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Donna Hill's

Service Dog Training Institute


Apprehensive About Starting Your Service Puppy Candidate Off Right?

Service puppy relaxing during training session.

Being prepared will make it easier and help you avoid a nightmare situation if you are not! 

Puppies are simply babies. Don’t be afraid to “spoil” your puppy. You can gradually change how much care and direction a puppy needs in a process called “shaping”. This is where you plan graduated steps of changing or removing the support your puppy is getting as long as he is successful at the current step. 

Puppies are a lot of work! The first few days this means a responsible person’s eyes are on the pup at all times while the pup is active in your home and is confined in a pen, or crate nearby someone when you can’t keep your eyes on the pup.”

Here are some key considerations to help you succeed:

1).  Before you get your pup, make sure this is a process you have the time, suitable physical space, finances, and mental, emotional and physical energy to do. Some people find it overwhelming and give up in the first few weeks. While there is no shame in returning the dog to the breeder, it’s better for you, the pup and the breeder to make sure this is a process you can actually do before you start it, rather than think you can, but actually can’t. 

Do you have doubts about the process?  Click here for other blog posts that discuss this.

2). If you have doubts about a specific pup, dog or breeder, just say no. Follow your gut. There will be other dogs available when you are ready! 

3). Build a support team. Designate which family member or friend will do what and when. If you have a night owl, that person will take the nightshift. A morning person can do the mornings and a day person can take the afternoon. You may need to recruit friends, neighbors and others at first. You’ll have to push yourself out of your comfort zone! Make a plan of what general structure your pup will be given for behavior, time schedule etc and share it with each person. It is important that everyone is consistent. In case you are wondering, yes, everyone in your home can help! And they can also interact with your puppy. Your first step is to raise a functional dog that can live in as part of the family and function in the community. You cannot do that alone!

4). Before your pup comes home, make sure you get enough sleep. You can’t catch up once the pup is with you. As excited as you are, take down time and rest even if you aren’t actually sleeping. Avoid getting up and staying up if your mind is spinning. Play calming music or listen to a low-toned radio show! Once you have the pup, sleep when the pup sleeps. Is this sounding like raising a human baby? It is a very similar process! Thankfully, puppies mature more quickly and you may be done with all the young puppy stuff in 4 months or so.

5). Find out exactly what the breeder has done to prepare your pup for his new home. Has he learned to sleep in a crate with a littermate? Alone? Is he house-trained? On what surfaces and for what period of time can he hold it? Remember that you will have to review what he knows as he’s in a new place and won’t likely recognize the parts of a house. Barriers like long stairs and lack of fences can increase the distance and time to a nearby potty spot.

6). Your main focus the first few weeks will be to meet your puppy’s emotional and biological needs. Keep it simple!
  • Eating regularly upto 4 x per day at the start.
  • Immediate and easy access to a clean potty spot to both pee and poop.
  • Emotional support (both for bonding and to prevent separation anxiety). Your puppy has just been taken from the litter and mom so he needs some tender care to ease the transition. Just like we would nature a baby human when she first comes home, we need to do the same with a puppy. Each puppy needs this support at different times and situations depending on their temperament. Some prefer it in new locations, others prefer it at night. Some will need it meeting new people and animals. Let your puppy tell you by watching body language. This is when you will learn your puppy’s daily patterns and preferences. 
  • Things to mouth and chew on. Mouthing things is one-way puppies soothe themselves. This helps them to cope with and overcome stress. Have available a variety of textures and sizes. Different pups have different preferences. Some like stuffs, other like rubbery toys.
  • A warm comfortable place to crash during the day and night. You will want to have a daytime sleeping area and one for night. During the day it helps to have this spot close to the main activities on of your home. A wire pen or a crate with a cushioned bottom is useful. Placing a stuffed toy to cuddle up to. At night he can start sleeping with you using a sleeping ring.
  • Having to sleep alone the first few nights when he is not used to doing that or in a new place can trigger anxiety and even be traumatic for a pup new to your home if the breeder has not prepared him to do that.  If sleeping with you is not possible, then having him sleep next to your bed in a pen or crate can help. If he can smell you and touch you, then he’ll also get to know you better.

7). The rest of your early focus and energy should be on desensitizing and acclimatizing him to your house and yard. If you’ve chosen your breeder well, he should be familiar your type of environment (indoors, lots of noise or quiet), busy family with children or quiet single, city or urban and adapt well. 

8). Next, socializing your puppy with people and family dogs he will come into contact with is on your list. Don’t be in a rush to expose him to the world for the first few weeks. Certainly keep him away from strange dogs-both for disease purposes and to prevent bad experiences because many dogs are not good with puppies or other dogs.

9). In the first few weeks, focus only on a few behaviors that your pup really needs such as potty on cue, nose target, waiting for things to happen. It is better to teach him a few useful behaviors and reinforce those heavy so they become a habit than it is to teach him many “tricks” that aren’t as useful. The most important focus is to teach your pup that he can relearn and perform known behaviors in many different locations in all the rooms of your home, in the garage and on the deck and in the back, side and front yards. This is called “generalization” and is an important life skill for all service dogs!  

Once you’ve had your pup for a few weeks and your daily pattern is in place and your pup is familiar with your family, you will find it easier in many ways. Do be prepared for different stages over the next few months which means more changes. So, expect the unexpected! Usually around weeks 10-12 for most breeds, your darling pup starts biting harder on things he barely mouthed before. Then again between 5 and 6 months he will start chewing in earnest as he gains his adult teeth. At this stage, he will likely destroy things. 

Remember three things:

  1. Prevent unwanted behaviors using baby gates, Xpens and/or crates to limit access to things and taking him out to potty often.
  2. Focus on reinforcing the behaviors you like. You can use food, toys, your attention or games.
  3. Make sure your pups emotional needs are met.


From here, you will be dealing with adolescence. You will want to check out our series of 3 blog posts on that!

Using play to reward a service puppy in training.

Sign up for our service puppy class and read through it together with your team before you get your pup. It will answer many questions and give you an adaptable week by week schedule for your particular pup. Plus provide ideas on where to access the many different things you will need to socialize your pup to. 

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