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Training a Service Dog

Three service dogs in training on a ferry

Training a service dog yourself is quite doable even if you have a disability. Our expert on this, Viki, should know - she's been training service dogs for several years to help her and her husband with their respective specific needs.

However, there are also service dog training programs if you don't have the time or skills to train a dog yourself. You can read more about that here.




Should I Get a Puppy or Older Dog?

Puppy photos of Melanie, a yellow lab service dogService dog Melanie as a puppy
Two great Pyrennees service dogsHannah and Patches, two of Viki's former service dogs

Viki prefers to start out with a puppy so they can really get to know each other and build an unshakeable rapport.

A puppy that has been tuned in to you from a young age is also more likely to become a medical alert dog. According to Viki, "Medical alert is considered the holy grail of all mitigation and CANNOT be trained. An example of this is where the dog senses you are about to have a seizure or to lose your balance and warns you before it happens. It is something that the animal does by instinct."

You may wish to rescue a dog - just be aware that they usually have some type of behavior issue, which may require extra training and patience on your part.

You could also acquire a dog that has been trained by someone else. This will likely cost you more but could be well worth the investment to you. You will still need to reinforce the training - it may help to have a checklist to refresh skills as needed.

Not sure which kind of dog you need to get to train as an assistance dog? See service dog breeds.




Where to Start with Training a Service Dog

Basic obedience comes first. The dog needs to be:

  • housebroken
  • learn to come when called
  • sit when ordered
  • stay in the down position
  • stop barking on command
  • walk on a leash without pulling
  • follow at heel with a dropped leash
Proper socialization is a very important part of training a service dog

These foundation skills must be taught with patience and in a positive manner.

  • They can be started at a very young age - just keep training sessions short, from 5 to 10 minutes, a few times a day.
  • There are any number of training methods. My favorite is clicker training. (Investing in good training resources is money well spent, in my opinion.)

Two other things to consider for raising a well rounded dog:

  • Set up the dog's area for success so he or she stays out of trouble - a dog crate is useful provided the dog is allowed out to go potty and also gets really good exercise. A utility room or fenced yard area with dog toys (homemade, of course!) may be other options.
  • Socialization with other dogs is just as important as getting the dog used to people outside the family.

See below for more advanced service dog training skills.




Top 5 Dog Training Mistakes

According to Dog Training Secrets, there are 5 main mistakes that will result in lack of progress when training a service dog or any other dog:

1) Lack of practice or effort
2) Poor timing with rewards
3) Rewarding the wrong behaviors
4) Being inconsistent with rewarding or discouraging specific behaviors
5) Scaring your dog through hitting, kicking or yelling

We would add one more:

6) Getting in a hurry to see results. Training a dog thoroughly in the basics takes many months if done on a regular timetable, and training a service dog to do targeted tasks can take considerably longer.

However, clicker training, done right, can ease the process somewhat.




Clicker Training

Virginia Broitman, a follower of animal behaviorist Karen Pryor, advocates using a clicker with a treat to get good results more quickly.

Her approach offers a sophisticated, yet easy-to-understand, training method called shaping, which is also called hands off training.

To see this in action, click on some FREE video previews such as this Video Sample: Shaping Behaviors - follow the directions below:

Click the Play arrow several times - ignore the Buy Now button - wait until the ClickFlicks page show, then wait several more seconds before it continues. You can also access the other videos located on the side of the page in the same manner.




 Skills Specific to Training a Service Dog

Viki states:
“It's best to have AT LEAST 3 THINGS the dog does for you, if you are asked to demonstrate your need.

I overtrain my dogs; first because it is great fun to teach new things to my partner, and second because some days I NEED the extra help.

As a one-year old, Mildred Isabella, could already help me in the following ways:

  • with my balance;
  • pick up items that I dropped;
  • get me groceries off the bottom shelves at the store (sometimes even the ones I wanted -- LOL);
  • drag things from room to room for me (as in laundry baskets with things in them);
  • open doors/cabinets/fridge (the last one isn't recommended because they find LOTS of goodies in the fridge!);
  • go into another room and bring me my phone, keys, her leash, etc.

We will continue adding items the older she gets...

I advocate you first get a prescription for a service dog from your doctor. Explain exactly what you are wanting the dog for (in my case, to help with balance; get things for me; help me save energy for important things -- like getting to spend time with family instead of being so in pain that I cannot think.)

Some doctors will know right away what a service dog can do for you; some will need education. I recommend www.iaadp.org for a list of things that could help you."




Service Dog Training Programs

Some research revealed that finding a good service dog training program can be tricky. There are apparently many organizations that make claims to being able to help you with training a service dog but that are, in fact, either not that competent or else want to rip you off.

Note that they may have very good looking websites, promise quick results, or tell you that your dog needs to be recertified every year...

Service Dog Central has several tips on finding a more reputable trainer or program. Here are some highlights:

  • A dog that is kept in a family situation generally becomes a better service dog than one that is being kept in kennels.
  • If you're looking for a service dog training program in your local area, your Better Business Bureau can highlight problems anyone may have had with that business.

If your dog is being housed by the program and trained by someone else:

  • You'll want transparency about their methods - where and how they house the dog, how well qualified their trainers and staff are, whether they use volunteers, the number of dogs they've trained, references.
  • They should ask for and record details about your disability, personality and lifestyle, and they should be able to match you up with a dog right for you rather than you making the choice.
  • You should be able to visit their facilities and see how the dogs are taken care of and how they interact with the staff.
  • During the training period, which can take from several months to two years, you should be able to ask for videos of your dog both during leisure time and training sessions.
  • After you receive your dog, they should offer a reasonable time period of additional support.


The truth about service dog certification can be found here.




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