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Donna Hill's

Service Dog Training Institute


The Secret to Creating a
Successful Service Dog

service dog with handler volunteering in hospital

What Does a Dog Need to Know to Be a Good Service Dog?

When thinking of training their own medical service dog, most people think about obedience behaviors and getting obedience above all else. While historically this approach was used (with a high failure rate), we have learned much from research about dogs and their natural abilities and inclinations and today we take a different approach (with a higher success rate). Rather than teaching specific behaviors, we teach dogs concepts and attitudes. So we take a qualitative approach, rather than a quantitative one overall. Here are some of the most important ones for a dog to come a successful medical service dog.

Concepts About Their Handler

  • That their person can be trusted to look out for their best interests and keep the dog safe in all environments-build a secure attachment, prevent attacks from other dogs and people: physical, emotionally, socially
  • Being casually connected to their handler at all times with spatial awareness, proximity and emotional connection they can respond to it-whether it’s on a leash and the handler turns (no tight leash) or the handler having a medical episode (tasking)
  • Pay heightened attention to what’s happening with their handler during a medical episode
    That they can help change what’s going on for/happening to the handler and what they can specifically do to communicate it to the handler
    Be happy to do what handler asks them to do
    That they can say no to requests (cues) -communicate if they are not able to handle the request yet


  • How to acquire new behaviors in different ways
  • How to generalize new behaviors to different environments
  • To be conscious of their behavior and the environment
  • To look for cues in the environment that tell the dog what is appropriate behavior for the situation
  • Some places are to be calm and others to be active, always be focussed on handler’s and environmental changes
  • That daily activity levels may vary: some days are for relaxing and others are to rush-flexible in day to day activity levels
  • That there are times/places when they are working and days off and desired behaviors for each

General Life

  • That there will always be  payoff for work-this builds an optimist
  • They can make choices and those choices can pay off
  • That you can take risks in life and not be punished for them (educated guesses)
  • That being away from home with their person is preferable to being left alone at home
  • That they can be left alone at home and be fine
  • Going into small crammed spaces is normal
  • That they can settle for long periods and get restful sleep away from home
  • That strangers are new friends that do weird things
  • A dog that can calmly watch things go on around them without the need to engage, unless asked to do so. (They can control their arousal no matter what’s going on around them.)
  • Unexpected things happen but they can bounce back from the quickly resilience-more optimism

How does a Hander/Trainer Achieve All of This?

  • Choosing the right dog-some of these qualities are temperament-related, some can be taught
  • with day to day interactions with your dog  A handler needs the best of both worlds
  • Provide a functional home environment-predictable, stable, safe, place to destress
    Build a secure attachment with dog
  • Have realistic expectations of your dog especially at different life stages- adolescence is hard for some dogs and handlers due to conflict that was set up early
  • Aim to help your dog become an optimist for life: set your dog up to make desired choices then reward the dog for making the choices you want
  • Avoid exposing dog to trauma and what’s he’s not yet be prepared for
  • through teaching the dogs the little skills (foundation) before training the bigger ones (the bigger ones usually rely on previous knowledge)
  • Teach your dog to love paying attention to relevant (important) details. Some are naturally good at that more than others
  • Handle adversity with a positive approach
  • Avoid “teaching to the test” meaning you only prepare your dog for what’s on the public access test. It’s a bare minimum at best. Prepare your dog for life in the real world where unexpected things can happen. Use incremental changes to achieve this. Identify what situations you will be in the future and prepare your dog for each of those. Staying away from home. Emotional situations. Aircraft travel etc.
  • Do specific training set ups for situations your dog finds challenging. That allows you to control the level of difficulty so your dog succeeds. This builds confidence.
  • Have an attitude of helping your dog succedent each step, rather than testing him at each step. “Testing” implies no preparation and sets dog up to fail. “Helping” implies previous successful practice and sets him up to succeed.


1). There is no blind obedience needed as an owner-trained service dog. There is no “The dog must” . Why? Because we want a service dog to be thinking about the best alternatives at all times. We don’t want to have to cue our dog for every little situation. That’s exhausting for the handler. We want to build a natural relaxed relationship where the handler and dog have two way communication. That means the handler responds to the dog’s communication, just as the dog responds to the handler’s communication. A strong functional relationship is how we achieve willingness to respond!
2). If there’s an emergency, we are going to pull the dog out of the situation in whatever way keeps him safe. Life happens. But we can prepare him to be resilient in those situations ahead of time. Be proactive! 

Wondering how to train your own service dog?

Check out our Service Dog Training Institute classes (for both human and dog).
If you want to learn how to train a service dog like a professional, these classes will give you the skills to do so and to train other pet dogs! You learn as your dog learns.

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