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dog training

How To: Steps to Training a Service Dog – The Ultimate Step By Step Guide

So you want to train your dog to be a service dog, right?

If so…

Stop and read this step-by-step guide entirely.

This article will tell you the complete steps to train your dog into an awesome service dog!

Let’s get started…

Here’s How To Train Your Dog to Be a Service Dog

Service dogs may know a wide range of commands depending on their different jobs. A dog whose job it is to pull a wheelchair will naturally know different commands than a dog who is supposed to alert their owner about an oncoming seizure. 

Service dogs may also know many commands which are highly useful in the lives of the service dog and disabled person, although they don’t relate directly to the disability. Here are a few commands that are common for most service dogs. 

Heel

This is an essential skill for almost all service dogs since a service dog should stay by their person at all times. A dog who is trained to heel will stay by their owner’s side unless released. They also come to their owners’ side when called. Dogs trained to “heel” may function off-leash, but more often they are kept on a lead that they do not tighten with pulling. 

To train your dog to heel, associate the command with rewards for being by your side. It’s important to continuously challenge your dog with more difficult distractions so that they learn to stay by you no matter what. 

Fetch

Most dogs love to play a game of fetch, but fetch is much more serious training for service dogs. Many disabled people have trouble reaching objects. Service dogs are trained to pick up objects when their owners request them. Some dogs know the names of multiple objects. Handlers can ask their dog to retrieve objects from their places by name. Other dogs are trained to get an object any time it is dropped, or when the handler indicates it in some way, like by pointing. 

To teach your dog to fetch essential items for you, first, encourage them to fetch in general by playing fetch with dog toys. Then, encourage them to bring things back for a reward instead of just for the fun of it. Once your dog consistently fetches something that you throw, you need only teach them to bring objects by name or by pointing, whatever you prefer. 

training a service dog with treats
Training a service dog with treats

Alert

Service dogs are trained to alert the owner or others for many reasons. A dog may alert a deaf owner to the sound of the phone or someone at the door by pawing. A seizure alert dog may let their owners and others around them know that a seizure is coming by barking. Service dogs may alert for all kinds of reasons, but it is important that the alert is clear, direct, and not able to be confused with normal barking. 

Many seizure alert dogs alert intuitively. All you need to do is encourage them to alert in a specific way and reward them profusely for each alert. Dogs who need to alert for other reasons, like the phone ringing, should be taught an alert behavior like pawing. Then, the phone ringing can be made to replace the command word for pawing. After some practice, your dog will alert whenever they hear the sound. 

Brace

Dogs who are trained to give support to people with mobility challenges are often taught to brace or stiffen themselves so that they are easy for their owners to lean on. Owners may need to brace themselves against their dogs because they have a moment of weakness, a panic attack, or to help them get in or out of a wheelchair. Dogs who learn to brace learn that stability is essential above all else. 

Train your dog a strong “stay” first so that they’ll have the self-control and understanding of their own body movements to know what it means to brace. Once your dog is willing to stay for a treat or toy, extend the stay while beginning to touch and then put pressure on your dog. Eventually, your dog will begin to understand that you are leaning on them and adjust their bodies accordingly. 

Down stay

You’ll be going many places with your service dog where the only appropriate thing for them to do is lie quietly by your feet or on your lap. A solid “Down stay” is essential if you’ll be bringing your dog into the public, especially places where dogs aren’t usually allowed. 

Associate down stays with the best chew toys and make sure your dog has plenty of exercise so that they’ll have the self-control for solid down stays. Training should start from the time that your dog is a young puppy. It takes a lot of self-control to stay down instead of wandering off after all of the delicious smells and other things in new environments, so practice is essential. 

Pull

If you’re in a wheelchair, you may want your dog to be able to pull your chair. This can be especially nice when you need to go uphill or over long distances. Most dogs absolutely love to pull, so this may well be one of your dog’s favorite forms of exercise. In fact, if you’re finding it difficult to make sure that your service dogs get plenty of exercise, teaching them to pull your wheelchair may be a great start. 

Wait until your dog is full-grown to teach them to pull since you don’t want to hurt their developing bodies. Before they’re full-grown, self-control exercises and good leash manners are strong foundations for pull training. Teach your dog words for “stop” and enforce it strictly. Once your dog is ready to start pulling, also teach them a command for “go” and gradually increase the weight that they pull. 

Quiet

Service dogs should be as unobtrusive as possible. This can be challenging, especially if you have a large service dog. One thing that is sure to make even the tiniest service animal very obtrusive is barking. Barking is a natural instinct in dogs. It should come as no surprise that it can be challenging for dogs to learn not to indulge in this natural behavior while they’re working. 

The best way to teach your dog not to bark is to teach them to do something else. Associate lying down or some other behavior with being quiet. Ask for that behavior whenever your dog barks. Practice bark correction at home, too, so you know you can ask your dog to stop barking when you need them to be quiet. 

Go Potty

This command isn’t directly related to your dog’s performance as a service dog, but you are likely to find it to be an important command, especially if you are frequently on the go or if you live in a climate with bad weather. You want your dog to go potty when you ask so that you can hurry up and get on with your day when you need to. 

Begin associating command words like “Go potty” with the act of going from the time that your dog is a puppy. Be careful that the command doesn’t become associated with leaving the house. You want your dog to understand that you expect them to go potty when you say “Go potty.” 

Specialized Commands

There are a thousand more commands that service dogs might be taught. Little service dogs may learn a very different range of commands than larger dogs. Some owners may prefer dogs with extensive training while others are happy with one or two consistent behaviors to aid their disability. Be creative when you are considering how you want to train your dog so that you choose commands that will work well for you, your dog, your disability, and your lifestyle. 

How To Train Your Dog With Commands
How To Train Your Dog With Commands

When Should You Start Training a Service Dog?

Service dog training should start as soon as possible. See more: how to train a 2-month-old puppy.

Organizations that breed and raise service dogs begin handling and other exercises when the dogs are only weeks old. If you’re starting with a puppy, begin the basics of the training that you want them to have right away. 

Give them plenty of time to be a puppy, but also begin to prepare them for the important work that they will need to do. Work hard on your puppy’s self-control. Practice service-related work so often that it will feel like breathing to your dog by the time they are old enough to go to work. 

Beginning Service Work

It is intimidating to go from training to service work with your dog. Even if you’ve been training for years, replacing the “service dog in training” vest with a “service dog” vest is a scary as well as an exciting day. Here are a few tips to help you make the transition smoothly. 

  • Take training seriously. You should never find yourself laughing off poor behavior by claiming that your dog is just in training. By the time your dog is wearing a vest, even a training vest, they should be well on their way to being serious working dogs. If you find that your dog is being too goofy during training, you may need to increase out of vest playtime so that your dog has the self-control for work. 
  • Practice, practice, practice. You DO NOT want to go into an area where dogs aren’t allowed, only to have your dog act unexpectedly because they haven’t spent much time in that environment. Get permission from store owners to bring your dog as many places as possible while they’re in training so that they’ll be ready when its time to work. 
  • Manage your emotions. You’re bound to be excited and anxious when you begin serious work with your service dog. Remember that your dog can smell and otherwise pick up on your emotions, especially your fears and anxieties. Actively manage your emotions so that your dog can focus on working and not be worried about whatever is making you worried. Remember, to your dog, it’s just another day. 

How Much Does It Cost to Have Your Dog Trained to Be a Service Dog?

A big question we get is: How much is it to train a service dog?

Training your own service dog doesn’t have to cost a thing but your time and effort. Puppies that come from lines well-suited to service dog work may be more expensive to purchase than other dogs. If you are considering professional training, the cost varies considerably. 

Free services exist to match dogs to disabled people who need them, but the dogs are few and the waiting lists are long. Buying a trained service dog can cost thousands of dollars, as can having your own dog professionally trained. 

Does my dog have to pass a test to be a service dog?

In order for a dog’s training to qualify them as a service dog, the training must directly aid the handler’s disability in some way. However, there is no test that a dog must pass in order to be considered a service dog. 

Be suspicious of “certifications” for your service dog. None are legally needed. Sometimes these services connect you to other disabled people and their dogs and have other perks. Other times, they only aim to make money without offering a valid service. 

There is no test, in part, because dogs do so many diverse things to be of service to their humans. Here are a few of the services that a dog could perform to quality as a service dog. 

  • Guiding a blind person through obstacles
  • Alerting a deaf person to the phone ringing
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Alerting to an oncoming seizure
  • Protecting someone who is experiencing a seizure
  • Reminding a person with mental illness to take medication
  • Calming a person with PTSD with a specific behavior

Dogs who simply provide comfort or emotional security do not qualify as service animals, even if they perform that function for a person who has a disability. The dog must be trained to do something specific. 

For instance, a dog trained to aid someone with PTSD might lick them or nudge them to snap them out of it. A dog who is just a comfort to a person with PTSD may help with their presence, but they are not trained to do anything specific to help. 

Take Your Time

As you progress through the steps of training your service dog, be sure to go slowly, take time, and have fun with your dog. Service dog training takes time, but in the end, you have a companion like none other. 

Your Next Step…

We have complete confidence that if you take our training recommendations and implement them…

You will see good results.

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