So, You've Decided to Train Your Own Service Dog!
Good for you!
Some Background Information Before You Start:
In the professional programs, puppies start their training at 8 weeks with the puppy raiser families. They are given a structured approach to socializing and training that puppy, train daily and meet twice weekly with other puppy raisers or a puppy class if they are on their own. They have the support of the program trainers and their materials and facilities. At about 10 months to 18 months, depending on the dog and the program, the adolescent dogs are returned to the program facility and enter a rigorous daily training program that takes up between 3 to 5 hours each day. The dogs are trained 5 to 7 days a week and staff may live on site. That's a total of about 500 hours of advanced training beyond the basic skills in public. In the better programs, the dogs are trained by skilled professionals who do this for a living. In some programs, the dogs are trained by high school students, and training finished off by professionals. The program dogs have a very structured training plan that is adapted for each dog's needs for the entire duration. The dogs have a consistent feeding, potty, training, play and exercise time. Their care needs are also scheduled. They are regularly socialized with other dogs, but the focus is always on the humans. Canine playmates are carefully chosen. Dogs are always kept on a leash or long line and only allowed off leash in safe fenced areas. By 2 years of age, most programs graduate the dogs to work with their human partners. They get another 10 days to 2 weeks of learning to work together at the facility. Dogs and their human partners periodically check in with the program and infrequently come back to upgrade training.
Realistically, whether you work full-time, or your disability limits your energy, few people have the time or energy to devote this amount of time to their own dog on a daily basis. In addition, there may be gaps where medical conditions prevent you from training your dog for a period of time. This may be a set back, especially if it occurs when the dog is a pup during the 11 week sensitive period (5 to 16 weeks old) when it is crucial that the puppy be exposed to everything she will encounter as a working adult. Once this widow is closed, it cannot be opened.
In addition, you will be learning new training skills along with the dog and that will slow progress. So realistically, if you plan to train your dog to a level that is comparable to certified assistance dogs, your dog will not be ready to be a full-fledged partner until about 3 years of age. This actually is a benefit as many dog breeds are not fully physically or emotionally mature until that age. The big benefit you have as an owner-trained is that there is no official deadline and you can train additional tasks as you need them.
So What This Means For You is That:
- You need to create a detailed training plan for the duration of the training. Realize it will need alterations as the speed of training may not be what you estimate and challenges will appear.
- All training needs to be documented. That way you can keep track of progress and as well as be able to prove training if you are ever challenged by an official body. In BC, training records are an important part of application for certification.
- You need to be able to access materials, training tools, resources, and facilities for training. This may mean looking around your home for materials, asking friends and relatives for items to borrow, checking out garage sales and second hand stores, buying a few books or DVDs or renting a room for specialized training. You will be providing everything your dog needs to train. I have many objects and books you can borrow, but I need them back in a reasonable time so other students can use them too.
- You need to create a structured daily routine for your dog for feeding, potty, training, play and exercise time. If you are not a touchy feely person with your dog, schedule in time for that too as dogs need regular physical contact.
- Your job is also to keep your dog safe from harm. The dog should be on a leash at all times when not in a fenced area. A long line works great for open areas away from traffic. Carefully choose your service's dog's canine friends. You have invested much time, focus and money on this dog. Keep your investment safe!
- Training needs to occur daily for one to two hours a day, 5 days a week. (made up of short focused incremental training sessions as well as training in public and the transportation to get there.) Some days will be longer than others.
- When training your dog, the dog gets 100% of your focus until fully trained. This means no walking and talking with friends with the dog on the end of the leash. If you are training, you are training. Walking with people and you being distracted gets integrated into the training later on. Put your dog away if not training.
- You need to be willing and able to take your dog to different locations right from early on in training (group training classes, public places etc)
- You need to be willing and able to hire an assistant is you cannot train the dog yourself either at home or away from home. The same applies to exercising your dog.
- The dog determines what is reinforcing to him or her, not the trainer. This will vary depending on the distraction level and skill level of specific behaviors in the moment. This may mean you will have to go out of your comfort level for providing reinforcers. For example, cooking up meat or buying high value premade treats. Or using food, toys or massage in addition to praise (VERY few dogs actually work for praise alone. Many of those who do have been taught to do so.)
- The dog determines what is aversive or punishing. Even if you think a situation is not aversive or punishing, the dog may see it differently. Be prepared to modify your expectations for the interim until you can condition the dog to think otherwise.
- The dog determines the rate of training for basic skills, advanced skills and tasks. If the dog's success rate is too low, he (and you) will get frustrated. That means progress will be slow. Most often the issue is not the dog, but that you are asking for too many of the pieces of skills than the dog is able to give you at that time. Break the skills into smaller steps actually speeds progress. (splitting behaviors vs lumping behaviors.)
- When you can't give your dog 100% of your focus away from home, put the dog in a settle and tether her, crate, or otherwise confine her or put her in your car (assuming it is safe to do so). This is not considered training time (unless you are working on duration in which case you are actually focusing on your dog).
Once the dog is trained, your focus will be 50/50 for a partnership. She will give you hers and you will give her at least some of yours. You will never be able to ignore your dog in public, just like you cannot ignore a child. You will always be looking out for her well-being just as she will be looking out for yours. Having and training a service dog may will affect your lifestyle. In the short term, an SD will add more challenges to your life. In the long term, an SD should improve your life.
If you feel you can do all of the above,
The next step is to figure out if you can afford to train and keep a service dog.
Here is a link to a cost estimate form you can fill out based on your local costs.
Then research your local laws about service dogs.
What do you need to have to get public access for training and working? Each country, state and province has different laws.
If you feel you can meet all these, then start setting up your support system, and look for a dog with suitable health and temperament.