Expert Service Dog Training for Life-Changing Results

How to Raise Your Puppy as a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training (SDiT) – 5 tips

White and brown spotted large mixed breed lies on brown tile floor of a cafe while a person in colorful leggings orders a meal.

Training a psychiatric service dog can be a deeply rewarding and life-changing experience. Owner-training a service dog for anxiety or depression can lead to greater independence, functioning, and safety, and an overall improvement in quality of life.

However, a PTSD service dog or autism service dog is not the right solution for everyone with those conditions — or any other psychiatric disability. In some cases, the attempt to owner-train a service dog can actually lead to worsened mental health, including increased anxiety, exhaustion, or feelings of failure.

If you’re thinking about starting this process, or you’re already on the path, read on. The tips in this article will help you avoid common pitfalls and set you on a path to greater freedom and fulfillment with a service dog by your side.

1. Assess Hopes, Needs, and Expectations

The outcome for owner-training a service dog has a lot to do with how prepared people are before they start. If their planning and choices match with their needs and expectations, even if things do not go perfectly, it is usually an acceptable outcome. Reading this blog post is a good way to begin to get a clear idea of what matters most and how to achieve it.

To put this in perspective, I’d like to share the outcomes of hundreds of other service dog owner-trainers.

I’ve worked with people who have trained their own service dog, and it has opened up their world. The process has been difficult, but rewarding. They successfully trained their dog, gaining joy, knowledge, and increased function in the process. Some were able to pursue careers or college degrees which their disabilities made impossible before. Some flourished so much with the process of training that they became professional dog trainers themselves! (This is how I became a trainer, too! I trained three service dogs for myself between 1998 and 2013. After recovering my health, I went on to become a professional dog trainer focusing on owner-training service dogs.)

Dark-haired woman lying on a bed with a tan curly-haired dog lying on top of her.
Allison with Service Dog, Gatsby

I’ve worked with other individuals where the outcome was very different. Many got a dog that did not have the right temperament and personality to work happily and successfully in public. Most of these individuals decide to keep their dog as a pet. In some cases, they decide to train their dog to perform helpful tasks in the home. This is what I did with my third service dog in 2011, when I decided public access training was not worth the stress for him and the physical exhaustion for me.

Others discovered that the job of owner-training was harder, more expensive, and more time-consuming than they were prepared for. Or that they just didn’t enjoy the process enough for the sacrifices of time and money.

The good news is that in most cases, those who career-change their dog to a pet, ESA, or in-home only service dog find that having a pet dog was still wonderful. The love and companionship the dog provided enriched their life, and they were able to accept that their service dog plan did not work out.

In other cases, however, the stress and pressure on the individual to try to make the dog succeed, combined with the challenges of the dog’s behavior, has a negative impact on their mental health. The dog they got to help them is actually making them worse. In a few situations, they even have to rehome the dog.

To maximize your likelihood of an outcome that will be good for you AND good for your future (or current) dog, consider these questions. Ideally, discuss these questions with your therapist, friends, and family:

  • How much dog training experience do I have? Do I know if I have a natural affinity for training (that I love it and am reasonably good at it)? Can I imagine spending most of my time for two years thinking about my dog’s behavior and training my dog?
  • Will I be able to meet my dog’s physical, mental, social, and behavioral needs every day? This includes at least a 30-minute walk plus other games, play, or exercise and enrichment activities on a daily basis. Service dogs also need emotional stability and connection with their handler (a sense of safety), as well as daily petting and snuggling, grooming, and periods of quiet rest time. If there are occasional days I can’t meet some of my dog’s needs, do I have reliable help providing for those needs?
  • How will it be for my mental health if my dog is a source of frustration? If my puppy chews a prized possession or makes a mess in the house? If my adolescent dog is hurting me when mouthing my arm or jumping up and scratching me? If my dog doesn’t listen to me and doesn’t come when I call him? If my dog sheds all over the furniture or barks when he hears people outside?
  • How much support do I have from family, friends, and other professionals? Is everyone in my home completely in support of my service dog training goal?
  • How much money do I have saved up to devote to initial costs of dog care and training, which will cost several thousand dollars? Do I also have reliable income to take care of all the dog’s needs for the rest of its life?
  • How able am I to carry through a long-term plan that requires lots of attention to detail and organization? Am I able to reliably carry out necessary tasks every day to work toward a larger goal? Am I good at taking directions and following homework? Do I look forward to tracking progress and addressing challenges as they arise?
  • How important is it that my dog successfully carries out tasks in public? Tasks in the home? If my dog is not able to work in public as a service dog, will I still love having a pet dog?
Woman with a pink hat and sleeveless blue shirt smiles while holding a white fluffy dog.
Michelle and Radar, SDiT

Having a clear sense of your bottom lines will help you to make good decisions for your dog and for yourself. For more details about what’s involved with owner-training, watch our free video on the homepage of our website. If you have questions about your specific needs and situation, register for our FREE Ask the Service Dog Trainer Question & Answer session.

2. Choose the Right Dog

Selecting the right dog as your service-dog-in-training (SDiT) is often the hardest part of the process. What are the characteristics of a dog who will enjoy public access training? They include being resilient, relaxed and happy around strangers, friendly or neutral toward other dogs, and confident in new situations. For more details on what to look for, read on. But comfort with unfamiliarity is the most important starting point when considering a dog who will one day work in public.

Often, people think that a working breed, or a dog from working lines, might be the right type of dog for a service dog, but this is typically not the case. Dogs bred to be easy-going, even-tempered pets are the best place to start. For a dog to work in public, in addition to being very comfortable around all types of humans and human environments, it’s best if she’s able to relax and nap in these busy environments. This is because so much of a service dog’s life involves periods of work (heeling, performing tasks, etc.), sandwiched between spells of lying around, doing nothing.

If you already have the dog you want to train, the free informational video on our home page, “How to Train Your Own Service Dog (Are you ready to train your service dog?)” provides a list of characteristics and an aptitude test. Score your dog to to get an idea of whether he is likely to flourish as a public-access service dog. If not, he may be a wonderful prospect for training on in-home tasks instead.

If you don’t yet have the dog you want to train, you are perfectly positioned for a successful start! It is best to select a dog for service work when you are informed about what to look for and have a qualified professional service dog trainer to help you with your search. After watching our free video on how to prepare for owner-training, your next step is our webinar on Finding the Right Service Dog. Learn more on how to find the right dog.

Light colored poodle stands in front of a table at a convention looking at the camera with a plastic bag in its mouth

3. Prioritize Behavioral Health Over “Training”

Now you have your puppy and you are ready to start training. Where should you start?

When you have spent a long time hoping and planning to get a puppy to train, you are full of excitement and eager to train your puppy on all the things he’ll need to know as an adult service dog. You may be tempted to launch into training Sit, Lie Down, Stay, etc. However, those are not actually the priorities for a new puppy.

Pushing your puppy too hard to learn manners (sit, down, come, stay, etc.) quickly or being too strict or harsh can backfire. It can lead to a stressed-out pup who doesn’t self-regulate well. This is one reason never to work with a trainer who advocates punishment (“corrections”) as part of training. Instead, training sessions should be extremely short (a minute or less, often!), fun, and low-key.

“Oversocializing” can also backfire. Taking your pup into situations that are too intense, or not giving them enough down-time at home to recover from exciting or stressful outings can create negative associations with going out or burn out your pup. Read on for socialization tips below!

There is nothing wrong with training sit, down, and come! Since you and your puppy only have so many minutes in the day when you are both able to devote time and energy to training, you’ll want to prioritize. The focus with your future service-dog-in-training puppy is helping it to grow up to be relaxed, secure, confident, and socialized.

Here’s what we recommend focusing on for a new pup, in relative order of importance.

Priorities for Puppies

  1. House Training (potty outside; start learning potty cue)
  2. Prevention and management — gates, crates, pens, and a watchful eye (95% of training good manners in puppies is preventing them from learning that undesirable behaviors are an option)
  3. Positive socialization (a few minutes in a new place, being relaxed and happy)
  4. Handling (every day, have positive experiences with your people touching you in different ways)
  5. Play, snuggling, love, and fun in a safe home environment
  6. Independence training (owner-trained service dogs are at high risk for developing separation anxiety; start teaching your puppy to be comfortable with alone time several times a week — both in-home and with you out of the house)
  7. Train your puppy on skills that are the solutions for the puppy antics that are currently an issue. These will vary based on the situation. e.g., if your puppy is stealing items, teach drop it. If she is jumping on people, train “4 on the floor.” If he is nipping during play, train him to bite toys instead. Your trainer can recommend the most useful skills for the current behaviors.
  8. Condition your puppy to the symptoms or environmental cues that will later be important. (For example, if you want your puppy to come to your aid when you are anxious, if possible, start making positive associations now for your puppy when you are anxious.)
golden retriever puppy with bandana is sitting and looking at camera
Future Leader Dog, Dutch

4. Positive Socialization — and the Handler’s Disability

Everyone knows socialization is important for puppies. But what does “socialization” truly mean? And are there special socialization considerations for people with psychiatric disabilities who are raising and training their own service dog?

What Socialization Is and Isn’t

Socialization actually does NOT mean making sure your puppy plays with a lot of other puppies or meets a lot of other dogs! It also does NOT mean bringing your SDiT puppy with you wherever you go.

Socialization is the process that occurs primarily in the first four months of your puppy’s life (which means just the first two months he’s with you) focusing on handling, confidence building around new experiences, and being happily able to focus and respond to you around new people, places, dogs, and things. Socialization continues for the rest of your dog’s life, but there are developmental milestones in the first couple of months at home that are important.

Proper socialization involves helping your puppy have relaxed, pleasant experiences around a variety of different situations and preventing scary experiences. Having relaxed, positive experiences around new people, places, and things helps establish for your puppy that the world is a safe place where it can learn, think, and behave normally.

Bring your puppy to a new place and allow your pup time to absorb the environment. If your puppy is a bit worried or is too excited about the environment, can you use a treat lure or some jolly talk to encourage her to move a little further away? If she’s fearful, hang back and give your pup time to approach the area of concern at her own pace, praising for any step toward something new. If your pup is bouncing, jumping or pulling with excitement, use treats to help her sit or lie down, praising for this more relaxed posture. Then praise and treat as you move about once she is calmer.

Looking at the back of a woman with a white hoodie and black leggings walking her yellow lab through a hardware store
Zoe and SDiT Romy

Socialization also includes ensuring that your pup has frequent, ongoing positive experiences with YOU (or the handler, if you are training your puppy as a service dog for your child or someone else). Of course, we all expect our pup will have lots of positive experiences with us, but there may be things we have to do with our dogs that they may not naturally enjoy, such as taking hold of their collar, cleaning their ears, or examining their feet. Start creating good associations for your young puppy with being brushed, snuggled, having their collar touched or their harness put on, etc.

In terms of taking your puppy with you, a good guideline for starting out is a five-to-ten minute field trip every other day (about 3-4 days a week). The day in between is to give your pup time to decompress. If your puppy is relaxed and happy on these field trips, you can start making them a little longer or more frequent.

Will Your Disability Affect Your Puppy’s Socialization?

Puppies and dogs are usually very emotionally attuned to their guardian’s feelings. If you get stressed out every time you take the puppy into public, you are likely to create negative or conflicting associations in your pup.

There are two ways an owner-trainer’s disability can make socialization challenging:

  1. Proper socialization actually takes more skill and focus than most people realize. If your condition makes it difficult or impossible for you to be around strangers, in busy or crowded spaces, or around noise or other sensory stimuli, it may be hard for you to enter these environments at all, or to think or function well in them. This means you may need support or creativity to socialize your puppy to these environments.
  2. If your symptoms are sometimes triggered by events or situations your puppy can perceive, you will need to take extra steps to prevent your pup from learning a negative association with those triggers, too. For example, if you get panic attacks when you hear loud noises or when you’re in crowds of people, your puppy can easily learn that loud noises or crowds upset you. Then your puppy will also start to get upset in these situations or want to avoid them. While it may seem beneficial for your dog to dislike the same things you dislike, in an adult dog, this type of aversion can be expressed through reactivity. This means your dog may learn to bark, lunge, growl, or bite in these situations. Owning a reactive dog is extremely stressful. Further, your dog’s behavior will be scary and disruptive to the businesses you enter, which is a recipe for access challenges. (If your triggers are things your dog cannot perceive, such as thoughts in your head, you probably don’t need to worry about this.)
Black lab puppy sitting in grass

In either situation applies to you, plan ahead how you will socialize your puppy. Here are some tips:

  1. Expose your puppy to novelty in ways that feel safe and comfortable for you. This can include bringing strange items out of the attic or basement for your puppy to explore, having visitors you enjoy come to the house, and lots of positive experiences with touching and grooming the puppy.
  2. Use whatever supports you need to bring your puppy into other environments where you are able to think and attend to your puppy. This may mean wearing noise-cancelling headphones, going to stores or other places at the quietest times of the day or night, or having a friend or family member accompany you so that they can provide you with support and a sense of safety while you focus on your puppy. Keep the trip short and positive. Five or 10 minutes is usually perfect. Try to end on a good note before either you or your puppy get too tired. If you do feel stressed, do your best not to convey it to your puppy by using a happy voice and body language, and using lots of treats.
  3. Work with a rewards-based trainer to expose your puppy to situations that are too difficult for you. This may mean hiring a trainer who offers day training to take your puppy on socialization field trips two or three times a week while you stay home. Or it might mean having a family member take the puppy to a well-run positive-only puppy kindergarten group class (if the group class environment doesn’t work for you). If your symptoms are triggered by things your pup can perceive, your trainer can help you come up with a training plan to make these triggers a useful cue for tasks, as opposed to a trigger for bad behavior.

For more information on puppy priorities, please download our free eBook, “Puppy & Basic Manners Training for Future Service Dogs: A handbook for pet dog trainers.”

5. Start with a Rewards-Based Service Dog Trainer as Soon as Possible

The best option is actually to start with a rewards-based service dog trainer before you even decide to get a puppy.

You may be tempted to save money by taking advantage of free sources of online information about puppy raising and training. That makes sense. There is a lot of information out there! Some of it is helpful, thoughtful, and kind. Some of it is also inaccurate, misleading, or harmful. And, all of it is incomplete.

Why is it “incomplete”? Static sources of information (like this blog post, as well as dog training youtube videos, books, or Facebook posts) cannot always be applied flawlessly to living beings because there is too much complexity and variability. No matter how knowledgeable, skilled, and well-intentioned a trainer is, it is impossible for us to create material that will be easily and correctly used by every puppy guardian who reads or watches it. Also, training is a physical skill, like playing a sport. It can be difficult to get all the mechanics correct without a coach to point out things your body is doing that you’re not aware of.

Anya and SDiT Aspen

Here are some examples:

I provide guidelines for socialization in this post. But in certain situations, I may recommend going out and doing more things, or I may recommend the staying home more. These recommendations are based on what I know of the puppy’s body language, personality, and its owner’s lifestyle, training, comfort level around novelty, the environment in which they live, etc.

With some dogs, it’s easiest to train “down” by luring them with a treat moved along the floor toward their feet and with others, by pulling the treat away from them. In still other cases, I may recommend holding a treat on the floor, luring the puppy under a chair, or just capturing (clicking or praising) when the puppy lies down, and then throwing a treat. Again, what I recommend is based on the particular needs, challenges, and skills of the team.

When handlers have physical disabilities (back pain, bad knees, poor balance), I often change training advice to work better for their bodies. When owner-trainers have ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, sensory processing disorders, or other atypical learning styles, I may change how I give training instructions to make sure my directions are clear and easy to follow.

When it comes to service dog puppy raising and training, the devil is in the details. Reading about dog training seems simple: reward your dog when it’s good. Prevent it from doing things you don’t like. But how to apply those instructions in daily life can be difficult. This is why I say that dog training is simple but not easy.

Working with a trainer from the get-go will allow you to use free sources of information online but also to check with a trusted source about how to apply it.

Working with a trainer will also mean that someone who has worked with hundreds or thousands of dogs — and therefore knows things about dog behavior and learning that you cannot — has eyes on your pup and can point out issues that you may not be aware of.

Yellow lab with vest on is looking up at its handler as it walks up onto a curb
Sharon Wachsler CPDT-KA KPA-CTP training service dog, Frieda

Working with a certified trainer who has signed an ethics pledge never to advocate using punishment or corrections (sometimes referred to as “purely positive,” “force-free,” “R+” or “rewards-based” trainers) means they are unlikely to instruct you to do things that may unintentionally cause physical or behavioral damage to your pup.

Working with a trainer who specializes in service dogs and has experience working with people with disabilities means they should be empathetic, adaptable and creative, familiar with the types of needs and challenges you may have with training your dog, and able to guide you through the entire training process.

If you’re looking for a trainer who can help, you’ve come to the right place. We are Certified Professional Dog Trainers — Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). We have over 30 years combined experience with owner-training service dogs, with both personal and professional background with disability and owner-training. We use only humane, reward-based methods, treating both dog and handler with empathy and kindness. If you’re ready to get started with puppy training, enroll your pup in our Dogs In Service Certification course, starting with level one, PEARL DISC.

We wish you all the best in your training journey!


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