THINGS TO KNOW

BEFORE YOU START

Golden Retriever

So, you have a dog. And you have anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and/or another form psychological disability seriously impeding your life. You probably want your dog to be trained as quickly as possible. Not so fast.

Your Dog's Age

ServiceDogCentral.org recommends that a dog be at least 12 months old before it's required to perform service in public--and then, only in short spurts. 

 

Work Slowly
 

My trainer had me start by working with my dog 10-15 minutes a day. We moved gradually to 20 minutes. After a month or so, Jesse was ready for a half-hour out in public, and that was exhausting for her at first, my trainer explained (I had no idea). Over the following year I increased time in public gradually on my own until Jesse could last all day with me. Even now, I try to buffer my dog's burnout time by taking her in my office, closing the door, taking off her vest, and letting her play with her toys now and then. I also bring treats for periodic reward. (My trainer might not approve, but if I can have Starbucks breaks, my dog gets breaks, too!)

Service Training is Hard Work for Your Dog


While my military-style trainer did not flinch from pushing my dog, he had to remind me that my dog was working extremely hard, because I usually didn't realize it--and I wanted fast results. The trainer would sometimes stop sessions early, pointing out that we had already worked past Jesse's attention span. One clue that this is happening: a dog that has been responsive for a period of time just stopped responding. Her little brain was fried. Time to stop.

 

Service Dog Burnout

Even service dogs who know their jobs well burn out in an average of 4-6 years if they are working every day, so make training gradual and rewarding for your dog and provide some relaxation time if possible. Some handlers require constant watch, even when they're relaxing, so remember your dog is still working. Provide lots of affection and start training a new dog early if possible.


Get Started

Let's say you have already learned what a service dog is, decided on what tasks you want your dog to perform to assist you, and chosen a training option. Here's an overview of what you can typically expect in training. 

 

  1. Early Preparation
    Before obedience training comes the basics of early preparation for your dog, including good exercise, socialization, potty training, and more.
     

  2. Thorough Obedience Training
    Most people teach their dogs just enough obedience basics to get by, because their dogs won't be in public all day long. But your service dog will be. So, obedience training could be the most important and foundational part of training your dog to assist you with a disability.
     

  3. Public Behavior and Etiquette
    Many handlers have set high standards for public behavior and etiquette because they know the public sees them as ambassadors for all service animals and people with disabilities (heavy burden).
     

  4. Service Dog Training
    Next, your dog needs to be trained to perform the task(s) that mitigate your disability. The moment your dog is able to perform the first task, it is technically a "service dog," but you will still need to spend time training it for controlled behavior and etiquette in public, as well as any additional tasks needed.