Beginning Training With a Service Dog

service dog photo
Photo by swong95765

First, I need to apologize for the long hiatus to those of you who have been reading for a while. I’ve unfortunately been in the middle of selling, buying and moving houses and it’s been an absolute nightmare. We’re finally settled into our new place now (hallelujah!) So much more space and a beautiful neighborhood.

Lots of changes have come to us. Bronco, my sweet German Shepherd, is retired now and living with my brother and his fiancee. He loves relaxing and snuggling with them all day long. I’m sad to have had to retire him, but I knew it would have to happen soon. Unfortunately, as he was a dog of “unknown origin” it can be hard to tell how health and temperament will hold up over the years.

We’ve acquired a new puppy who I hope to train to be a service dog for me. She’s a Rhodesian Ridgeback from a reputable breeder that I know personally. She’s absolutely adorable and naughty, but she loves me to pieces. Her name is Luna.

Those of you who have seen this post, I’m happy¬†to report that the officer read through the applicable laws and called me personally and apologized and did say I was correct about what I had told him. He thanked me for educating him so that he could be better informed in the future. I appreciated the gesture and the lack of a citation. Cops aren’t all bad. ūüėČ

So now that I’m all settled, I’m hoping that I can soon get started on an ebook and online courses for training your own psychiatric service dog. I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, because the resources out there are limited right now. I’ll keep you updated on my progress.

In the meantime, I had a comment full of questions on my blog post about How Do You Know if Your Dog Would Make a Good Service Dog? that I thought the answers would be good information for everyone starting to train their own service dogs.

Elizabeth asked:

‚Äď How did you know that your service dog was right for you? Did you just kinda know? Did you perform the tests above?
‚Äď What are your favorite resources for training your own service dog?
‚Äď How was it for you getting officially classified as disabled, especially with a psychiatric disability?
‚Äď Was it difficult to get used to having a service dog with all the time?
‚Äď How do you make sure your dog knows when they‚Äôre on duty and when they‚Äôre not?
‚Äď How do you train your dog to do your specific tasks? Should I work with a private trainer or do it myself?
‚Äď Do you have specific products you‚Äôd recommend for training? What about clicker training?

How Do You Know Your Service Dog is Right for You?

shelter dog photo
Photo by Steven-L-Johnson

For me, Bronco came to me. He clicked with me. This was before I knew about service dogs, or was even diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was especially sensitive to my moods and he was snuggly and sweet and automatically attentive to my needs. When I learned about service dogs, he naturally became the prime candidate for that.

However, he was a stray before he came to live with me, so temperament wise, ¬†I couldn’t necessarily trust him around other people wanting to pet him. As a dog trainer, I know better than to put dogs in any situation that could make them uncomfortable, so I only used Bronco in limited situations that I knew he was solid in and comfortable with.

As he got older and then especially when we moved (even given time to settle), he got less trustworthy and more anxious, and I had to make the difficult decision (for me – dogs tend to be fine with rebonding with a new family, especially people they know already) to have¬†him live with my brother, where I knew he would be comfortable again because he wouldn’t have the responsibilities he was shouldering with me.

This is part of having and choosing service dogs. You have to be able to read dog body language and see how they are and how they act. If a dog you are training or have trained begins to fall apart because the stress of something is too much. You need to be ready to say, despite that dog being a “heart dog”, that you’re not going to keep forcing them to work or live where they’re uncomfortable¬†– because that’s dangerous.

So the temperament test is a tool I wish I had had when originally choosing a dog so that I could have known how reliable he was in stressful situations before I had gotten involved with my heart. But it’s not the whole picture, because the dog also needs to be people oriented. The dog needs to be interested in you and want your affection.

With Luna, my new puppy, I did the temperament test¬†and she passed, so I’m confident as long as I raise her correctly she’ll be just fine as a service dog. ūüôā I also visited her as she was raised and I know her breeder and have known both her parents since they were pups themselves, so I know her entire past, which helps with being more confident about her ability to perform in the future.

My Favorite Resources for Training My Own Service Dog

Well, to be honest, there’s not a whole lot out there. I don’t have a ton to direct you to. Especially psychiatric service dogs. That’s why I started this blog, because there’s hardly any info for people wanting to do psychiatric stuff.

First off, I’m all about the positive training.

I believe that especially when you’re working with a dog that’s going to be your partner in the world, you need to nurture that relationship with trust and love.

So you won’t see me directing you to anyone who uses choke chains or pinch collars or remote collars or the like. This will damage your relationship with your dog who will see you and the world as unpredictable and painful. I originally learned from a trainer who thought that pinch collars and dominance were the right¬†way. My dog died because of it. I no longer believe a word of what he taught me.

Anyway, positive training resources!

I like Sue Ailsby‘s stuff for basic training and for explanation of training as “steps”.

Kikopup on YouTube has some good basic obedience stuff (teaching shaping to give you an idea of how to each your dog to do what you want, solving behavior problems), but sometimes the explanations aren’t that great and the older videos are hard to see, the newer videos look nice. The logic is sound though.

(From here down are some affiliate links, just so you know. ūüôā I appreciate the support.)

I love love Grisha Stewart for any fear or social skill type stuff your dog might need help with, even if minor. Her book can be found at Amazon, here. I like her a lot because she also helps you learn to read dog body language and stuff, which is super important as a service dog parent. She helps you stay out of situations that might turn your dog into a fearful or aggressive dog, which is such an important skill to have.

The books Teamwork I and Teamwork II are really good for learning some specific service dog training things, but are geared more toward physical disabilities. I did find the information to be fairly helpful though.

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Getting Officially Classified as Disabled When it’s Psychiatric

Ok, so this is sort of complex. You do need to be disabled to have a service dog. But you do not need to ever tell anyone what your disability is or carry a record of it with you or anything – unless someone were to take you to court over it, then it would be a good idea to have documentation, to back yourself up.

The ADA’s definition of disabled is:

An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

Kay, so because of your psychiatric impairment, whether or not it’s been documented, you have a hard time with major life activities. If your service dog can be trained to do¬†a task that will help alleviate your¬†impairments, then you may have a service dog.

You don’t need a doctor’s or anyone’s involvement (though I would advise you do, if you can.) This even applies to people who take medication/do therapy that keeps said impairment under control (see: “a person who has a history or record of such an impairment.”)

There is a big long webpage on the website somewhere that breaks this down into¬†exquisite¬†detail for you, but I can’t find it right now for some reason, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Was It Difficult to Get Used to Having a Service Dog With You All the Time?

Yes. It’s a bit difficult, because sometimes¬†employees¬†at certain stores will ask the “Is this a service dog?” question (perfectly legal to ask). And even though it is, you feel nervous and worried that they’ll confront you and argue with you. After a while though, you realize that most of the time the employees will leave you alone if your dog has a vest, and after a while lose that scared feeling.

It’s kind of like that feeling you get when you walk out of store having not bought anything, trying to look like you didn’t steal anything because you didn’t, but you still feel guilty anyway.

It’s even more nerve-wracking when you’re a trainer taking a dog that’s not your service dog, but is a service-dog-in-training into a store and walking around with it, because you feel like a fraud of some sort. But you get used to it. Dogs need practice. ūüôā

Before you start going out with your dog, it’s good to practice what you’ll say or do when people ask you questions. This blog post covers what to do when people talk to you about your service dog or want to pet him or her.

How Does Your Dog Know When They’re On Duty And When They’re Not?

service dog vest photo
Photo by IndysMom

Basically, over time you kind of “demand” strict obedience when the vest is on (or when a certain collar is on) and then give leeway when they’re wearing something different. It’s akin to how you act when you’re dressed in a tux or an evening dress vs wearing sweats. You act differently based on how you’ve been taught to act in context of what you’re wearing.

Dogs can do the same context thing. If you’ve ever watched a dog show and seen how very differently the dogs move, I can explain why.¬†I’ll tell you as someone who participates in dog shows that as soon as I put the light, fancy collar and lead on my dogs, they know it’s show time and we are going to be trotting around the ring in a prance-y way and it’s time for best behavior and we’ll be doing certain things. They don’t pull on the lead, they are very well behaved.

This is because every time I have put on that collar and lead, the exact same thing happens, so they know what they need to do. Same thing happens as long as you’re consistent with the vest. We put the vest on after basic training is over and they’re well behaved enough to enter the public, so now, every time they get the vest put on they know… oh, we are going to a public area and I need to be behaved and do my tasks.

As far as doing tasks goes, they’re usually taught to either respond to something your body does or something that you say, so a cue you give that tells them what they need to do. All taught to them by training. This is also addressed in the next question. Dogs can get good enough at some tasks that they will do them automatically.

How To Train Your Dog to Do Specific Tasks

This is quite a question. Once you really understand how dog training works, you can train your dog yourself to do anything. Using backchaining, clicker training, marking and naming behaviors, the ideas from “101 things to do with a box” etc. you can task train your dog yourself. Otherwise, an experienced trainer can work it out for you.

Keeping a notebook is a good idea.

First, you need to know what you want your dog to do and when you want them to do it.

Then you need to know how you’re going to get your dog to do that thing when you tell them to.

Develop steps if needed. Often there are many ways to get to the end result, no one way is necessarily right or wrong.

Make it a fun game. Quit for the practice session¬†when it’s not fun.

For example, here’s some backchaining:

Let’s say I have PTSD. I want my dog to “sweep” or check a room before I enter it and let me know if the room is “clear” of people before I enter or not.

First, I walk/run (whatever keeps interest better) around a simple room with my dog. I give him/her treats when we reach the door.

After a few practices, I begin to stand in the middle of the room and turn around while sending my dog around the room. I give treats at the end.

I then stand at the entrance to the room and send the dog around the room. Dog comes back to me for a treat, pet or toy. I give the exercise a name or a “cue”.

I stand outside the room and give the name for the exercise. The dog goes around the room, comes back for a reward.

I teach the dog to bark on cue.

I place a person in the room. Cue dog to give a single bark when it is sweeping the room. Reward dog when he comes back. Continue to practice.

I remove person from room. Do not tell dog to bark. Reward dog when he returns without barking.

Soon dog learns to bark when there is a person in the room, but be silent when there are no people.

Practice with person hiding, etc.

If part of this doesn’t work, I switch it up til I figure it out and it does work. Also, in there, we practice in different¬†rooms, with different people, etc etc.

Specific Training Products

The only specific things I use for training are¬†these¬†smelly smelly treats and a clicker if I can juggle it at the same time. ¬†Your voice can function as a clicker with the word “yes!” too, if you prefer not to carry a clicker around, but I do enjoy using a clicker quite a bit. It makes learning so much faster. Some dogs don’t like clickers though and some owners just can’t get the hang of them, so they’re not always my go to tool.

If the dog likes toys, I’ll also switch toys around with treats so we can keep it fun. I also recommend head halters (like a Gentle Leader) or front clip harnesses for bad pullers so you can still take them for walks while you’re teaching them to walk nice on a flat collar without reinforcing the pulling.

When I begin doing distance work, I also use this 50′ nylon lead¬†(tie knots in it every five feet or so!) so I can keep control of the dog while he or she is at varying distances from me.

Don’t Get Overwhelmed

It’s a lot to look at, but just start with basic obedience and go from there. As you start down the road to learning how to obedience train, you’ll learn so much about dogs and dog training that you’ll soon become an expert on the subject yourself and you’ll be able to help others as well. ūüôā It’s worth it for your wellbeing.

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Photo by swong95765

7 Replies to “Beginning Training With a Service Dog”

  1. I was wondering how you teach the dog to respond to anxiety attacks? I cant fake one for a training scenario….

    1. Jessica, I am training my dog to respond to panic attacks too, and instead of faking one, I am using putting my hands over my face as a cue for her to perform a grounding behavior. I am teaching it in increments using back chaining, so first step is having her press her head into my chest while I am crouching or kneeling (a behavior she was already naturally inclined to do before I started this training), and then getting her to do that when she is at a short distance from me, and adding in the cue of covering my face with my hands.

      Since my dog already had a natural behavior that I wanted to put on a command, I didn’t have to do much luring, but you could use luring or shaping to get your dog to perform deep pressure therapy or another form of grounding or sensory stimulation (like persistent licking), and just pick a cue that you automatically do when you are having an attack (such as hugging yourself, scratching your arms, kneeling or putting your head between your knees, etc.). I picked covering my face because I am inclined to try to hide the fact that I am crying, so it seemed like a natural cue to use.

      The reason I picked a behavior other than deep pressure therapy is because DPT involves using a couch or laying on the floor to have your dog lay on top of you, and I did not feel like that is useful for me since the only places I have panic attacks are public places where there would not be a couch and laying on the floor would just cause more of a scene than I could handle. If I am at a store for example, and feel like I am starting to lose control, I can crouch on the floor and cue my dog to lean into me and to passersby it just looks like I am having a cuddle with my dog.

      I hope this helps or at least gives you some ideas of how to proceed.

    2. I was going to ask the same question. I can have debilitating panic attacks and have even had to stop along the freeway unable to drive before, sitting 30 minutes until I could myself under control. I have a prescription to have my dog with me and he has been on planes and to plays and is perfect, but I’m not sure how to cue him when I need him to help me. This makes me feel guilty taking him places even though I need him to be with me.

  2. Hi there! I’ve recently decided I want to attempt to train my dog to be a PSD. I know I won’t have any trouble in training her to do tasks, because she loves to know that she’s helped me. However, I’m having issues with basic obedience. When it comes to sitting, staying, and laying down, she seems to do it, but never un-begrudgingly. I have to repeat the cue multiple times (there’s very few times I only have to say it once), and when she finally decides she will do it, it’s incredibly slow. I have two questions about this:

    1. Could it be because of her age? She’s only just about to turn three and she’s a bully breed (I mention this because I have a lot of people in my life telling me it’s likely her age because bully breeds are more stubborn – although I’ve also read that people use “stubborn” in place of “not properly/entirely trained” so I’m rather torn)
    2. Is there something I can do to fix this? I’m doing regular training sessions with her and trying to make it fun for her by rewarding her and being upbeat, but she doesn’t seem to be getting it.

    I ask this because I would like to go ahead and get a vest for her and teach her that in the vest she has to be on her best behavior, but I worry that if she stays this unresponsive in the vest that it won’t make any difference and she won’t get out of it what I’m trying to have her get, if that makes sense.

    I also wonder how you would convey that the dog needs to be on their best behavior in the vest? Is there something different you do? Better treats? Tone of voice?

    Thank you for your time and for writing all these wonderful blog posts!

  3. Hello!!! I am so happy to have found this site!!!! I have 3 dogs n a foster pup that are not good options for service training, however, I really need one that will wake me before my night terrors go to the place where I almost brake my hand on my headboard from dreaming I’m pulling away from an attacker…???
    Since I’m asleep, I dont know what happens to be able to teach a pup to spot the need. I have PTSD as well as some physical disabilities, but “I dont look sick” as people always say!!! ūüôĀ so, its not just the night terrors, but that is one of my biggest needs for my service dog.
    Please, any help will be appriciated!!
    I live alone, so no one to watch me sleep…

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