Expert Service Dog Training for Life-Changing Results

How to Train Service Dog Leash Manners

Seated man in gray sweatshirt looks at white Husky who is standing and making eye contact

How to Train Service Dog Leash Manners (and are there differences from training loose leash walking with a pet dog?)

Are you training a service dog – as an owner-trainer or as a professional dog trainer working with a service dog client? If so, loose leash walking is probably a top priority. Training a puppy or service-dog-in-training (SDiT) to walk nicely by the handler’s side is a critical skill for public access. 

Many service dog owner-trainers take their puppies to an obedience class, thinking that leash manners can be trained in any manners class. To some extent, this is true. Good leash manners are important for all dogs, whether as a therapy dog, service dog, emotional support animal (ESA), or pet dog. There are some important differences for training leash manners to a service dog – as well as when training a pet dog or ESA for a physically disabled handler. 

Train “Loose Leash” to Only Moderate Fluency Before Training Guide or Controlled Pull

If you want your dog to guide you to an exit, guide you to your car or home, or do other controlled pull work, start guide training before loose leash walking training is complete. It’s a delicate balance. You want the SDiT to have a good grounding in loose leash walking, but if “keep the leash loose” is too ingrained, it becomes more challenging to train a controlled pull for guide work. Depending on the team, after six-to-eight months of dedicated loose leash training, it may be time to introduce some guide work to help your service dog candidate learn the difference between these two skills. We have used special platforms (foot targeting) to train guide work (controlled, sustained pull to a curb or other target).

Auto Stand, Not Auto Sit

If you will later need to train the dog in any sort of guide, balance, or mobility support, train a default stand-stay at stops, not an auto sit. This post goes into more detail on this topic. This relates not just to mobility service dogs and balance service dogs, but also to brain injury service dogs, guide dogs, and many psychiatric service dogs (PSDs). Those with PTSD, DID, or autism spectrum may also need these tasks. If the handler has conditions that cause dissociation, balance problems, sensory processing or visual processing disorder, or wants to use the dog in any way as a touchstone, a stand at stops is a better option. This also applies to dogs who will be carrying items in a backpack, such as service dogs that assist with grocery shopping. For small dogs or where the handler definitely doesn’t need the dog for any sort of balance or mobility support, it’s fine to train a default sit.

Black lab service dog standing in a store on leash with legs of owner nearby
Ahsoka, a Labrador retriever SDiT puppy is learning basic leash manners while taking a socialization field trip with her owner-trainer handler

Heeling with a Wheelchair, Mobility Scooter, Crutches, Cane, Walker, or other Mobility Equipment

Four key elements when training a dog to walk next to someone who uses assistive technology include:

  1. Before you start moving, train position FIRST (standing still). Train the dog to stand at one side of the handler, facing the same direction, and at the proper distance (see below why distance is critical), over and over before you add movement. 
  2. Train OFF-LEASH before you start moving (standing still). The reason is the same. Positioning is both more important and more challenging with mobility equipment. It’s unsafe to have the dog cross back and forth in front of behind the handler – the leash will get tangled in wheels or around equipment and may trip and hurt the handler. The dog may get its paws or tail run over, potentially causing injury or creating a fear association. Train off-leash first so the dog can learn the skills. Then add the leash in periodically to make sure the skills work properly on-leash, too.
  3. Train the dog to heel wide. Deliver treats about one or two feet away so the dog learns to heel wide. Dogs that are trained to heel by ambulatory obedience instructors without mobility equipment are usually trained to heel too close to the handler’s leg. This can be disastrous when the dog is matched with an owner in a wheelchair or with an unsteady gait (see below for ambulatory with unsteady gait). The dog will get its paws run over or try to squeeze next to the handler when going through narrow spaces like doorways. Instead, the dog should be taught how to drop back and follow through a narrow space. 
  4. Train the dog to get into position from all angles (but usually you will NOT want to train the traditional “finish left” used by obedience trainers because this may result in the leash tangling in medical equipment). It’s impossible for a dog to always stay in position (especially before it learns how to pivot), but also there will be distractions, doorways, etc. Sometimes the puppy or service animal will be in front or behind the handler or at an angle. The dog needs to learn how to always get back into that heel position without tangling the leash or getting its paws pinched.

For additional tips on training dogs to walk with wheelchairs, and other service dog training tips, subscribe to our Youtube channel

German shepherd sits next to a male veteran wearing a cap and sunglasses in a wheelchair outside next to a brick building
Frankie trained Maizie to heel wide and did train an auto sit because Maizie is not wearing a backpack and Frankie did not need any balance or guide skills

Accommodate Disabled Handler’s Unique Needs

Take the handler’s disability, needs, and preferences into consideration. A disabled handler of a service dog may not have vision in one eye, less use of one hand, weakness or back pain, etc. If you’re a pet trainer doing private training lessons, get some information first about the human partner’s needs so you can adapt coaching to what will work best for them. If teaching group manners classes, make sure to let clients know that they can modify techniques to fit their needs. Encourage them to speak up right away if an instruction is painful or difficult, or they’re having trouble hearing or understanding the instructions, so you can modify the technique or your instructing style. 

Heel Wide

If a dog guardian has an unsteady gait, uneven gait, or other mobility or balance issues – even if not using mobility equipment – train the dog to heel wide. A dog that heels too close – especially a puppy, adolescent, excitable, strong, or young dog – can easily knock over a handler with an unsteady gait or poor balance. By training the dog to heel wide, there is more buffer, making it less likely to bounce into the handler’s leg and knock them over.

This is a huge topic, so we can’t cover it all in one short blog post or newsletter! In our online DISC (Dogs In Service Certification) classes, we cover all of this and more – specific to each handler and dog, with individual instruction for all teams. We make sure each team is learning all the foundation skills they need to know. 

Some other related tips include:
  • Train two types of “loose leash” skills for service dogs – a casual loose leash walk, for recreational walks, and “working dog walk” more similar to a heel when working in public or close quarters. These should be on separate cues, either voice cues, hand signals, and/or equipment cues (switch gear).
  • Train the dog in multiple types of positions, including to fall back and follow, to go ahead and wait, and to switch sides (opposite-side heel). The service dog team will need these skills for doorways, steps, and in public spaces where spaces can be tight. These skills are important for all service dogs (including psychiatric service dogs and medical alert dogs) but are especially important for large dogs, handlers that use mobility equipment, and for pet dogs when the handler has mobility or balance issues.

For more leash walking instruction for puppies all the way through advanced service dog training, we’re happy to help! Get started with affordable, individualized instruction in our online PEARL DISC (Dogs In Service Certification) class

Are you a pet dog trainer working with a service dog client or considering going into service dog training as a specialty niche? We provide mentoring and consulting to professional trainers. You can also register for our FREE webinar for pet trainers, “Can you help me train my service dog?” coming up on September 13, 2023.

In the lobby of Baystate Health Services. From left to right: Alex Wise wearing an orange shirt and tan cargo pants and their white pitbull, Hitch. Class assistant, Stephanie, wearing a white "At Your Service Dog Training" T-shirt and blue jeans. Kolleen Barlow and her daughter's goldendoodle service dog, Nylah. Sharon Wachsler in a maroon At Your Service Dog Training long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans. Kyndyl Greyland and his rough collie, Runa.
Training service dogs can be incredibly rewarding as well as complex and emotionally intense. Is this the next step for your business?

Free Webinar: “Can You Help Me Train My Service Dog?”

What to know before you take the case!

Wed., Sep. 13 at 11 AM Eastern Time (8 AM Pacific Time)

Are you a pet trainer who gets requests for help with service dog training? Whether your clients are asking for private service dog lessons or you have discovered that the pup who’s been taking classes with you for months is intended as a future service dog, this FREE webinar from Raising Canine will help you better serve your clients and their dogs. We’ll answer these questions:

  • When to refer to a service dog specialist? Should you get the pup started and then refer out? What if you’re uncomfortable with any type of service dog training? How to find reputable referrals?
  • What are the most important considerations when starting a puppy or young dog as a future service animal? Are there behaviors you should start earlier or avoid?
  • What makes an appropriate potential service animal, is it different for psychiatric service animals, and how should you discuss this topic with clients?

Offered through Raising Canine. Presenter is Sharon Wachsler CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP. Register for the free webinar.

Kiran Asher lies on a multicolored hammock with her apricot standard poodle, Runa, lying on her belly.
The unconditional love our dogs provide is one of the ways they reduce or prevent loneliness and depression. (Kiran and therapy dog Runa snuggle on the hammock on a summer day.)

Would you like help training your SDiT to have the impeccable manners needed for a public access service dog? Learn about the training process. Have other questions? Get in touch.

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