Training Your Own Service Dog
Service dogs need to undergo intense training before they are able to properly serve their handlers. But it’s truly for your own benefit — your service dog needs to be able to address your needs, ensure your safety, and properly behave in public. And while using a professional organization to train your service dog has historically been the only option, the high expense (as much as $25,000!) and lengthy wait times have led more disabled individuals to their own service dogs.
It’s advisable to enlist the help of a professional trainer to train your service dog. However, you can play a significant role in the training journey, too. Here’s how you can start training your service dog to be your most helpful companion.
Before You Start Training
Before your service dog can be considered a service dog, they will need to be evaluated according to the Assistance Dogs International Public Test, which ensures your dog can remain stable and unobtrusive in public environments. Being out in public can be highly distracting to a dog (lots of new smells, sights, sounds, etc.), but your dog must be able to perform necessary tasks immediately.
That’s why, before you begin training a dog for service purposes, you need to feel sure that your dog is a good candidate for service dog training. It’s not a role for just any dog. Here are some questions that may help you decide whether to move forward:
- Does my dog behave well around strangers, in public, or around other animals?
- Is my dog aware of what’s going on around them, but not reactive to events?
- Does my dog like to follow me?
- Will my dog allow other people to touch him/her?
Service dogs need to adapt to a range of environments. What’s more, they also need to be teachable. Some dogs take longer than others to learn new information, which can lengthen the training process.
If you already have a dog but you fear it might not be a good fit as a service dog, you may need to explore other breeds.
Service Dog Training: First Steps
The lowest hanging fruit of service dog training is all about behavior. Things like potty training, behaving in public, and resisting distractions are very basic skills that any dog will benefit from. They also set a strong foundation for specific service task training.
Professional dog trainers recommend starting with these five critical tasks:
- 1. Sit. One of the simplest commands to teach a dog, learning to sit on command is a sign of obedience. Teach your dog to sit by saying the command and gently pressing down on their bottom to encourage sitting. Once they’re sitting, reward with a treat
- 2. Leash training. Service dogs need to be able to walk well on a leash. This means no pulling, no running, and staying by your side at all times. See Tim Carter’s Dogs Unleashed: From On-Leash to Off-Leash for expert training guidance.
- 3. Clicker conditioning. A clicker is a dog training tool that makes a “click” sound to reinforce positive behavior. After your dog successfully performs a task, make a click using a clicker device, then reward them with a treat. Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training for Dogs book is an excellent source on how to master this training method.
- 4. Name recognition. Service dogs need to know their own name. If he/she doesn’t already know and respond to their name, you can train them by saying their name several times in a row, then offering treats or food. Wait for your service dog to look or move away, then repeat this process to get their attention. Continue repeating this cycle until your dog looks at you every time you say their name.
- 5. Tether training. A tether is a short steel cable with one end attached to your dog’s collar and the other end attached to a stationary object. Service dogs must often sit still and quietly for long periods of time. Using a tether to teach this skill helps because they have very little leeway to move and therefore not much to do besides settling down.
Preparing for the Assistance Dogs International Public Test
Once your dog has mastered behavioral basics, it’s time to start focusing on the Assistance Dogs International Public Test requirements. The test consists of demonstrating several skills to show your dog can behave well in public. These include:
- Walking up to a building
- Behaving inside a restaurant
- Getting into and out of a vehicle
- Entering and exiting through doorways
- Remaining stable if the leash is dropped
- Heel (walk with you on your left side no more than six inches between you) through a building
- Sit on command
- Back down on command
- Keep a six-foot recall on the leash
Service Dog Task Training
If your service dog can pass the Assistance Dogs International Public Test, it’s time to focus on the specific tasks they will need to do for you. Service dogs can be trained to perform a wide range of tasks, including guiding the blind, retrieving items, pulling a wheelchair, offering medication reminders, and alerting others to a seizure or panic attack.
How you proceed from here depends on your unique disability and what you need your service dog to do.
At this point, your dog has already proven it recognizes you as its owner, trusts you, and will obey you. Now it’s time to consult additional training resources to choose the best path forward.
We’ve included a list of helpful resources for you depending on your specific condition.
The Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) Program
This program operates in a group setting and offers support for handlers teaching their service dogs specific skills. It’s also beneficial for early-stage training, such as teaching your dog to ignore distractions or helping them socialize with other people and pets. Learn more.
Zak George Dog Training Revolution YouTube Channel
With more than 3.46 million subscribers and tons of free video training content, Zak George is extremely knowledgeable and personable when it comes to dog training. The videos are high-quality and engaging, and they’re just long enough to help you get something from each one. Learn more.
Training Your Own Full Potential Service Dog by Lelah Sullivan
This book comes highly recommended by top animal experts and organizations. It offers step-by-step instructions over the course of 30 days and even offers guidance on how to choose a dog to train. Learn more.
Training Levels: Volumes 1 and 2 by Sue Ailsby
This two-part guide helps you set a strong foundation for your dog training. It breaks down specific tasks into steps and focuses heavily on behavior training. Learn more.
Building Blocks for Performance by Bobbie Anderson
Handlers need to have a strong relationship with their service dogs, and this book shares great insights on how to go about it. It’s hard to find the line between obedience and love, and handlers need to be able to instill both in their service dogs. Learn more.
Training your own service dog can be a bit intimidating, but the reward is so much greater than the work you will put into it. Keep your eyes on the end goal and get ready to enjoy a long-lasting, fruitful relationship with your new companion!