If you want a service dog because you have a physical or mental disability but you don’t want to be on a waiting list for years, or you can’t afford such a trained dog, it may be possible for you to train a dog yourself. Certified service dogs can go with their handler in every public place where dogs usually are not allowed, like in shops, libraries, museums, theatres and cinemas. A service dog can be of any breed and size, from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane. The most popular service dog breeds are Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever and German Shepherd. The important part is that your dog has the right personality. It has to be willing to work, calm and unafraid.
You should get help from a professional service dog trainer unless you are an experienced dog trainer. If you know how to teach a dog any behavioural methods without help from a tutorial, then generally you should have no problems teaching the service dog on your own.
Find out if your dog has the potential to become a service dog. A large percentage of all puppies are capable of becoming a service dog but ask yourself these questions:
- Is your dog comfortable in every thinkable situation?
- Can your dog cope with all kinds of people and dogs, at best even all kinds of animals?
- Is your dog non-aggressive and non-protective?
Neuter or spay your dog. Do this between four and six months of age. All service dogs are neutered because neutered dogs are less likely to drift to find females in heat, they are also less likely to mark territory and they are less likely to develop more territorial tendencies. Neutered dogs are less aggressive, which is an important factor for a service dog.
- Depending on the weight of your dog, a neutering costs between USD$200 and USD$300 at most vets.
Train basic obedience. A service dog has to be able to sit, stay, lie down and come on cue 90 percent of the time the handler asks him to do so. You can use either verbal cues or hand signals as commands. The dog also needs to walk next to the handler in a controlled manner all the time.
- The best way to teach your dog specific behavioral traits is clicker training.
- If you have no clue how to teach your dog sit, stay, lie down, come and heel, you should not train your own service dog.
Teach the dog to be as well-behaved unleashed as leashed. The dog should do the basic obedience tricks when no leash is on.
Teach your dog not to greet other people. The service dog has to be focused on you, and not on anyone else. This step is vitally important because you may need instant help, and if the dog is running around to other people to greet them, the dog can miss your need for immediate help.
Train a little agility with the dog. It improves courage and stability, and is a good way to see how well your dog listens to commands.
Socialize your dog a lot. Socializing doesn’t just mean going to new places – it also includes meeting plenty of new people and animals.
- If you can’t talk to people for any particular reason, have a vest on the dog that says: “Please pet me”, or “Let me meet your dog”, and also “I’m training to become a service dog” if you want to add that.
- Since you have taught the dog not to greet other people, say “greet” or whatever word you have taught the dog and ensure that the greet word means that the dog is allowed to greet another person.
Teach your dog to take no note of cats, food on the ground, a stranger talking to the dog or vehicles (especially moving vehicles). The one and only thing that the dog is supposed to care about is you.
Teach the dog at least three tasks that you need help with because of your disability. For example, you may need your dog to pick up your keys if you drop them, to calm you down when you’re having a meltdown, or to help you know that there is or is not an intruder in your home.
- Things that a dog can do without being trained, like playing with you to make you happy, are not considered a valid service dog task.
- Search online for the words “service dog” and the names of the disability you would like help training and you will find many suggestions of specific behaviors you can train that may help. It’s a good idea to search even if you already know what you need, because groups dedicated to training service dogs have identified many possible tasks that you may not have heard about.
Certify your service dog. You don’t have to certify the dog if you live in the United States. But most countries require service dog certification (especially in order to allow your dog entry to places most dogs cannot go). Here is a suggested way to go about getting your dog certified:
- See your doctor and have your doctor write a letter that says that you need a service dog.
- Then see a vet to let them test your dog to see if it is ready to be a certified service dog. Let the vet write a letter too.
- Read the instructions of the certifying body and meet any of their additional requirements.
- Send the letters and other required information to the relevant organisation that has the authority to register a service dog.