Choosing a Breed or breed mix for a Service Dog
How do I choose a large breed dog for my needs? I was considering German Shepherd Dogs but have been advised against them for many reasons. I need a dog that is sensitive to me as I have anxiety.
The key thing about any breed of dog is to choose one that matches your lifestyle. If a dog doesn't fit into your life, it won't work overall.
Another thing to look at is what specific tasks are you hoping the dog will do for you. Obviously, the dog will need to be able to physically do the tasks and you want to choose one that can be sensitive enough to be connected.
Any of the gun dog breeds generally could do well as they are sensitive and love to work with their person. A Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Short-Hair Pointer, Hungarian Vizsla or Brittany might be a few breeds to look at. A Standard Poodle might be another dog that is sensitive but level-headed.
One thing to be aware of is that in many breeds, there is a difference between the hunting lines and the conformation lines. Look at the specific lines they come from and what they have been bred to do and what titles they have. Hunting lines alone tend to need more exercise than those from conformation lines. A great example of this is the Golden Retreiver. There are field lines can be very high energy dogs who need much daily exercise, and then there are conformation Goldens like the dog off "Homeward Bound, The Incredible Journey" with Michael J Fox who are more laid back for both exercise and temperament. I've had two of the latter and they were wonderful family pets and made great therapy dogs as they loved people and were sensitive to their moods.
Another thing to consider is to look at how the general public views the breed. This dog will be at your side in public and will affect how the public, managers, and co-workers interact with you. A friend of mine noticed that people were much more friendly, helpful and tolerant of her needs when she retired her Belgian Malinois and got a yellow labrador. She felt they were uncomfortable with the Malinois as it was a protection breed. He was actually a very people social dog but people's perspectives do affect their interactions. If you get an unusual breed, you will be stopped frequently to be asked "What kind of dog is that?" which you may or may not be comfortable or have time to do.
Go meet the actual breeds!
Go to dog shows and meet breeders of your chosen breeds. Talk to them, interact with the adult dogs.
Find out if they possess the characteristics you need in a service dog and if you could live with the general nature, grooming needs, exercise etc of the breed. What are the pros, cones and health issues of the breed for your specific needs?
Find average people who live with the breed and talk to them. Arrange to see the dogs at home and away from home. Check out dogs at dog parks and talk to the people who accompany them. Observe how attuned to their person they are. Find out what the person likes and dislikes about the breed and their specific dog. Even within breed lines, each individual dog can vary quite a bit in his or her attentiveness, sensitivity, awareness etc. so choosing a breed doesn't ensure that you will get the dog you are hoping for. It comes down the individual choice of the pup. Check out a previous post on temperament tests of young adult dogs and puppies.
Allow yourself at least 6 months to find a pup or adult dog. Allow longer if you live in an area with lower numbers of breeds or dogs in general.
A BIG TIP:
If at all possible, go to see the adult dogs you will be getting a puppy from. Breeders interpretations of what you are looking for and what you actually get may be very different things.Their definition of 'sensitive' or 'low exercise needs' may not be the same as yours. If you see the adult dogs in real life, you can judge for yourself if you can live with the characteristics their lines have in them. Just because a breeder has had a few dogs trained and used as service dogs does not mean they actually understand your specific needs (especially since there is such a wide variety of types of service dogs) or can select a pup for you without ever meeting you. Since you are going to be investing so much time, money and energy in this pup, it is wise to arrange a visit with the parents, even if it costs you money on travel and an overnight stay or even a flight. Basically, this may limit you to pups that are within a days drive but at the very least, start there. Shipping a pup during the fear period can set her way back in confidence and socialization. Ideally, if you can go get her and bring her home, you can start the bond on the journey home.
Answers to Video Observations
You may see more than this!
1. Grinning Dog
Front legs shifted
Fold left leg under
Looks at ground (or shoes?)
Looks at owner (with eye contact)
Blows his cheeks out
Dips his head
Briefly stands still
(In case you are interested, many of these are calming behaviors meant to calm both the dog himself and the owner. The behavior context is that the owner just came home from being away at work. The dog could also be offering the behaviors in response to seeing the video camera.)
2. Dog Doing Nothing
Dog runs to edge of bed
Looks to left
Looks to right
Raises left paw
Looks to left
Folds ears back
Eyes look to right
Looks to left
Ears perk up
Opens and closes mouth a few times
Stops panting (as camera approaches)
Looks directly into camera
That’s a lot for doing nothing! 30 (or more) behaviors!
3. Papillion close up
Moves head to left
Rotates eyes to left
Moves chin down
Looks back at camera
Moves head back towards camera
Opens eyes wider
Looks to left
Moves chin down to left
Looks back at camera (as camera pans away)
Lifts head slightly
Turns head to right away from camera
Rotates ears away from camera
Looks back at camera
Looks down as turns head past and away from camera to left (avoids eye contact)
Looks up past camera
Looks down and up
So, what did you learn from watching the dogs behaviors in these videos?
Hopefully, that dogs offer many clickable behaviors all day long. We trainers just have to improve our observation skills and our clicker timing to be able to capture them to use them to shape behaviors we desire!
Hone Your Observations Skills!
Practice Without Your Dog
Take a break during a walk to sit where you can see people and their dogs walking by. Choose a behavior and watch for clickable behaviors in the stranger’s dogs. A clickable behavior is any behavior that the dog does is part of or shaping towards a specific desired. For example, greeting a person politely. Watch that dog closely and use your pointer finger as a pretend clicker and tap it on your leg when you observe any behavior that is part of greeting a person politely. They might include sniffing an offered hand, dropping head when approaching, sitting when approaching, looking away, looking back at their handler, standing calmly after approach etc.
Any behavior is fair game, including mouth movements, more subtle body movements, etc. When you have tried this on three or four dogs, count how many clickable behaviors another dog does. You might be amazed!
To continue your practice, start looking for more subtle behaviors. Watch what a dog does with his eyes and ears. If you watch your own dog closely you can start picking out blinking, relaxed eyes, wide eyes, pupils dilating during play, subtle breathing patterns, muscles relaxing or tightening and much more. For some training situations, you may need to click these as a tiny step in the start of shaping the direction of the new behavior.
You can also watch videos or DVD's of dogs to see how many behaviors they actually do offer that could be clicked! As you learn the bigger behaviors, such as scratching, yawning etc, you can start looking for smaller behaviors. The more subtle behaviors may be hard to see in videos so that’s why watching real dogs up close is best.
Watch these short video clips and make a list of how many different behaviors you can observe. Turn off the audio so it doesn’t distract you. For a list of behaviors that can be observed, see the next blog post.
1. Grinning Dog
2. Dog ‘Doing Nothing’ (according to the owner)
3. Papillion close up
4. Daxie head pictures look for more subtle behaviors
Dogs Do Behaviors All the Time.
Some behaviors are for movement, some are for communication with other dogs and humans, some express emotions, some are just dog behaviors! Most behaviors are clickable in the training context. As your powers of observation improve, you’ll be able to capture not only head turns, chin dips, and tightening muscles, but even eye movements!
(Aside: If you are interested in learning what many of these behaviors mean, you can read books such as “On Talking Terms with Dogs” by Turid Rugaas which explain the meaning and context of social interaction behaviors and help you understand dogs better.)
Starting your puppy out right can make a high difference in both his progress and the final outcome. Every potential service dog needs a solid basis for dog and human socialization and environmental enrichment. The 8-16 week when they first come home covers two socialization sensitive periods and is a critical time to start developing social skills with other dogs and people. Use it wisely.
Look around at your local classes. Visit a class or two by a couple of different trainers before you join them. Ask if they have had other SD candidates in class and then ask for their reference info so you can talk to them.
Choosing a puppy class to take your service dog pup to can be made easy if you have some criterion in mind. Use the list below to see if the class will meet most of your needs for your service dog candidate. It is unlikely that any one trainer will met all the criterion, but the list will help you make your best choice. Feel free to sign up for more than one if the trainer only offers one a week or is missing any key criterion that another class may offer. Above all, be prepared to be your puppy's advocate and be careful to keep all experiences positive. Ask questions about what is the basis of a specific behaviour if it is not obvious to you or if you have concerns. You have the right to obtain (keep your puppy safe) during parts of training you don't agree with. Get him to do other known behaviours during those periods to keep him busy and use the time effectively.
The bottom line is that you are looking for a class that focusses on using the other puppies not only for socialization to continue dog language and bite inhibition skills, but as a distraction that he can be called away from and do other behaviours in their presence. A class that lets the puppies play for long periods, without frequent call aways and then ends only teaches the puppies to be more focussed on the other puppies.
Feel free to print off this page as a handout to give to your trainer to help her understand your needs better. All puppies will benefit, not just service dog candidates.
Name of trainer: _________________________ website: _______________________________
Address: Location: ________________________________ city: _________________________
Contact info: phone:_________________________ email:_______________________________
How to Choose a Puppy Class for Your Service Dog Candidate
Look for a Class Where:
___1. The trainers focus on simple ways of getting behaviors such as luring with food or capturing with a marker sound to start with, then shaping with slightly older puppies. Force should not be used (pushing a puppy into a sit or down or pulling on the leash).
___2. The puppies are paired off for short spurts of play, then rotate partners. This allows the pups to learn to interact with other puppies of different sizes, fur length and shape and energy levels.
1:1 allows the humans to gently intervene before things get out of hand. In small rooms, baby gates or Xpen dividers are helpful to keep the pairs apart. Trios can be allowed if each puppy has been successful interactions with the other two singly first.
___3. The humans are on their feet and interacting with their pups (not sitting on the sidelines). Premack Principle should be used during interactions. This means that the puppies learn some simple behaviors like eye contact, sit or nose target to a hand, then allowed to play with a partner for a few minutes, then are called away and asked to do a simple behavior, given a reward then sent back to play with their buddy. This teaches them good behavior patterns such as coming away from another dog and focussing on her handler despite the distraction of other dogs. This must happen right from the start.
___4. The trainers teach you about dog body language and what the most common behaviors mean. How do you know when the puppy is not feeling comfortable and when you need to redirect their attention or intervene.
___5. Class is short (45 min or so). Longer sessions are not desirable. In fact, shorter is better as there is better chance of positive experiences for the puppy. Young puppies get tired quickly.
___6. Handlers start learning without the puppies. The human handlers need to learn the theory and practice before applying it on their dog. They need a chance to focus without the distraction of the puppy. This can occur in a human-only session before class starts, and also at the beginning of each class. 10-15 minutes is enough to teach you what you will be doing in class as well as set up the handling expectations for each class and where your starting spot will be. Then you go get your puppy. A family member or friend can be waiting in the car or outside with your pup.
___7. The trainers provide a variety of different environmental enrichment opportunities each session. This could be different flooring, things to crawl over, under and around, hanging things, sounds playing in the background, things commonly seen in life (crutches, canes, children, ladders, wheelchairs or strollers etc)
___8. Children are welcome in class but are supervised by a teen or adult whose sole job is to work with the child on interacting with the puppies. A great opportunity, but needs to be structured.
___9. The puppies are all in a narrow developmental range 8-16 weeks, and are highly supervised. Ideally, at first small puppies should be matched by size, at least until they gain confidence and care with puppies of a different size and developmental stages.
___10. Class has a maximum of 6 puppies of different breeds, shapes, colors and sizes. 4 is ideal. Even if there is a higher trainer to pup ratio, too many puppies is too many puppies to keep track of and the sheer chaos of more than 3 pairs is hard for the puppy and handler to focus in.
___11. Puppies are off leash for the class. This requires a room of decent size so each handler puppy pair has enough room to train.
___12. That puppies are allowed to just sit and watch if that is where they are at. Let them decide when they are ready to interact. They should not be forced to interact. Give them time to assess the situation and that choice helps them to gain confidence.
___13. More frequent sessions are ideal. A trainer who offers drop in classes (with limited group size and consistent handling expectations) many times a week is great. The more frequent the brief exposure to different puppies, rooms and environmental enrichment the better.
___14. The trainer follows a regular room cleaning protocol to prevent the spread of disease. Since puppies may start classes at 8.5 weeks, all of them should have their first set of inoculations.
From: Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs Blog www.servicedogtraininginstitute.ca 2015
Here's a video that shows a well-run small class of 3 pups.
As you progress through training your own service dog, you will find that there are behaviors that your dog does that you don't want to see and you just can't seem to over come. Once you reach that point, it is time to go back and figure out where the behavior started from and how you can change your dog's response to the situations. Retraining them sooner than later will help to smooth the training process for any behaviors and tasks that follow.
What Behaviors Should You Be Watching For?
The most problematic behaviors are any related to lack of impulse control:
grabbing from your hands (food or toys)
barking (especially when the dogs is demanding something) (might be a single bark or multiple barks)
slapping or grabbing with one paw
mouthing (you or visitors)
inability to stay still
dancing feet on platforms
spinning while waiting (for a ball to be thrown, or to go out a door etc)
pushy behaviors (at doorways, against legs, in your space uninvited etc)
What all of these behaviors have in common is that they are related to arousal level. When a pup or dog does not have or has not yet learned impulse control, these are the ways that it typically shows itself.
To Solve the Problem:
1. Prevent the dog from practicing the unwanted behavior by managing the environment so he doesn't need to do the behavior. For example, how can you keep his arousal level lower? What can you do to prevent access to the physical triggers?
2. Break each unwanted behavior into smaller parts.
3. Identify what foundation skills your dog is missing.
4. Look at your own training mechanics. Timing, Rate of Reinforcement and Criterion are three common areas where most people need improvement to reduce your dog's frustration.
5. Control the physical and emotional environment you train your dog in. Dogs do respond to what's happening around them!
6. Retrain from the very early beginnings of the behavior in a new environment. Get reliable behavior and slowly increase the dog's arousal level.
7. Video your training sessions and look at it with a critical eye or get someone else to do that. What are you doing or how is the environment set up to contribute to the behavior?
8.Teach impulse control generally (in other areas of life).
9. Get help from a professional. Set up a Skype or FaceTime session to make a detailed training plan, submit videos and get specific feedback on how to solve your training challenges.
Many people get impatient when they start looking for an assistance dog candidate. How long it can take depends on many factors:
- the breed you are looking for. Rare breeds may take longer. Regionally, the breeds vary too. Choosing more common breeds like a labrador or golden retriever increases your chance of finding a dog sooner.
- the population near where you live. In general, the higher the population the more dogs will be available to choose from both from breeders and from rescues. If you live on an island or in an isolated area, you may need to plan to travel to visit potential litters or dogs. Use Skype or FaceTime to see where the dogs live and interview the breeder/owner/rescue organization before you go in person.
- how important it is to you if the parents have been tested for health issues common to the breed. In my opinion, this is very important especially in breeding lines that are relatively short, such as a new breeder with dogs only afew years old. There are many breeders who have dogs from untested parents. Look carefully at the pedigree to see if previous generations have been tested and what their scores are.
- puppy or adult If you know the breed you want and have sourced a reputable breeder who produces healthy dogs with good temperaments, you may need to wait a year or more, especially if they only breed occasionally. I'd advise start looking at least 6 months before you plan to start training, especially if you are starting in spring or fall. The better breeders have presold their pups and are likely to have a wait list for the next litter. If you want your pup in the fall, start looking in the spring. It takes 2 months for the puppies to develop from conception and another 2 months for the pups to get to an age that is appropriate to go to their new homes. That gives the breeder a few months to look for potential mates for their dog. Not being in a hurry for a pup will also put you in good with the breeder. They don't like being pressured. Be open to considering any adult dogs that are returned or retired from conformation show.
It can be frustrating to have to wait especially when most people want their service dog yesterday! Knowing you have done your research and have made the best choice you have available will give you a good start to successfully training your own service dog.
Training your own service dog requires a support system for you and your dog to be successful. Many people dive in without considering what daily needs the dog has and how they will be met. They also don't think of emergencies like periods where they may not be able to care for the dog due to their own medical emergencies.
Identify Your Team Members
Before you seriously consider training your own service dog, make sure to identify who these people are, have a talk with each of them and specifically discuss with them what they will be doing for you and the dog for the life of the dog. Make sure they are willing and eager to help. If they are not, you may face a challenge when you need them the most. Don't assume they like dogs or will know what to do with your dog.
- your caregivers are on board with having a dog and their role in helping you maintain/train and use
- dog exerciser
- dog sitter (for periods when you need a break, are incapacitated or in the hospital etc)
- vet behaviorist (for significant problem behaviors like fear or aggression, perhaps due to an incident in public, if not local, you should be able to find one that does distance consultations via Skype or FaceTime)
- groomer (for regular grooming)
- medical doctor
Over the life or your dog, these individuals may change, but make sure that someone is designated to take on each role. Depending on your disabilities, some of the roles may be more important than others at times.
Make a Hard Copy of the Team List
It helps to keep a list (ideally a hard copy) of each role, who is doing that role when, their contact information and what they have agreed to do. If something happens to you, your dog will be cared for.
What is Public Access Training?
Public access training is a process where a service dog in training is gradually exposed to public places and then is asked to perfrom basic behaviors, then more advanced and finally service dog tasks. Duration of training time is added incrementally.
Public Access Training is a Gradual Process
Training for public access shouldn't be an all or nothing process. Gradually integrate your SDit's training into public places.
1. Start with acclimation to the new environment, using distance from distractions as needed.
2. Wait for your dog to offer you default attention.
3. Reshape known behaviors and tasks from the beginning (without a verbal cue).
4. Try simple cued behaviors, then more complex ones over many sessions.
5. Add duration and distance to the behaviors as the environment allows. For example: adding time in the settle/relax position and distance of loose leash walking between settles. Then add duration to overall public training sessions.
6. Specifically proof behaviors and tasks and add distractions in the environment.
When is a Dog Ready to Start Public Access Training?
A dog may be ready when:
- generalized house training (potty on cue in a variety of places)
- good focus on handler despite high-level distractions
- is able to generalize foundation behaviors to several places
- your dog is able to ignore other members of the public and other dogs
- has successfully completed the canine good neighbor (or canine good neighbor) test
- is comfortable wearing a vest or working harness or other identification (if you choose to have your dog wear it)
- can perform at least one task on cue that mitigates the handler's disability
SDit May Not Have Public Access Rights
As owner-trainers, your local laws may or may not allow you public access with a SDit. If they do not, identify public locations where pet dogs are allowed that will be useful but not too busy (avoid the big box pet stores until later in training). Get written permission to access other locations where pet dogs are not allowed.
How to Start Public Access (PAT) Training?
Start with carefully planning each session.
Identify specific situations where your dog may have challenges. Have a look at the US public access test criterion or your regional test requirements for ideas. Here is the test that Service Dog Teams in British Columbia take.
Start with one challenge and plan a set of 10 sessions to train for it.
Start with short training visits and give your dog frequent breaks from training.
Evaluate after each session and then at session 5 and at the end of 10 sessions. Modify what you are training as the dog needs it. The plan may not go as you think it might.
Isolate each challenge and train them individually in the same way.
Practice a standard polite way to refuse interaction with your dog. This is in case you need to quickly leave the situation. Two key pieces are to get the dog to face you and to say a brief verbal explanation.
Integrate the various challenges just a few at a time.
Remember That The Public Access Test (PAT) is Only the Beginning
You and your dog will face situations and distractions in real life that are far greater than the test. For example, a child may run up and greet your dog by throwing her arms around his neck or a man may kick at your dog or other dogs may be allowed to come up and interact with your dog without permission. Train beyond this test requirements. The key reason for the public access test is to make sure your dog does not present a public safety hazard.
Here is a link to the IAADP's explanation of what needs to be covered during public access training.
British Columbia's Guide and Service Dog Assessment Test is useful as they break down the behaviors into smaller easier-to-measure steps.
Take your time and set you and your dog up for success. It's an ongoing process!
No Forward Progress
Recently, I have been seeing several people posting on social media about behaviors and service dog tasks that they have been working on for a week or months and seeing very little progress. These owner-trainers are talking about just building the basic behavior, not generalizing, proofing or even fine tuning a behavior!
If you are having this same problem while using positive reinforcement, doing several short training sessions a day, and training in a low distraction environment with a suitable level of reinforcers, then something in your training process is not right.
Some Common Things to Look At:
- the dog's behavior history
Has the dog previously been punished for doing the behavior or a similar one? This will certainly slow the progress as the dog will be fearful or hesitant to do similar behaviors.
- the dog's developmental stage
Is the behavior you are working on affected by his physical or emotional development stage? If your puppy is teething, he may be hesitant to grab a hard object firmly because it hurts to do so.
- the dog's response to doing the behavior
Does the behavior involve something that is aversive to the dog? For example, is the dog very space conscious and you are asking for him to invade your space to do a behavior?
- the dog's understanding of how to build behaviors
Does the dog's previous learning give him enough understanding that supports the specific behavior you are working on? Making sure he has the pieces of the puzzle to figure out what you want builds his success.
The Big Question and the Solution
Are you breaking the behavior down into small enough pieces? If not, go back and teach him missed foundation skill of the behavior.
Long Term Behaviors
There are a few behaviors do take a long time to develop, such as loose leash walking (due to distractions inherent in the behavior), or settle (due to adding duration to the behavior), but your dog should be experiencing success at each step of the way and not getting stuck for long periods at a certain spot. If forward progress seems too slow, it is up to you to figure out what needs to be done to help your dog move forward in incremental steps.
One of the reasons I use positive reinforcement with my own and client dogs is because of the quick success all of us experience. Teaching (and the flip side, learning) is about experimenting. When your dog gets stuck, try changing some small things about the behavior or the physical environment. If that doesn't work, step back and look at the challenge and take a medium picture look.
If those changes don't work, then try taking a whole different approach. There are many ways to teach the same behavior! For example, in teaching a hand-delivered retrieve, there are at least 7 different positive ways to teach a dog to take something in his mouth and 7 other ways to teach him to hold an object. That's 14 things you can experiment with for two key steps of the retrieve! Each of those can be broken down into many smaller steps.
What You Can Do
A. If you are getting stuck, first make sure you understand the basic concepts of training. If you are missing something, then so will your dog. Many dogs are great about compensating for our lack of knowledge in many areas and make us look like great trainers, but there will be some things your dog just cannot figure out on his own.
B. Next, ask questions from others. They can help you brainstorm what the problem might be and solutions. Find a good Facebook group that you feel comfortable in and are confident that you will get some thoughtful answers. Ask your question being clear on: 1. what the behavior is, 2. what you think the problem is and 3. what you have tried so far. Sometimes the process of writing it down for others will give you a new perspective.
C. Find a reputable experienced local dog training professional who is great at breaking behaviors into their smallest parts.
D. Take a class online for your specific challenge.
Help is available! You and your dog don't need to feel like failures. For most behaviors, positive reinforcement should be all about quick success for you and your dog! If it's not, something needs to be changed. Check out my Foundation Skills classes and Service Dog Retrieve online class!
Most people reading this would think this is ridiculous! Hold off on your judgment until you have read the whole article!
Fact! Most program-trained service dogs have dogs trained and working in public by 18 months - 2 years of age.
Fact! The success rate of program-trained dogs is between 35 and 80%
Fact! The program dogs are tested and either declared ready for work or are removed from the program before or at that age.
Let's take a look at why there is a difference between program-trained service dogs and owner-trained service dogs.
Professional Programs have a Training Structure
First and foremost, all programs have a tried and true structured program they put the dogs through. It has been honed over the years to work with most of the dogs that go through the program. Interestingly, using positive reinforcement with correction actually ends up speeding the process and gradually higher percentages of dogs each year.
Professional Programs have Experienced Volunteers and Professional Trainers
Volunteer puppy raisers (many of who have already successfully raised several puppies for the program) do the hard foundation work of raising the pups to about 14-16 months of age and training the basic behaviors. These volunteers follow the training structure and go to classes provided by the program. The developing adolescent dogs are included in their active lifestyles as much as possible to expose the dog to everything they will later encounter as an adult.
Professional Trainer's Focus is on Training the Dog
Professional trainers work with each dog every day for several hours, teaching tasks, and refining the skills learned with volunteers and generalizing those skills to public places. The training is very intense for the dogs. Trainers live their own life after hours.
Professional Trainers Have a Support Team
Professional service dog program trainers have a support team of puppy raisers, assistants, other trainers, supervisors, etc that they can ask for ideas, help and support for daily training and problem- solving. These people can also serve as distractions for training and for training set ups before the dog is exposed to the public. And they are responsible for the dog during non-training time.
Professional Trainers Have Resources Provided by the Organization
Resources needed can take the form of payment for their time, purchase and storage of training materials, transportation to specific sites for training, resources collected over the years and access to public training spaces. Most programs have all the key physical structures and materials to practice on right on site: from a variety of surfaces to different doors with handles to disability-specific equipment.
People Training Their Own Service Dogs
Owner-Trainers Need to Find or Create a Structured Training Program
In comparison to programs, people who self-train their assistance dogs need to develop or find a training structure or program. Or cobble several together.
Owner-Trainers Need to Learn the Skills to Train Their Dog
A few years ago, most owner-trainers were professional dog trainers who already had many of the skills needed. Today, more and more people are owner-trainers who need to learn the training skills as they train. That slows both them and the dog down.
Owner-Trainers May Be Limited by Their Disability or Their Work Schedule
Owner-trainers typically have their own disability or are caregivers for a dependent with a disability. The disability may stall the training process for long periods (as in a health relapse) or may limit where they can go to train (as in anxiety or PTSD).
Some owner-trainers work part or full-time. The dog may not the main focus of their day-time hours.
Owner-Trainers Need to Create and Maintain a Support Team
Many owner-trainers are isolated and have to work hard to create a support team to help them train their service dog. They build it and often rebuild it in the process as support people move on. In addition, they have to train these people how to interact with the dog or how to help them in the training.
Owner-Trainers Must Make All Arrangements Themselves
Owner-trainers have to arrange for themselves transportation to and get specific permission to access to each of the resources and locations they need for training: everything from specific equipment, visiting to fire stations to practice riding transportation.
All of these things are done by the owner-trainer and takes focus, energy and time away from training the dog. These three things are usually in short supply.
A Word about Canine Maturity
Most dogs are not physically mature until 2 years of age. Bone plates have not completely closed and the dog has not yet filled out. On top of that, many breeds are not emotionally or socially mature until 3 years of age. Think of your friends and neighbors who complain that their similar breed dogs still acting like a teenager at 2.5 years or older! Are you willing to trust your life to a teenager?
Public Access Assessment Tests Hold You to a Higher Level
You may decide to complete an external assessment like British Columbia residents who owner-train may do. You will learn that most of the items on the test require the dog to have developed a very high level of self-control and an ability to focus on you for a long period. That self-control comes with time and practice. All service dogs with public access need to have this level of training and the test holds you to them. All program dogs have some sort of test they must pass before they are deemed a service dog who can work in public.
In 2016, the success rate of owner-trained service dog teams taking the BC Provincial Guide and Service Dog Assessment Test for the first time was 30%. A team can come back at a later date suggested by the assessor to retry. That time allows the dog to fine-tune the public skills, deal with any issues (commonly fear, aggression, over-exuberance or health) and develop the maturity needed to be able to focus in public despite distractions.
Why Take the Assessment Test If You Don't Have to?
In provinces like British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia, they have tests that non-program trained dogs can take to prove they can meet (or surpass) the required standard for public access. Taking the test proactively makes your life much easier. When asked by retailers etc, you can produce the certificate. If the police are called, they can back your access claim up. If you do not have the provincially issued card, the police will support the retailer and they can press charges against you for portraying your dog as a service dog when it is not. Then it is up to you to prove that your dog does meet the provincial standard. This whole process is very messy and stressful. Taking the test in the first place is the easiest way to avoid that whole emotional turmoil.
A Big Bonus of Training Your Own Dog
Fortunately, service dogs that are owner-trained can be kept in training as long as needed to further train the dog and give them time to mature into a full-fledged service dog. A dog in training can still be working at home, in pet-friendly places and in other places with written permission until he has developed the skills and maturity needed to be a working service dog.
That's why aiming for the age of 3 years is a more realistic goal for those who are training their own service dog before starting to use their dog as a full-fledged working service dog.
One of the most important things that crossover trainers (trainers who are changing from a correction-based approach to a positive one) learn is that training a dog is a fun process of helping their dogs enjoy learning. Breaking the training process into small enough steps for success allows the dog and trainer to enjoy the journey because they are both being challenged while still achieving high success.
Progress means moving towards a goal in small enough steps that that each particular dog needs. Often those steps are much smaller than the trainer expects. Asking for more than a dog can do sets the dog up to fail. Asking for less than he can do (or doing too many repetitions of the same thing) sets him up for boredom. Finding the 'sweet spot' where the dog is steadily making progress with the behavior and is having fun learning is the real training challenge.
Making the Process an Enjoyable One
A good rule of thumb is to set up the environment and choose a specific training session objective (criterion) so that your dog can achieve at least 50% success rate on what you are asking him to do. That means for every 10 repetitions, he gets at least 5 correct and is marked and rewarded for each. That level is the minimum level that most dogs need to continue trying and the behavior is a fun puzzle to figure out. Practice at that specific objective until your dog can get at least 80% (8 out of 10 repetitions) correct before changing the objective to make it just a little more challenging. Just like a good computer game, we need to increase the challenge to keep the dog's interest and joy in playing with us.
Observe and Note the Pattern of Success & Failure
The trick here is to observe the pattern of success. If your dog gets 4 or more in a row correct, he probably is starting to understand what you are asking and you can ask for something a little more challenging. If he gets three in a row correct then makes a mistake, then he needs more practice at that level. Alternatively, if he gets something wrong twice in a row in a training session, then it is up to you to make something easier so he can succeed the third time. That success will keep him motivated to keep trying despite the failure.
Changing the Objective on the Fly
If your dog did get two in a row wrong, you will need to immediately change something about what you are asking to make it easier. This "in the moment" evaluation is called "formative evaluation" in education circles. Applying formative evaluation during training sessions is a key skill that allows you to focus on the training process rather than the end product.
With an enjoyable (just the right challenge level) process, a good product is more likely. The desired final behavior can then be achieved.Ultimately we are looking for progress not perfection!
As trainers, we need to remember that while we can get behaviors to be reliable, they will never be "perfect" since dogs, like us, are variable in their behavior no matter how well trained they or we are. That is another reason we focus on progress, not perfection.
with Lisa G White of Positive Pet Advice FB Group.
- DH: Hi Everyone! Thanks for inviting me here again!
- LGW: It's a pleasure having you here with us again, Donna. Well let's get the ball rolling - how long have you been training Service Dogs? How long have you been training Service Dogs?
DH: I have been helping people train their own assistance dogs via Youtube, Skype and online classes since 2008. Hence my Youtube channel name of supernaturalbc2008. I started when I realized how easy it was to train tasks with clicker training. No physical strength is needed. Just break them down into small enough steps for the dog to succeed.
- LGW: Do you train dogs to hand over to someone or do you teach owners with their existing dogs?
DH: I help people choose and train their own dogs, do day training and help clients to top up training of dogs obtained from programs. Not all service dogs work in public. A service dog can work only at home for tasks that are done at home, such as waking a person from night terrors or when they go into a diabetic low or alerting them to a sound when they take their hearing aids out. Not everyone wants or needs a dog that can do public access.
- LGW: What qualities are key for a dog to become a Service Dog?
DH: Keeping it super simple: For public access, they need to be healthy, have a good temperament, food-motivated and be bombproof. There are many others of course. LOL! On my website, I have a free class that helps guide people on what qualities to look for in an adult dog and when looking for a breeder for a future service puppy. Here is a list of some of the key characteristics to look for in an adult dog.
- medically and structurally healthy dog from long-lived lines
- adaptable to different situations and expectations
- be food or toy motivated or both for training
- wants to interact and be with people but not overly friendly as you need the dog’s focus to be on the handler
- low to medium exercise needs (unless handler leads an active lifestyle)
- has body awareness so not knocking into things, people
- forgiving if you accidentally run over his feet with a wheel etc
- social with other dogs (polite but not overly interested in them)
- low to no prey drive (cats, rabbits etc)
- inhibited bite when in play - soft mouth is ideal
- tolerant to loud sounds like thunderstorms, gunshot, fireworks (must have been introduced when young)
Because there are so many characteristics that they need to have, service dog candidates can be difficult to find. I once heard an SD trainer say "You need a service dog candidate, not a rehabilitation project." I have come to agree with her! It's a long and hard enough process starting with a good dog! Some of the more successful programs breed their own lines of labs, goldens, standard poodles or mixes of these. Others use rescue dogs but must assess about 400 shelter dogs before they find one that is a suitable candidate. If a person lives in an area with few rescue dogs, it can be difficult for them to find a suitable dog to train. Reported success rates for program bred dogs (50-80%) are much higher than for both for shelter dogs (15-30%) and owner-trained dogs (unknown but low judging by the number of multiple dogs many have.) Owners have to be willing to either have multiple dogs, use the dog only at home or rehome a dog that doesn't meet the standards for public access. Aggression, fear, overly-social and health issues are the most common reasons dogs fail to become a service dog with public access.
5. LGW: How long is the process in training a dog to become a fully qualified Service Dog?
DH: For owner-trained dogs who have medical issues that slow the training process, or who are new to training, I tell them to expect to expect their dog to be at least 3 years old if they are training from a puppy. If they get an adult dog that is 18 months to 3 years, then at least a year from the time they get the dog, depending on how much previous training and public access experience the dog has done and their own skill and knowledge of training dogs. Programs can do it in shorter periods (18 months to 2 years) because they have professional trainers who are working with the dog 5 days a week, plus they have the physical resources such as training space, transportation, access to other dogs, people and props available when they need it. They also have developed a process that works. Most dogs are not emotionally mature enough to handle full public access until at least 2yrs anyway. If you get a dog 18 months or older, they have gone through fear periods and you have a pretty good idea what the working ability will be like.
6. LGW: What are some of the tasks that a Service Dog is trained for?
DH: Tasks are really the sexy stuff of service dogs. They are comparatively easy compared to public access training. Today, with a good understanding of the principles of clicker training, the only limit to tasks is the creativity of the trainer or handler, the ability to generalize the task anywhere and knowledge of the client's specific disabilities.
Common tasks are retrieving items for a mobility-impaired person, alerting a hard-of-hearing person to a car behind them or someone calling their name. Autism dogs can keep a child from running away or from hurting himself. Seizure response dogs stay with the person when they have a seizure and are there when they come out of a seizure.
More rare are seizure alert dogs who can predict an impending seizure so the handler can get to a safe place.
A dog trained as an Alzheimer's dog can go get the caregiver when the person gets out of their chair or lead the handler home on a walk.
Psychiatric assistance dogs are on the rise for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety etc.
For anxiety, dogs can interrupt self-harm behaviors, or lead a person to an exit when they are panicked or confused. The most recent application is to detect a rise in cortisol levels when the person is becoming stressed as an anxiety alert.
Here's one of my public videos that show how to train an anxiety alert:
7. LGW: How do you pair up the right dog to the right person?
DH: This is a very important question as it the foundation for success. When helping a person to chose their own dog we look at their lifestyle, where they live, their resources, their abilities and what they need the dog to do for them. Would starting with a puppy or an adult dog work best for them? Activity levels, grooming requirements of the dog and of course the tasks needed. Size and structure may be important for the tasks as well as food costs. The dog must be physically capable of doing tasks and be able to handle the physical and emotional stress of doing them every day for however long is needed.
I see many people who come to me who have chosen the wrong dog for the situation and job. Even with careful research, they are not familiar with what they actually need and a breeder or rescue organization may not be familiar with what the person's reality is. For example, a dog from working lines might sound like a good match for someone who needs motivation to get out for a walk, but in reality, is likely to be too demanding in mental and physical exercise needs for the person to live with.
With owner-trained service dogs, when mismatches occur, it is heartbreaking. Most people do not want to give up a dog they have bonded with and put many hours of training into. But the dog is not meeting their needs and is costing them the limited resources they have. I suggest that people find a trainer to help them at least rule out obviously inappropriate breeders or adult dogs. Sadly, there are far more dogs that won't be suitable as service dogs for them than ones that will.
8. LGW: What are the realities of living with a Service Dog?
DH: This is super question! One that most people overlook when thinking about training their own SD. But very important as I know people that have stopped training as they didn't like the attention they got and stress it caused having a dog with them.
It takes a team of people to raise and meet a dog's daily needs, and train it to public access standards. The handler needs to take care of the dog just like the dog takes care of the handler. Training the dog to be a service dog takes 100% focus on the dog during training. It takes planning, dedication and someone who can stay motivated. And that is above the basic daily needs of all dogs (food, water, pottying, cleaning up, play, exercise, rest, grooming, veterinarian care etc).
Even when handlers train their own service dogs, the process is still costly. Beyond the initial purchase price are several sets of in-person classes, consults with behavior experts, trips for socialization and public access training, equipment, regular veterinarian fees etc. Here is a link to a service dog cost estimate chart for the first two years. http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/train-your-own-sd/200-estimated-costs-of-owning-a-service-dog
Education and advocacy about service dogs is an important role that most people have no idea is part of being paired with a service dog. Interacting with members of the public who just see a cute dog they want to pet have and no idea they are not supposed to interrupt a service dog at work, educating retailers who ask the dog be removed despite the dog behaving and doing its job, advocating for their rights with accommodation providers who see the dog as a pet. Learning to handle people who pry into your medical condition because you have a dog is key. And these days, running into fake service dogs who are untrained, often aggressive and interfering with a working dog is more and more common. Some days it seems like too much work and can be overwhelming! Of course, there are good days too.
9. LGW: Are you satisfied with the results in using a clicker to train an SD? What are the pros and cons of using a clicker for this type of training?
DH: I have a blog post on the pros! It is often life-changing for the client once they embrace the principles.http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/blog/373-what-we-learn-by-clicker-training-our-dogs
10. LGW: Why is it important that people do NOT approach a Service Dog?
DH: Great question! A service dog who is working needs to be focussed on their handler. Even if the dog looks to be resting, they are still connected and ready to work. They are just on 'stand by'. If you are interacting with a service dog, the dog might miss giving an alert because he is distracted by you or he might miss a cue given by the handler to perform a task. In fact, in many jurisdictions, it is illegal to interfere with a service dog unless he is off duty and you are given permission to interact by the handler.
11. Member Question: How can people improve the success rate for training their own service dog to public access standards?
DH: There are 10 steps for that! LOL
Get professional advice before you start the process-before you get the dog.
Have a support team ready to go for both practical and emotional support.
Have a medical condition that doesn't significantly affect the dog or the training process.
Learn the service dog laws that apply to the state/province and country where you live.
Start with the best dog available.
Follow a structured program.
Be diligent about following it and recording success and failure.
Get professional help as soon as you need it.
Be realistic about how long it may take.
Be ready to use the dog only at home if s/he doesn't qualify for public access.
12. Member Question: What assessment tool do you use for puppies? and adult dogs?
DH: Good one! I have cobbled together one I use from several others. CARAT by Suzanne Clothier is the best overall. I understand it stands up to scientific research as far as predictability. But it can be hard to access as there are not many people who do it yet.
Member Question: Is everything covered in CARAT 01? Puppy Assessments? Or should I plan to attend 02 and beyond?
DH: Here's the link: http://suzanneclothier.com/content/carat
Member Comment: Thank you!
DH: Ideally, if you want to assess dogs for a living, the whole program would be something to consider. I haven't taken it myself and I don't know the details but if you are serious about learning this specific thing, it would be an ideal way to do it and learn from a great instructor.
13. Member Question: I am interested in learning how to become a Service Dog Trainer, what would you suggest for me and other trainers?
First, you have to love working with people when they are not at their best. Learn about the specific disabilities you want to train for. Learn how to apply the principles of learning, learn dog language, learn how to teach people, so many parts! The Human Half or Dog Training" by Rise Van Fleet is also helpful.
My online classes are a great way to start. Work with a dog to train the through the whole process to see if it's something you would like to do. Maintain high standards for the dogs you work with.
14. Member Question: Should all SD's be X-rayed for hip Dysplasia?
That really is up to the dog and vet you are working with. If the dog is from unknown background, then I would say Yes, ideally combined with other medical procedures like a spay or neuter to minimize time in the vet office, costs etc. There are so many factors in HD. Even the floor surface a pup is exposed to in the litter box, using stairs before 4 months etc. may affect how the hips develop so the more that is known helps.
15. LGW: Ok folks, time to wrap things up. Donna any final comments about the Service Dog Industry?
DH: Yes, if anyone is interested to see the test that dogs must pass in British Columbia before being certified for public access: Here is a link to the BC Assessment test. I like it better than the ADI public access test because it breaks the behaviors down further and so is easier to know if or not your dog is ready to pass it. It is also publically accessible which the ADI test is not any longer. http://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/law-crime-and-justice/human-rights/guide-animals/bc-guide-dog-service-dog-assessment.pdf
If you want to learn more about SD, check out my website which has tons of free information as well as online classes and private consults by webcam.http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca
LGW: Thank you so very much Donna, on chatting with us about such an interesting topic, and thank you to our members for asking the questions.
DH: You are welcome! Thanks for having me back!
Thanks for coming everyone! Please feel free to refer anyone you know thinking of training their own SD or wanting to get into SD training to this post or to my website. http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca
Clicker Training Teaches us Many More Life Lessons!
Click here for Part 1
Improves our Eye/Hand Coordination: The mechanical skills used in clicker training can be learned. Our timing gets better with practice. So does our thought of where the reward is placed to set our dog up for success. We get better at using the equipment. We fine tune our motor and brain muscles for life's other activities.
Builds Creativity and Resourcefulness in Both Us and Our Dogs: We can teach our dog to be creative when it comes to learning new behaviors and interacting with us in different ways. We learn to be creative in applying the principles of clicker training to training our service dogs and to life. Many people with disabilities think resources are in short supply when in fact we aren't using our creativity to use what's around us to the fullest. Being resourceful is empowering!
More Than One Way to Get There From Here: There are many ways to teach behaviors and skills to service dogs and all of them can be positive! Dogs often don't do what we think they will but we can take what they offer and work from there. Our training plans may take a zag where we thought it would go straight or zig. When we learn to adapt our teaching, we find we can also apply this adaptability to our life! As we have found out, life doesn't always go as planned. In many cases, the zag can mean better things for us, if we go with it rather than stick to the original plan of getting there! Go with it! You can still get where you want to go, just find a different way!
How the Brain Works: In order to help our dog to learn to assist us in the world, we learn what happens when fear is triggered and how it inhibits learning. We learn what is needed to create environments that are suitable for our dog to learn quickly and easily so he can help us. If we suffer from anxiety, emotional disorders or high stress, we learn from our dogs what we can do about it to help us better function in the world.
The World Isn't Just About Us: When we really learn to apply the principles of clicker training, we learn that our dog has needs and wants just as we do. Our dog also sees things differently than we do. From there, we start considering other's perspectives. We don't have to agree or disagree, we just acknowledge that their view may differ from ours. That's okay! Their history and experience are different from ours. That gives them a different view, be they canine or human.
Process is More Important Than The Product!: Whether we are training our dog basic life skills, public access or specific service dog tasks, nothing is more important than the process. We spend about 99% of our time working towards goals. If we only enjoy the actual goal achievement, then we are missing out on the largest part of the goal: the process. To keep our dog and us moving forward, the process needs to be fun and enjoyable. If it's not, we stop doing it. The process is how we build relationships and strengthen trust.
What lessons have you learned from taking up clicker training? Share on my Facebook Page!
Clicker training is an approach to training your dog but it's also a life-improving philosophy! A person with any disability would do well to learn how to apply clicker training effectively. (By the way, you don't have to use a clicker to clicker train! You can use a word "Yup!" or sound like a whistle.)
There are many benefits to learning how to clicker train your service dog:
Generalizing: Once we start training our dogs to perform different behaviors in different locations, we find that they are often confused in the new location, not being stubborn. We discover that our dogs don't "know" a behavior or task until they have had a chance to relearn and practice it in many different locations. This is because they tend to look for small clues to tell them what we want. In each new location, they have to relearn the behavior from the start. We are very similar to our dogs. Most people think they are quite good at applying skills learned in one environment and used in another. I am sad to tell you, most are not. Think of when you have taken a class and then tried to use the information and skills in another class. I bet you made mistakes the first few times and had to relearn the skill? Perhaps even go back and read the information? Learning the principles of clicker training and applying them to many different behaviors, tasks and in different situations, we can learn how to generalize all of our knowledge and skills better. Once we become very skilled at generalizing, we can apply it anywhere correctly. That opens up a whole new world of what behaviors and tasks we can train our service dog to do for us. It also improves how we function in the world! Isn't that the whole point of having a service dog?
Read Dog Language: In order to use the clicker or marker well, we need to learn to read dog communication. Communication between dog and handler goes two ways. The dog must read us and we must read the dog. The dog's communication tells us if he is understanding what we want or how he is feeling about what he is doing. This information is useful when we are training. It lets us know that we need to modify our approach so our dog better understands what we are asking. This in turn, gets us thinking from another being's perspective. Why might the dog be doing what he is doing? There are reasons behind the behavior beyond being stubborn or stupid. This builds empathy in us. Empathy is a key ingredient in building and maintaining strong relationships with our dogs and with other people.
Shaping improves Observation Skills: One of the best parts of clicker training is shaping. Shaping involves starting with a tiny piece of the final behavior and then waiting for the dog to offer more of the behavior to get closer to the final behavior you want. Think of it like a series of snapshots in time that makes up a whole behavior. To use a phone, you must pick up the phone, turn it on, dial the numbers, press the connect button, then put the phone to your ear and wait for the ringing sound to stop. When we shape, each one of these behaviors can be marked and rewarded before putting them together as a whole behavior. Even smaller steps like bringing the phone from your chest up to your ear can be broken into smaller pieces. Learning to watch for these tiny behaviors improves our skills of observing.
We Use Our Minds and the Environment to Teach: When clicker training is used, we use our minds and the environmental set up to teach the dog what we want. We don't need to physically interact with a dog to teach him and he can even be at a distance from us. The dog's job is to figure out what will make us click and reward him. It is our job to figure out how to set up the situation so our dog will succeed. This allows more people with physical disabilities to train their own service dog. We learn that in life, the physical and emotional environment plays a huge role in the degree to which we are successful in what we do and for other people as well.
Put More Energy Into Rewarding Behaviors We Want: Society teaches us to focus on the incorrect responses and correct or punish those. Instead, with clicker training, we learn to focus on and reward the behaviors we want from our dog. The more often those behaviors are rewarded at the right time, the more often they will occur and the stronger they become. How often are we rewarded many times in a day? Wouldn't if feel better if we were rewarded more? We can start the change with our dog and it will build to positively affecting the people around you! Family, health-care workers, retail staff and others will feel the change and respond to it.
Break Behaviors and Tasks into Smaller Pieces: Every problem can be divided into tiny achievable steps. There is a saying: "Yard by yard, Life is Hard. Inch by Inch, It's a Cinch!" (Unknown) Every behavior, task, challenge or problem can be divided into tiny achievable steps. We just have to take the time to break them down and then do them. This process speeds learning and reduces the roadblocks to learning new things and refining known skills. And yes, applies to your life as a whole!
Learn What True Partnership Is: True partnership is taking turns following the lead of another that we trust. By using the principle of clicker training to create a partnership of trust, we can become more of a whole together than if we are separate. Dogs have a different skill set than we do. Those dog skills complement our human skills. We need to trust our dog to lead when he has the expertise. Other people have different skill sets. We need to learn to build partnerships with them too.
Shifts Our Whole Approach to Life Towards the Positive. Clicker training helps us understand our dogs and ourselves better. Anyone who embraces the philosophy has a shift towards being more positive in life. It starts by being more positive to our dogs and expands to being more positive towards other people in our life. The negatives still happen, but focussing more on the positives reduces the chronic stress that is detrimental to our physical and emotional health.
Learning is Lifelong: This is probably the most important lesson! We are never there yet. There is always one more task to teach our service dog or one more thing for us to learn. That seeking of knowledge and skills is what keeps us moving forward. Learning is fun!
I invite you to learn these lessons. Give clicker training a try!
Want to get Inspired?
Books to Read
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor -Karen shares her personal experiences with clicker training to show what is possible with clicker training. It is inspiring, easy to read, enjoyable and each chapter has video links of examples!
On My Mind by Karen Pryor- This is a thoroughly readable series of essays about her personal views on clicker training.
Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor-This small books helps you to understand the learning theory. She uses great people and animal examples. Again, it is written for the layperson to understand.
To get started all you really need is a marker sound and a handful of small soft treats. Check out this video to see what other simple things you can use:
Jump right in with teaching simple behaviors your dog already does.
This video introduces the proper technique of clicker training. The specific example of eye contact, but you can use "Wait", nose target.
Your first session
Here is an example of learning to read dog language during training:
Jessie shows signs of stress
If you are on Facebook, join the Observation Skills for Dog Training group
A good next step is to take a Foundations Skills Class in Clicker Training! Have fun!