So You Think You Want to Train Your Own Service Dog…

By Kristin Hartness, Canines for Disabled Kids & Service Dog Partner

Almost every week someone asks me if their personal dog can be trained as a service dog. The short answer is…maybe.

Training a service dog takes a long time, a lot of work, substantial money and a willingness to risk a broken heart. While this is true of all pups-in-training, it is hardest and personal when it is your puppy.

This experience of Owner Assisted Training can be rewarding and heartbreaking. Understanding is key before you start down this path.

A blue-eyed service dog is lying down under a desk.

What is Owner Assisted Service Dog Training?

Owner Assisted Service Dog Training happens when the individual, or their family, owns the dog that is in training. The person, or family, is active in the training of the dog attending professional classes, socializing, doing "homework," paying for health care, food, toys, treats and classes. This is a small team, who is personally involved, and is taking on all the risk. They are taking on the job which effectively is 24/7 for two years.

We would all like to believe that the devoted pet who sits by our side or sleeps in our beds will step into the job of service dog, or that the puppy we pick from a litter with outstanding pedigree will fulfill all our dreams of the perfect service dog. I know, I've been there. These immediate emotional benefits can be incredibly rewarding to the human. While this gratification can enrich the experience of the person handling the pup-in-training, this is emotional support.  And emotional support is not a service dog trained skill; it is a bonus—like frosting on a cupcake.

What are the common reasons why people say they want to train their pet to be a service dog?

  • Your current dog is showing interest in your needs. It is possible that your pet smells chemical changes that indicate Diabetic changes or Seizure Activities, or your dog might be the best fetching dog, anticipating items you need, or alerts you to key sounds in your home.
  • You can't find a training program to meet your needs.
  • The closest training program is too far away.
  • Program trained dogs are too expensive.
  • The wait is too long for a program trained dog.
  •  You have to have a specific breed.

Let's take these one at a time.

Your Pet is Interested in Your Needs

Your current pet is showing interest. Hurray! If you think your dog is nosing around you before your seizure, for example, you might be right. All dogs have the ability to smell and hear things we cannot.

Clad in a black smock, Kristin Hartness sits in a chair at the salon as her two service dogs lay on the ground beside her.

Some of them are interested in using these abilities with their humans, but not all of them. When you think this is happening, you should take steps to track the behavior, using blood tests, or other medically trusted techniques, to document the accuracy. Once you are confident, the next steps involve isolating scents or sounds so publicly appropriate alerts can be taught.

Difficulty Finding the Right Program

You can't find a training program to produce the dog you need. Here are several common reasons you might have difficult time finding the right training program:

  • You don't know the terms to identify the trained skills you need or have not identified the trained skills you need.
  • The internet search is overwhelming and the programs you have contacted were not a match.
  • You do not qualify for a service dog.
  • You want a specific breed.

There are over 200 training programs in the United States. Many are non-profits, which can help reduce your out-of-pocket costs. For-profit programs and private trainers also specialize in producing service dog.

There are limited resources to track or compare all of them but here are a few that can help:

Closest Training Program Is Too Far Away

Depending on the skill set you need and where you live, you should expect to travel for a program trained service dog. Have realistic expectations. You should not have to fly across the country for this (unless you want to) but it is unlikely you will have a program within an hour's drive.

Be open—if you are uncomfortable flying, can you take a train? Or use a limo or town car service where they drop you off for the first day and pick you up when training is over (approximately two weeks later).

Two services dogs wait next to three pieces of luggage by the door in a hotel room.

Most training programs require that you come to their facility for 80-100 hours to learn how to use the service dog they trained for you. Some programs will bring the finished service dog to you and teach you from your home where you should have between 80-100 hours of training. In either case, you have travel costs, either to bring the dog to you or you to the dog.

Program-Trained Dogs Are Too Expensive

Producing a service dog is expensive. The costs of producing a service dog range between $35,000 and $55,000 per dog. You will cover the entire cost when you do Owner Assisted Training. This will be paid in small week-to-week expenses including food, medical, training classes and time.

This may feel less expensive because you are putting out smaller amounts over an approximate 2-year period; however, most training programs require that clients raise half or less of the training costs. A few programs pass no cost on to the client.

A service dog fetches a tissue out of a tissue box on top of a table.

Additionally, if you are working with a 501c3 training program you should be able to fundraise all of the amount. Program-trained service dogs can be your least expensive option with you paying little to nothing out of pocket.

The Wait is Too Long for a Program-Trained Dog

Time is always a concern. Training a dog takes about two years. It does not matter if you are training the pup or if a training program is. Your personal pet may feel like it took less time if you did not intend for it to be a service dog, but this is only a feeling.

Dogs need to grow up and this takes about two years. You want your service dog to be physically and mentally sound. You do not want to risk health issues that could have been avoided if you had not rushed training, such as joint or bone damage.

You do not want to work a "teenager" who some days will look like they have it all together as professionals, but other days just can't be bothered to get up on time, if at all. These are normal development periods which most breeds complete at about the age of two years old.

In addition, the failure rate is approximately 50%, meaning about ½ of the dogs that try to become service dogs will not make it. While there are as many reasons for this as there are dogs, failure impacts the wait time. At the time of this article, the wait time of 2-3 years was average.

An adorable black pup is covered in snowflakes.

When you are working with a dog you own you must be prepared for this. What will you do if your pup does not make it? Will you keep it as a pet? Will you rehome it? What is your Plan B? Does this plan mean trying again for a service dog or putting a service dog on hold until your pet passes away?

There are so many reasons a pup might fail that will prevent you from bringing a new candidate into your home or even from bringing a program-trained service dog in. Examples include expensive medical treatments or aggression.

You Have to Have a Specific Breed.

You should not set your heart on a specific breed. You should be focused on getting the best tool possible. Would you refuse to use a wheelchair if you could not get it in bright yellow with orange strips made by BMW? I hope not. I hope you would want the best wheelchair for your independent movement.

Many breeds have higher failure rates because of what makes them the breed they are. For example, breeds commonly called Guardian Breeds are dogs that have been selected to protect their family, pack or herd generally do not make good service dogs because they naturally want to protect you from strangers.

Kristin Hartness and her service dog, Asha, pose for the camera next to someone in a giant moose costume.

Ask yourself why you are determined to have a specific breed. Be honest. Do you want/need a breed with hair vs. fur? There are several breeds that could meet this need. Are you picking a breed because it makes you feel safe or confident? Maybe rethink this; could you desire this breed as a way to intimidate people, keeping them away? Service dogs should not be a silent threat telling people to keep away.

One trained skill a service dog can have is "Space Blocking." This is done in a non-threatening way to provide comfortable space between the partner and others. Access tools should not be used to intimidate others. Hitting someone with your cane or suggesting you will crash into them with your scooter so they do what you want is not ok. Service dogs are tools to help us access the world, not directly or indirectly keep the world away.

Trained skills are only one piece of making a dog into a service dog and often training skills are the easiest part of creating a service dog. They must also have top public manners—no jumping, no barking, no playing in the lobby, no aggression, no protection (keeping strangers away).

Consider Classes for Your Service Dog-in-Training…and for You

There are a number of training classes you can take, especially during the first year, which are not specifically for service dogs. These classes can provide structure with skilled trainers who are evaluating your pup in that level of training. They can provide additional eyes on your pup which are not emotionally invested in your pup.

Obedience classes and earning the Canine Good Citizenship will help prepare your pup for work in places where pets are not allowed. Tricks classes provide an opportunity to develop trained skills such as nudging buttons or carrying items. Scent classes can build the basics for medical alert dogs. Classes like these can also help determine if your pup wants to do what you need your service dog to do.

A service dog is tucked under the seat of a small airplane.

Having different trainers and testers will not only help reduce the risk that emotional involvement which will negatively impact the evaluations, but it will also expand your dog's experiences with strange people, dogs and environments.

It is very easy for owners to make excuses for our pups-in-training or to think a pup has been successful when they have not. This is natural. Loving the pup can color the way we see their success and their mistakes. Use neutral resources whenever possible to know your pup is making the progress it needs to make.

One resource for classes like these is the American Kennel Club.

What Does the ADA Say About Pets in the Process of Becoming Service Animals?

All service dogs must meet the same standards, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), no matter who trained it.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not protect dogs training to be service dogs. Check out not only the state you live, but any state you where you plan to travel with your pup-in-training.

Many states provide pups-in-training similar access as finished service dogs receive under the ADA, but there are differences. A state may require pups-in-training to be clearly identified or they may allow employees of registered training programs to handle pups-in-training in public, but not volunteers or owners not working with registered training companies. You must comply with state laws while training.

Selecting Owner Assisted Training is right for some people. Selecting the best pup using a variety of training resources, knowing best practices, knowing the federal law about finished service dogs and the state laws about pups-in-training are all important pieces to your success.

If you select Owner Assisted Training, do so with knowledge of the work, expenses, risk and joy it can bring. Be honest with yourself about why you are selecting this path, no matter what those reasons are.

Do not rush the process. Be realistic—training a dog for 2- 2 ½ years is realistic, but training a dog for 5 years is not. There is a time to "fish or cut bait" as the saying goes.

Becoming a service dog partner is rewarding. The independence they bring is hard to fully express. It is life-changing, no matter where it received its training.

About the Author:

Kristin Hartness is the Executive Director of Canines for Disabled Kids and a service dog user. She has had two program-trained service dogs, one owner assisted service dog, and has an owner assisted pup-in-training at the time of this article.


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