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Candidates often go through 6-24 months of intense training before they’re considered true, reliable service dogs. Most organisations recommend a minimum of 120 hours, plus an extra 30 hours specifically allocated to working in public. If you’re wondering how to train a service dog on your own, hats off to you for considering such a bold move. It will take plenty of time, and even more patience.
Service dog training can be broken into three sections:
Manners training involves teaching your future service dog how to consistently behave day-to-day for the safety of the handler, other people and, of course, themselves. These are often passive behaviours i.e. the dog does not need to be told what to do, or not do, each time. They know how to behave due to consistent prior training. Some examples include ignoring strangers, overlooking dropped food and walking politely through doorways.
Public access training
Training for public access involves ‘proofing’ your dog’s manners and obedience training in busy, highly distracting areas where dogs are not usually allowed. It is especially important to train this part well if you will be taking your service dog out in public because every time you’re out and about, you are representing not only yourself, but others with service dogs too. If your dog behaves poorly, business owners reserve the right to have your dog removed and it can leave a bad impression for others who were there. It’s possible that you’ll be banned from returning.
Task training is as it sounds – teaching your dog the specific exercises he would need to perform to mitigate your disability. Believe it or not, many consider task training to be the easiest of the three sections. Task training can be seen as merely teaching your dog a useful, complex trick.
Training your own service dog means that your dog learns with you, becoming in tune with your baseline physical and mental states. As a result, when you start deviating from ‘normal’ they will pick up on it. This is especially essential when training a psychiatric service dog (PSD). It’s difficult to find board and train facilities for PSDs for good reason.
By training your own dog you also get to learn the principles of training, which means you are given the tool set required to teach your animals anything. Furthermore, training is an ongoing process, it never ends and sometimes you need to fix up behaviours, or teach something new. Learning how to train a service dog on your own saves you having to call in a trainer every five minutes. (Remember the old saying: teach a man how to fish?)
On the topic of trainers, sending your dog away for training can be very costly. While this may not be a problem for everyone, it is definitely worth keeping that in mind if you are on a limited budget.
And finally, by training your own service dog you are able to avoid losing valuable time to waiting lists. If time is of the essence, you don’t want to be at someone else’s mercy.
The drawbacks of training your own service dog
Unlike getting a dog from a service dog training program, there is no guarantee that the dog you train will be a successful service dog. You may find that your dog can’t make the cut, forcing you to “wash” them out. Meanwhile, valuable time may have been lost.
Sadly, if you’re inexperienced with training dogs, there is an even higher chance of a dog washing out. Because of this, even dog owners who are more experienced are highly encouraged to train their service dog candidate with the supervision of an accomplished dog trainer. Just having someone to check in with on a regular basis, or keep you on track will help improve your chances of successfully training your service dog.
While training your own service dog may be cheaper money-wise, it is definitely costly time-wise. Ask yourself if you’re willing to devote the next couple of years to learning training processes and dog behaviour, and training your own dog to accomplish your goal. It is incredibly rewarding, but may not be for everyone.
What sort of manners should a service dog have?
Training a service dog candidate to behave well involves the same principles as teaching a pet, however, the stakes and standard higher.
While in public, your goal with your service dog is to have them:
- Walk calmly on leash at all times, with no tension unless you’ve instructed them to pull you.
- Ignoring strangers completely, including no unsolicited sniffing, begging or general attention seeking.
- Not eliminating in a public setting, unless you’ve allowed them to.
- Be completely neutral and tolerant of all sights, sounds, smells. This means no lurching toward another dog, or cowering at loud noises.
- Show absolutely no signs of aggression or fear, especially towards people or other animals.
While these are the rules while your service dog is on duty, it is far easier for your dog if you do not have two sets of expectations for them that are dramatically different. As an example, allowing your dog to eat dropped food at home, and then expecting them not to do it in public can be a tall order.
While not required, having your dog learn basic obedience is highly encouraged for all three phases of training. The most useful commands to master are sit, stay, down, come and heel. There are many resources online, as well as books available to help you along.
Working with your dog in public is something that has to be achieved gradually so that your service dog candidate does not become overwhelmed, or develop bad behaviours that will be difficult to correct down the line. Public access training is mainly an extension of the manners training above, plus the tasks you’d need them to perform, but with the added requirement of them being able to behave and work in public.
To set your dog up for success, always work on behaviours in a low distraction environment first. You want your dog’s attention to stay on you, or quickly come back to you when they’re momentarily distracted. If they seem as though they’re performing reliably and staying fixed on you, up the ante by moving to a busier location. When you’re struggling to keep your dog’s focus, move back a step, as you’re probably going too quickly and they’re having trouble ignoring what’s going on in the environment. If you need help figuring out how to progress distractions, you can use the following as a guide, tweaking as necessary to fit your situation and dog:
- Start in a quiet room in the home, then move on to a busier/noisier area, such as the lounge
- Still at home, move your exercises out to the backyard
- Once your dog is demonstrating that he can keep his attention on you, work in the driveway, progressing towards the street over time.
- If you live in a quiet area, let your street and neighbourhood comprise the next few settings you work in
- Move on to a quiet parking lot
- Start working in a park during quiet hours, where the smells are still enticing, but there are fewer people and dogs around
- Progress to busier environments like pet store parking lots, working your way into the pet store as your dog shows you that he can remain focused
- Practice at the park during higher traffic times, busy sidewalks, city blocks and any other areas with plenty of hustle and bustle.
Once you feel that your dog is working reliably with you even in highly distracting environments, consider calling up a few businesses and ask if they would be so kind as to grant access to you and your service dog in training (SDiT). Some may say no, which is perfectly fine, but many people are willing to work with you if you’re fair and polite. Restaurants and other food related businesses may not be permitted to say yes, however, even if they wanted to. You want to be sure that your dog will not cause any disruption to the employees or business patrons, so be sure of their steadiness and reliability. Alternatively, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consult a trainer, so that they can help evaluate before this big step.
It can be very tempting to look up a list of common service dog tasks and pick and choose the ones that sound handy. The trouble with this is that it’s easy to become sidetracked and end up picking tasks that are not entirely relevant to your disability. Remember that a service dog is defined as an animal that is individually trained to help mitigate your disability by performing specific tasks. You can absolutely train your dog to do things outside of their work, but those would just be frosting on the cake.
Instead, a better approach would be to evaluate your impairments and then write down a list of needs that you have as an individual. The list should not include things that can be solved by other means, such as expecting your service dog to remind you when to take your medication if setting up alerts on your phone is a viable option. Together with your doctor and loved ones, you should be able to come up with a number of items that your service dog would ideally perform for you. Once you have that list, look up how to train those specific behaviours through online resources or books, contact a professional trainer, or, learn the laws of shaping and creatively come up with ways teach it yourself.
Involving a trainer to help you along
A few times we’ve mentioned finding a professional dog trainer to consult with when you’re stuck or need a second pair of eyes. Even experienced dog owners should consider having an expert trainer up their sleeve. If you’re wondering how you can find someone reliable, take a look at the Association Of Pet Dog Trainer’s resources. They have useful information on how to choose a trainer, as well as a search function on their website to help your find trainers in your area.
While it can be daunting and trying at times, learning how to train a service dog can also be an empowering experience. The knowledge and skills you acquire will always be with you, making you a more educated pet owner as well as a top-notch service dog handler. Take a look at our simple How To Train A Service Dog Infographic to remind yourself of the bare essentials, and speak with an experienced trainer when you hit a roadblock. Finally, remember to be fair to yourself and, of course, your dog.
References and recommended reading:
- Assistance Dog International. Standards for Dogs. Assistance Dog International. Retrieved from http://assistancedogsinternational.org/
- Assistance Dog International. Public Access Test. Assistance Dog International. Retrieved from http://assistancedogsinternational.org/
- Miller. P (2006, March). Fun Training Techniques for Your Dog using Shaping! The Whole Dog Journal. Retrieved from http://whole-dog-journal.com
- APDT. How to Choose a Dog Trainer. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Retrieved from http://apdt.com