I’m sure that all of those who are interested in their pet health and well being are huge dog admirers. These amazing creatures fulfill our life with love and devotion but working dogs, however, take a step further and help those in need to make their everyday life a lot easier.
Working dogs are divided into three categories:
- Emotional support dogs
- Service dogs
- Therapy dogs
In this article, we will focus on the second category and their training. We all know that training a dog all by yourself is a challenging, yet, rewarding experience but training a service dog is an even bigger contest. Of course it is worth all our effort!
If we try to define a service dog in one sentence, saying that it is a canine trained to aid people with disabilities would be pretty accurate. It is a working dog assigned with a special task and trained to perform one or more tasks its owner cannot do. The list of people that assisted by service dogs is pretty long and includes visually impaired persons, people who have problems with hearing, seizure, diabetes, autism, PTSD, etc. They are trained to guide, alert, protect, pull, remind or calm a person, depending on their disability. Thus we can divide service dogs into six categories:
- Guide dogs
- Hearing dogs
- Mobility dogs
- Seizure alert/response dogs
- Autism dogs
- Psychiatric service dogs (PSD)
Each of these types of dogs is special in its own way. Some parts of their training are the same for all, others are characteristic for the kind of work they are trained for, and at last, each one of them is an individual unit assigned to an individual person with specific disability and various everyday needs. That’s why their training has to be personalized for their handlers so they can easily take part and assist them through the life.
A well trained service dog is a huge asset to a disabled person but unfortunately, the wait can be quite long. Also, the price can be overwhelming (~25.000$). That’s why we’re here, to try explaining a few ways of training a service dog and customize its skills based on your personal needs.
Make the right choice
First thing to do is choosing a fitting canine to perform service dog duties. There is no specific breed out of which you can produce a service dog however, some professional organizations prefer Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers or mixture of these two. It is important to know that any breed or mix of breeds can be a service dog if that specific dog meets the requirements. Puppies are not recommended as you can’t really tell whether it has virtues required for being a service dog.
A young (not younger than 18 months, not older than 2 years) dog that went through basic obedience training is a place to start with. Second key factor is health. A service dog must be a perfectly healthy unit that is able to serve independently and does not need any special medical treatment. If a canine is overweight, has a cardio vascular condition, respiratory problems or any disability, it is not a suitable choice for a service dog. That’s why, once chosen, a service dog must be kept at good health and visit a vet two times a year.
The last, equally important factor is dog’s temperament. Easily distracted or over protective, aggressive dogs do not qualify to become a service dog. The most desirable attribute is dog’s eagerness to please. They are fast learners, and they have desire to do the task assigned to them, so training a service dog will be a pleasure for both sides. Let’s not forget the socialization part, a service dog guides its owner everywhere, so being adapted to crowded places is a huge plus, yet, it is also part of its training process.
No matter if male or female, you have to neuter or spay your service dog, otherwise your training will not matter once they feel the urge to mate. It also makes them less aggressive and more focused on you which is exactly what you need.
The best method to train is a combination of clicking and rewarding, so buying a clicker (sound maker) and treats in your local pet store is necessary.
You are now ready to train your canine some basic skills that include the most basic commands like sit, stay, come and lie down. If your dog already went through basic obedience training you should only practice it often and prepare for teaching him specialized skills you need him to perform.
The click & reward method is simple. At the moment your dog is behaving as requested of him, make the click sound and reward him after that. That will create a connection between good behavior, click sound and a treat as a reward and after a time spent training those skills, they will turn into automatic obedience, which is our exact goal.
To sit, show the treat to a dog and move it over his head while giving a command to sit. This movement will make the canines body move into a sitting position, and at that moment make a sound with your clicker and give a treat to your dog. Repeat this only few times a day for 5 to 10 minutes, do not make the training too long and uninteresting. The procedure is similar when teaching a dog to stay, come and lie down.
During your time spent with dog, it is essential to teach him to focus to you and you only. Teach your dog not to pay attention to other people, cars, dogs (other animals too) or anything else that may distract him. His actions must concentrate on you only as he is trained to aid you when needed. This is trained with help of a friend or a family member. Every time your canine runs to greet someone else, they should completely ignore him and stop moving. Once your dog brings you into focus again, click and reward him.
Make sure to train your canine to obey all commands when it is both leashed and unleashed. One can never know in which situation will they require their service dog’s assistance.
All these skills require persistent training. Once they are mastered, you are ready to move on and start with specialized training, depending on the type of disability and tasks you need your service dog to perform.
Arm yourself with theoretical knowledge and patience. It is a key to success in training a service dog.
Specialized skills training
Your dog is ready to start second phase of its training. According to your everyday habits and needs, making a list of tasks you want to teach your service dog would help a lot.
Here are some general tasks performed by a service dogs according to their category and how to train them.
- Guide dog
Guide dogs are service dogs trained to assist blind or visually impaired people by leading them on the right path. It is important to know that a handler chooses the destination, and his guide dog is safely leading them around obstacles.Guide dog’s skills should include walking in a straight line, going around obstacles, stopping at elevation changes (e.g. stairs) crossing a road on a command, leading its handler into a lift and many more custom skills that are trained according to its handler’s activities.
Also, a guide dog most refuse to obey a command that may lead a handler into a danger, such as walking into a hole or a street with an incoming traffic.The training should start with teaching a dog to walk into a straight line on the left side of its handler. At the same time, dog must learn to stop at any curbs.
Obstacles and distractions are slowly added to training lessons until the dog is able to completely guide its handler through, for example, crowded streets or malls. Advanced training will eventually lead to dog knowing to lead you independently to your work, local store and back to your home. Unfortunately, due to obvious reasons, visually impaired persons cannot train their service dog on their own, but require an assistance of a professional trainer or a family member willing to participate and help the training.
- Hearing dog
Hearing dogs are service dogs trained to aid deaf or hard of hearing people by responding to different sounds and leading its handler to it and reacting to a sound that indicates danger (e.g. smoke alarm). The standard response time must be bellow 15 seconds and on the first ask in all situations and places. Hearing dog tasks include reacting to household sounds like doorbell, telephone ring, alarm clock, etc, and leading its handler to the source of the sound. Also, hearing dog must react to an alarm going off to let its handler know they’re in danger.
Start by training alert behavior – how do you want your dog to let you know of a sound. Add a so called “nudge point”, a place where you want your dog to touch you when he is alerting you to a sound. Point to a place, command “touch” and every time it nudges you click & reward the dog. Slowly add distance and an alert sound (door bell, alarm clock) and click and reward every time the canine nudges you. Remove “touch” command and leave only alarm clock to go off.
Step by step, add distance, change positions of you, the dog and the sound source.Once one way alert is mastered, it is time to teach your dog the other part of the task – leading you to the sound source and connect these two actions into one. Repeating and patience are key for a well trained hearing dog. An individual may train a dog on its own, but an assistance is sometimes required (e.g. activating a sound).
- Mobility dog
Mobility dogs are service dogs trained to help persons who have a disability that affects their mobility. Their skills include pressing switches (e.g. light), retrieving objects, closing/opening doors, as well as balance, medical alert and many other tasks. Three basic commands include “hold” and “give”.
Teaching a dog to retrieve an object should be done in small steps. First put the object (we’ll use phone for this example) on the ground where he can clearly see it. Every time he approaches the object, say “phone” and click. Repeat until he is able to locate and stand next to the object on your command.
Next step is teaching your dog to pick it up. Put the phone gently into his mouth, command hold, click and reward. The last step is recalling your dog to you with an object in its mouth and giving it to you. Always repeat command, click and reward during the training.
- Seizure alert/response dog
Seizure response dogs are basically your alarm system in case you have an epilepsy episode. They save many lives every day by responding to a seizure of their handler. Their tasks include activating an alarm, finding people to help, stimulating person to wake up after a seizure, retrieve a medicament and many more. Training is done in small steps. First step is to learn a dog to activate the alarm button.
Use the command and show the dog how to press the button, click and reward every time he successfully performs that actions. Add distance and introduce a seizure demonstration while giving a command. Slowly remove the command until the dog is able to identify a seizure and sound the alarm on its own. Training can be done individually and takes a lot of persistence and repeating.
- Autism dog
Autism service dogs are trained to help people suffering from autism or other sensory processing disorders. They help their handlers in doing daily activities, being independent and finding help in case of an emergency. Their tasks include interrupting self harming actions of their handlers, reacting to alarms and other sounds that indicate danger, counterbalancing and guiding.
Their training consists of a combination of tasks trained to all other service dogs, depending on every individual. Person suffering this disability is not able to train the dog on its own, it is best if done by professional trainer and family members.
- Psychiatric service dog
A PSD can learn numerous helpful tasks to assist its handler to cope during a sudden flare up of symptoms, medication side effects, or in a situation requiring outside help. Their tasks include reminding a handler when it’s time to take a medication and retrieving it, guiding a handler out of stressful situations, or stopping the handler from self-harming.
Training this kind of a service dog involves same methods as for previous service dogs, but different situations, according to those its handler may face. It is highly recommended to hire a professional trainer to aid you in training a PSD.
There are no laws to prevent you from training your own service dog, nor those that ask from you to have it certified. However, a certified service dog is officially recognized and is allowed to go with you to places where pets are not usually allowed.
- Get to know the real legal term for the type of a service dog you are training and find out where and how should you acquire certification.
- Collect the papers and recommendations that will prove that you need a service dog.
- Acquire vet confirmation of your dog’s good health, registration papers and vaccine confirmations.
Once you have everything you need, you should apply for certification and wait for their response.
I hope this article helped you understand and realize the basics of service dog training. This is a long lasting process that requires much effort, patience and dog training experience. It is always recommended to get a professional trainer complete these task, however not everyone is in situation to find or afford appropriate trainer. Trying to train your own service dog is a brave decision and a challenge.
If you choose the right dog, it will be enjoyable experience that will hopefully lead to creating a strong bond between you and your service dog. It is often said by people who already own a service dog that the dependence is mutual. People take care of their canine, and a service dog fulfils his duty by providing a much needed assistance to its handler.
I admire all working dogs, and I feel burst of emotions every time I see a disabled person being assisted by a canine. You can see the willingness to help and please its owner. Some professional trainers say that canines that meet the requirements to become a service dog chose their own profession they love.
Start creating your independence today. A well trained service dog will change your life and turn it into a much better direction.