Owning a pet is a matter of great joy. Pet dogs help humans stay healthy by increasing fitness, lowering stress, and improving happiness. Owning a pet means providing them with food and shelter like any other member of the family. But service dogs are more than a pet. They have a responsibility to fulfill toward their owners.
Getting a trained service dog can be expensive. But you can always train your service dog. This is a complete guide on how to train your dog to be a service dog without hiring professional dog trainers.
1. What are Service Dogs?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as dogs trained to work to aid a person with a particular disability. These disabilities include blindness, deafness, autism, seizures, PTSD, and more.
Service dogs are heavily trained for years for specific tasks by professionals. This makes them expensive and tough to afford. Some of these dogs are sponsored by corporations or charities, making getting them at low costs easier. But they are still difficult to find because their need exceeds their supply.
Hence, people are turning towards training service dogs at home. The ADA considers service dogs to be working animals instead of pets.
2. Types of Service Dogs
Service dogs can be categorized based on their handler’s disability. Primarily there are five groups they fall into:
2.1. Guide Dogs
Guide dogs help blind and visually impaired people navigate their surroundings and avoid obstacles.
2.2. Hearing Dogs
Hearing dogs warn deaf and hard-of-hearing people of important sounds such as fire alarms and security alarms.
2.3. Mobility Dogs
Mobility dogs aid people with mobility issues. This includes helping them with balance and coordination as well as pushing wheelchairs. They help carry objects as well.
2.4. Medical Alert Dogs
Medical alert dogs alert people at the onset of medical issues such as seizures or blood sugar variations such as low blood sugar.
2.5. Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs alleviate stressful situations and conditions. They recognize signs of the onset of a panic attack or anxiety attack and help stop compulsive and repetitive behaviors related to OCD, PTSD, and other psychiatric illnesses.
3. Difference Between Service Dogs and Emotional Support Dogs
People often confuse service dogs with emotional support dogs. They have a few key differences:
3.1. Trained Dogs
A service dog is a trained dog that helps perform specific tasks, especially in public spaces. Emotional support dogs may not be trained. Their mere presence is helpful to their owners.
3.2. Not a Pet Dog
A service dog is not a pet dog. The ADA has declared them working dogs because they perform important and often life-saving tasks for their owners. Emotional support animals such as therapy dogs provide comfort and companionship but do not carry the same responsibilities as service dogs.
4. Training Your Own Service Dog
The ADA acknowledges service dogs that a professional trainer has not trained. People with disabilities can train their dogs to be service dogs by themselves. Service dog training is difficult to succeed at because a lot depends on the dog’s behavior and other factors. But it is not impossible.
4.1. Can Your Dog Be a Service Dog?
Before beginning the extensive training program, there are a few questions you should be asking yourself to ascertain if your dog is cut out to be a service dog candidate:
4.1.1. How old is your dog?
Your dog should ideally be over 6 months old when it begins training. Older dogs with health issues like arthritis and diabetes may be unable to learn efficiently as they are already dealing with their own health issues.
Your dog should be spayed or neutered when training to be a service dog.
4.1.2. What is your dog’s temperament?
Your dog should be intelligent, young, healthy, and obedient.
A service dog should be calm normally and under pressure. It should not be aggressive toward other dogs or animals. It should know when to ignore them and when to step in. This is mainly for guide dogs and hearing dogs.
4.1.3. How is your dog’s attentiveness?
Your dog should have an attention span long enough to sit through training sessions. It should not get easily distracted. Getting distracted while training opens up the possibility of your dog getting distracted while you urgently need help.
4.1.4. What are your dog’s limitations?
Knowing your dog’s limitations and determining how they may affect you is crucial. For example, if you need a mobility dog, it would be better to consider a larger breed for mobility support, such as balance and coordination.
4.2. Common Service Dog Breeds
The ADA approves of any breed to be a service dog. But the most common breeds are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds. This is because of their ideal temperament, which includes being calm, confident, intelligent, motivated, non-reactive, and a little social. Here are a few common service dog breeds:
- Guide Dog Breeds: Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Border Collies
- Hearing Aid Dog Breeds: Smaller dogs such as Papillons, Cocker Spaniels
- Mobility Dog Breeds: Bigger dogs such as Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Medical Alert Dog Breeds: Poodles, Pomeranians
- Psychiatric Dog Breeds: Boxers, Dobermans, Miniature Schnauzers
4.3. Basic Training
A service dog needs to be a trained dog. It needs to learn a few basic commands that may differ from the learnings of normal pet dogs.
Your dog should always respond to you when you call its name. It would help if you had this to communicate effectively with your dog – to get his attention and to make it focus on you and you only.
To do this, connect its name to something highly reinforcing, such as food or its favorite toy. Repeat this a few times for a few days till your dog understands it needs to respond to its name.
Hand-feeding your dog instead of letting it eat from a bowl will help create a stronger bond between you and your dog. It also helps create a stronger focus of the dog on you through the sense of touch.
You should spend at least 2 months teaching your dog fundamental obedience commands. This includes responding when its name is called, sitting, and staying calm while waiting for long periods.
These can be taught to your dog through the method of conditioning. Make your dog follow a command and reward it with a treat immediately after. Repeat this at least 20 times. If your dog is not following, repeat it until it can understand you without treats.
While teaching your dog to sit, stand, or wait, draw out the words clearly so that your dog understands each command and can effectively tell the differences between them.
Potty training is not only necessary to keep your house clean but also to train your dog to know when it is time to “go.” Your dog should be provided with its own hygienic space to maintain. When it is let out of this space and immediately relieves itself, it will know that it should only “go” on command and at appropriate places.
4.3.5. Leash training
Your dog should know how to behave while on a leash. It should not be distracted from its task and should always be focused on you and your needs.
Your dog should be able to move enough to change positions but not enough to wander and create a mess. While waiting, it should wait patiently without getting aggressive. This can be taught through dog tethers. Tie it to something stable, such as a table leg, while you work.
Socialization is an important skill to master for service dogs. It should be taught between 3 to 20 weeks of age.
Your puppy should be handled by different people, get used to various sounds, and be taught to stay alone to prevent separation anxiety. Interactions with your puppy should be pleasant and friendly instead of antagonistic to prevent it from being scared or aggressive in the future.
4.4. Teach Your Dog Correct Eye Contact
Teaching your dog eye contact involves honing its attentiveness. Service dogs should be focused on you even if there are myriad distractions around.
Take the help of a friend. Ask them to distract your dog while training. If your dog does not get diverted, give it a treat and repeat till your dog understands it shouldn’t be getting sidetracked.
4.5. Off-Leash Training and How to Behave in Public Spaces
The next step while training your service dog is to teach it how to behave off-leash and in public spaces. Your dog should be as assertive off-leash as it is on-leash. Your dog should only obey and focus on you and nobody else. It should stay close to you at all times.
Practice this by taking your dog to your backyard or outdoor space with minimal obstructions. Take the leash off and motivate it to follow simple commands you wish it to perform outdoors. Repeat this till your dog registers what to do, and slowly start giving it public access.
4.6. Teach Your Dog Specific Tasks According to Your Disability
So far, your dog has mastered all the basic training of a pet dog. But your dog needs to learn to perform specific tasks related to your disability to qualify as a service dog. The most effective way to do this is through clicker training. Through clicker training, you will reward your dog for behaving as you want instead of using food as motivation.
4.6.1. Guide Dogs
Guide dogs respond well to positive reinforcements. Using clicker training and rewarding the dog with toys and treats will help provide fast, excellent results and great behavior.
You will need your guide dog to recognize dangers outdoors and indoors. You may need to train your service dog to fetch a few things for you, help you cross the road, and behave like a bodyguard.
4.6.2. Hearing Service Animal
This service dog must be taught to acknowledge ringing phones, doorbells, fire alarms, and other important sounds. You can do this by training them to perform a certain gesture through clicker training whenever there are noise triggers.
4.6.3. Mobility Assistance Service Animal
Mobility assistance dog partners help people with physical disabilities. If you want to teach your service dog to fetch something, name it, point at it, and let your dog bring it to you. Reward your dog for fetching the right object. They will learn to retrieve different things through practice.
4.6.4. Medical Alert Service Animal
Medical alert dogs are trained to use their high sense of smell to detect medical emergencies such as diabetes, heart diseases, severe airborne allergies, asthma, illnesses that cause dizziness or loss of consciousness, and more.
Dogs can detect blood sugar variations through changes in the smell of our breaths. They can sniff out nuts, gluten, pollen, or other substances they have been taught to identify to prevent allergic reactions. You can do this by letting your dog know that these substances are bad for you.
4.6.5. Psychiatric Service Animal
To turn your service dog into a psychiatric service dog, teach it to alert you when they spot the signs of an oncoming panic attack, seizure, or other psychiatric ailments. You can teach them by stimulating such situations. Your dog will naturally come over to help because of its nature. Then reward it for helping. Alter its behavior so that it acts as the onset of distress.
If your service dog-in-training looks around and finds you when you call its name, reacts quickly and correctly to the commands you ask, is well-behaved in public, and helps mitigate your disabilities productively, your job is done. Your dog has graduated from its training period and is ready to be a full-time service dog.
5. Imposter Service Dogs
Service dog fraud has been reported where people have tried to sell off untrained dogs as service dogs. Some people have also tried to falsify their pet dog as a service animal. Fake service dogs can be a hindrance to people and real service dogs. This harms truly disabled individuals by scratching the reputation of service dog users.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) has taken measures to handle the situation of fake service dogs by issuing policies on the Misuse of Service Dogs in 2015. Local and state governments have introduced laws that declare the misuse of service animals as a punishable offense. In 2018, 48 schemes were introduced for the misrepresentation of service animals.
In 2016, the Association of Service Dog Providers for military veterans formed “CGC Plus,” a qualifying test for a dog to be called a service dog. CGC Plus includes the American Kennel Club Good Canine, Community Canine, and Urban CGC tests to be passed for the dog to be an official service dog.
6. Frequently Asked Questions
6.1. Where can I find a service dog?
You can find a professional trainer or a service dog training organization anywhere throughout the country. The dogs they work with are specifically trained for the owner’s disability. These service dogs are taught public social skills, sitting patiently by their owner’s side and under control in various settings. They are also given house training.
Professional service dog trainers have high standards of qualification for the dogs they train. The cost of training a dog can go up to $25,000. This includes training specific to the owner’s disability and follow-ups on the dog’s performance. Some charities are available to provide disabled individuals with service dogs for a lower cost or for free.
6.2. Do I need to register my service dog?
The ADA does not demand your service dog to be registered or certified. The ADA has regulations based on what shop owners and businesses can ask about your service dog and disability. They can only ask two questions, ‘is the service animal required for a disability?’ and ‘what task has the service dog been trained to perform?’.
Additionally, service dogs are allowed public access to places that may otherwise not allow animals to enter.
6.3. Does my service dog need a vest or tag?
ADA does not require your service dog to have a certification or identification wherever it goes. So your dog does not need a vest or tag to be called a service dog.
However, your dog wearing a harness can let it know when it’s time to work. Letting the harness off can indicate to the dog that it’s time to relax. Harnesses are also helpful for the general public to recognize service dogs as working dogs who shouldn’t be distracted, petted, or played with while working.
6.4. How many hours of training does my dog need to become a service dog?
Guidelines suggest at least 120 hours of service dog training and 30 hours of practice in public environments. Expect at least 2 years of training before your dog becomes a confident service dog.
Take your dog to places you frequent so your service dog gets familiar with those places. For example, if there is a park you go to often, take your service dog and train it to avoid distractions, focus on you, and wait patiently with you throughout the time.
6.5. At what age can my dog start training to be a service dog?
Preferably start training your puppy from 8 weeks old. Puppies who start training early can become full-service dogs by 18-24 months.
You can start with basic obedience training early, so your puppy is better equipped to follow specific tasks when older.
6.6. Can older dogs be trained to be service dogs?
Yes, but it is more difficult to train an older dog who has already grown up following a set of rules and has to change them now. Service dogs need to be trained for at least 2 years. Depending on what stage of lifespan your dog is at, you may or may not be able to train your service dog. Remember, your service dog is a working dog.
6.7. Should my dog be spayed or neutered to be a service dog?
Yes. Service dog requirements include the dog being spayed or neutered to keep from being distracted and improve its temperament. Most professionals spay or neuter the dogs at 8 weeks old. However, some may be spayed or neutered later.
Research has proven that spaying or neutering a dog at 7 to 11 months decreases its chance of developing behavioral problems that can hinder it from being a service animal.
6.8. Should my dog be vaccinated to be a service dog?
If your local laws require your dog to be vaccinated, you must vaccinate your service dog. These laws are required to protect you, your dog, and the community.
6.9. What makes a good service dog?
The best service dogs are the most effective service dogs. They are intelligent, calm, confident, and very good at their jobs. They do not get distracted, focus only on their handlers, and are great companions.
6.10. What disabilities qualify for service dogs?
The ADA does not mention a specific list that qualifies a disability to require service animal assistance. Your service dog must be trained to perform tasks specific to your disability. Your dog may be introduced to bark when it detects low blood sugar through the change of smell in your breath.
But dogs that provide emotional support just by their physical presence without carrying out tasks are not service animals.
7. Summing Up
It can be difficult to lead a life with disabilities. Having a furry, cuddly friend help you through it can make you feel happier and lighter.
Unfortunately, getting already-trained service dogs is expensive and unaffordable for many. Fortunately, you can get a dog and train it to be a service dog yourself. Not only will it benefit you in the long run, but you will also be spending essential bonding time with your dog.
Your service dog may be a working dog, not a pet on paper, but it will give you the same love and companionship as any other dog, maybe even a little more.
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