What does it take to train
a service dog?
Time, patience and expertise
How long does it take to train a service dog?
A minimum of 120 hours + 30 hours of practice in public
There is NO quick, cheap and easy way to make a service dog. It takes a very special dog, one that is very social and trainable, and hours of training and exposure. Between the public access manners and the specialized skills required for a particular disability, based on the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) guidelines, training a service dog requires a minimum of 120 hours of training for at least 6 months (depending on the dog and the required skills). During that time, dogs also need to work a minimum of 30 hours in public settings to help them generalize their skills and teach them to be responsive and unobtrusive in a variety of public places.
For all those reasons, service dogs are very expensive and most people cannot afford a fully trained service dog without either fundraising or taking out a loan.
What dogs can be trained as a service dog?
Social and confident
It takes a special dog to be a service dog. Many dogs can be trained to pick up objects, alert to changes in glucose levels, help with balance, interrupt repetitive patterns and offer comfort. Not every dog, however, can handle going out in public. Going to a mall may not seem like a big challenge, but the crowd, the sounds, the shiny surfaces, the carts, the elevators, etc. can be very stressful to many dogs.
A good candidate to be a service dog is a confident and social dog. A dog that is easy going and likes to greet every new person. For a shy and anxious dog, being out in public could be a source of stress and anxiety. Just like people, when dogs are anxious, they are more likely to be on the lookout for potential threats. They might bark, growl or even bite if they don't feel safe. Additionally, a dog concerned about his/her own safety will not be able to focus on the handler and provide the needed assistance.
Watch the video below for details about getting a dog to train as your service dog
What training methods work best for service dogs?
Errorless and stress free dog training
A service dog candidate needs to have a high food drive. Different trainers have different training philosophies. Some trainers use devices such as choke chains, prong collars or shock collars as a means to control the dogs' impulses and keep them calm and focused. At Medical Mutts, however, we believe that such devices are unnecessary and even harmful - harmful to the dog because they are unpleasant, sometimes painful and less efficient, as many studies have shown. They are also damaging to the relationship.
Repeated punishment will increase the dog's cortisol levels and it's been shown that stress affects the animal's ability to learn. Punishment can also discourage the dogs from taking initiatives, which can be problematic for a service dog that often needs to make decisions on his/her own. Lastly, elevated stress levels also set the dog up to react or snap much sooner than when he/she is feeling safe and calm.
Our goal is to build the dog's confidence and desire to work. In fact, if training feels like work for us, it's all fun for the dog. We want to see enthusiasm when we ask the dog to come, to press a button, to poke when alerting, etc. The way that we achieve this is by rewarding the dog for doing what we asked for. A dog that shows a strong desire to work for treats will be much easier to train.
The minimum standards of training of a service dog
It's all about safety and ability to work in public
To be a service dog, the dog must be trained to perform specific tasks on cue for the benefit of the person with a disability (such as alerting to changes in glucose levels, picking up objects from the ground, alerting to certain scents like peanuts, getting help, alerting to certain sounds, etc.). Spontaneous behavior that a dog occasionally exhibits like licking or barking does not qualify as a trained task even if they have beneficial results for their person.
In addition to the skills, they need to assist a person with a disability, service dogs must also meet certain social and behavior standards when in public:
The dogs should not show aggressive behaviors towards people or other animals when in public.
The dog should not solicit food or petting from other people.
The dog should walk calmly on a leash and stay focused on the handler.
The dog should not urinate or defecate indoors.
The dog should not sniff merchandise or people or intrude into other people's space.
The dog should not vocalize or bark in public places.
Dogs trained for protection cannot be considered for service work.
Service dog Laws
Service dogs in training are subject to state laws
There are federal and state laws regarding service dogs and service dogs in training. Please make sure to check the laws in place in your home state as well as in any state you might be visiting.