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Dogs certainly are human’s best friend. They serve as companions, fellow laborers, and even as protectors. For those with disabilities, a dog can give them a measure of independence that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Demand for a fully trained?service dog is high, and the waiting lists are often long. Because of this, an owner-trained service dog has become an increasingly popular choice for many with disabilities.
What Is a Service Dog?
The dog and in some situations, miniature horse are the only animals which are legally recognized by the American with Disabilities Act?(ADA) as a service animal.
“A service animal is a dog? or miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.? – ADA
The purpose of a service dog is to perform specific actions that assist people with disabilities. They are not therapy dogs. The American Kennel Club (AKC) explains the difference between the two.
“Service dogs are one dog for one person and perform specific tasks to help that person cope with a disability. Therapy dogs are one dog for everyone?they bring cheer and comfort to hospital patients, assisted living center and nursing home residents, homeless families, and students.” – AKC
Owner-Trained Service Dogs
Purchasing a fully trained service dog can cost quite a bit of money, so many people ask if they can train their service dog themselves.
The answer is YES!
Which Breed is Best for Service Dog Work?
Typically, retrievers make some of the best service dogs. However, any breed has the potential for service work. Consider the work your dog will perform. You would not pick a chihuahua to pull a wheelchair. Also, temperament plays a large part in determining which dogs are suitable. The retriever breeds have a long lineage of being bred to work closely with humans.
Regardless of their breed, all service dogs must possess a particular set of characteristics.
- Not easily excited or frightened
- Aware of their surroundings, but not reactive
- Showing no aggression or fear to people, other animals or common objects
- Show a desire to work for their handler
- Like to stay close to their handler
- Healthy, including joints
- Eager to learn
You should consider looking for candidates at your local shelter. Mixed breed dogs can often serve just as well as pure-bred animals. When choosing a candidate from a shelter, ask for a two week trial period to assess the dog at home. If possible, have a trainer familiar with service dog training evaluate your prospect.
Once you have found a candidate for service dog work, you need to review the skills required to pass the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners Public Access Test. This list of skills will set the training path your?dog must follow to behave appropriately in public.
Though it is possible for an owner to train their service dog alone, most will benefit greatly from the help of a professional dog trainer. Make sure you find one with experience in training service dogs and one who has a program already in place for assisting you in training your service dog.
The first step in training your service dog is to complete a series of foundation skills. Mastering these tasks also helps you further evaluate your dog’s suitability for service work.
- Potty?on command
- Focus on handler and ignore distractions
- All?AKC Canine Good Citizen?objectives
A professional service dog trainer can guide you through these foundation skills and in the task-specific skills your dog will need to perform.
Public Access Skills
All dogs are expected to behave in public. For service dogs, this expectation goes beyond normal ‘good dog’ behavior. The “manners” are extremely important.
- No aggressive behavior toward people or other animals.
- The should not solicit food or petting from other people while on duty.
- No sniffing merchandise or people or intruding into another dog?s space while on duty.
- Socialize to tolerate strange sights, sounds, odors etc. in a wide variety of public settings.
- Ignores food on the floor or dropped in the dog?s vicinity while working outside the home.
- Works calmly on leash. No unruly behavior or unnecessary vocalizations in public settings.
- No urinating or defecating in public unless given a specific command or signal to toilet in an appropriate place.
All of the training you have done up to this point is considered foundational. The real purpose of any service dog is to?help their owner with their disability. The training required for specific tasks depends on the needs of their handler.
If you are working with a professional service dog trainer, they can guide you in the next steps. Often, this means meeting in person or online and learning the best way to train your dog. You then do the training at home.
If you want more information regarding owner-trained service dogs, contact Mike Robertson at College for Pets. College for Pets offers counseling and training classes specifically for handlers wanting to train their own service dog.