How to Choose a Puppy Class for Your Service Dog Candidate

Starting your puppy out right can make a high difference in both his progress and the final outcome. Every potential service dog needs a solid basis for dog and human socialization and environmental enrichment. The 8-16 week when they first come home covers two socialization sensitive periods and is a critical time to start developing social skills with other dogs and people. Use it wisely.

Look around at your local classes. Visit a class or two by a couple of different trainers before you join them. Ask if they have had other SD candidates in class and then ask for their reference info so you can talk to them.

Choosing a puppy class to take your service dog pup to can be made easy if you have some criterion in mind. Use the list below to see if the class will meet most of your needs for your service dog candidate. It is unlikely that any one trainer will met all the criterion, but the list will help you make your best choice. Feel free to sign up for more than one if the trainer only offers one a week or is missing any key criterion that another class may offer. Above all, be prepared to be your puppy's advocate and be careful to keep all experiences positive. Ask questions about what is the basis of a specific behaviour if it is not obvious to you or if you have concerns. You have the right to obtain (keep your puppy safe) during parts of training you don't agree with. Get him to do other known behaviours during those periods to keep him busy and use the time effectively.

The bottom line is that you are looking for a class that focusses on using the other puppies not only for socialization to continue dog language and bite inhibition skills, but as a distraction that he can be called away from and do other behaviours in their presence. A class that lets the puppies play for long periods, without frequent call aways and then ends only teaches the puppies to be more focussed on the other puppies.

Feel free to print off this page as a handout to give to your trainer to help her understand your needs better. All puppies will benefit, not just service dog candidates.

                                                                                               
Name of trainer: _________________________  website: _______________________________

Address: Location: ________________________________  city: _________________________

Contact info: phone:_________________________  email:_______________________________

How to Choose a Puppy Class for Your Service Dog Candidate

Look for a Class Where:

___1. The trainers focus on simple ways of getting behaviors such as luring with food or capturing with a marker sound to start with, then shaping with slightly older puppies. Force should not be used (pushing a puppy into a sit or down or pulling on the leash).

___2. The puppies are paired off for short spurts of play, then rotate partners. This allows the pups to learn to interact with other puppies of different sizes, fur length and shape and energy levels.
1:1 allows the humans to gently intervene before things get out of hand.  In small rooms, baby gates or Xpen dividers are helpful to keep the pairs apart. Trios can be allowed if each puppy has been successful interactions with the other two singly first.

___3. The humans are on their feet and interacting with their pups (not sitting on the sidelines). Premack Principle should be used during interactions. This means that the puppies learn some simple behaviors like eye contact, sit or nose target to a hand, then allowed to play with a partner for a few minutes, then are called away and asked to do a simple behavior, given a reward then sent back to play with their buddy. This teaches them good behavior patterns such as coming away from another dog and focussing on her handler despite the distraction of other dogs. This must happen right from the start.

___4. The trainers teach you about dog body language and what the most common behaviors mean. How do you know when the puppy is not feeling comfortable and when you need to redirect their attention or intervene.

___5. Class is short (45 min or so). Longer sessions are not desirable. In fact, shorter is better as there is better chance of positive experiences for the puppy. Young puppies get tired quickly.

___6. Handlers start learning without the puppies. The human handlers need to learn the theory and practice before applying it on their dog. They need a chance to focus without the distraction of the puppy. This can occur in a human-only session before class starts, and also at the beginning of each class. 10-15 minutes is enough to teach you what you will be doing in class as well as set up the handling expectations for each class and where your starting spot will be. Then you go get your puppy. A family member or friend can be waiting in the car or outside with your pup.

___7. The trainers provide a variety of different environmental enrichment opportunities each session. This could be different flooring, things to crawl over, under and around, hanging things, sounds playing in the background, things commonly seen in life (crutches, canes, children, ladders, wheelchairs or strollers etc)

___8. Children are welcome in class but are supervised by a teen or adult whose sole job is to work with the child on interacting with the puppies. A great opportunity, but needs to be structured.

___9. The puppies are all in a narrow developmental range 8-16 weeks, and are highly supervised. Ideally, at first small puppies should be matched by size, at least until they gain confidence and care with puppies of a different size and developmental stages.

___10. Class has a maximum of 6 puppies of different breeds, shapes, colors and sizes. 4 is ideal. Even if there is a higher trainer to pup ratio, too many puppies is too many puppies to keep track of and the sheer chaos of more than 3 pairs is hard for the puppy and handler to focus in.

___11. Puppies are off leash for the class. This requires a room of decent size so each handler puppy pair has enough room to train.

___12. That puppies are allowed to just sit and watch if that is where they are at. Let them decide when they are ready to interact. They should not be forced to interact. Give them time to assess the situation and that choice helps them to gain confidence.

___13. More frequent sessions are ideal. A trainer who offers drop in classes (with limited group size and consistent handling expectations) many times a week is great. The more frequent the brief exposure to different puppies, rooms and environmental enrichment the better.

___14. The trainer follows a regular room cleaning protocol to prevent the spread of disease. Since puppies may start classes at 8.5 weeks, all of them should have their first set of inoculations.

From: Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs Blog  www.viassistancedogs.blogspot.com 2015

Here's a video that shows a well-run small class of 3 pups.

https://www.facebook.com/aniedireland/videos/1078921092162020/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE
 

As you progress through training your own service dog, you will find that there are behaviors that your dog does that you don't want to see and you just can't seem to over come. Once you reach that point, it is time to go back and figure out where the behavior started from and how you can change your dog's response to the situations. Retraining them sooner than later will help to smooth the training process for any behaviors and tasks that follow.

What Behaviors Should You Be Watching For?

The most problematic behaviors are any related to lack of impulse control:

whining
grabbing from your hands (food or toys)
barking (especially when the dogs is demanding something) (might be a single bark or multiple barks)
slapping or grabbing with one paw
mouthing (you or visitors)
inability to stay still
dancing feet on platforms
spinning while waiting (for a ball to be thrown, or to go out a door etc)
pushy behaviors (at doorways, against legs, in your space uninvited etc)

What all of these behaviors have in common is that they are related to arousal level. When a pup or dog does not have or has not yet learned impulse control, these are the ways that it typically shows itself. 

To Solve the Problem:

1. Prevent the dog from practicing the unwanted behavior by managing the environment so he doesn't need to do the behavior. For example, how can you keep his arousal level lower? What can you do to prevent access to the physical triggers?
2. Break each unwanted behavior into smaller parts.
3. Identify what foundation skills your dog is missing.
4. Look at your own training mechanics. Timing, Rate of Reinforcement and Criterion are three common areas where most people need improvement to reduce your dog's frustration.
5. Control the physical and emotional environment you train your dog in. Dogs do respond to what's happening around them!
6. Retrain from the very early beginnings of the behavior in a new environment. Get reliable behavior and slowly increase the dog's arousal level. 
7. Video your training sessions and look at it with a critical eye or get someone else to do that. What are you doing or how is the environment set up to contribute to the behavior?
8.Teach impulse control generally (in other areas of life).
9. Get help from a professional. Set up a Skype or FaceTime session to make a detailed training plan, submit videos and get specific feedback on how to solve your training challenges.

Good luck! 

Many people get impatient when they start looking for an assistance dog candidate. How long it can take depends on many factors:

  • the breed you are looking for. Rare breeds may take longer. Regionally, the breeds vary too. Choosing more common breeds like a labrador or golden retriever increases your chance of finding a dog sooner. 
  • the population near where you live. In general, the higher the population the more dogs will be available to choose from both from breeders and from rescues. If you live on an island or in an isolated area, you may need to plan to travel to visit potential litters or dogs. Use Skype or FaceTime to see where the dogs live and interview the breeder/owner/rescue organization before you go in person.
  • how important it is to you if the parents have been tested for health issues common to the breed. In my opinion, this is very important especially in breeding lines that are relatively short, such as a new breeder with dogs only afew years old. There are many breeders who have dogs from untested parents. Look carefully at the pedigree to see if previous generations have been tested and what their scores are.
  • puppy or adult   If you know the breed you want and have sourced a reputable breeder who produces healthy dogs with good temperaments, you may need to wait a year or more, especially if they only breed occasionally. I'd advise start looking at least 6 months before you plan to start training, especially if you are starting in spring or fall. The better breeders have presold their pups and are likely to have a wait list for the next litter. If you want your pup in the fall, start looking in the spring. It takes 2 months for the puppies to develop from conception and another 2 months for the pups to get to an age that is appropriate to go to their new homes. That gives the breeder a few months to look for potential mates for their dog. Not being in a hurry for a pup will also put you in good with the breeder. They don't like being pressured. Be open to considering any adult dogs that are returned or retired from conformation show.

    It can be frustrating to have to wait especially when most people want their service dog yesterday! Knowing you have done your research and have made the best choice you have available will give you a good start to successfully training your own service dog. 

Training your own service dog requires a support system for you and your dog to be successful. Many people dive in without considering what daily needs the dog has and how they will be met. They also don't think of emergencies like periods where they may not be able to care for the dog due to their own medical emergencies. 

Identify Your Team Members

Before you seriously consider training your own service dog, make sure to identify who these people are, have a talk with each of them and specifically discuss with them what they will be doing for you and the dog for the life of the dog.  Make sure they are willing and eager to help. If they are not, you may face a challenge when you need them the most. Don't assume they like dogs or will know what to do with your dog.

  • family/housemates
  • landlord
  • your caregivers are on board with having a dog and their role in helping you maintain/train and use
  • dog exerciser
  • dog sitter (for periods when you need a break, are incapacitated or in the hospital etc)
  • trainer
  • veterinarian
  • vet behaviorist (for significant problem behaviors like fear or aggression, perhaps due to an incident in public, if not local, you should be able to find one that does distance consultations via Skype or FaceTime)
  • groomer (for regular grooming)
  • medical doctor
  • Psychiatrist/therapist/counsellor

Over the life or your dog, these individuals may change, but make sure that someone is designated to take on each role. Depending on your disabilities, some of the roles may be more important than others at times.

Make a Hard Copy of the Team List

It helps to keep a list (ideally a hard copy) of each role, who is doing that role when, their contact information and what they have agreed to do. If something happens to you, your dog will be cared for.

What is Public Access Training?

Public access training is a process where a service dog in training is gradually exposed to public places and then is asked to perfrom basic behaviors, then more advanced and finally service dog tasks. Durations of training time is added incrementally.


Public Access Training is a Gradual Process

Training for public access shouldn't be an all or nothing process. Gradually integrate your SDit's training into pubic places.

1. Start with acclimation to the new environment, using distance from distractions as needed.
2. Wait for your dog to offer you deafult attention.
3. Reshape known behaviors and tasks from the beginning (without a verbal cue).
4. Try simple cued behaviors, then more complex ones over many sessions.
5. Add duration and distance to the behaviors as the environment allows. For example: adding time in the settle/relax position and distance of loose leash walking between settles. Then add duration to overall public training sessions.
6. Specifically proof behaviors and tasks and add distractions in the environment.

When is a Dog Ready to Start Public Access Training?

  • generalized house training (potty on cue in a variety of places)
  • good focus on handler despite high level distarctions
  • is able to generalize foundation behaviors to several places
  • dog is able to ignore oter members of the public and other dogs
  • has successfully completed the canine good neighbor (or canine good neighbor) test
  • is comfortable wearing a vest or working harness or other identification (if you choose to have your dog wear it)
  • can perfrom at least one task on cue that mitigates the handler's disability

 

SDit May Not Have Public Access Rights

As owner-trainers, your local laws may or may not allow you public access with a SDit. If they do not, identify public locations where pet dogs are allowed that will be useful but not too busy (avoid the big box pet stores unilt later in training). Get written permission to access other locations where pet dogs are not allowed.

 

How to Start Public Access (PAT) Training?

Start with carefully planning each session. 

Identify specific situations where your dog may have challenges. Have a look at the US public access test criterion or your regional test requirements for ideas. Here is the test that Service Dog Teams in British Colmbia take. 

Start with one challenge and plan a set of 10 sessions to train for it. 

Start with short training visits and give yuor dog frequent breaks from training.

Evaluate after each session and then at session 5 and at the end of 10 sessions. Modify what you are training as the dog needs it. The plan may not go as you think it might. 

Isolate each challenge and train them individually in the same way.

Practice a standard polite way to refuse interaction with your dog. This is in case you need to quickly leave the situation. Two key pieces are to get the dog to face you and to say a brief verbal explanation.

Integrate the various challenges just a few at a time. 


Remember That The Public Access Test (PAT) is Only the Beginning 

You and your dog will face situations and distractions in real life that are far greater than the test. For example, a child may run up and greet your dog by throwing her arms around his neck or a man may kick at your dog or other dogs may be allowed to come up and interact with your dog without permission.  Train beyond this test requirements. They key reason for the pubic access test is to make sure your dog does not present a public safety hazard. 

 

Here is a link to the IAADP's explanation of what needs to be covered during public access training. 

Take your time and set you and your dog up for success. It's an ongoing process!