We are often asked what things a service dog needs to focus on, in what order to teach them and how much time to spend on each. Here is a graphic I created to help you understand the answer to that question.
At the bottom is the service puppy stage up to about 16 weeks for most pups (less for the perk-eared breeds like German Shepherds and nordic breeds as their socialization window is shorter (closes around 12 weeks). The main focus in this period needs to needs to be on socialization and environmental enrichment. This prepares the puppy for all the things and beings he will encounter as an adult. Behaviors for every day living like house training, bite inhibition, crate training, social isolation and the beginnings of impulse control (like asking for things the pup wants by sitting) and following the handler are taught. There is plenty of time later for learning other more complex behaviors.
Next are the foundation skills. Learning how to learn is the key during this period. This can start around 12 weeks if humane methods are used. Behaviors like nose target, paw target, wait, leave it, and eye contact form the basis of other behaviors later on (including service tasks). It also includes teaching concepts such as moving with the handler, being able to work at a distance from the handler, adding cues to behaviors and learning how to generalize behaviors to other locations. Most owner-trainers will be learning these as the pup or dog is. This process helps to form a bond.
Two absolutely essential behaviors for a service dog are loose leash walking and settle/relax. Much time is spent helping the dog learn how to chain together small pieces, add duration (time) when doing both behaviors, navigate obstacles and ignore distractions (this biggest challenge of both of these behaviors). Focussing on these when the dog is younger helps start the dog off on the right foot.
Body awareness is essential as well. A service dog needs to know where he is in space, that it matters where his paws are placed and how much physical pressure and social space he needs to apply in specific situations. Specific behaviors can be used to teach a dog this awareness.
Once the dog has a good understanding of the previous levels, time needs to be dedicated to teaching him to further ignore distractions, especially those away from home. This is not considered public access, but is preparation for it.
Next comes teaching the dog service tasks. These rely on previously taught foundation skills and the creativity of the handler or trainer. These are behaviors that specifically mitigate the medical needs of the handler. In relation to other behaviors, these are typically easy to teach and quick for the dog to learn. Since the dog already knows how to generalize and has been working on distraction training, this is when they are introduced. Also, we wait until later to add them since we need to let our dogs be puppies and mature before adding the responsibility of tasking, whether it be at home or away. Most dogs are no where near ready to task reliably until after 18 months or older. While they can learn the foundation behaviors, we don’t ask or expect them to do tasks until then. Early burn out is a common side effect for dogs that do tasks young. Let them be a puppy and an adolescent!
Public access is a stage where the dog is learning how to function as part of a team and looking out for the needs of the hander. General behaviors should be trained to a high level as should the needed tasks before starting public access training is started. Here is a blog post on how to know when your dog is ready for that.
The last level is maintenance of the learned behaviors and social exposure and distractions. These need to be scheduled in to keep the dog’s skills and ability to focus on the handler sharp. Maintenance is an ongoing process of keeping your dog up to date with practice of seldom used tasks and visiting places of high distraction for your dog. This is also when additional tasks are added as your health needs change.
All of these levels together will take a pup about 2-3 years to be ready for actual work in public. Less time will be needed if the dog is starting as an adult and has learned how to learn and has some basic behaviors and concepts in place already.
If or not certification for training for public access level is needed depends on the state and province you are located in. Check your Justice Department to find out.
On the far right of the diagram, are Four Stages of Being.
First the dog needs to learn to be a dog. This starts in puppyhood. Some people believe that a service dog should be a robot. That is not true and doesn’t make a good service dog. He is a sentient being with emotions and needs. There has to be freedom of choice. Choice builds confidence both in daily functioning and the handler. The dog must have his needs met for the species just like we do as a human.
Next, he needs to learn how to function as part of a mixed-species family. This is what helps him become a good family member.
Then with careful exposure, he becomes a good community member.
Finally, he needs to learn and fine tune the behaviors, tasks and relationships and be able to do them in public places. That makes him a capable service dog!
To learn how to teach your dog these levels of training, check out our classes or book a web chat session with an instructor.