How to Train Your Own Service Dog: A Complete Guide2020-10-08
Having a pet means that you are responsible for their life. You take them outside, feed them, bathe them, play with them, and integrate them as a part of your family.
As a service dog owner, however, it’s important to understand that they have a responsibility to you (based on what they are taught to do). Some service animals are for the blind, some are for those who are hard-of-hearing, and some help people with PTSD. Regardless of the service the animal is trained for, service dog training can be expensive; so can paying for an already trained service dog.
Many people don’t know that you can train your own service dog. That’s why we’ve put together this guide for learning about and training them yourself. It doesn’t just save you money; it gives you valuable bonding time with your animal. It’s important to note that once a pet has been trained to become a service dog it is no longer considered a standard pet, but a working animal. Read on to learn about how to train your own service dog.
What is a Service Dog?
To learn about how to train your animal for the job, you must first learn what a service dog does. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has defined a service dog as one that has been trained to perform tasks that benefit a person with a disability. There are dogs trained to perform services for those with PTSD, autism, seizures, blindness, and several other disabilities.
Because of the nature of service dogs and how important their jobs are, getting one that is already trained can be very expensive. They are often highly specialized in their fields and have been training for years, which makes them extremely valuable for those with disabilities. Some dogs are sponsored by charities and corporations so some people can get them for free, donated, covered by insurance, or at a low cost. No matter, the need for these animals often outweighs the supply.
The waiting lists, expenses, and matching process for these animals often makes them out of reach for those who need them most. That’s why many are turning to a more DIY solution: creating their own service dog bootcamp at home.
Training Your Own Service Dog: A Step-By-Step Guide
Training your own service dog depends on the disability you need them to accommodate, the temperament of the dog, and other factors. Some cases have been unsuccessful. Most of the time, it can be done.
Step 1: Determine if Your Dog Can Be a Service Dog
Before deciding to start the long and rigorous service dog training regimen, you need to decide if your dog is up to the job. There are several questions you need to ask as a service dog owner, such as:
- How old is the dog? It should be over 6 months old and neutered/spayed so it is not distracted by other dogs while training. Older dogs with health conditions such as arthritis and diabetes may not be receptive to teaching.
- What’s the dog’s temperament? A service dog needs to be calm and collected. It should not respond aggressively to other dogs, but it should also not ignore them entirely. This is important for hearing and seeing-eye service dogs.
- How is the dog’s attention span? The dog should have an attention span long enough to handle teaching sessions. If the dog cannot learn commands because it is getting distracted by the things around it, especially in public places, how do you know it won’t get distracted while you are in potential danger?
- What limitations does the dog have? You must consider the limitations the animal may have and how they can affect yours. For instance, if you need a dog to help with balance, a larger breed would be better than a smaller one.
These are important questions to answer before deciding to coach your pet. The best service dogs are calm and confident, intelligent, are young and in good health, and respond well to commands. This doesn’t always depend on the dog’s breed either; almost any breed can be coached for the job if they meet the appropriate criteria. If this doesn’t describe your dog, you might want to consider getting a trained dog. If it does, proceed to step 2.
Step 2: Teach Them the Basics
The foundational skills for a service dog or service animal aren’t too difficult to begin with. Service animals need socialization with humans and other dogs, they need to be well-behaved off a leash, and they should be confident in any environment.
Socialization is the best way to ensure that your dog becomes a friendly and confident adult. Socialization should occur ideally between 3-20 weeks of age. Puppies should be handled often by several different people, acclimated to different sounds, and taught to be alone (to prevent separation anxiety). Any interactions with the puppy should be gentle and friendly, not confrontational. You should also be making sure they are not becoming aggressive.
Potty-training your dog is essential to prevent messes indoors, but it also teaches them to “go” on command in appropriate places. Getting them a crate helps them have a safe place that they want to keep clean. Keeping them in the crate and letting them out to immediately go relieve themselves teaches them that “going” outside is good.
Leash training is also essential for your dog to know their limits. Your dog should learn to be focused on you when appropriate, not on the things around them.
These three skills are the most important basics you’ll need in your training program before teaching your dog to become a service animal. It is also beneficial to teach them basic obedience commands such as “sit,” “heel,” and “down”.
Step 3: Eye Contact
To test your dog’s attentiveness and ensure that they will be focused on you (and only you) while working, you’ll need to train them on eye contact. You can enlist the help of a friend to try and distract the dog from you, and give the dog treats every time they are focused on you for x-amount of time. Increase the amount of time periodically to ensure that your dog stays focused.
Step 4: Off-Leash Training
The next step in service dog training is to make sure that your service animal is as confident off the leash as they are on it. Your dog must be responsive to you and only you while conducting your teaching sessions. For this step, all you need to do is take your dog’s leash off (in a controlled environment) and encourage your animal to obey simple commands you would do while outdoors. Repeat this several times to ensure that your dog understands what to do, then you can slowly move outdoors into public spaces when you feel confident.
Step 5: Specialize!
The last step in this guide depends on what you need your service dog to do. At this point, they are well-socialized and trained dogs. They know basic commands like “sit” and “stay,” are calm and responsive on- and off-leash, and can maintain eye contact with you. From here, you will train them for specific tasks based on what you need their job to be.
- Hearing service dogs will need to be taught to respond to ringing phones, doorbells, or fire alarms. You can do this by training them to sit in front of you and perform a specific action when the sound trigger happens. Consider sound clicker training as well.
- Psychiatric service animals alert their owners when they recognize signs of a panic attack or other psychiatric distress. You can teach them by simulating a panic or anxiety attack; dogs, by nature, will often come over and try to help. You then give them treats when they try to help, then modify their behavior so they do an action when the panic attack happens.
- Mobility assistance service dogs help those who are physically disabled. These dogs can simply be taught by rewarding them when they fetch an item by word command. For instance, say the name of the object then point at it so they retrieve it. They will learn the command through practice.
As you can see, the specific steps for coaching a service dog depends on what you need them to do.
Remember that the ADA does not require any special program for service animals or for their public access, so if you’re trying to build a relationship with your service animal or save a few bucks with a DIY approach, you can follow these tips! Remember: You can always contact a professional trainer if you decide this process is too difficult. You can also look for professional service dog trainers for advice.
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