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 - 2 years 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 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 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.