The thought of training a Service Dog can be intimidating. Your Service Dog needs to be able to perform tasks perfectly for your safety, as well as master certain behaviors and manners in public.
There are organizations that train Service Dogs for years before placing them with clients. Their high standards, long wait lists, and high expense has resulted in people training their own Service Dogs.
It’s always recommended to secure the assistance of a professional trainer when training your Service Dog. These reliable resources can help you choose a trainer:
However, with time, dedication, and hard work, you can embark on the journey of training your Service Dog yourself.
No matter if you are training a Guide Dog, Hearing Dog, or Service Dog to assist you with another type of disability, here are the most important things to know about training your Service Dog, plus a list of trusted training resources.
What to Know Before You Train
Service Dogs must be able to not only perform their tasks on command, but they also must be able to perform the skills evaluated by the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test, a test designed to test dogs’ behavior in distracting environments. According to the ADA, Service Dogs must also be house trained and under control in public at all times.
Before you even begin the task of training, you need to make sure that your dog is a good candidate to become a Service Dog. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is my dog calm, yet friendly?
- Is my dog alert, but not reactive?
- Does my dog allow anyone, including strangers, to touch him/her?
- Does my dog have a willingness to please?
- Does my dog have a tendency to follow me around?
Other markers of a potentially great Service Dog include being socialized to many different situations and environments, as well as the ability to learn quickly and retain information, which may only come to light later in training.
The objective of basic training is to make sure that your dog can potty on command, can focus on you (the handler) above all and ignore distractions, and has good behavior in public.
There are five skills often cited by professional trainers as the “First Five” that your dog should learn.
First Five Skills To Teach Your Service Dog
- Clicker conditioning: A behavioral psychology training method based on marking and rewarding positive behavior. You use a mechanical device, the clicker, to signal to your dog when they do the right thing, then reward them with a treat. Additional resources: Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training, Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog by Barbara Handelman.
- Name Immediately after clicker training, you need to ensure your Service Dog in Training knows his or her name. The best way to teach this is with food, either through exercises or hand feeding. Say your dog’s name and immediately offer a small handful of food. Repeat 5–10 times in a row, then wait until your Service Dog in Training starts to look around or move away. Say their name again, click when they look at you, then offer a handful of food. Repeat until your dog immediately looks to you after saying their name. Do this every day for 2–3 days, and use their name constantly throughout the day, always offering a treat quickly for their attention. You can carry around a baggie full of food to reinforce good behavior.
- Sit: Sitting is the easiest obedience skill for a dog to master. You’ll use the same method of rewarding positive behavior with a treat. You can also help out your dog by forcing his or her butt down with your hand, then clicking and rewarding them so that they know what you’re looking for.
- Tether training: Tether training teaches your dog to settle quietly for long periods of time. A tether is a short steel cable; one end snaps on your dog’s collar and the other to an immovable object. Your dog has just enough space to change position and little else except for sitting quietly, so he or she will quickly learn how to get comfortable when it’s time to settle for a while.
- Leash walking: Before you can take your Service Dog in Training out in public, they need to be able to walk on a leash well. The goal is to have your dog stay by your side and not wander, and start and stop when you start and stop. Watch Zak George’s How to Teach Your Dog to Walk on Leash for more details.
Public Access Test
After basic training, the next hurdle your Service Dog in Training needs to pass is the Public Access Test.
The following are the skills your dog needs to master in public in order to act as a Service Dog. Your dog must maintain control when:
- Loading into and unloading out of a vehicle
- Approaching a building
- Entering and exiting through doorways
- In a restaurant
- The leash is dropped
Additionally, your dog must be able to:
- Heel through a building
- Maintain six-foot recall on lead
- Sit on command in various situations
- Back down on command in various situations
Once you have the basics of dog training down, it’s time to teach your dog the specific task he or she will perform for you.
This may mean alerting you to noises if you’re deaf, pulling your wheelchair, alerting you of an oncoming seizure, or reminding you to take prescribed medications.
Tasking builds on the foundation you’ve already laid in training your dog how to behave and obey. These additional training resources will help you continue to train your Service Dog.
Additional Training Resources
Donna Hill's Assistance Dog Training channel on YouTube: This free YouTube channel is specifically designed for Service Dog training. It’s a clear, effective resource for learning Service Dog behaviors and task work.
Training Levels: Steps to Success by Sue Ailsby: Although not designed specifically for service dog training, Sue herself has used this comprehensive step-by-step guide to train her own Service Dogs and can be found on every Service Dog trainer’s list.
The Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) Program: This is a group-training program that provides handlers with community support when teaching their dogs skills, distraction proofing, and socialization.
Susan Garrett’s Crate Games: This is a helpful tool for anyone training a dog It can be specifically helpful for Service Dog training, as it teaches impulse and self-control under distraction and allows dogs to feel relaxed and comfortable in a variety of settings.
Control Unleashed books by Leslie McDevitt: These books are valuable for anyone training a Service Dog who’s past the puppy stage. They teach dogs to love learning, focusing, and working.
Building Blocks for Performance by Bobbie Anderson: This book is a great manual for relationship building with your Service Dog. It teaches you how to create responsive obedience in your Service Dog in Training so that you always command your dog’s focus as a handler.
Training your Service Dog is hard work, but it is extremely rewarding. Not only will you mold a partner that will make your day to day life easier, but you’ll have built a strong, loving relationship with a loyal companion.