Choosing a Breed or breed mix for a Service Dog
How do I choose a large breed dog for my needs? I was considering German Shepherd Dogs but have been advised against them for many reasons. I need a dog that is sensitive to me as I have anxiety.
The key thing about any breed of dog is to choose one that matches your lifestyle. If a dog doesn't fit into your life, it won't work overall.
Another thing to look at is what specific tasks are you hoping the dog will do for you. Obviously, the dog will need to be able to physically do the tasks and you want to choose one that can be sensitive enough to be connected.
Any of the gun dog breeds generally could do well as they are sensitive and love to work with their person. A Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Short-Hair Pointer, Hungarian Vizsla or Brittany might be a few breeds to look at. A Standard Poodle might be another dog that is sensitive but level-headed.
One thing to be aware of is that in many breeds, there is a difference between the hunting lines and the conformation lines. Look at the specific lines they come from and what they have been bred to do and what titles they have. Hunting lines alone tend to need more exercise than those from conformation lines. A great example of this is the Golden Retreiver. There are field lines can be very high energy dogs who need much daily exercise, and then there are conformation Goldens like the dog off "Homeward Bound, The Incredible Journey" with Michael J Fox who are more laid back for both exercise and temperament. I've had two of the latter and they were wonderful family pets and made great therapy dogs as they loved people and were sensitive to their moods.
Another thing to consider is to look at how the general public views the breed. This dog will be at your side in public and will affect how the public, managers, and co-workers interact with you. A friend of mine noticed that people were much more friendly, helpful and tolerant of her needs when she retired her Belgian Malinois and got a yellow labrador. She felt they were uncomfortable with the Malinois as it was a protection breed. He was actually a very people social dog but people's perspectives do affect their interactions. If you get an unusual breed, you will be stopped frequently to be asked "What kind of dog is that?" which you may or may not be comfortable or have time to do.
Go meet the actual breeds!
Go to dog shows and meet breeders of your chosen breeds. Talk to them, interact with the adult dogs.
Find out if they possess the characteristics you need in a service dog and if you could live with the general nature, grooming needs, exercise etc of the breed. What are the pros, cones and health issues of the breed for your specific needs?
Find average people who live with the breed and talk to them. Arrange to see the dogs at home and away from home. Check out dogs at dog parks and talk to the people who accompany them. Observe how attuned to their person they are. Find out what the person likes and dislikes about the breed and their specific dog. Even within breed lines, each individual dog can vary quite a bit in his or her attentiveness, sensitivity, awareness etc. so choosing a breed doesn't ensure that you will get the dog you are hoping for. It comes down the individual choice of the pup. Check out a previous post on temperament tests of young adult dogs and puppies.
Allow yourself at least 6 months to find a pup or adult dog. Allow longer if you live in an area with lower numbers of breeds or dogs in general.
A BIG TIP:
If at all possible, go to see the adult dogs you will be getting a puppy from. Breeders interpretations of what you are looking for and what you actually get may be very different things.Their definition of 'sensitive' or 'low exercise needs' may not be the same as yours. If you see the adult dogs in real life, you can judge for yourself if you can live with the characteristics their lines have in them. Just because a breeder has had a few dogs trained and used as service dogs does not mean they actually understand your specific needs (especially since there is such a wide variety of types of service dogs) or can select a pup for you without ever meeting you. Since you are going to be investing so much time, money and energy in this pup, it is wise to arrange a visit with the parents, even if it costs you money on travel and an overnight stay or even a flight. Basically, this may limit you to pups that are within a days drive but at the very least, start there. Shipping a pup during the fear period can set her way back in confidence and socialization. Ideally, if you can go get her and bring her home, you can start the bond on the journey home.
Answers to Video Observations
You may see more than this!
1. Grinning Dog
Front legs shifted
Fold left leg under
Looks at ground (or shoes?)
Looks at owner (with eye contact)
Blows his cheeks out
Dips his head
Briefly stands still
(In case you are interested, many of these are calming behaviors meant to calm both the dog himself and the owner. The behavior context is that the owner just came home from being away at work. The dog could also be offering the behaviors in response to seeing the video camera.)
2. Dog Doing Nothing
Dog runs to edge of bed
Looks to left
Looks to right
Raises left paw
Looks to left
Folds ears back
Eyes look to right
Looks to left
Ears perk up
Opens and closes mouth a few times
Stops panting (as camera approaches)
Looks directly into camera
That’s a lot for doing nothing! 30 (or more) behaviors!
3. Papillion close up
Moves head to left
Rotates eyes to left
Moves chin down
Looks back at camera
Moves head back towards camera
Opens eyes wider
Looks to left
Moves chin down to left
Looks back at camera (as camera pans away)
Lifts head slightly
Turns head to right away from camera
Rotates ears away from camera
Looks back at camera
Looks down as turns head past and away from camera to left (avoids eye contact)
Looks up past camera
Looks down and up
So, what did you learn from watching the dogs behaviors in these videos?
Hopefully, that dogs offer many clickable behaviors all day long. We trainers just have to improve our observation skills and our clicker timing to be able to capture them to use them to shape behaviors we desire!
Hone Your Observations Skills!
Practice Without Your Dog
Take a break during a walk to sit where you can see people and their dogs walking by. Choose a behavior and watch for clickable behaviors in the stranger’s dogs. A clickable behavior is any behavior that the dog does is part of or shaping towards a specific desired. For example, greeting a person politely. Watch that dog closely and use your pointer finger as a pretend clicker and tap it on your leg when you observe any behavior that is part of greeting a person politely. They might include sniffing an offered hand, dropping head when approaching, sitting when approaching, looking away, looking back at their handler, standing calmly after approach etc.
Any behavior is fair game, including mouth movements, more subtle body movements, etc. When you have tried this on three or four dogs, count how many clickable behaviors another dog does. You might be amazed!
To continue your practice, start looking for more subtle behaviors. Watch what a dog does with his eyes and ears. If you watch your own dog closely you can start picking out blinking, relaxed eyes, wide eyes, pupils dilating during play, subtle breathing patterns, muscles relaxing or tightening and much more. For some training situations, you may need to click these as a tiny step in the start of shaping the direction of the new behavior.
You can also watch videos or DVD's of dogs to see how many behaviors they actually do offer that could be clicked! As you learn the bigger behaviors, such as scratching, yawning etc, you can start looking for smaller behaviors. The more subtle behaviors may be hard to see in videos so that’s why watching real dogs up close is best.
Watch these short video clips and make a list of how many different behaviors you can observe. Turn off the audio so it doesn’t distract you. For a list of behaviors that can be observed, see the next blog post.
1. Grinning Dog
2. Dog ‘Doing Nothing’ (according to the owner)
3. Papillion close up
4. Daxie head pictures look for more subtle behaviors
Dogs Do Behaviors All the Time.
Some behaviors are for movement, some are for communication with other dogs and humans, some express emotions, some are just dog behaviors! Most behaviors are clickable in the training context. As your powers of observation improve, you’ll be able to capture not only head turns, chin dips, and tightening muscles, but even eye movements!
(Aside: If you are interested in learning what many of these behaviors mean, you can read books such as “On Talking Terms with Dogs” by Turid Rugaas which explain the meaning and context of social interaction behaviors and help you understand dogs better.)
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.servicedogtraininginstitute.ca 2015
Here's a video that shows a well-run small class of 3 pups.
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:
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.
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.
- 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)
- 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
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.
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.
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!
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 35 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.
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!
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.