Teaching Reminder Tasks

 After posting this reel on IG, I've had multiple people reach out to me about training their Service Dog to do medicine reminders tasks.

Reminder tasks are fairly simple to train if you put some thought into what do you need and when do you need it. I like to go back the 5 "W" questions I learned in English class many years ago...Who, What, Where, When & Why. By answering these questions we can come with a plan for training this skill. So here is how I work through those questions with the task in this reel.

Who: This task involves both Belle and myself. 

What: I need to take meds 2 times a day, 12 hrs apart. To start with I focused on the AM time simply because mornings follow more of a routine and evenings are kind of crazy without specific routines.

Where: Most generally I need this task in my house, and quite frequently I'm in my living room at 8am when I'm supposed to take the medication.

When: I try to take my meds at 8am & 8pm daily.

Why: I need Belle to remind me to do this because I commonly procrastinate and then forget to accomplish this on my own. Yes, I could work to force myself to pay more attention to my alarm and stop whatever I was doing immediately without allowing myself to procrastinate. But that takes a ton of mental energy on my part. I'd rather use that mental energy elsewhere.

More why...I tried to teach Azul to do this task when he was young. And while he learned it really quickly, he really didn't love it and at that time migraine alerts were far more important so we focused on that and I did my best to be responsible for meds myself...missing them regularly.

What do I need my Service Dog to do to help me with this?

I need my dog to basically annoy the heck out of me until I do take my meds. Azul didn't care to be annoying, but Belle loves to do this! So here are the steps of what Belle does to do this alert.
  • My phone starts vibrating which gets Belle's attention. Then when my special alarm ringtone goes she jumps into action.
  • First thing Belle does is start nose bumping my phone. Often my phone is in my hand at this time and Belle will literally bump it hard enough to knock it out of my hand. If my phone isn't in my hand Belle will find my phone and start targeting it.
    • I'm typically in the same room as my phone, but occasionally my phone was left in another room so Belle has to run back and forth between my phone and me to take me to my phone OR she can pick my phone up and carry it to me.
  • Next Belle finds my meds container. This is generally kept near a treat box, near my seat on the couch. Sometimes it's easy to find and retrieve, sometimes she has to search a bit hard.
  • When Belle finds the meds, she retrieves them and hands them to me. I have a habit of sitting it down on my lap to finish what I'm doing, procrastinating. Belle will then nose target the container over and over until I pick it up and open it.
  • Belle then continues to stare at me while I open the container, grab my meds, grab my water bottle and take my meds. Yes, I could fool her here, but I have no reason to do that. The annoying behavior doesn't stop until I set my water bottle down.
How did I train this?
My morning is pretty routine because I'm slow to wake up and move. We get out of bed, I use the bathroom, dogs go out to potty, breakfast for dogs happens, and I generally sit back down to wake up slowly. This is most often when my alarm to take meds goes off.

I found a high value treat that I could keep by my spot on the couch where I'm most commonly sitting when the alarm rights. In Belle's case this was a strip of chicken jerky that I could break up according. Most mornings she earns the whole piece of jerky in small sections as we reinforce every step of the way. At first I just reinforced Step 1 heavily and made sure reinforcement kept coming while the other steps happened.  Once Belle got really good at Step 1, I used a smaller piece of reinforcement at the step and started heavily reinforcing Step 2. Then I continued to adjust my use of high reinforcement, making the current step Belle was learning the most heavily reinforced. Eventually I will only reinforce the end step, but I will never phase out reinforcement completely. This is one thing that gets reinforced for life in my book.

Adding in duration, distraction, and distance.

Once I saw Belle was understanding and doing the routine each morning, I started making it slightly harder. Instead of being in the living room when my phone alarm went off, I started being in other rooms of the house. Belle would have to nose my phone to get me to turn the alarm off, then go into the living room to get my meds container. We did this in every room of the house multiple times over about 3 weeks. During this time I made sure that my phone was always with me.

Next I started leaving my phone in other places, beginning with near the couch and the meds. Belle then had to figure out how to get me to follow her to my phone. Because my phone was near my husband when we started this, Belle would dance by my phone until my husband told her to go find mom. As soon she found me, she would bounce back and forth between my phone and me until I reached my phone. Then we fell into our routine.

As I built up distance away from my chair when the alarm went off, I was also building up some duration. If I was too far away or in the middle of something such as using the bathroom, Belle would have to wait, but also stay focused on her job to keep bugging me to go take my meds. This was the start of teaching her persistence mixed with patience. We built this up inside the house, then one morning we were in the backyard when the phone alarm went off. Belle bounced back and forth between me and the gate to get into the house so we could do our meds routine. The next step was leaving my phone on the chair that I often sit it, then go plan ball or tug with Belle so she was amped up and distracted when the alarm went off.  Belle immediately stopped the game and ran to the chair to my phone alarm.

The meds reminder task is one that has endless set ups and possibilities as life is not as predictable and routine as we might think. The key is to try to make the set up as routine as possible until your dog is excelling at the level you are working at. Then slowly change things up to make the task more difficult.

I worked on this for a little longer than a month before I started added in the evening alert as that is way more challenging.

A few questions...

What do you do if your phone rings all day long? How do you teach your dog to alert to the alarm and not every text message and phone call that comes ins?

I use a specific ringtone for the meds alarm than I do for anything else. My phone begins to vibrate first, before the alarm or sound starts. So in the early days of training, I make sure my phone is on silent so the other noises are not happening while Belle learns the tone for the alarm. Once I see her start to key in the sound specifically, I begin to leave my phone volume on and slowly turn it up. 

When my phone starts to vibrate, Belle will pick her head up or perk her ears and wait a second for the tone to start. If the tone is the alarm tone, she jumps to action. If it's a different tone, she goes back to what she is doing.

Can you train this if you need your dog to alert to you every 2-3 hours during the day? How do you prevent it from becoming boring? 

This is a task that I always reward with a special food treat. I try to use something that she only gets for this task when we are in the training stages. After that, I just make sure the reward is high value. But I never fade out the reinforcement for this task. On top of food, we also add in a ton of verbal praise and happy, party voice. We often do a snuggle session immediately following this task because this is something both Belle and I love to do each morning.

Add your questions to the comments or email them to us at crazy2calmcaninecoaches@gmail.com