How to Train Your Dog to Be a Service Dog

Dogs are known to be highly serving and loyal creatures. They always gravitate towards helping those they feel attached to. So, it was no surprise when the government started officially employing them for specific missions.

Some serve the police force, some are emotional support dogs, and some become service dogs.

So, you might wonder how to train your dog to be a service dog, and what qualifications are needed.

Read on to know all there is to know about service dogs, their qualifications, and how you can train them.

What Is a Service Dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) identifies service dogs as pets that assist people with disabilities. They perform routine specific tasks directly related to their owner’s condition.

The disability can be physical, such as blindness, Cerebral Palsy, or epilepsy. For example, a trained service dog will guide their visually-impaired master safely around obstacles such as other people, potholes, and telephone poles. 

Dogs who are trained to help their owners in this way are allowed in most public places.

However, the ADA also identifies service dogs for those people whose disabilities may not be easily visible. This includes “hidden” chronic illnesses, and mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

While the lines are a bit blurred between emotional support animals and service dogs, the specific duties expected of a service dog include:

  • Helping avoid obstacles and moving vehicles
  • Opening and closing doors, drawers, and cabinets
  • Helping people get dressed or undressed
  • Moving feet and arms onto wheelchair footrests and armrests
  • Preventing falls and providing stability
  • Calling 911 in case of emergency
  • Finding places, vehicles, or their owner when disoriented and bringing them to safety
  • Assessing owner’s safety and guiding away from stressful situations
  • Helping with insomnia and interrupting nightmares, seizures, and other episodes

Training your dog to be a service dog is no easy task. You’ll need patience, diligence, and a bit of skill.

Can You Train Your Own Service Dog?

Given how important these dogs’ jobs are, you may be wondering if you can do the dog training yourself. The answer is, as the ADA does not require dogs to be professionally trained, so you can train your own service dog.

There are many reasons why someone might want to train their own dog. This might be due to training costs, preferring your own dog, or wanting a challenge.

However, you should know that service dog training is a daunting task and requires a patient and determined personality. Even if you and your dog are well-suited for training, it’s worth considering that only about 30% of dogs are able to pass service dog training.That’s why some owners opt for choosing a reputable trainer.

However, if you are certain you want to train your own dog, this post is for you. We’ll go into more depth later in the post, but first you will need to train foundational skills such as clicker training, sitting, and socialization. Next you will need to train your dog to do the advanced tasks required for the certain disability they’re being trained to aid. Finally, you will have to pass a public access test, and may also opt for a certification (though not required) or vest to have your dog more easily recognized as a service animal.

What Qualifies a Dog to Be a Service Dog?

Service dogs can be any breed or size. However, they need to have  certain characteristics for them to be of good service. 

You also need to consider what you need them for. Very small dogs won’t be able to assist someone in a wheelchair, for instance.

Plus, your pup needs to display several personality traits that will help them do its job. The list below summarizes the few important characteristics that make a good service dog:

  • Has a good temperament
  • Able to keep calm in new environments
  • Capable of being socially intelligent
  • Has good memory
  • Can repeat specific tasks
  • Has a strong concentration span
  • Is relatively young and able-bodied

How to Train My Dog to Be a Service Dog?

As previously mentioned, the ADA gives you the right to train your canine. To do so, though, you need a structured program that’ll help you turn your dog from a friendly pet into a reliable service dog. These next five simple steps will guide you through it all.

1. Understand Your Dog’s Abilities and Identify Their Duties

Any breed can be a service dog. The trick is realizing that each breed is adept at a group of certain tasks.

However, for a service dog to be trained in the first place, the ADA poses two questions. One question is: is the service dog required because of a disability? The other is: what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

It’s imperative to understand the form of disability that requires assistance. Based on that information, assess if your pup can help. 

Evaluate your dog’s strengths, weaknesses, and behavior concerning the required task. If they’re still eligible, then hop on to the second step on this list.

2. Start With the Foundational Skills

After checking off the required personality traits for the job, it’s best to start training with the foundational skills. This set of training will keep them on their best behavior. At the same time, it can help you introduce further tasks for them later on.

Here are five essential foundational skills you ought to teach your pooch.

Clicker Training

This is a training formula that uses a mechanical device called the “clicker”. It makes a clicking noise whenever the canine correctly performs the task. This method is based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking preferable behavior and rewarding it.

You can train your dog with this method by giving a reward each time you tap the clicker. Do so a dozen times in a row, clicking the clicker and immediately giving a dog treat (preferably a training treat that is low in fat and calories, since you’ll be giving them so many).

Then, click the trainer again and see if they expect a treat. If so, you know that they’ve successfully been conditioned to associate the clicker with a reward. From there, you can use clicker training to teach skills or tricks. How this works is you’ll get them to do a trick, or a portion of a new trick, then click and reward them. You’ve already established “click -> reward”. You’ll use that association to build “trick -> click -> reward”.

Teach the Dog Its Name

Like clicker training, this is a reward-based method. Name-training can sometimes be done using a clicker. This part of coaching is very important as it establishes an easy way to communicate with your puppy.

To name-train your dog, start by saying their name and giving them a treat immediately after. Repeat five to ten consecutive times, then stop. When they start to look around or move away, repeat, this time using the clicker. Say your dog’s name, then click. When they looks at you, reward them.

Tether Training

This method teaches the dog to be still for long periods. Staying calmly in place and controlling their bladder is an essential skill for service dogs to learn.

A tether is a essentially a short, indoor leash or tie-down. You’d use it to keep the dog-in-training in place for a long time.

This training allows your dog to choose the most comfortable resting position for them. In addition to that, it drills patience and self-control into their behavior and prevents future outbursts or accidents.

Sitting Command

Sitting is the first obedience command often taught. It’s easy to master and allows you to learn the best way to teach your dog new positional commands. This can be done with clicker training.

There are many methods to get your dog to sit for the first time, when you are trying to introduce the behavior as a command.

One such method is to hold a treat above their head, and continue to slowly raise it until they sit (raising their head up more to follow the treat will usually result in their butt sitting down on the ground). Once they do so, click and give them a treat.

Sitting is a foundational skill for several other tricks and commands, so you’ll want to get this one down first.

Other Skills

Other sets of skills involve socialization, interacting with the human environment, and housebreaking (in case of an emergency). Leash training is also essential as it’s only legal to walk your dogs in public areas if they’re leashed.

So, it’s important to help them get used to it, especially since it heavily calls on their concentration. Your dog also needs to be focused on you, and this means ignoring interactions with other people or cats or squirrels it may meet during its daily activities.

3. Train the Dog to Serve the Specific Disability

This is the part where your skills, as well as your pup’s, are put to the test. One reason is that, for your dog to be a reliable service dog, from this point onward, all the following steps need to be completely mastered.

However, you can still do it on your own and still succeed. Once this phase is over, you’ll not only have a new bond, but also a reliable friend to depend on.

Attentiveness is a very important trait to teach your dog. This works by maintaining close eye contact with them when giving them a command. 

If they ignore you, then it’s worth getting a friend to help out. Ask them to turn a dead ear to your dog until their focus is back on you.

According to international standards, it takes about 120 hours over six months to fully train a service dog. The key to teaching your dog specific tasks related to the existing disability is to approach it one step at a time. After all, slow and steady wins the race.

4. Pass a Public Access Test

Below is an outline of what some organizations expect a coached service dog to do once finished with its training.

  • Friendly behavior towards people and other animals
  • No impulsive sniffing behaviors
  • Doesn’t ask for attention or affection while on the job
  • Control over emotions like over-excitement and hyperactivity
  • Can easily integrate into the urban public environment without frustration
  • Comported behavior or no excessive barking
  • Potty-trained on demand

There are different organizations and state-specific rules for service animals. You’ll want to research the organization that you will be testing with, and make sure that you are training to their expected requirements.

5. Service Dog Certification and Registration

This step is where identifying your dog’s duty becomes most important. Service dog identifications and certifications are not required by ADA to prove that your pup is a service dog. However, most public establishments will still insist on IDs or other tangible proof of service dog status.

It’s worth repeating that the ADA often expects an answer to two essential questions. The first address if the dog is required due to a present disability. The second requires to know the work or task the dog has been trained to perform.

This can vary on a state-by-state basis, so be sure to look up service dog certification for your locale.

Common Service Dog Breeds

It was established that any breed can be a service dog. However, Labrador Retrievers,  Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds are often the best due to their reasonable size and intelligence.

However, big breeds like Great Danes, Saint Bernards, and Bernese Mountain Dogs also possess desirable qualities like height and strength to provide mobility assistance. Surprisingly, even poodles, which come in different sizes, are particularly versatile.

If you don’t already have a dog and need help choosing, here’s a list of popular choices for service dogs. So, the choice boils down to the disability’s needs and your preferences.

  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Boxer
  • Great Dane
  • Border Collie
  • Bernese mountain
  • German Shepard
  • Poodle
  • Pit bulls

Things to Watch Out For

Being a trainer is no simple thing. So here’s a heads up on what you should be looking for.

Registration

As a trainer, you should learn about the required registration. According to the ADA, mandatory registration of service animals is not required. However, service animals are obligated to go through regional registration and a vaccination schedule.

Know the Law

If you decide to enroll your dog into an academy, it’s wise to check their program thoroughly. That is to make sure that this program is a good one, and is a service dog academy in the first place.

Vest and Other Indications

If you feel regional registration isn’t enough, buying the service dog vest, special solar, or tag can be a good indication to others as well as to the authorities. No federal law requires them to wear a vest, but many people prefer using it to avoid any confusion in public spaces.

Make sure you get them the right size vest for your dog so it fits comfortably without causing chafing or irritations. You should also beware of online fake vests, even though they can be easy to spot. If they’re incredibly cheap, sold by individuals on the internet, and have no or few reviews, then it’s probably a scam.

Conclusion

Service dogs are a pillar in the community. They help disabled people become more independent while offering them guidance and companionship. While service dogs can be trained by a professional trainer, owners can train their dogs too.

It’s worth noting that, should you choose to train your puppy yourself, it’ll be a long and potentially difficult journey. Before teaching your dog patience and diligence, you’ve got to make sure that you have some yourself.

Nonetheless, it’s sure to be a journey that’ll offer both of you the kind of new insight that can only tie two souls even closer. After all, there’s always something new to learn, master, and delve into, so enjoy the journey!

PuppyLists is written by J., who has owned, trained, volunteered with, and loved dogs for nearly three decades. When she isn't writing or researching, she's out adventuring with her 14 year old Lab mix.

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