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Donna Hill's

Service Dog Training Institute


Characteristics of a Successful Owner Trainer of a Service Dog

service dog handler sit in chair with her dog settled at her feet

While Owner-trainers are not professional dog trainers, they do need to have many of the characteristics of a professional service dog trainer to succeed with their dog.

Below is a list of basic ones needed to train a service dog. Do you have enough of these to be able to succeed? If not, are you willing and able to develop the skills or find human helpers who can help you with them while you train your service dog? 
It takes a community to train an owner-trained service dog to the point of public access and also to maintain one! 

  • Stable medical and mental condition
    To be able to focus on training your dog, your medical condition needs to be stable, predictable and manageable. Taking on the responsibility of caring for and training another living being adds physical and emotional stress to your situation. 
  • Flexible in your date to complete service dog training.
    If you have a disease that periodically debilitates you, will need to allow yourself to time to recover. That means your dog gets a break. This means your goals will be set back. If you have a hard and fast deadline, training an SD may not be for you. Each team progresses as they are able due to their training skills and health issues. Some handlers will want to repeat classes to ensure a solid foundation for future skills. Allow at least one year above and beyond the time a professional training a service dog if you have low to moderate training skills. Realistically, most owner-trained dogs are not ready to work in public until they are 3 years old, assuming training started as a pup. 
  • Ability to select a service dog that has a solid socialization history and temperament, rather than an emotional choice. 
    Training a service dog candidate is hard enough without adding rehabilitation to the list of things to train. A recent informal FB survey suggests that less than 25% of owner-trained service dogs are successful. Many of those are training their second service dog. 
  • Ability to follow directions and problem solve as you follow them.
    There is no one path to train a dog. Each dog is individual just as you are. Each dog will have his challenges to overcome and will learn some things faster than others.
  • Good eye hand coordination and ability to focus.
  • Good record keeping habits.
    Documentation of training both general, public access and task specific is required for service dogs. Find or create a log that will be easy for you to fill out after each training session.
  • Strong work ethic, are motivated and have patience.
    Training a service dog doesn’t happen overnight. There can be setbacks and major hurdles to cross with the dog. 
  • Ability to work your own dog with little supervision.
    Because of the nature of the internet, videotaping etc., you will not have a supervisor peering over your shoulder or pushing you. You will need to schedule regular training sessions with your dog and evaluate your own videos and be willing to ask questions. You will need to set goals and follow them. Ability to focus on the short, medium and long-term goals is key. You will need to find ways to get you and your dog to public places to practice for public access. 
  • Have a genuine love for and respect of animals.
    Your dog is a live being and will have down days and well as days when he exhibits brilliance. This love will help you empathize when you need to take a look at life from his or her perspective. Empathy and understanding go far to building a strong relationship.
  • Have had daily access to animals both as a child and an adult.
    This helps by giving you some background to draw from to create realistic expectations of what life is like living with a dog. If you’ve never had a dog before, living with one will create challenges that you’ve likely never considered. Like kids, they poop, pee and throw up. They get hurt and need regular feeding, exercise and training. They need regular socialization with other people and dogs and draw people to you (even when you are not feeling well). They are not robots you can put in a closet when not in use. A service dog is a more intense experience than a pet as they expose you to many more issues. 
  • Have been involved in puppy raising in the past.
    This will give you a more realistic expectation of what it is like to live with a puppy, the stages of development and what they can learn at what age. A 6 month old dog is still very much a puppy. Even an 18 month old dog is still an adolescent. Most dogs are not fully physically or mentally mature until at least 24 months. Some larger breeds not until 3 years of age. So some professionally trained dogs are functioning as a service dog and they are not yet fully emotionally or physically mature. 
  • Lifelong Learner.
    Training a service dog involves learning many things you never thought you would need to know or do. You need to have curiosity, a need to seek out information as you need it. There is always more to know. Being resistant to new information will impede your progress. 
  • Resourceful.
    Can you source objects needed for training? Can you rustle up a human helper at times? Can you find out who you need to talk to solve a problem? Can you figure outwhere to get training equipment, props and harnesses? or where you can go to train that has specific elements like elevators, turnstiles, grocery carts etc.
  • Have a large support system.
    People who will step in to help when you are not able. People who have the expertise to advise you. People who you can trust to follow your training philosophy while the dog is in their care so they don’t undermine your training.
  • Source of income or a fund of money raised ahead of time.
    Raising a puppy to a service dog and maintaining one to retirement is not a cheap endeavor. 

Fill out this form to get an idea of how much a service dog may cost to maintain per year. Also include overall training costs. You can train your own dog, but most people will also need to attend group classes so your dog learns to work in the presence of other dogs. Plan on at least 4 sets of 6 week local classes. 
  • A community of people to support you in the process.
    It takes a community to raises a service dog. You cannot do it alone! 
  • Can you be assertive?
    “Assertiveness is standing up for your right to be treated fairly. It is expressing your opinions, needs, and feelings, without ignoring or hurting the opinions, needs, and feelings of others.” Do you mind asking for permission to access public areas for your service dog while he is in training? Even after training is complete, bringing a service dog into public places where dogs are not normally allowed may increase the number of conflictual interactions. Can you explain your rights without blowing up? Can you politely tell the public your dog is working. Educating others about public access laws is a constant job. 

  • Ability to maintain credibility in the service dog world and in public.
    Appearances are important. The gear you use on your dog tells much about your relationship and degree of training. Grooming is important. Is your dog clean and odor free when in public? Making sure your knowledge of dogs, their health and laws is current is key. Using language that is appropriate for the audience and demonstrating knowledge of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA-US only), Human Rights Laws and state/provincial laws goes a long way to build credibility. Carrying a business card with weblinks and phone numbers can be useful.
  • Ability to be unbiased about issues such as when your service dog in training dog be spayed or neutered. Spaying/neutering too young can negatively affect their health, growth and over all behavior. Spaying/neutering too late can increase chances of health issues such as some cancers. Some regulatory bodies (Like in BC, Canada) require that the dog be spayed or neutered before being certified.
  • No previous history of violence towards animals or people.
    If you have this, you at putting your potential service dog at risk both from you and by being removed from your service. This also risks charges by the SPCA and other animal protection services. 
  • Ability to meet the social, emotional, mental and physical needs of a dog.
    Whether you do this yourself or have a family member or hire another person to do this, your dog’s daily needs must be met.
  • Are willing and able to use food to train your dog (kibble, commercial treats, real meat etc.).
    Meals will be given twice a day minus the amount needed for training to keep your dog at a good weight. Toys, games, personal interaction and natural reinforcers are also used in later stages of training.
  • Have realistic expectations of the lifestyle with a service dog, and the potential for failure even after they are trained.
    Many owner-trained dogs are removed from training due to fear, aggression, overly-friendly/excitability, health issues that develop or inability to cope with the ongoing stress of being a service dog. Consider what would you do with a failed dog or a retired dog? Rehome him? Keep him and train another? Look at your disabilities, income, housing etc. and consider how those would affect your decision.
  • Have a disability that will not negatively impact the raising and training of your dog. People with certain types and levels of anxieties may not be good candidates for raising their own service dogs. You create the environment your pup lives in. Dogs model what they see in their environment. If you are anxious, the pup may become anxious and it is difficult to train the dog to respond to anxiety attacks has been normalized for them. Sadly, many people fail due to this fact alone. 
  • Meet ethical considerations for maintaining and training a dog
  • Are able to work with your dog 1-2 hours per day 5 days a week for minimum 6 monthss (120 to 540 hours) (most people need 18 to 24 months) and beyond as well.
  • Ability to get out of your home to socialize and train your dog on a regular basis in many different locations or have someone else do it for you. Starting with a well-socialized adult dog helps but you still need to take her places to generalize the public behavior and tasks.
  • Have access to transport your dog to public places (vehicle, public transit etc.).
  • Ability to use a camera and watch the video footage to reflect on your training skills
  • Ability to self-evaluate your training skills

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