by Chelsea Goldstein, Dysautonomia Information Network
You can't imagine your life without your furry best friend. The two of you have an inseparable bond that brings you comfort, joy, and companionship. Perhaps, your dog has even picked up on your needs over the years and lends a helping paw when you need it (e.g., your dog senses when you are lightheaded and braces their body against yours to provide some stabilization). This companionship has had you considering the benefits of a service dog for some time, but you have always been concerned about costs or adding another canine to your household. However, you just learned that the ADA allows owners to train their own service dogs and you feel confident that you and your pup could make a strong team. If this is you, keep reading for some pointers on starting your service dog training journey.
If you are still deciding if a service dog is right for you, consider reading our article, It's Doggone Confusing: Understanding Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs). Or if you think a service dog is a good option, but you don't already own an animal or don't want to train one yourself read A Helping Paw: Steps to Get a Service Animal to learn about your options.
Pros and Cons of Training Your Own Service Dog
There are many benefits to training your own service dog, but it is important to have realistic expectations.
- Rewarding. Training your own service dog can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Not only will you have pride in all that you accomplish together, but some advocates of owner-trained dogs believe that the bond you build with your dog through an intimate training experience is invaluable. For example, the relationship you have before you train may help your training be more successful, and the deep understanding you acquire of your dog as you train will help you overcome any issues that may arise later on (1).
- Cost Effective and Timely. Many people choose to train their own service dogs because it is one of the most cost-effective options. It also means you can start your training as soon as you are ready, avoiding lengthy wait lists (1). However, it is important to remember that the training process can still take several months to years, and you will spend some money on supplies and training support.
- Adaptable. Unlike other assistive devices, service dogs can adapt to your changing needs. If you train your pup yourself, you will feel equipped to continue training your dog in different tasks as new needs arise. One owner reports that this has been one of the greatest benefits of training her own dog (1).
- Emotionally and Physically Demanding. Training your own dog can be more emotionally and physically demanding than other options. You may feel exhausted at times when the training isn't going as you expected (1). You should also consider your physical needs and limitations when you embark on a training journey. Will you have the stamina to work with your dog frequently? There may be ways you can adapt the training process to your physical needs, but you should make a realistic plan from the beginning. You should also consider the possibility that your dog may not be successful in training. It may help to decide what course of action you will take if your dog does not take to training as expected (2).
- Hidden Expenses. While training your own service dog can be cheaper than other options, some unexpected expenses may arise. You will likely spend some money on treats, training supplies, vests, leashes, and training support materials like books, videos, and even classes (1).
- Time Consuming. Similar to other options, training your own service dog can be a long process. One owner-trainer reported that it took two years for her dog to be ready for service work (1). Remember that when you train your own dog, you are the one that has to be committed to training throughout the entire process.
Supplies & Resources
There are several supplies and resources available to support your training journey. While this is not an exhaustive list, it may give you a good place to start.
Training Supplies. The training supplies you get may depend on the type of training you decide to use. Most training involves rewarding your dog with treats, and a treat pouch that hooks to your waistband can be an invaluable tool to ensure treats are ready for immediate reward while keeping your hands free for other tasks. You may even want to get a clicker to use as a training signal.
Gear. You can train a service dog without gear, but gear may make the process easier depending on the situation. One owner with arthritis in her hands uses a Gentle Leader that requires only a soft pull to give the dog a command (1). You may also want to get your dog some gear to identify them as a "service dog in training" when you are out and about. This will help passersby recognize that the dog is working and, ideally, they will not distract your dog too much.
Emotional Support. Even the strongest human-canine training teams will experience frustration, so it is important that you have a place to process that emotion so that it does not negatively impact your process. What friends or family members would be good supports throughout your training experience? Identify a couple of people before you start, and talk to them about what the process entails. You could also participate in online support forums such as the DINET Forum or the Facebook group, Service Dogs for POTS.
Professional Support. Even though you are training your service dog yourself, you should be prepared to utilize some type of professional support throughout your process. Here are a few professional resources that you may find helpful...
For assessing temperament:
- The book, Lend Me an Ear, by Martha Hoffman provides guidance on determining if a dog is suited for service work (1).
- The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) also shares directions for their temperament test online (3).
For basic training:
- The American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizens program can be completed through local trainers and/or a series of online videos. Upon completion of training, dogs can be tested by a local evaluator on ten basic skills, such as walking through a crowd.
- Owners can also explore local group classes such as those offered at PetSmart.
For service training:
- The Dog Alliance offers the majority of their classes online (4).
- Top Dog also provides online classes at reasonable costs focusing on owner-trained service dogs (1).
- Top Dog's training books, Teamwork 1 and 2, are strongly recommended by experts (1).
Dog Training Process
Your training process will be highly individualized, but we've listed some general steps you should consider.
1. Assess your dog's temperament. Many experts and owner-trainers argue that honestly assessing your dog's temperament for suitability to service work is the most important part of the training process (1). Inadequately assessing your pup could cause a lot of heartache and frustration for you both if you invest significant time, energy, and money into training a dog who just isn't suited for service work. One owner-trainer discussed how her dog was great at performing tasks in isolation, but became easily distracted in crowds. This prompted her to seek professional support after several months of training, and the trainer identified that the dog was just not well suited for service work within two weeks (2).
Dogs who excel at service work can be any breed, but you may want to consider some of the common characteristics of specific breeds during your assessment. For example, a scent hound (e.g., Beagle) may always have their nose to the ground triggering them to miss visual ques (1). Of course, true suitability comes down to the individual dog, not the breed. Other characteristics that make good service dogs are a calm demeanor, especially in unfamiliar settings, a willingness to please you, alertness without being reactive, good socialization, and reliable in performing tasks (5).
2. Assess your own needs and skills. Experts often refer to service dogs and their owners as teams because they are consistently working together. Thus, it is just as important to honestly assess your own needs, skills, and ability to commit to training a service dog. First, you'll want to ensure your dog's temperament and size fit your individual needs. For example, people needing assistance with mobility should assess if their dog is strong enough for the given tasks, and people who deal with fatigue and exhaustion will want a lower energy pup that does not demand a lot of exercise (1).
You may also want to consider how any limitation you may experience due to your condition(s) may impact your training experiences. One owner-trainer reports that she felt equipped to train her own dog because she had extensive experience training dogs in the past and she worked part-time giving her time to commit to the pup. Specifically, she wanted to train her dog to be alert to sights and sounds to assist with her vision and hearing impairments. However, she struggled to teach the dog to react to sights and sounds because she could not always recognize them herself (2). If you have specific limitations that may impact your training experience, it does not mean that you can't train your own dog. It just means you may have to get creative in the way you train, or enlist outside help.
3. Start with basic training. Some of you may have already done significant basic training with your pups. Even still, it is important you spend time reinforcing the skills your dog has previously learned to ensure they consistently understand basic commands such as sit, stay, come, down, and heel. These types of commands are foundational for learning more complicated assistance tasks (1). You should also ensure your dog is house trained and can eliminate on command (5). This is especially important for service work because you may be in places throughout your days where your dog only has a few opportunities for elimination.
Clicker training can be one way to help dogs learn basic commands. The trainer presses the clicker when the dog completes a task, which is accompanied by praise, treats, or a toy. This is called operant conditioning and the dog begins to see it as a game while they work toward reward. Once the dog learns the commands well, some experts suggest randomizing the rewards so that the dog learns to perform the tasks consistently, not only when a reward is given (1).
4. Socialize your pup. The level of socialization your pup requires may depend on the work you have already done with them. A basic training class is not only a great way to learn or reinforce foundational skills, but it can also be an opportunity to expose your pup to other dogs and humans while simultaneously focusing on specific tasks. Even if your dog is used to being around people and other animals, it is important that they can stay calm and on task in unfamiliar surroundings. The AKC Canine Good Citizens Program is a great training model to help your dog be well-socialized for service work (5).
5. Train your dog in service tasks. Service task training will depend heavily on the basic training you do with your dog. You will want to consider what type of basic commands could support your individual needs. For example, one owner-trainer reports that the basic commands of take, hold, and give were foundational in training her pup to retrieve items, open and close doors, assist with get dressed, and help with laundry. She advises thinking about the words you choose carefully and remaining consistent throughout training. Some experts believe dogs are prepared for service training between 1.5 and 3 years old. Their puppy years can be used to solidify basic commands and work on socialization (1).
6. Take a Public Access Test. Nearly all reputable service dog training organizations only certify service dogs when they pass a Public Access Test. While service dogs are not required to take a test by the ADA, it is a responsible way to ensure you and your dog can safely work together in public. The Assistance Dogs International (ADI) test can be found here.
- Furlong, R. (2006, December 1). Training your own service dog. New Mobility - Life Beyond Wheels. https://www.newmobility.com/2006/12/training-your-own-service-dog/
- Reyenga, S. (2018, September 12). When I tried to train my own service dog. The Mighty. https://themighty.com/2018/09/train-my-own-service-dog-problems/
- Froling, J. (1998). Finding a suitable candidate for assistance dog work. International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP). https://www.iaadp.org/temperament.html
- Train your own service dog. (2020). The Dog Alliance. https://www.thedogalliance.org/training-your-own-service-dog
- Karetnick, J. (2019, September 24). Service dogs 101: Everything you need to know. The American Kennel Club (AKC). https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/service-dog-training-101/
- American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizens Program. https://www.akc.org/products-services/training-programs/canine-good-citizen/
- Assistance Dog International. https://assistancedogsinternational.org/
- Dog Owner. https://www.dogowner.co.uk/
- Lean on Me - The Remarkable Story of a Young Woman with POTS and the Dog that Keeps her Safe. https://www.dinet.org/member-stories/lean-on-me-–-the-remarkable-story-of-a-young-woman-with-pots-and-the-dog-that-keeps-her-safe-r208/
- Service Dogs for POTS Facebook Group. https://www.facebook.com/groups/ServiceDogsforPOTS/
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