Is Owner-Training a Service Dog a Good Fit for You?
Over the years, we have worked with people who have tried to owner-train a dog to become public access assistance dogs for themselves or a family member and were not successful for a number of reasons unrelated to training the dog.
If you tend to be overly optimistic or unrealistic about your ability to choose the right dog, create the right environment, and your ability to follow through for the 2-3 year or more process then you will want to consider this list. The risk of failure is very real among owner-trained service dogs and assistance dogs. Having a dog fail can set you back emotionally, socially and financially. Your health and emotional stakes are high! Read the information below before you start the process!
Here are 5 categories that have been barriers to success for owner-trainers:
1. Medical condition
Unstable Medical or Psychological condition:
Your focus will be on your changing situation rather than on training the dog. The training process may be put on hold due to your condition. If you have been newly diagnosed, you will be busy learning out how to live with the condition for the first while, setting up your support system etc. A dog can come later.
Unsuitable dog: Starting with a puppy or adult that does not meet the solid temperament and great health needed by a service dog to withstand the daily stress of working. A service dog candidate needs to be raised in a stable indoor home environment, have good genetics and parents/grandparents with good health, ideally from tested adults.
If you are starting with an adult dog, the same applies. The dog must be even-tempered towards people and other animals. Adaptability and resiliency are key. The dog needs to have the size and physical ability to do the tasks required. Choose a dog that has daily exercise requirements that you can realistically live with. If you live in an area with a small dog population, then you will need to look further afield for a candidate which will involve travel.
The physical and emotional environment a dog lives in affects his behavior in a good way and a bad way, just like it does you. Consider the amount of space, the suitability of that space, the location where you are living and how safe it is for a dog. If you live in a rural area, you will have to add distance to go to socialize your dog and do public access training.
Consider who else you are living with as well as paid caregivers, their beliefs and knowledge about dogs and how to interact with them. A living environment that puts you or your dog at risk for physical or emotional abuse is not conducive for creating a successful service dog.
Do you have an unstable or overly busy family life? Too many things going on, whether it’s a busy family with many kids and many pets, a farm to care for or a caregiver/trainer with their own health issues divides your attention. Training your own service dog is like raising a baby. You need focus, time and energy to do it long term.
Do you have a support system? Raising and maintaining a service dog or assistance dog takes a community. From family/housemates, canine professionals like trainers, vets and groomers, professional healthcare to open-minded retailers, everyone is involved in successfully raising and training a service dog to the point of public access. Do you live in isolation? This will be problematic.
Rental or Strata housing don’t recognize a service dog in training in most jurisdictions. The landlord/manager’s perception of the dog or breed you choose can create difficulties. They can change their mind and revoke permission at any time. They can manufacture a reason to revoke permission for the dog. Managers/landlords and Strata councils change.
School or workplace acceptance: Make sure your school or workplace is supportive of you training your own service dog and will allow the dog access during training and later once the dog is ready to accompany you. These places may not be covered by public access laws.
4. Required Finances
Raising and training a Service Dog requires money, even if you owner train. You will need to learn how to train your dog to professional standards. Even if you are already a professional trainer, you will still need to consult other dog training professionals for group classes, problem solving and to get an outside perspective. If the dog experiences trauma, a certified veterinary behaviorist may need to be contacted. These are very expensive.
Every dog has basic needs that need to be met. They need to be fed, housed, have veterinary contact and grooming fees. They get sick and injured and need immediate treatment. Heath testing and neutering are done when the dog is an adult. It’s mandatory to raise a good chunk of the money upfront, ideally all of it, before you start like organizations providing the dogs do. Otherwise, you will be fundraising while training and that takes your focus away from training and adds a level of stress into the process. Plan on Canadian$3000-$6000 depending on what age and training level the dog is starting at.
What if you run out of money before the dog’s training is completed? There will be ongoing maintenance training and also upgrades to training if your medical conditions change.
5. Personal Skills/Characteristics
There is a long list of skills and characteristics needed for a handler to successfully train their own service dog. If these are lacking, they can become insurmountable hurdles.
- No previous experience in sole care of a dog. You need to understand what is realistic to expect a dog to do and not do at the different stages of life and how to make sure the dog’s needs as a biological being and keep the dog healthy and fit for working in public.
- If you are unable to focus on training in the moment (short-term focus) or create a long-term training plan (big-picture goals) this will make training very difficult for you.
- An inability to adjust your expectations to match what the dog is capable of in the moment or being easily overwhelmed work against your success.
- If you are unable to generalize learning from one behavior to another then you will require step by step plans laid out with all possible options. This requires the help of a personal life coach or daily support person.
- You will need the ability to keep detailed records and daily journaling about the process.
- Inability to go into public places regularly to train the dog. This may be due to a medical condition (agoraphobia, anxiety, severe environmental allergies etc) or lack of dog-friendly transportation to get you there.
- Dis-interest or too stressed or anxious to learn how to train effectively, especially in new environments.
- Lacking self-evaluation skills (of yourself as well as the dog.)
- Lacking coping strategies when things don’t go well, or people confront you about your dog in public etc.
- Needing excessive amount of support for decision-making and action-oriented tasks
Check out this blog post on what characteristics professional service dog trainers require.
If you find that you are missing several of the key skills and characteristics, then you will want to seriously consider not training your own service or assistance dog.
If you still think you could benefit from a service dog and be able to take care of one:
Find an ADI accredited program to get a trained dog from. Each have their own application process, screen potential handlers and often have requirements for fundraising to be done upfront.
Find a training company who will sell you a trained dog. Do your research. There are several scammers who will make unbelievable claims (like saying a 12 week old puppy is a fully-trained service dog, or make guarantees they can’t follow through with etc. ) Check the better business bureau, do a Google search, and look for Facebook complaint groups to see if anything concerning comes up. Get references and talk to clients who have had a dog from them for at least a year.
Here's an interesting article that shows behavioral and physical traits in a dog may predict his or her success as a service dog. Something to pay attention to when selecting your next dog! Front paw preference (right or left), eye preference (left or right is the more dominant one) and hair swirls (clockwise vs counter-clockwise) could be key in pre-determining the success of your canine partner as a your service dog. According the to the results of her study off 115 guide dogs, it could be key.
According to the article, the perfect candidate for Guide Dog school would be right-pawed, left-eyed with an anti-clockwise whorl.
Assuming the experimenter is correct about the use of dogs on the right side of the handler, left-handled handlers may be better to choose a right-eyed dog and train them to work off their right (as in heel on the right), which in left hand-drive countries, would be safer anyway since the dog would be away from traffic.
Not all labs are equal.
Temperament and health problems are linked to the genetics of the 'silver' labs.
Interestingly, the few I have met locally all have had either skin issues or been over reactive dogs. Are you willing to put that much time and energy into a dog with health and temperament issues that may not make the grade as a service dog?
Do you research before you make your selection. Genetics are important!
Here is a great post on enrichment ideas for young puppies. It can be a challenge at some times of the year and in various locations to get the puppies out and about, or for some people training their own Service Dog to get out, so here is a great idea to start introducing different textures, sounds and movement at a young age.
Since I've had several question about raising Service Dog puppies recently, here's a list of things to make sure your breeder does, in addition to the Early Neurological Stimulation Program:
General socializing: the Rule of 7s:
By the time a puppy is seven weeks old, he/she should have:
1. Been on 7 different types of surfaces: carpet, concrete, wood, vinyl,
grass, dirt, gravel, wood chips, etc....
2. Played with 7 different types of objects: big balls, small balls, soft
fabric toys, fuzzy toys, squeaky toys, paper or cardboard items, metal items,
sticks, hose pieces, etc....
3. Been in 7 different locations: front yard, back yard, basement, kitchen,
car, garage, laundry room, bathroom, crate, etc.....
4. Met and played with 7 new people: include children and older adults...
5. Been exposed to 7 challenges: climb on a box, go through a tunnel, climb
steps, go down steps, climb over obstacles, play hide and seek, go in and out of
a doorway with a step up or down, run around a fence, etc....
6. Eaten from 7 different containers: metal, plastic, cardboard, paper, china,
pie plate, frying pan, etc....
7. Eaten in 7 different locations: crate, yard, basement, laundry room, living
room, bathroom, etc...
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