When you raise a puppy to be a service dog, you're ensuring that the puppy grows up prepared for duty. For years, puppies have been raised as service dogs for the blind. But today, puppies are raised to assist the deaf, injured military veterans, children with autism and people with disabilities of all kinds, according to the American Disabilities Act. Raising a service dog requires you to spend time socializing and training the dog for the first 12 to 18 months of his life. Organization requirements vary, but the goal is always to raise a puppy who can bring a higher quality of life to his disabled owner.
Important: Not all dogs have the temperament or disposition to be service animals. Some puppies are prone to behaviors that are too aggressive or too submissive and they may not have the right personality to serve. Seek advice from the service dog organization on how to change these behaviors before they become ingrained.
Create a secure environment for your puppy. A fenced yard, pen or kennel is necessary to keep your puppy safe and out of the street. Keep any plants or foods that might be poisonous to dogs out of reach. Pick up small toys, pencils or other items on the floor that your dog might mistake for a treat. Move electrical cords out of reach. Monitor your puppy out of doors if you have an open pool or live near a body of water.
Train your puppy to sleep in a crate. Throw a bone into the crate and invite the puppy to follow. Place the crate near your bed at night for the first few weeks until the puppy grows accustomed to sleeping in it. Make the crate comfortable so the puppy uses it as a den. Do not use the crate for punishment.
Instruct your puppy in service dog etiquette. The manners of a service dog must be impeccable and the expectations for service animals are different than for dogs who are simply pets. Do not allow your puppy to jump on people or up on the furniture. Do not allow your service dog to eat people food or to eat from your hand. Do not allow him to bark at strangers, race through the house or sniff his environment, other dogs or people while he is working. Teach games such as hide and seek or tug-of-war, but do not play fetch as it encourages chasing behavior.
Teach your puppy basic commands, such as come, sit, stay and down. He should be able to heel and walk calmly on a leash without pulling. A head-collar, which fits over the muzzle and head, can be helpful in training puppies to heel. Seek out a local obedience class if you need support. Some service organizations will require you to participate in a sponsored obedience class and attend regular meetings.
Socialize your puppy by introducing him to all types of people and environments. Service dogs need to be comfortable and calm both at home and out in public. Put the service dog jacket on him before each outing. Take your puppy to a school, the park, your favorite restaurant, the mall or an amusement park. Expose him to the stairs, elevators, crowded sidewalks and mass transit. A well-trained service dog should be able to accompany you anywhere without being upset or distracted by his surroundings.
Brush your puppy weekly with a curry or slicker brush so he becomes accustomed to grooming and being handled. Bathe him with gentle dog shampoo and warm water only when he seems dirty. Bathing too often can take away the natural oils in his coat.
By Mary Helen Berg
About the Author
Based in Los Angeles, Mary Helen Berg has been writing about pets, travel, families and parenting since 1989. Her work has appeared in publications such as "The Los Angeles Times" and "Newsweek." Berg holds a Master of Science from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.