Most people reading this would think this is ridiculous! Hold off on your judgment until you have read the whole article!

Fact! Most program-trained service dogs have dogs trained and working in public by 18 months of age.
Fact! The success rate of program-trained dogs is between 50 and 80% 
Fact! The program dogs are tested and either declared ready for work or are removed from the program before or at that age. 


Let's take a look at why there is a difference between program-trained service dogs and owner-trained service dogs. 

Professional Programs

Professional Programs have a Training Structure

First and foremost, all programs have a tried and true structured program they put the dogs through. It has been honed over the years to work with most of the dogs that go through the program. Interestingly, using positive reinforcement with correction actually ends up speeding the process and gradually higher percentages of dogs each year.

Professional Programs have Experienced Volunteers and Professional Trainers

Volunteer puppy raisers (many of who have already successfully raised several puppies for the program) do the hard foundation work of raising the pups to about 14-16 months of age and training the basic behaviors. These volunteers follow the training structure and go to classes provided by the program. The developing adolescent dogs are included in their active lifestyles as much as possible to expose the dog to everything they will later encounter as an adult.

Professional Trainer's Focus is on Training the Dog

Professional trainers work with each dog every day for several hours, teaching tasks, and refining the skills learned with volunteers and generalizing those skills to public places. The training is very intense for the dogs. Trainers live their own life after hours.


Professional Trainers Have a Support Team 

Professional service dog program trainers have a support team of puppy raisers, assistants, other trainers, supervisors, etc that they can ask for ideas, help and support for daily training and problem- solving. These people can also serve as distractions for training and for training set ups before the dog is exposed to the public. And they are responsible for the dog during non-training time.

Professional Trainers Have Resources Provided by the Organization

Resources needed can take the form of payment for their time, purchase and storage of training materials, transportation to specific sites for training, resources collected over the years and access to public training spaces. Most programs have all the key physical structures and materials to practice on right on site: from a variety of surfaces to different doors with handles to disability-specific equipment. 


People Training Their Own Service Dogs


Owner-Trainers Need to Find or Create a Structured Training Program

In comparison to programs, people who self-train their assistance dogs need to develop or find a training structure or program. Or cobble several together.

Owner-Trainers Need to Learn the Skills to Train Their Dog

A few years ago, most owner-trainers were professional dog trainers who already had many of the skills needed. Today, more and more people are owner-trainers who need to learn the training skills as they train. That slows both them and the dog down. 

Owner-Trainers May Be Limited by Their Disability or Their Work Schedule

Owner-trainers typically have their own disability or are caregivers for a dependent with a disability. The disability may stall the training process for long periods (as in a health relapse) or may limit where they can go to train (as in anxiety or PTSD). 

Some owner-trainers work part or full-time. The dog may not the main focus of their day-time hours.

Owner-Trainers Need to Create and Maintain a Support Team

Many owner-trainers are isolated and have to work hard to create a support team to help them train their service dog. They build it and often rebuild it in the process as support people move on. In addition, they have to train these people how to interact with the dog or how to help them in the training.

Owner-Trainers Must Make All Arrangements Themselves

Owner-trainers have to arrange for themselves transportation to and get specific permission to access to each of the resources and locations they need for training: everything from specific equipment, visiting to fire stations to practice riding transportation. 

All of these things are done by the owner-trainer and takes focus, energy and time away from training the dog. These three things are usually in short supply.


A Word about Canine Maturity

Most dogs are not physically mature until 2 years of age. Bone plates have not completely closed and the dog has not yet filled out. On top of that, many breeds are not emotionally or socially mature until 3 years of age. Think of your friends and neighbors who complain that their similar breed dogs still acting like a teenager at 2.5 years or older! Are you willing to trust your life to a teenager?


Public Access Assessment Tests Hold You to a Higher Level

You may decide to complete an external assessment like British Columbia residents who owner-train may do. You will learn that most of the items on the test require the dog to have developed a very high level of self-control and an ability to focus on you for a long period. That self-control comes with time and practice.  All service dogs with public access need to have this level of training and the test holds you to them. All program dogs have some sort of test they must pass before they are deemed a service dog who can work in public.

In 2016, the success rate of owner-trained service dog teams taking the BC Provincial Guide and Service Dog Assessment Test for the first time was 30%. A team can come back at a later date suggested by the assessor to retry. That time allows the dog to fine-tune the public skills, deal with any issues (commonly fear, aggression, over-exuberance or health) and develop the maturity needed to be able to focus in public despite distractions. 

Why Take the Assessment Test If You Don't Have to? 

In provinces like British Columbia, Alberta and soon to be Nova Scotia, they have tests that non-program trained dogs can take to prove they can meet (or surpass) the required standard for public access. Taking the test proactively makes your life much easier. When asked by retailers etc, you can produce the certificate.  If the police are called, they can back your access claim up. If you do not have the provincially issued card, the police will support the retailer and they can press charges against you for portraying your dog as a service dog when it is not. Then it is up to you to prove that your dog does meet the provincial standard. This whole process is very messy and stressful. Taking the test in the first place is the easiest way to avoid that whole emotional turmoil.  

A Big Bonus of Training Your Own Dog

Fortunately, service dogs that are owner-trained can be kept in training as long as needed to further train the dog and give them time to mature into a full-fledged service dog. A dog in training can still be working at home, in pet-friendly places and in other places with written permission until he has developed the skills and maturity needed to be a working service dog. 


That's why aiming for the age of 3 years is a more realistic goal for those who are training their own service dog before starting to use their dog as a full-fledged working service dog. 

 

No Forward Progress

Recently, I have been seeing several people posting on social media about behaviors and service dog tasks that they have been working on for a week or months and seeing very little progress. These owner-trainers are talking about just building the basic behavior, not generalizing, proofing or even fine tuning a behavior!

If you are having this same problem while using positive reinforcement, doing several short training sessions a day, and training in a low distraction environment with a suitable level of reinforcers, then something in your training process is not right.

Some Common Things to Look At: 

  • the dog's behavior history
    Has the dog previously been punished for doing the behavior or a similar one? This will certainly slow the progress as the dog will be fearful or hesitant to do similar behaviors.
  • the dog's developmental stage
    Is the behavior you are working on affected by his physical or emotional development stage? If your puppy is teething, he may be hesitant to grab a hard object firmly because it hurts to do so.
  • the dog's response to doing the behavior
    Does the behavior involve something that is aversive to the dog? For example, is the dog very space conscious and you are asking for him to invade your space to do a behavior? 
  • the dog's understanding of how to build behaviors
    Does the dog's previous learning give him enough understanding that supports the specific behavior you are working on? Making sure he has the pieces of the puzzle to figure out what you want builds his success. 

The Big Question and the Solution 

Are you breaking the behavior down into small enough pieces? If not, go back and teach him missed foundation skill of the behavior.

Long Term Behaviors

There are a few behaviors do take a long time to develop, such as loose leash walking (due to distractions inherent in the behavior), or settle (due to adding duration to the behavior), but your dog should be experiencing success at each step of the way and not getting stuck for long periods at a certain spot. If forward progress seems too slow, it is up to you to figure out what needs to be done to help your dog move forward in incremental steps.

Experiment!

One of the reasons I use positive reinforcement with my own and client dogs is because of the quick success all of us experience. Teaching (and the flip side, learning) is about experimenting. When your dog gets stuck, try changing some small things about the behavior or the physical environment. If that doesn't work, step back and look at the challenge and take a medium picture look.

If those changes don't work, then try taking a whole different approach. There are many ways to teach the same behavior! 
For example, in teaching a hand-delivered retrieve, there are at least 7 different positive ways to teach a dog to take something in his mouth and 7 other ways to teach him to hold an object. That's 14 things you can experiment with for two key steps of the retrieve! Each of those can be broken down into many smaller steps. 

What You Can Do

A. If you are getting stuck, first make sure you understand the basic concepts of training. If you are missing something, then so will your dog. Many dogs are great about compensating for our lack of knowledge in many areas and make us look like great trainers, but there will be some things your dog just cannot figure out on his own. 

B. Next, ask questions from others. They can help you brainstorm what the problem might be and solutions. Find a good Facebook group that you feel comfortable in and are confident that you will get some thoughtful answers. Ask your question being clear on: 1. what the behavior is, 2. what you think the problem is and 3. what you have tried so far. Sometimes the process of writing it down for others will give you a new perspective.

C. Find a reputable experienced local dog training professional who is great at breaking behaviors into their smallest parts.

D. Take a class online for your specific challenge.

Help is available! You and your dog don't need to feel like failures. For most behaviors, positive reinforcement should be all about quick success for you and your dog! If it's not, something needs to be changed.  Check out my Foundation Skills classes and Service Dog Retrieve online class! 

One of the most important things that crossover trainers (trainers who are changing from a correction-based approach to a positive one) learn is that training a dog is a fun process of helping their dogs enjoy learning. Breaking the training process into small enough steps for success allows the dog and trainer to enjoy the journey because they are both being challenged while still achieving high success.

Progress means moving towards a goal in small enough steps that that each particular dog needs. Often those steps are much smaller than the trainer expects. Asking for more than a dog can do sets the dog up to fail. Asking for less than he can do (or doing too many repetitions of the same thing) sets him up for boredom. Finding the 'sweet spot' where the dog is steadily making progress with the behavior and is having fun learning is the real training challenge.

Making the Process an Enjoyable One

A good rule of thumb is to set up the environment and choose a specific training session objective (criterion) so that your dog can achieve at least 50% success rate on what you are asking him to do. That means for every 10 repetitions, he gets at least 5 correct and is marked and rewarded for each. That level is the minimum level that most dogs need to continue trying and the behavior is a fun puzzle to figure out. Practice at that specific objective until your dog can get at least 80% (8 out of 10 repetitions) correct before changing the objective to make it just a little more challenging. Just like a good computer game, we need to increase the challenge to keep the dog's interest and joy in playing with us.

Observe and Note the Pattern of Success & Failure

The trick here is to observe the pattern of success. If your dog gets 4 or more in a row correct, he probably is starting to understand what you are asking and you can ask for something a little more challenging. If he gets three in a row correct then makes a mistake, then he needs more practice at that level. Alternatively, if he gets something wrong twice in a row in a training session, then it is up to you to make something easier so he can succeed the third time. That success will keep him motivated to keep trying despite the failure.

Changing the Objective on the Fly

If your dog did get two in a row wrong, you will need to immediately change something about what you are asking to make it easier.  This "in the moment" evaluation is called "formative evaluation" in education circles. Applying formative evaluation during training sessions is a key skill that allows you to focus on the training process rather than the end product.

With an enjoyable (just the right challenge level) process, a good product is more likely. The desired final behavior can then be achieved.
Ultimately we are looking for progress not perfection!

Footnote:
As trainers, we need to remember that while we can get behaviors to be reliable, they will never be "perfect" since dogs, like us, are variable in their behavior no matter how well trained they or we are. That is another reason we focus on progress, not perfection. 

with Lisa G White of Positive Pet Advice FB Group.

  1. DH: Hi Everyone! Thanks for inviting me here again!

  2. LGW: It's a pleasure having you here with us again, Donna. Well let's get the ball rolling - how long have you been training Service Dogs?  How long have you been training Service Dogs?

    DH: I have been helping people train their own assistance dogs via Youtube, Skype and online classes since 2008. Hence my Youtube channel name of supernaturalbc2008. I started when I realized how easy it was to train tasks with clicker training. No physical strength is needed. Just break them down into small enough steps for the dog to succeed.

  3. LGW: Do you train dogs to hand over to someone or do you teach owners with their existing dogs?

    DH: I help people choose and train their own dogs, do day training and help clients to top up training of dogs obtained from programs. Not all service dogs work in public. A service dog can work only at home for tasks that are done at home, such as waking a person from night terrors or when they go into a diabetic low or alerting them to a sound when they take their hearing aids out. Not everyone wants or needs a dog that can do public access.

  4. LGW: What qualities are key for a dog to become a Service Dog?

    DH: Keeping it super simple: For public access, they need to be healthy, have a good temperament, food-motivated and be bombproof. There are many others of course. LOL! On my website, I have a free class that helps guide people on what qualities to look for in an adult dog and when looking for a breeder for a future service puppy. Here is a list of some of the key characteristics to look for in an adult dog.
  • medically and structurally healthy dog from long-lived lines
  • confident
  • adaptable to different situations and expectations
  • be food or toy motivated or both for training
  • wants to interact and be with people but not overly friendly as you need the dog’s focus to be on the handler
  • low to medium exercise needs (unless handler leads an active lifestyle)
  • has body awareness so not knocking into things, people
  • forgiving if you accidentally run over his feet with a wheel etc
  • social with other dogs (polite but not overly interested in them)
  • low to no prey drive (cats, rabbits etc)
  • inhibited bite when in play - soft mouth is ideal
  • tolerant to loud sounds like thunderstorms, gunshot, fireworks (must have been introduced when young) 

Because there are so many characteristics that they need to have, service dog candidates can be difficult to find. I once heard an SD trainer say "You need a service dog candidate, not a rehabilitation project." I have come to agree with her! It's a long and hard enough process starting with a good dog! Some of the more successful programs breed their own lines of labs, goldens, standard poodles or mixes of these. Others use rescue dogs but must assess about 400 shelter dogs before they find one that is a suitable candidate. If a person lives in an area with few rescue dogs, it can be difficult for them to find a suitable dog to train. Reported success rates for program bred dogs (50-80%) are much higher than for both for shelter dogs (15-30%) and owner-trained dogs (unknown but low judging by the number of multiple dogs many have.) Owners have to be willing to either have multiple dogs, use the dog only at home or rehome a dog that doesn't meet the standards for public access. Aggression, fear, overly-social and health issues are the most common reasons dogs fail to become a service dog with public access.

5. LGW: How long is the process in training a dog to become a fully qualified Service Dog?

DH: For owner-trained dogs who have medical issues that slow the training process, or who are new to training, I tell them to expect to expect their dog to be at least 3 years old if they are training from a puppy. If they get an adult dog that is 18 months to 3 years, then at least a year from the time they get the dog, depending on how much previous training and public access experience the dog has done and their own skill and knowledge of training dogs. Programs can do it in shorter periods (18 months to 2 years) because they have professional trainers who are working with the dog 5 days a week, plus they have the physical resources such as training space, transportation, access to other dogs, people and props available when they need it. They also have developed a process that works. Most dogs are not emotionally mature enough to handle full public access until at least 2yrs anyway. If you get a dog 18 months or older, they have gone through fear periods and you have a pretty good idea what the working ability will be like.

6. LGW: What are some of the tasks that a Service Dog is trained for?

DH: Tasks are really the sexy stuff of service dogs. They are comparatively easy compared to public access training. Today, with a good understanding of the principles of clicker training, the only limit to tasks is the creativity of the trainer or handler, the ability to generalize the task anywhere and knowledge of the client's specific disabilities.

Common tasks are retrieving items for a mobility-impaired person, alerting a hard-of-hearing person to a car behind them or someone calling their name. Autism dogs can keep a child from running away or from hurting himself. Seizure response dogs stay with the person when they have a seizure and are there when they come out of a seizure.

More rare are seizure alert dogs who can predict an impending seizure so the handler can get to a safe place.
A dog trained as an Alzheimer's dog can go get the caregiver when the person gets out of their chair or lead the handler home on a walk.
Psychiatric assistance dogs are on the rise for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety etc.

For anxiety, dogs can interrupt self-harm behaviors, or lead a person to an exit when they are panicked or confused. The most recent application is to detect a rise in cortisol levels when the person is becoming stressed as an anxiety alert.

Here's one of my public videos that show how to train an anxiety alert:

7. LGW: How do you pair up the right dog to the right person?

DH: This is a very important question as it the foundation for success. When helping a person to chose their own dog we look at their lifestyle, where they live, their resources, their abilities and what they need the dog to do for them. Would starting with a puppy or an adult dog work best for them? Activity levels, grooming requirements of the dog and of course the tasks needed. Size and structure may be important for the tasks as well as food costs. The dog must be physically capable of doing tasks and be able to handle the physical and emotional stress of doing them every day for however long is needed.

I see many people who come to me who have chosen the wrong dog for the situation and job. Even with careful research, they are not familiar with what they actually need and a breeder or rescue organization may not be familiar with what the person's reality is. For example, a dog from working lines might sound like a good match for someone who needs motivation to get out for a walk, but in reality, is likely to be too demanding in mental and physical exercise needs for the person to live with.

With owner-trained service dogs, when mismatches occur, it is heartbreaking. Most people do not want to give up a dog they have bonded with and put many hours of training into. But the dog is not meeting their needs and is costing them the limited resources they have. I suggest that people find a trainer to help them at least rule out obviously inappropriate breeders or adult dogs. Sadly, there are far more dogs that won't be suitable as service dogs for them than ones that will.

8. LGW: What are the realities of living with a Service Dog?

DH: This is super question! One that most people overlook when thinking about training their own SD. But very important as I know people that have stopped training as they didn't like the attention they got and stress it caused having a dog with them. 

It takes a team of people to raise and meet a dog's daily needs, and train it to public access standards. The handler needs to take care of the dog just like the dog takes care of the handler. Training the dog to be a service dog takes 100% focus on the dog during training. It takes planning, dedication and someone who can stay motivated. And that is above the basic daily needs of all dogs (food, water, pottying, cleaning up, play, exercise, rest, grooming, veterinarian care etc).

Even when handlers train their own service dogs, the process is still costly. Beyond the initial purchase price are several sets of in-person classes, consults with behavior experts, trips for socialization and public access training, equipment, regular veterinarian fees etc. Here is a link to a service dog cost estimate chart for the first two years. http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/train-your-own-sd/200-estimated-costs-of-owning-a-service-dog

Education and advocacy about service dogs is an important role that most people have no idea is part of being paired with a service dog. Interacting with members of the public who just see a cute dog they want to pet have and no idea they are not supposed to interrupt a service dog at work, educating retailers who ask the dog be removed despite the dog behaving and doing its job, advocating for their rights with accommodation providers who see the dog as a pet. Learning to handle people who pry into your medical condition because you have a dog is key. And these days, running into fake service dogs who are untrained, often aggressive and interfering with a working dog is more and more common. Some days it seems like too much work and can be overwhelming! Of course, there are good days too.

9. LGW: Are you satisfied with the results in using a clicker to train an SD? What are the pros and cons of using a clicker for this type of training?

DH: I have a blog post on the pros! It is often life-changing for the client once they embrace the principles.http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/blog/373-what-we-learn-by-clicker-training-our-dogs  

10. LGW: Why is it important that people do NOT approach a Service Dog?

DH: Great question! A service dog who is working needs to be focussed on their handler. Even if the dog looks to be resting, they are still connected and ready to work. They are just on 'stand by'. If you are interacting with a service dog, the dog might miss giving an alert because he is distracted by you or he might miss a cue given by the handler to perform a task. In fact, in many jurisdictions, it is illegal to interfere with a service dog unless he is off duty and you are given permission to interact by the handler.

11. Member Question: How can people improve the success rate for training their own service dog to public access standards?

DH: There are 10 steps for that! LOL

Get professional advice before you start the process-before you get the dog.
Have a support team ready to go for both practical and emotional support.
Have a medical condition that doesn't significantly affect the dog or the training process.
Learn the service dog laws that apply to the state/province and country where you live.
Start with the best dog available.
Follow a structured program.
Be diligent about following it and recording success and failure.
Get professional help as soon as you need it.
Be realistic about how long it may take.
Be ready to use the dog only at home if s/he doesn't qualify for public access.

12. Member Question: What assessment tool do you use for puppies? and adult dogs?

DH: Good one! I have cobbled together one I use from several others. CARAT by Suzanne Clothier is the best overall. I understand it stands up to scientific research as far as predictability. But it can be hard to access as there are not many people who do it yet.

Member Question: Is everything covered in CARAT 01? Puppy Assessments? Or should I plan to attend 02 and beyond?

DH: Here's the link: http://suzanneclothier.com/content/carat

Member Comment: Thank you!


DH: Ideally, if you want to assess dogs for a living, the whole program would be something to consider. I haven't taken it myself and I don't know the details but if you are serious about learning this specific thing, it would be an ideal way to do it and learn from a great instructor.

13. Member Question: I am interested in learning how to become a Service Dog Trainer, what would you suggest for me and other trainers?  

First, you have to love working with people when they are not at their best. Learn about the specific disabilities you want to train for. Learn how to apply the principles of learning, learn dog language, learn how to teach people, so many parts! The Human Half or Dog Training" by Rise Van Fleet is also helpful. 

My online classes are a great way to start. Work with a dog to train the through the whole process to see if it's something you would like to do. Maintain high standards for the dogs you work with.

14. Member Question: Should all SD's be X-rayed for hip Dysplasia?

That really is up to the dog and vet you are working with. If the dog is from unknown background, then I would say Yes, ideally combined with other medical procedures like a spay or neuter to minimize time in the vet office, costs etc. There are so many factors in HD. Even the floor surface a pup is exposed to in the litter box, using stairs before 4 months etc. may affect how the hips develop so the more that is known helps.

15. LGW: Ok folks, time to wrap things up. Donna any final comments about the Service Dog Industry?

DH: Yes, if anyone is interested to see the test that dogs must pass in British Columbia before being certified for public access: Here is a link to the BC Assessment test. I like it better than the ADI public access test because it breaks the behaviors down further and so is easier to know if or not your dog is ready to pass it. It is also publically accessible which the ADI test is not any longer. http://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/human-rights/guide-animals/bc-guide-dog-service-dog-assessment.pdf

If you want to learn more about SD, check out my website which has tons of free information as well as online classes and private consults by webcam.http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca

LGW: Thank you so very much Donna, on chatting with us about such an interesting topic, and thank you to our members for asking the questions.

DH: You are welcome! Thanks for having me back! 
Thanks for coming everyone! Please feel free to refer anyone you know thinking of training their own SD or wanting to get into SD training to this post or to my website. http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca


 

Clicker Training Teaches us Many More Life Lessons!

Click here for Part 1

Improves our Eye/Hand Coordination:
 The mechanical skills used in clicker training can be learned. Our timing gets better with practice. So does our thought of where the reward is placed to set our dog up for success. We get better at using the equipment. We fine tune our motor and brain muscles for life's other activities.

Builds Creativity and Resourcefulness in Both Us and Our Dogs:  We can teach our dog to be creative when it comes to learning new behaviors and interacting with us in different ways. We learn to be creative in applying the principles of clicker training to training our service dogs and to life. Many people with disabilities think resources are in short supply when in fact we aren't using our creativity to use what's around us to the fullest. Being resourceful is empowering!

More Than One Way to Get There From Here: There are many ways to teach behaviors and skills to service dogs and all of them can be positive! Dogs often don't do what we think they will but we can take what they offer and work from there. Our training plans may take a zag where we thought it would go straight or zig. When we learn to adapt our teaching, we find we can also apply this adaptability to our life! As we have found out, life doesn't always go as planned.  In many cases, the zag can mean better things for us, if we go with it rather than stick to the original plan of getting there! Go with it! You can still get where you want to go, just find a different way!

How the Brain Works: In order to help our dog to learn to assist us in the world, we learn what happens when fear is triggered and how it inhibits learning. We learn what is needed to create environments that are suitable for our dog to learn quickly and easily so he can help us. If we suffer from anxiety, emotional disorders or high stress, we learn from our dogs what we can do about it to help us better function in the world.

The World Isn't Just About Us: When we really learn to apply the principles of clicker training, we learn that our dog has needs and wants just as we do. Our dog also sees things differently than we do. From there, we start considering other's perspectives. We don't have to agree or disagree, we just acknowledge that their view may differ from ours. That's okay! Their history and experience are different from ours. That gives them a different view, be they canine or human.

Process is More Important Than The Product!: Whether we are training our dog basic life skills, public access or specific service dog tasks, nothing is more important than the process. We spend about 99% of our time working towards goals. If we only enjoy the actual goal achievement, then we are missing out on the largest part of the goal: the process. To keep our dog and us moving forward, the process needs to be fun and enjoyable. If it's not, we stop doing it.  The process is how we build relationships and strengthen trust.

What lessons have you learned from taking up clicker training? Share on my Facebook Page!