone, maintaining a job or raising a family could find teamwork with a highly trained service dog to be of enormous benefit in achieving the goal of remaining as self sufficient as possible. A number of tasks enumerated in this section could empower such individuals to conserve energy, reduce or avoid pain, minimize dependency on loved ones, prevent injuries or get help in a crisis. 


  • Bring portable phone to any room in house
  • Bring in Groceries - up to ten canvas bags
  • Unload suitable grocery items from canvas sacks 
  • Fetch a beverage from a refrigerator or cupboard
  • Fetch food bowl(s)
  • Pick up dropped items like coins, keys etc., in any location 
  • Bring clothes, shoes, or slippers laid out to assist with dressing
  • Unload towels, other items from dryer
  • Retrieve purse from hall, desk, dresser or back of van
  • Assist to tidy house or yard - pickup, carry, deposit designated items
  • Fetch basket with medication and/or beverage from cupboard
  • Seek & Find teamwork - direct the dog with hand signals, vocal cues to:
    - retrieve an unfamiliar object out of partner's reach
    - locate TV Remote Control 
    - select one of several VCR tapes atop TV cabinet, other surfaces
    - Remove VCR tape from machine after eject button pushed
  • Use Target stick to
    - retrieve an indicated item off shelves in stores
    - retrieve one pair of shoes from a dozen in closet 
  • Use Laser Pointer to target an item to be retrieved
  • Drag Cane from its customary location to another room
  • Pick up and return cane if falls off back of wheelchair
  • Pickup or fetch Canadian crutches from customary location
  • Drag walker back to partner
  • Fetch wheelchair when out of reach

CARRYING BASED TASKS (non retrieval)

  • Move Bucket from one location to another, indoors & outdoors
  • Lug a basket of items around the house
  • Transport items downstairs or upstairs to a specific location
  • Carry item(s) from the partner to a care-giver or family member in another room
  • Send the dog to obtain food or other item from a care-giver and return with it.
  • Dog carries a prearranged object to care-giver as a signal help is needed 
  • Carry items following a partner using a walker, other mobility aids
  • Pay for purchases at high counters
  • Transfer merchandise in bag from a clerk to a wheelchair user's lap
  • Carry mail or newspaper into the house


  • Put trash, junk mail into a wastebasket or garbage can
  • Deposit empty soda pop can or plastic bottle into recycling bin
  • Assist partner to load clothing into top loading washing machine
  • Dirty food bowl [dog's] - put into kitchen sink
  • Put silverware, non breakable dishes, plastic glasses in sink
  • Deliver items to "closet" [use a floor marker to indicate drop location]
  • Deposit dog toys into designated container
  • Put Rx bag, mail, other items on counter top


  • Open cupboard doors with attached strap
  • Open drawers via strap
  • Open refrigerator door with a strap or suction cup device
  • Open interior doors via a strap with device to turn knob
  • Answer Doorbell and open front door with strap attached to lever handle
  • Open or close sliding glass door with a strap or other tug devices
  • Shut restroom door that opens outward via a leash tied to doorknob
  • Close stall door that opens outward in restroom by delivering end of the leash to partner
  • Shut interior home, office doors that open outward
  • Shut motel room exterior door that opens inward
  • Assist to remove shoes, slippers, sandals
  • Tug socks off without biting down on foot
  • Remove slacks, sweater, coat
  • Drag heavy coat, other items to closet
  • Drag laundry basket through house with a strap
  • Drag bedding to the washing machine
  • Wrestle duffle bag or other objects from the van into the house
  • Pull a drapery cord to open or close drapes
  • Assist to close motel room drapes by tugging on edge near bottom of drape, backing up
  • Operate rope device that lifts blanket and sheet or re-covers disabled person when he or she becomes too hot or cold.
  • Alternatively, take edge of a blanket and move backwards, tugging to remove it or assist someone to pull the blanket up to their chin if cold


  • Cupboard Door or Drawers - nudge shut
  • Dryer door - hard nudge
  • Stove Drawer - push it shut
  • Dishwasher Door - put muzzle under open door, flip to shut
  • Refrigerator & Freezer Door - close with nudge
  • Call 911 on K-9 Rescue Phone - push the button
  • Operate button or push plate on electric commercial doors
  • Turn on Light switches
  • Push Floor Pedal Device to Turn on Lamp
  • Turn on metal based lamps with touch-lamp device installed - nudge base
  • Assist wheelchair user to regain sitting position if slumped over
  • Help put paralyzed arm back onto the armrest of wheelchair
  • Return paralyzed foot to the foot board of a wheelchair if it is dislodged

PAWING BASED TASKS ( some dogs prefer it to nose nudge)

  • Cupboard door - shut it with one paw
  • Dryer door - shut it with one paw
  • Refrigerator & Freezer Door - one forepaw or both
  • Call 911 on K-9 Rescue Phone - hit button with one paw
  • Operate Light switch on wall - jump up, paw the switch
  • Depress floor pedal device to turn on appliance(s) or lamp
  • Jump up to paw elevator button [steady dog if he tries it on slippery tile floor]
  • Operate push plate on electric commercial doors
  • Close heavy front door, other doors - jump up, use both forepaws


  • Transfer assistance from wheelchair to bed, toilet, bathtub or van seat - hold Stand Stay position, then Brace on command, enabling partner to keep their balance during transfer
  • Assist to walk step by step, brace between each step, from wheelchair to nearby seat
  • Position self and Brace to help partner catch balance after partner rises from a couch or other seats in a home or public setting
  • Prevent fall by bracing on command if the partner needs help recovering balance
  • Steady partner getting in or out of the bathtub
  • Assist partner to turn over in bed; have appropriate backup plan
  • Pull up partner with a strap [tug of war style] from floor to feet on command, then brace till partner catches balance

HARNESS BASED TASKS - Mobility Assistance
( These tasks are only appropriate for a large sturdy adult dog with sound joints, proper training)

  • Assist moving wheelchair on flat [ partner holds onto harness pull strap ] avoiding obstacles
  • Work cooperatively with partner to get the wheelchair up a curb cut or mild incline; handler does as much of the work as possible, never asking the dog to attempt an incline unaided
  • Haul open heavy door, holding it ajar using six foot lead attached to back of harness, other end of lead attached to door handle or to a suction cup device on a glass door
  • Tow ambulatory partner up inclines [harness with rigid handle or pull strap may be used]
  • Brace on command to prevent ambulatory partner from stumbling [rigid handle]
  • Help ambulatory partner to climb stairs, pulling then bracing on each step [rigid handle or harness with pull strap may be used to assist partner to mount a step or catch balance]
  • Pull partner out of aisle seat on plane, then brace until partner catches balance [harness with a rigid handle and a pull strap, or pull strap only]
  • Brace, counter balance work too, assisting ambulatory partner to walk; the partner pushes down on the rigid handle as if it were a cane, after giving warning command, when needed
  • Help ambulatory partner to walk short distance, brace between each step [rigid handle]
  • Transport textbooks, business supplies or other items up to 50 lbs in a wagon or collapsible cart, weight limit depends on dog's size, physical fitness, type of cart, kind of terrain
  • Backpacking - customary weight limit is 15% of the dog's total body weight;10% if a dog performing another task, such as wheelchair pulling in addition to backpacking; total weight includes harness (average 3 - 4 lbs.). Load must be evenly distributed to prevent chafing.


  • Bark for help on command
  • Find the care-giver on command, lead back to location of disabled partner
  • Put forepaws in lap of wheelchair user, hold that upright position so wheelchair user can access medication or cell phone or other items in the backpack
  • Wake up partner if smoke alarm goes off, assist to nearest exit


  • Operate push button device to call 911, an ambulance service or another person to help in a crisis; let emergency personnel into home and lead to partner's location
  • Fetch insulin kit, respiratory assist device or medication from customary place during a medical crisis
  • Lie down on partner's chest to produce a cough, enabling patient to breath, when suction machine and/or care-giver unavailable ( this has been a life saving task for someone with a high spinal cord injury, written up in a medical journal)

Note: For specific tasks to address specific symptoms of disabilities like Parkinson's Disease or MS or Epilepsy or any other disabling condition, one option is to research the subject by consulting with training providers familiar with those conditions. A second option is to send out a specific information request on email lists in the assistance dog field, gathering a variety of input. As a precaution, a second query, asking trainers and handlers for recommended ethical and /or safety guidelines in connection with any task being considered, may yield valuable input to assist with assessing the appropriateness of the suggested task for a particular team. A third option is to search archives for newspaper stories, magazine articles, television newscasts and documentaries which may focus on a particular disability or provider or type of assistance dog. Books on training guide, hearing or service dogs, autobiographies, biographies and works of fiction may in some cases, provide additional information on the desired topic. 

*If someone wishes to contribute information on new tasks or innovative equipment for a specific disability or type of assistance dog, it can be circulated to assistance dog partners and programs in many countries through an article submitted to IAADP's quarterly newsletter, "Partners Forum." Also it may be shared through a video tape or by demonstration at IAADP's annual conference. Questions about any task described in this report or a suggested task for a future update may be sent to the author at or to 

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