This free informational video will tell you what you need to know to get started with training a service dog for yourself or a family member.
The video is closed captioned. A transcript is included below.
After watching, if you’re ready to get started with training, please contact us by using the appropriate intake form (depending on whether you want us to help you find an appropriate dog or you already own the dog you want to train). We look forward to training your canine assistant!
NOTE: As of Jan. 4, 2021, airlines are no longer required to allow emotional support animals on planes. For the updated ACAA rules regarding service animals, see https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/us-department-transportation-announces-final-rule-traveling-air-service-animals and https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2020-12/Service%20Animal%20Final%20Rule%20FAQs.pdf
The links mentioned in the video:
- DOJ’s frequently asked questions about service animals and the ADA: ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html
- Guidance for landlords, condo associations, and other housing providers about “assistance animals” (which includes both emotional support animals and service dogs) under the FHA (Fair Housing Amendments Act) https://www.hud.gov/sites/dfiles/PA/documents/HUDAsstAnimalNC1-28-2020.pdf
Ready to move forward with training?
Use our intake form to get started.
Have more questions?
Find answers on our FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).
Hi. I’m Sharon Wachsler, owner and head trainer of At Your Service Dog Training.
I’m so pleased you’re watching this video about starting the process of training a service dog,
what’s involved, and if it’s the right process for you — and for your dog if you have one.
We’re going to cover a lot of information, so if it’s moving too fast
please pause the video to read all the information on the slides.
The first thing that I want to share with you is why I became a trainer who specializes in helping people to train their own service dog.
I was on this journey myself many years ago.
In 1995, I became severely disabled by chronic illness and for 18 years I was disabled.
For 16 of those years I dedicated most of my time and energy to training service dogs for myself.
I trained three service dogs. The first one I started was in 1998.
There were differing degrees of success.
Two of them became successful public access service dogs. The third one became a wonderful in-home service dog.
Owner training was very new. I couldn’t find any trainers to work with me in person. It was a long, slow process that I had to figure out on my own. I made a lot of mistakes
that I wouldn’t have made if I was working with somebody who does what I now do.
My experience also comes from helping hundreds of dogs and handlers over the last several years.
There are a lot of benefits to training your own service dog. You have the companionship, love, attention, joys and frustrations of having a dog day in and day out. You may be able to spread some of the expenses out over time versus if you get a dog from a program where you may need to do a lump sum.
You may get a therapeutic benefit from training.
Some of my clients, for example, train their dog to alert them when they start to repetitively self-injure.
The process of training can take weeks or months and requires a lot of attention on that behavior while training.
That tends to make them much more aware that they’re scratching or picking at themselves.
So they tend to do it less on their own, as well as having trained the dog to alert them if they do.
That’s just one example and it won’t happen for everybody but it does happen for some. One of the main benefits is that you will become a highly skilled trainer. If you love training, if you want to become a training nerd, this is the path for you. It’s an intense learning journey with your dog and you really have to invest a lot of your life into it. If you’re successful, you’ll have a partner who’s going to help you every step of the way.
One of the things that’s really special about owner training is the intense empowerment, pride and bond
that you have with your dog. There’s really nothing like being unable to do something for yourself and asking your dog to help you with it and they do it. That’s wonderful in and of itself but when you know that you’re the person who trained your dog to do that, it’s really an amazing feeling. Now I’m going to cover some of the legalities. A service animal is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 as a dog
that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks that directly relate to the handler’s disability.
Disability under the ADA is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits
a major life activity. Your condition needs to impact your life in a significant, functional way. The tasks are going to depend on the disability. The tasks we train for a person with multiple sclerosis (MS) will likely be different than the tasks for somebody with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But even two people with the same disability may need different tasks depending on how the disability affects them.
The ADA also has a few other behavioral requirements for a service animal. The ADA specifies the dog needs to be house trained, under the handler’s control at all times, tethered, leashed or harnessed unless that would interfere with the dog’s ability to perform the task, and the presence of the dog can’t fundamentally alter the nature of the service. If you want to know more about legalities concerning service animals, I recommend visiting the ADA.gov website where the Department of Justice has a really good FAQ
(frequently asked questions) page about service animals that may answer many of your questions.
In addition to the laws, there are community standards.
Our society generally agrees that a service dog must behave in a quiet and professional manner. That its behavior is so unobtrusive that other people don’t know it’s there. That takes a high degree of training. One common area of confusion is the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal.
The ADA specifically excludes emotional support animals in its definition.
This relates to bringing your dog in public spaces.
The ADA says that the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship
do NOT constitute work or tasks. An emotional support animal that has not been task trained
is not permitted public access. Likewise, a therapy dog provides comfort or support to a number of people; maybe children in a library, elderly people in a nursing home
or patients in the hospital. It is not considered
a service animal and does not get public access.
If you are contacting us because your landlord has told you that your dog needs to be trained
as a service animal to stay in your no pets housing, that is most likely not true. If you have a disabling condition, your doctor or therapist who knows you well can write you a letter
that says that the presence of your dog is necessary as a reasonable accommodation to your disability.
You don’t need to train your dog as a service animal as long as the dog is well behaved.
If the dog is a well-behaved pet,
you don’t need to train it as a service animal. If this is your situation, I strongly recommend going to the HUD website on this slide. Print that out and send it to your landlord along with the letter from your doctor or therapist.
I’m not a lawyer and can’t give legal advice so I’m encouraging you to read the materials provided to us by the government who oversees these laws.
The last category in terms of public access is people who are training service dogs. Anyone training a service dog, either for yourself or someone else, is a service dog trainer in that context. Rights of public access to train that dog depends on state laws, not federal laws. In most of the Northeast, the trainer of a service animal has the same rights of access as a disabled handler. This is not true in Connecticut, which has very restrictive laws. It depends on the state.
Another area of confusion is certification.
Legally there is no such thing as service dog certification.
You might have contacted a service dog program that says, “Our service dogs are all certified.”
That just means the dogs have gone through a training process and have been tested before completing the program to ensure they meet the program’s standards. But there’s no legal weight to that “certification.”
If you go to a website that sells a patch, vest, ID card, registration number or certificate
that says your dog is a service dog,
that paperwork is worthless.
Putting a vest and a patch on a dog with no training and taking it into a store or restaurant is like putting on a firefighter’s costume for Halloween. You might look like the real thing but it does not equip you with the skills to do the job.
The question that follows is usually, “If there’s no certification, how do you know when your dog is a legal service dog?”
Referring back to the legal and community standards
as long as your dog is living up to those guidelines, it is “legal.”
I recommend having a public access evaluation with your trainer to ensure your dog is able to do
what you think it is, and that you and your dog are confidently working together as a team.
What is required to train a service dog? It’s a big process and there’s a lot that goes into it.
It’s definitely not the right path for everyone and every dog. I created this graphic to provide a visual for what the service dog training process is.
A pyramid is a very stable structure. You go step by step building on success and building a stable set of behaviors with your dog to be successful.
The largest piece, which supports everything else, is having the right dog.
This is a newer graphic that I made to incorporate a little bit more of the complexity.
We’re going to come back to this piece over here on the side a little bit later.
The American dream says that if you work hard enough you can do anything and sometimes we apply that to dogs too. We say service dogs are like Olympic athletes, they’re the pinnacle of success.
If you just train hard enough can you get there?
Sadly, the answer is no. While you do need the same level of commitment…
to train every day and to love the work…
There’s also an element of innate talents and strengths. Some dogs have the characteristics
that make them likely to succeed as service dogs and others don’t.
It doesn’t mean they aren’t great dogs! A lot of fantastic dogs would rather do something else.
Of the dogs I’ve assessed for clients, only 15% of them are likely candidates at the start.
There’s a good chance that your dog may land outside of that 15% so it’s important to have alternative options in mind before you start this process. Some of those options include keeping your dog as a pet, training as an in-home only service dog, rehoming your dog, or applying for a trained dog through a program.
The hardest part of service dog training for the dog is the public access training.
The stress of working in public every day is the number one reason why most dogs aren’t cut out for this type of work.
The hardest part for people is the mental energy required for raising and training a service dog.
We’re going to focus now on what makes a dog likely to succeed as a public access service dog.
One of the most important things is a confident dog who’s comfortable with novelty.
If your dog is bothered by new sights, sounds and locations it’s going to be under stress all the time as a public access service dog because our human world is filled with novelty.
You want a confident, easy going personality. “Confident” like a surfer dude, not someone who has to prove they’re tough.
A happy-go-lucky or calm dog who is not really bothered by anything. It all rolls off their back.
You want a dog who’s highly sociable and comfortable with everybody.
Maybe your dog doesn’t want to go up and greet everybody but it’s perfectly happy if they come up and greet them. They shouldn’t be stressed at all by strangers of any age, size, description, color or movement.
Stressors occur all the time for service dogs. A child may run over and hug them. They may get hit by a shopping cart.
You want to be sure that when something unexpected happens,
your dog’s last resort is any display of aggression.
You want a dog who’s first going to try everything else in their repertoire because a dog who does an aggressive or reactive display is going to cause a lot of issues for you with public access.
You also need a dog who’s very healthy.
It’s okay if your dog had something in the past that was easily treated like an ear infection.
If your dog has any chronic health issues such as allergies or digestive issues those usually get worse under stress.
If your dog has any structural or pain issues they should not be a service dog.
Your dog can’t be noise sensitive because sounds are unpredictable, so they will always be on edge.
Your dog needs to be friendly and comfortable with other dogs.
Otherwise, your dog is always going to be under stress never knowing when a dog might appear.
Low prey drive is important because you don’t want your dog losing control and pulling you over when it sees a squirrel, bird, or blowing leaf.
A moderate energy dog is best. A dog who is happy and eager to work when you ask but is also perfectly happy to lie around and do nothing.
I often say that service dogs have two jobs; one job is to work and the other job is to tolerate boredom. We spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing. A low-key dog is best
for the great majority of service dogs.
If you’re an incredibly active person who will take your dog on long runs every day
you might be able to have a higher energy dog.
A dog who’s food driven is usually the easiest to train. Especially if you want any type of alerting tasks related to medical or psychological alerts. A dog who is very food driven is the most likely to succeed at that.
You can train a dog who’s motivated by throwing a tennis ball but it’s difficult to do that in a grocery store!
I’m going to ask you to pause the video now, go back to the previous slide and score your dog on each of those traits.
For each “no” answer, add two points and for each “yes” answer, zero points.
If it’s a “maybe,” give your dog one point. Tally their total score and note how many points are in the red section and how many are in the orange section, separately from the total score and then resume the video.
Your dog’s aptitude as a public access service dog is going to depend on the score you just gave.
There are always individual variations but this is what I have come to after 20 plus years of working in this industry.
If your dog scored a zero then congratulations, that’s an ideal candidate. I definitely hope you’ll get in touch to work with us on service dog training. Your dog doesn’t need to have a zero to be a strong candidate. The lower the score the better their potential in general.
This is not a measure of how wonderful your dog is, how much your dog loves you, how much you love your dog or how much your dog may already be helping you to function. I speak with people every day, especially people with anxiety disorders, where just the presence of their dog makes them feel better and more functional. I know that’s true.
It doesn’t mean your dog wants to accompany you everywhere you go. It really depends on the dog.
Some dogs love that and thrive with it and some dogs are stressed by it.
If your dog has any points in the red zone OR any twos in the orange zone OR a score of five or above, it’s unlikely to work out as a service dog.
Now we’ll talk about the human side of the equation.
Training your own service dog is a massive time commitment.
It is essentially a full-time job for about two years, which is how long I would generally recommend estimating for training if everything goes well.
If there are any major issues during training, it might take three or more years.
It really is akin to working a full-time job to get the manners training to that high level for public access.
Then, task training can be rigorous or straightforward, though it varies a lot depending on the tasks. Task training usually takes longer and is more difficult than people expect but the hardest thing is the public access training.
The most consuming part of the training for most people is that mental commitment.
You’re constantly thinking about your dog’s behavior and how to maintain or improve it.
That’s this chunk on the side here. It should take up a much bigger chunk down here when it’s a puppy and then it should get very much smaller at the top but I couldn’t fit everything in!
This is an example of what it might look like if you are raising a dog or puppy to train as a future service dog.
None of this is difficult but it does require a lot of attention.
Another really important requirement is that you love training.
Most people who contact me love dogs and love playing, snuggling, walking dogs…
but you have to love training dogs if you’re going to train your own service dog.
It’s a very repetitive and painstaking process so you
really need a passionate interest to do it every day.
It takes a lot of mental, emotional and physical skills. You have to be coordinated and very attentive to your dog and their actions in order to reward them at the right times.
A physical disability is not necessarily a barrier to being a great trainer.
Having the mental skills is one of the biggest pieces because you have to be able to read and follow written and verbal instructions, to absorb a lot of information,
to be organized and keep track of training, to keep a written training log, etc.
Having emotional regulation is almost important, to be able to handle frustration when your dog gets things wrong…
That patience and impulse control is hard for some people.
If you’ve already taken several classes with your dog
and the two of you are excelling, definitely contact us because you already know you and your dog love to train!
Finances are another big issue.
I wish that we could provide training for free. Since we can’t, this is a piece of the picture.
The expenses of owning a pet dog vary wildly.
I usually recommend budgeting pet expenses at between one and five thousand dollars a year but that’s just for a pet dog. When you add all the other expenses that go with a service dog it really does add up.
The cost of training is going to vary. You’ll have to factor in the amount of support you need, your dog’s age and how much training you’ve already finished.
Generally, I recommend starting out with at least five to seven thousand dollars. This is usually the expected minimum. That could include group classes and private lessons.
If you’re looking at board and train or day school it’s going to be much higher. There are a lot of variables but typically I recommend expecting
the total training process to take between ten and twenty thousand dollars.
We have an article that goes into the variables and details about the cost of this process.
I encourage you to read all of our associated articles on this topic for more information.
People ask me about scholarships, payment plans and discounts.
We do have all of these options for our clients.
If you are training with another trainer or company, you should speak to them about funding options.
We can’t provide funding in that case.
If you’re a low income person on SSI, SSDI or veterans administration benefits let us know and we will provide a
discount on all of our private training.
We have payment plans that can be set up to automatically charge your credit card every month.
We have a limited number of scholarships for our clients. Availability varies depending on donations. Scholarship recipients are teams that have already trained with us in person and are very likely to succeed meaning the dog and handler are both suited to service dog training.
If you don’t have the means to get started, I recommend beginning fundraising as soon as possible.
A GoFundMe or similar has been a successful method for many of our clients.
I coined the term “hindrance dog” after my second service dog pulled my power chair over onto me!
A “hindrance dog” is your service dog in training!
When you first get a new puppy or adopt a dog, it doesn’t know anything you need it to know.
It doesn’t know tasks or even manners. You have to do all that work!
And spend the time and money.
When you already have a disability, that
can take a big toll on you, so it’s really important to have support.
You need both internal and external resources. Friends, family, therapists who will be there for you every day.
It’s very important that everyone living with you is on board and will help and cooperate.
If you live with someone who undermines your efforts, it will not work because dogs learn from everyone around them.
If you have all of these things then you can move forward with the process!
The option you choose depends on if you have the dog or not.
If you have the right dog based on your dog’s score and you think it’s likely that
they have the potential to flourish as a service dog then the next step would be to contact us for an owned dog intake.
We will meet with you and you’ll learn the details of the service dog training process. Your dog will be assessed, we’ll go over your disabilities and needs, we’ll create a training plan and answer all your questions. We’ll start training and you’ll get lots of ongoing support.
We can also help if your dog isn’t a good candidate or you don’t have a dog.
You can contact us to schedule a pre-adoption and search support intake.
We will provide information on what to look for in a candidate dog, how to find likely candidates, assist with pre-assessment and temperament testing. We’ll provide a lot of ongoing support.
Sometimes we do advocacy with dog providers to let them know what a wonderful person you are and how dedicated you’re going to be to your dog’s well-being.
We are full-service trainers! We offer a range of services.
What’s available depends somewhat on your location. We provide owner coaching to everyone regardless of location
either locally or online via Zoom with great results for our clients. You can read about online training on our website.
If you’re local we offer private training on-site in Hadley
or in your home if you’re within our driving area.
We also have special group classes for service dogs, as well as day training and board-and-train options.
Board-and-train is only for dogs we have already trained with that are ready for advanced training.
We offer many benefits in addition to lessons and training.
You get access to our client portal which has over a hundred training tip sheets and training videos.
You will get videos from your dog’s training sessions whether online or in person.
You get membership to our exclusive clients Facebook group where we post training videos, tips
and announcements. So you’ll be part of a community of other people who are also training service dogs. We provide ongoing support between lessons and we’re always available to answer questions. We are very dedicated to our teams and we provide a lot of support. We care a lot about you and your dog.
We try to be as flexible as possible in terms of scheduling.
We are empathetic, honest and positive with you and your dog throughout the process.
If you’re not sure if service dog training is right for you or if you have more questions, take a look at our frequently asked questions page. Read the articles that we link to and take time to consider everything that was in this video. Discuss it with friends, family or healthcare providers because it’s a big step.
If service dog training isn’t for you
but you’d like your pet dog to have some training, please see our referral list for great pet dog trainers in your area.
If you’re ready to move forward with service dog training, please fill out the intake request form and we’ll get started!
These are a few of the dogs that we have worked with in the last few years who have been successful.
We would love for your dog to join this group!