Are you interested in leveling up your dog into a service dog? You’re not alone. In the United States, approximately 500,000 service dogs support their owners with a variety of mental and physical health conditions.
Service dogs enjoy unique privileges that extend beyond the unconditional love an ordinary household pet provides. Service dogs can accompany you wherever you travel. They are exempt from ordinary restrictions prohibiting pets. Likewise, they can also provide immediate, essential support during acute situations. Indeed, many people with physical or psychiatric disabilities claim that their dog offers unmatchable assistance.
That said, training your dog requires time and effort. While some people use a professional dog trainer, many owners do their training themselves. Doing it yourself has numerous advantages. For one, it builds a connection and camaraderie with your pet. Second, you learn what works best for your dog. Finally, you don’t have to worry about learning a task from someone else and implementing it successfully on your own.
#1: Choose The Right Dog And Assess The Right Features
With a combination of the right training and temperament, any dog breed can become a service dog. While some people assume that a puppy can act as a ‘blank slate,’ not all dogs have the appropriate attention spans or capabilities. Buying or adopting a purpose for the sole purpose of making him a service dog is risky. Many experts recommend training a younger dog who has already exhibited some shown receptiveness to basic training.
Keep in mind that size can matter. For example, people with mobility disabilities may benefit more from a larger dog. Larger dogs can help guard your home and do significant tasks like providing physical pressure. However, small dogs may be better for traveling and on-the-go support.
Support dogs need to be in optimal health. This means attending all necessary vet appointments. You will want to rule out any underlying conditions like hip dysplasia, heart or eye conditions, or knee problems before undergoing your training.
Finally, you should assess whether the dog’s willingness to please and keep you happy. Younger dogs should approach you calmly and happily without showing fear or hesitation. Their body language should be relatively calm and relaxed (happy tails, walking to you, keeping the head up).
Finally, you want a dog that you can socialize in a variety of settings. Test your dog in places like the park, a doggy daycare or kindergarten class, and other dog-friendly public places. Obedience means no barking, growling, or averting into submissive postures. Moreover, your dog should have a healthy level of protectiveness over you and your family. If the dog is too protective, he may bite or act aggressively when threatened.
#2: Spay or Neuter Your Dog
If you haven’t already, you should spay or neuter your dog before you begin any training program. Likewise, service dogs are required to be spayed or neutered. Female dogs cannot work successfully when they are in heat, as male dogs will constantly come towards her with a desire to mate. Male dogs will be more distractible and aggressive.
Experts recommend spaying or neutering between four and six months. Of course, this is a rule of thumb for puppies. If you adopt or have an older dog, consult with your vet to determine the best course of action.
#3: Use High-Value Treats
Dogs are simple creatures. They’re easy to please. When they want something, they’ll do just about anything to get it. Furthermore, most of them are incredibly motivated by food!
When you start training a new task, you’ll want to use high-value treats. These treats should be soft and easy to chew, but they should also be your dog’s favorite foods. They might be small, bite-sized chunks of cheese, chicken breast, or hot dogs. You can also use store-bought treats that your dog covets.
If you’re not sure of your dog’s favorite treats, consider this trick. Pull out a few paper plates. Place a couple of pieces of the same food on each plate. See which plate your dog first runs towards- that’s probably their favorite one!
You also want to pair treats with praise. Having a positive attitude is essential during training. Dogs can intuit your emotions. If you’re high-strung and stressed, they’re going to take on that anxiety.
#4: Consider Clicker Training
Although it’s not mandatory, clicker training provides precise and accurate communication. The premise is simple. You click whenever the dog engages in the desired behavior. This click is much faster than human praise, which significantly reduces any confusion.
Timing is the most essential factor. You don’t want to reward the wrong behavior. Practice conditioning him with the clicker. You can do this by clicking and offering a free treat 10-20 times in a row. Then, click and see if he scopes the treat. If he does look for a treat, your work is done! He’s now connected the click with the treat. If not, go for another round.
Practice being as quick as possible with pairing treats to clicks. If you wait too long, your dog won’t understand which behavior you’re reinforcing.
#5: Watch Training Videos
We live in a fortunate time where we can access unlimited information through the tap of a touchscreen. Take advantage of these resources! There are thousands of dog training videos available on mainstream sites like Youtube.
Training videos take the guesswork out of your program. Someone else has already figured out the step-by-step approach. Of course, you may need to experiment with several videos to find one that best suits your needs.
#6: Start With Simple Commands
Service dogs need to perform a variety of tasks to help their owners. However, you need to start with the basics. From the basics, you can build on other skills.
The most straightforward commands to start with are names, sit, lie down, and come. Make sure to be generous with treats when you first begin your training. You want your dog excited and eager for this work. You also want to keep your tone relaxed and engaged.
If you find yourself getting frustrated (or if your dog starts getting bored or distracted), it’s time to take a break. Usually, this means training happens in small chunks several times per day. Training shouldn’t exceed more than 15 minutes at a time.
Once your dog starts getting the hang of commands, you’ll want to randomize the treats. The randomization keeps your dog alert and excited.
#7: Focus On One Specialized Skill At A Time
You’ll want to choose the designated tasks based on your disability. However, you should start with one task at a time to avoid confusing or overwhelming your dog.
After selecting the task, you need to break down each of the steps clearly. To start, you need to work in a slow, step-by-step process. You also need to reward each desired behavior. This may feel time-consuming, but you need to follow this method to ensure that your dog understands his expectations.
Just like with simple commands, you’ll want to keep the sessions short. They shouldn’t exceed more than 10-15 minutes, but you can work on them two or three times a day. Mix specialized skill training with other training. The variety keeps things interesting, and it keeps your dog sharp and attuned to other skills.
#8: Remember That Training Never Ends
There isn’t a set destination when it comes to service dog training. Instead, the work is fluid and continuous. You should always be working on obedience, commands, and training throughout the dog’s lifespan.
We get rusty when we don’t practice our skills. The same philosophy applies to your dog. If you stop working and reinforcing good behavior, they lose motivation (or forget) to engage in those tasks.
Dedicate a set amount of time each day to focus on training skills. While you don’t always need to provide treats, you should continue to utilize a ‘randomization’ approach. You can switch off between food treats and verbal praise.
#9: Consider Using A Professional
There is nothing wrong with outsourcing your dog training. In fact, hiring a professional does have numerous advantages, especially if you’re feeling insecure or uncertain about your ability to execute the training. Just remember that training isn’t a quick fix. You’ll still need to practice implementing these skills on your own.
Not all dog trainers are created equally. You need to do your homework before you hire anyone. Make sure that the training company or private trainer has the appropriate credentials. Popular ones include:
- Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC)
- Certified Animal Behavior Consultant (CABC)
- Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC)
- Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT)
- Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC)
- Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or Associate (CAAB)
Reputable trainers are happy to share their experience and credentials with you. Inquire about their past work and the types of training they’ve done. Be cautious of any guarantees. There is no ethical way to ensure that a dog’s training can be completely successful. Moreover, you want to stay away from any trainer who uses punitive practices like forceful control or choking/prong collars.
Final Thoughts On Training Your Service Dog
Training your own service dog can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both you and your furry friend. However, you must be willing to dedicate both time and effort for the best results. If you’re up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded by a tenfold with the safety, reliability, and loyalty your dog can provide.
Nicol Arzt LMFT
Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in substance use disorders, depression and anxiety, and complex trauma. A professional content writer, she is passionate about teaching through the written word and providing dynamic mental health advocacy. Nicole lives in Southern California with her husband and son.