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.
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 public places.
1. Start with acclimation to the new environment, using distance from distractions as needed.
2. Wait for your dog to offer you default 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
- your 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 perform 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 until 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 Columbia take.
Start with one challenge and plan a set of 10 sessions to train for it.
Start with short training visits and give your 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. The key reason for the public 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!
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 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.
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!
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.
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