How to Start Service Dog Training: Everything You Need to Know

by Amanda Flores

Here’s what you need to know about starting service dog training at home. 

Dogs are beloved by their owners for their loyalty, unconditional love, and for truly being a best friend at all times. Some dogs graduate from bestie level to professional status. These pups earn the title of “service dog” and become a 24/7 companion to their pet parent. 

Service dog training can be done by a professional organization, but these dogs can be expensive and hard to come by. With waitlists of one to three years, some people just don’t have access to already-trained service dogs and are required to take the training into their own hands. Here’s what you need to know about starting service dog training at home. 

What is a Service Dog?

You’ve likely seen a dog out and about wearing a vest or an official-looking harness and wondered if they might be a service dog. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to know if a dog is on official duty just by what they’re wearing. 

To qualify as a service dog, your pup must be trained and certified for a specific task. This can range from guide dogs who help someone with mobility or psychiatric dogs who are there for someone who has medical needs, as they can detect allergens or alert them to oncoming seizures. 

“In many cases, service dogs come from a specific line of dogs that are born and raised for a specific duty,” says Amy Learn, VMD, DACVB, IAABC-CABC, Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist.

Other pups who may be out in public assisting their pet parent could be emotional support animals, a therapy dog, or a facility dog. These dogs are wonderful and helpful in comforting people, especially in special circumstances like at a hospital or even a courtroom. However, these dogs are very different from service dogs. 

The U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section states that “if the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.” 

Types of Service Dogs 

Service dogs can be trained to perform a wide range of very specific tasks. There are service dogs who help with physical tasks. This can be helping to pull someone by pulling a wheelchair or assisting someone who needs help crossing a street due to vision impairment.

Psychiatric service dogs are there for people who have a medical need, like PTSD or schitzophrenia. They’re trained to alert their people if, for example, they have epilepsy and can sense if they’re about to have a seizure. 

Common Service Dog Breeds

While technically any dog breed can be trained to be a service dog, there are certain breeds who tend to be chosen over others when bred by service dog training organizations. Some common service dog breeds include:

- Labrador Retriever

- Golden Retriever

- German Shepherd

- Poodle

- Bernese Mountain Dog

- Great Dane

- Collie

- American Staffordshire Terrier

- Pomeranian

Ultimately, what you need the service dog to do for you or their companion will determine the breed or size of the dog. For example, if you want a dog to assist with mobility, then you’ll want a larger dog, like a German Shepherd. If your dog’s main job will be to alert for medical conditions then a smaller pup would work. 

How to Know if Your Dog Can Be Trained 

Before embarking on the long road of service dog training, it’s important to determine whether or not your pup is a candidate. Even if they’re one of the common service dog breeds, they need to check off many other characteristics to make the cut.  

The most important thing to know is that they are willing to help and that their temperament is suitable. While you’re training your dog, look for the following traits: 

- Good listener 

- Long attention span 

- Attentive to their companion 

- Motivated and willing to learn 

- Confident, not skittish 

- Social with strange dogs and people 

How to Start Service Dog Training 

Your dog doesn’t need to be a puppy when you start service dog training, however, it can be helpful to start young as you’ll understand their temperament and ability to learn new skills early on.

One of the most important early coaching sessions you can do with your dog when training them to be a service dog is to socialize them. This is important because when they are out assisting you in public, you’ll want to ensure that they aren’t easily distracted. Their attention should be on you at all times and they should never feel skittish. 

“Service dogs must go through intensive socialization as they are meant to be resilient and tolerant of all of the crazy things that happen in the world,” says Dr. Learn. “You want to make sure that the dog can handle whatever comes their way so that they can accompany their person to go wherever they need to go.”

To do this, take them on frequent walks outside and expose them to situations where they will meet lots of strangers. This helps them to be confident in any situation, especially if you live in a loud and busy city. 

Another great benefit of socialization coaching is that they will be accustomed to walking on a leash. This is important as anytime they’re on duty, they’ll need to be on leash and on their best behavior.

Specialize the Training

Once you have the basics down—like obedience training and socialization—you’ll want to work on the very specific skills that they’ll need to assist you or their companion. 

You’ll want to teach your dog tasks like helping to pull a wheelchair or leading you through busy streets if you can't see or hear well, retrieving objects if you have mobility needs, or reminding you to take medicine, says Dr. Learn.

According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, you should aim for 120 hours of training over six months. Taking your time is worth every minute. Remember, these dogs are trained to perform duties that allow their person to have greater access to the world and, at times, these tasks could be lifesaving.

3 Helpful Tips for Training a Service Dog

1. Work on getting them to be attentive. Use a clicker and reward them with treats to work on eye contact and improve their focus and attention span.

2. Keep training sessions short at first. Remember, keep them fun and make sure the length of the sessions is appropriate to the age and skill of your pup. This will help to keep them motivated. 

3. Teach them the difference between work and play. Associate a vest or harness with work so they know when they’re on duty. When they’re not wearing either, this means it’s time to play and relax. 

Training your dog to be a service dog is not only a cost-effective solution, but the practice and coaching sessions will help you be better skilled at handling them. Plus, the one-on-one time with your pup is an invaluable bonding experience that you and your pup will both enjoy.  

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