As a trainer who specializes in helping people train their own service dogs, two of the questions I hear most often are
- How long will it take to train my dog?
- What will it cost to train my dog?
Of course, it is reasonable to wonder this. Time and money are precious commodities, and it is necessary and important to plan ahead! However, I can never give a simple reply because the answer depends on so many factors. In this post, I will address the question of time. For information on expenses, please read my post on the costs of service dog training.
How long does it take?
Generally speaking, it takes at least two years for most owners to train their own service dog. It may often take much longer, depending on various factors, or occasionally it might take a little less time. Some of the variables that affect length of time include…
- How old is your dog? If you have a puppy, you will generally need to factor in at least six months to a year (depending on size and other factors) of additional time just for your puppy to grow up and learn all the basics and be well-socialized (see our posts on puppy socialization and future service dog puppy socialization). If you start with a young adult that has a solid temperament and basic manners already, you may need a little less time.
- How much training does your dog have already? If your dog already has excellent manners and obedience at home and in public, you have much less work ahead of you than a dog who is relatively untrained. Training assistance tasks is generally much faster and easier with a dog that already has a thorough understanding of all the basics.
- Does your dog have significant behavior issues that need to be modified? Sometimes I am contacted by people whose dogs are reactive to strangers, guard toys from people, growl or snap when touched or handled by the groomer or vet, are fearful or easily startled, etc. Generally speaking, dogs with these issues should not become service dogs. The chances are great that no matter how much work you put in, your dog will ultimately crack under the pressure and regress in behavior or pay the price in health issues, etc. However, if you want to try to modify your dog’s behavior and see what they’re capable of after this work, your dog must be carefully evaluated and undergo a great deal of skilled training before they can even be considered for future training as a service dog. Every once in a while, through hard work, a resilient temperament, skill, and luck, a dog with a mild behavior issue can be returned to the path of service dog training, usually as a light-duty dog (limited work outside the home). However, you should expect at least a year of intensive training to modify these issues before reassessing the dog to see if service dog training is an option and then starting the process of training manners, obedience, and assistance tasks.
- How quickly and easily does your dog learn? The easiest dogs to train are very food-motivated, greatly enjoy training, are relaxed and eager to work in a variety of settings, work for a variety of rewards (food, toys, play, petting), are highly sociable and socially attuned, have great stamina (can train frequently and repetitively), and are extremely resilient when the unexpected occurs. Dogs that fit this profile will move through training faster than dogs who are easily distracted, fall apart when things go wrong, not terribly interested in food, etc.
- How skilled and experienced are you with dog training and handling? As your dog’s primary trainer, your dog can only learn at the rate you can teach. If your training is skilled, efficient, and has few major errors, your dog’s training will be much faster. If you are learning as you go, cutting corners, working without a professional trainer’s assistance, etc., it will slow the process considerably.
- How much time can you dedicate to training and 100 percent management? In my experience, the biggest factor in whether most owner-trained service dog teams succeed or fail is to what extent the owner-trainer dedicates their life to their dog’s training. If you are completely obsessed with training your dog, and your life revolves around your dog’s training and behavior, and you spend most of your time on your dog’s behavior and training, you are much more likely to succeed — even with a sub-optimal dog — than someone who only has an hour or two a day to dedicate.
- How healthy is your dog? Of the three service dogs I trained for myself, all developed major health problems. Physical and health factors may rule some dogs out completely. In other cases, they can slow the process, cost a great deal, or reduce the work a dog is able to perform. Dogs that start out with physical or health problems should not be trained for service work. However, a dog can start out healthy, but develop problems well into the training process. Then you’ll have to decide whether to continue training or cut your losses and start with a new dog.
- What are your training goals? The hardest part of service dog training is public access training — training a dog to have impeccably reliable manners in any environment. If you are training your dog just to assist you in the home, that will go much faster. Likewise, people who just want the dog to perform one simple behavior will have to dedicate less training time than those who want multiple trained assistance tasks.
- Other factors can include things like the size of your dog’s stomach (it’s easier to train longer with a bigger dog who can eat more), your dog’s ability to settle and absorb what they’ve learned (dogs that are too high energy are generally not appropriate for service dog training and will take a lot of extra time to train to relax), your living/training environment (some great service dogs are quickly ruined by living near aggressive dogs that attack them or skateboarding teens who terrorize them), etc.
- All of this assumes one successful dog — which you can never assume. In many cases, the first (or second or third…) dog you acquire may not succeed as a service dog. The dog may have behavior problems due to temperament (fearful, aggressive, anxious, etc.) or may have health problems (allergies, hip dysplasia, vision impairment, etc.) or just not have the right personality (too high energy or not very interested in working). In which case, you will have to start over with a new dog. This typically adds between one and five years to the training process.
One thing that is sure to make the process take longer is hurrying. Training very slowly and carefully in the long run will get you to your goals faster. If you rush your dog, especially when she’s young, you can easily set training back by creating fear-based behavior problems. If you try to build skills quickly, there will be holes in the foundation of behavior that will have to be re-trained and will never be as strong as if you’d gone slow. The number one rule for training a service dog is SLOW IS FAST.
Here are some examples of how long some of the dogs I’ve worked with have taken (with one example — Francis — from a colleague).
- Fast: Juniper was obtained from a reputable breeder when she was five-and-a-half years old. She had been a pet and conformation show dog. She had excellent manners, temperament, and was extremely well-socialized. She had no obedience or service task training. Her owner was single, not working, had assistance with homecare, and hired help with walking her. Juniper’s owner did not work with a professional trainer because there were none in her area, but spent several hours a day on training and consulted with trainers online. The tasks she wanted the dog to perform were relatively simple and limited. Juniper was a trained working service dog within 18 months. If her owner had worked with a professional trainer, the process would have been much faster. (However, Juniper had a career of only three years because she didn’t start working until she was 7 years old.)
- Slow: Francis was a professional trainer who had trained two service dogs for herself. When her current dog was 2-3 years from retirement, she found a good candidate dog and began training. This dog turned out to have behavior issues that Francis tried to resolve over the course of a year. Finally, she rehomed her and got a second dog. This dog had a significant health problem which she tried to resolve, but it kept returning. She spent 10 months on this dog before rehoming. She got a third dog which she trained successfully over two years. Training time: 4+ years.
- Typical time but incomplete: Beowulf was obtained as a puppy from a reputable breeder, chosen based on his temperament test. His owner had over a decade of service dog training experience. She dedicated her life to his training, so he got several hours of skilled training every day. By the age of two, Beowulf was performing a lot of complex assistance tasks around the house. However, due to temperament issues and her inability to do enough public access training with him, she decided to keep him an in-home only service dog. Training time: 2 years for in-home service dog.
- Typical time after behavior modification and then reduced duty: Tiger was a stray picked up by animal control at nine months old. His owner took him to training classes for a year that trained some obedience skills but without any true reliability. Worse yet, Tiger was a sensitive dog with mild reactivity issues, but the classes used slip leads (choke chains) and overwhelming situations, which caused Tiger to become more reactive and fearful of people and vehicles and being handled. Tiger’s owner spent another two years working with a positive-reinforcement trainer, first to modify the reactivity, then to train obedience and start service tasks. Tiger did well as a service dog for about a year or two, but when life became a little more stressful, his training slipped and his issues resurfaced. Tiger is now working mostly in the home or in environments with which he is familiar. Training time: 3+ years.
- Typical time with limitations: Sangria was obtained as a puppy from a reputable breeder but with a shy temperament. Her owners hired skilled trainers to work with her 3-4 days a week for 6 months and also worked with her every day, themselves. For the next six months, they had a trainer work with her two days a week. For another six months, a trainer worked with her once a week. The owners were scrupulous in maintaining manners, training, and management in the home throughout her life. Sangria passed her public access test but works mostly in the home. Outside the home, she only does very occasional, limited work due to her skittishness. Training time: 1.5-2 years.
Nobody can predict how long it will take to train your service dog. You can be certain it will be a process of years, not weeks or months. Many dogs do not succeed as service dogs, for a variety of reasons. And even once your service dog is trained, you will need to continue to maintain your dog’s training for the rest of their lives. Training does not stop once a dog is “legal.” If you are to succeed at training your service dog, you must have the time, commitment, financial resources, and the interest in training to dedicate to this long-term, intensive process. To succeed in training your own assistant, service-dog training must be an act of love, dedication, and interest in the process itself, not just in the desired outcome.