Cover photo credit: @servicedognimbus on Instagram, used with permission.
Before a dog can become a service dog, it has to undergo a rigorous amount of training. Service dogs have to be near perfectly behaved in public, in an infinite number of situations, so it comes as no surprise that the training they undergo can take two or more years to complete. But what kind of training must dogs complete before they transition from a service dog in training to a service dog?
Service dogs spend day in and out around any number of strange people, children, animals, as well as new and sometimes scary places and things. Because a service dog goes wherever its handler is permitted to go—in most cases—it encounters many things that a normal pet dog wouldn’t. Service dog prospects have to be extensively socialized, which should begin during puppyhood.
All puppies go through major development periods, not unlike human infants, and two of those development periods are fear impact stages. In these stages—at eight to twelve weeks of age and during adolescence—if a puppy experiences something impactful and fear-inducing without being desensitized and counter-conditioned to it, they may never recover. As such, all service dog prospects need to be thoroughly socialized with all kinds of people of different ages, sizes, races, disabilities, and so on; other animals, like different dog breeds, cats, small mammals, livestock, birds, etc.; and places and objects like vet offices, parks, pet-friendly stores, other people’s homes, vehicles, machinery, and such. Service dog prospects should be socialized regularly to as many things as possible with positive reinforcement.
It goes without saying that any dog going into spaces that aren’t pet-friendly should be solidly potty trained. A service dog in training should not begin any form of public-access training before it can be trusted not to go to the bathroom during an outing. Potty training typically takes a few months to achieve, but every dog is different—some puppies get it very quickly, while some can take up to a year to be fully reliable. Either way, know that—according to the Humane Society—a puppy can typically hold its bladder for one hour per month of age. So, if a puppy is four months old, it can hold their bladder for approximately four hours. Try to keep any training outings short, and give your puppy plenty of opportunities to eliminate before starting.
A dog whose working life will be dedicated to assisting a disabled handler has to be under fantastic control. Most service dog prospects begin training at a very early age—as young as six weeks in some cases. Knowing how to sit, lie down, stay, come, paw, and perform a nose target are all essential skills that act as the foundation for many advanced obedience skills, as well as future tasks.
Obedience is an ongoing learning process, and should be reinforced regularly throughout the dog’s life. Use it or lose it—a dog who doesn’t have obedience regularly reinforced will become rusty, which can be frustrating for everyone involved. Puppies go through a major period of independence during adolescence—at six to twelve months of age—and often have to be re-taught basic obedience. Don’t lose hope, as this is extremely common and your puppy is maturing normally. Just break out the clicker and high-value treats, start from scratch, and try to have fun.
Before a dog begins training in public, it should have a solid foundation in distraction training and decent manners. No dog is perfect, which is expected by almost everyone who comes into contact with a service dog. However, setting your dog up for success is important to prevent you both from becoming frustrated with the training process.
Service dogs are expected to focus to one thing and one thing only—their handler. For different types of service dogs this means different things, but ultimately your dog’s goal in public should be working for you. Dogs aren’t robots, though, which means they need plenty of training to ignore distractions. Service dogs in training should have a solid leave-it, a reliable focus command, and a great recall. Though there are many more skills that go into teaching your dog manners in public, these skills are essential to keep building your dog’s ability to focus on you.
The thing that makes a service dog is, of course, its task training. In order for a dog to be considered a service dog, it must perform at least one task to aid its disabled handler in public. At this stage, many owner-trainers go to a professional for assistance because—depending on the task—training this stage can be not only difficult, but occasionally dangerous.
Tasks vary widely for different disabilities, and it’s important to know what will assist you personally before you begin any of the above training. Task training is done through shaping; a dog’s previously trained skills will be used to create new tricks specifically to aid you.
Note that all of your dog’s training will need to be re-established in any new place you take the dog. Dog’s don’t know how to generalize—asking your dog to sit in a grocery store is entirely different from having him sit at home, because he’s never done it in the grocery store before. Even the most seasoned service dogs need their training refreshed and sometimes even need to be entirely re-taught something in a new environment. Remember that the training process is never-ending, and though it can be exhausting, it builds a beautiful bond between you and your dog.
Service dogs in training have different rights in different states, and though any disabled handler is allowed to train their own service dog, there are stipulations depending on where you live. Check out this chart to learn what the service dog in training laws are in your state.
Note: The Helper Dog Blog does not necessarily align with the core beliefs of any of the above linked sources, but has provided them for extra educational opportunities.