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Donna Hill's

Service Dog Training Institute


Dog Training Past, Present and Future

dog training of past present future

There are many ways to train a dog to be a service dog or just a well-adjusted canine family member. In order to know what the options are, we have to do some research on what has been done in the past, what we are currently doing and what the future might hold. In light that we are starting the New Year, I thought I’d do a quick review of dog training past, present and future. 

These groupings are broad generalizations and are only intended to give you a starting point for research of training your own dog. The popularity and methodology of each overlaps and some trainers continue to use historical methods today.

The Past

While concept of formal dog training started around 1914 in Germany by Konrad Most, and was among the first to train assistance dogs for the blind at the German Dog Farm, dog training as a profession really started to be a “thing” to do before the Second World War when the American Kennel Club started their obedience trials. After the Second World War, a number of soldiers returned home from the war with dog training skills. Training was based on techniques that fit well with the military.  It was a hierarchical approach where the dog must do what they were told and punishment was applied if the dog did not comply. Some of the techniques were very harsh and they were recommended to only be used with dogs older than 6 months so the dog’s spirit would not be broken. The earliest service dog organizations used this approach. The general population was introduced to dog training as a hobby on a broader scale in training classes starting in the late 1930’s or so.

Some names associated with this type of training were William Koehler, Monks of New Skete, Barbara Woodhouse. Recently, Cesar Millan became popular for reviving it’s widespread use.

Positive reinforcement approaches began in the 1930’s with BF Skinner’s theory of Behaviorism. Marian Breyland Bailey produced reliable data that animals could be trained using positive approaches and with her husband Keller Breyland (both students of Skinner) started a company Animal Behavior Enterprises that trained many species of animals for television (1955). The approach did not become widespread in use until Karen Pryor popularized Clicker Training in the early 1990’s. The Lure Reward method was made popular by Ian Dunbar who started the first puppy classes in the 1980’s to start training before 6 months of age. Positive reinforcement minimized the use of punishment and taught dogs to think about how their behavior affected the environment. It was also called “Operant Conditioning” Or “Respondent Learning” for this reason.

The Present

More and more service dog training organizations are using positive reinforcement to train dogs with a higher success rate than they had with the hierarchical approach. Michele Pouliot of Guide Dogs for the Blind is one example. The use of marker-based training (using a clicker, word Yes! or tongue cluck) make it possible for people with poor strength and coordination to train their own service dogs (owner-trained service dogs), even complex tasks. Capturing and Shaping behavior in small increments was an effective part of this approach. Jean Donaldson author of Culture Clash and Paul Owens author of The Dog Whisperer are other names to note. Currently, much research is being done on how dogs learn than in any other time in history. Exciting new approaches are being investigated as science uncovers just how intelligent dogs are, in what ways and what is the most effective way to train them (in general and for service dog work). Dogs watch our eyes, follow a finger point, learn with social mimicry, have theory of mind, problem solve and so much more! Claudia Fugazza has refined a process to teach dogs how to maximize mimicry for learning new behaviors called Do as I Do. The dog watches their trainer do a behavior and copies it. Jennifer Arnold has been applying some of the learning to the training of service dogs at Canine Assistants. One thing we are also learning is that a puppy’s early experiences both with the litter and after 8 weeks in their new homes sets an important foundation for the ability to handle stressors, socialization and learning so it pays to find a good breeder. Jane Killian’s Puppy Culture breeder list is a great place to start. We also need to spend time enriching our puppy’s environment and socializing him before 12 weeks of life.

The Future

A dog named Rico and another named Chaser have taught us that dogs can learn the proper names of as many as 1000 objects, learn by inference, do several behaviors with multiple objects, learn categories, and much more!  John Pilley wrote the book Chaserto share his findings. An early researcher in this area, Irene Pepperberg, opened the doorway with her parrot Alex using the model-rival method.

Other key names of canine researchers are Brian Hare of Dognition and Adam Miklosi of Family Dog Project.


I invite you to research these names to find out more about how much dogs (in general) are capable of. Of course, like humans, dogs vary in their genetics and past experiences so what each dog is capable of varies. That is why it is so important to select the right dog as your potential service dog.

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