How to Train Your Dog to Be a Service Dog

By Laurie Rappeport

Service dogs receive training to assist individuals with physical challenges such as hearing, sight, mobility and illnesses. Organizations exist which train these dogs and partner them with owners who need the services the dogs can provide. Because of the high demand for these dogs and the costs involved in training them properly, obtaining a service dog can involve a significant expense as well as a long wait on a waiting list. Some individuals choose to train their own dogs to act as service dogs.

Work on socializing the dog from its birth. Service dogs must interact easily with humans and other animals. They must not become excited or frightened when strangers approach or get distracted by other animals and new stimuli in their environment. Keep the pup in an environment where it receives human touch from its early days and where it frequently experiences new people, animals and situations.

Buy the equipment the service dog will need. If the dog will serve as a guide dog for a sight-impaired person, it will need a Seeing Guide Dog leash. If the dog will pull a person in a wheelchair, he will need a special harness. Accustom the dog to wearing any special equipment from puppyhood. Service dogs should have special badges that identify them as service dogs and alert the public that no one should interfere or distract them in the performance of their duties. Service dogs-in-training should also wear these badges to allow the trainer to train them in public without interference.

Begin training the dog as a service dog after the dog reaches the one-year mark. Until that time, future service dogs can learn basic commands (come, sit, stay, heel) and skills they will build on later (not to jump, not to bark unnecessarily). But advanced training for a service dog does not begin until the dog is one year old and demonstrates that it can successfully complete the rigorous training that a service dog must endure.

Decide on the commands the service dog will need to know. This will depend on the kind of service the dog will perform. Dogs who serve invalids or wheelchair-bound individuals may need training in bringing objects to the owner, pulling the owner's wheelchair when needed and even protecting the owner during an epileptic attack or other incident by acting as a barrier between the owner and nearby surfaces or objects. Trainers have trained service dogs to place their paw on a 911 button if the owner has an attack. Seeing-eye dogs or hearing-aid dogs need to alert their owners to stimuli that the owners cannot see or hear. The type of training depends on the owner's needs.

Teach the dog to respond to hand signals or verbal commands, depending on the owner's needs. Decide in advance the commands needed and how to convey those commands (words, hand or other types of motion). Use one command for each action. As the dog becomes proficient at responding to the command, reward her consistently with favorite dog treats.

Maintain a high level of patience when training a service dog. Professionals estimate that training a service dog fully can take up to 18 months. When training a service dog at home, expect the dog to learn one new command or action at a time. Review all the commands the dog has learned together with the new command and only add a newer command after the dog has adapted to the previous command perfectly.