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To Vest or Not To Vest an SDit?

When self-training a service dog, does my dog need to wear a vest to identify him as a service dog (in training)?

Maybe! It depends on the age and training level of your dog, your local laws, where you live, your comfort level interacting with people and where you train with him in public. 

Unfortunately, vests may attract attention rather than keep people at a distance. People are curious when they see a dog wearing a vest and may come over to ask questions or pet the dog. A vest may not solve solve the very problem you are hoping to prevent.

Putting a vest on a young pup means you will have to purchase others as the pup grows, and most pups will chew on them until they are past the chewing stage at about a year of age.

A vest is only needed when your dog is ready to do formal pubic access. Click here to read a list of behaviours your dog needs to be able to do in public places where pet dogs are allowed before stating formal "public access."

Check your local laws to see if Service Dogs in training (SDit) are protected for public access or not. If they are, and you feel comfortable, then you may want to have your dog wear a vest for public access training. In areas where SDit have no legal protection, only dogs with accredited service dog programs are allowed in public places with their trainer (where pet dogs are not allowed). Most of these typically will wear a vest that identifies the training organization.

If owner-trained dogs are not protected by law in your area, then stick to training your dog in places where pet dogs are allowed. There are many big box stores such as Rona, Home Depot, Michael's, Chapters, Canadian Tire etc who allow pets. Check at the entry for signs or ask a staff member if pets are allowed. If you use locations that allow dogs, this will decrease the number of questions you receive as your dog will just be another dog. If SDit are not granted public access in your local region and your dog is ready for formal pubic access training, then talk to management of retail businesses and ask for written permission on their letterhead before you go in. This will help on days the manager is off or if new staff approach you to ask if your dog is a SD and if you have permission to be there.

Tip: Stay away from big box pet stores though as they tend to be chaotic (with dogs and children) or save them for the very last training as they are the most distracting (and most risky) place to train a SDit.

Does the vest need to be a specific colour? 

It depends what the locals are accustomed to. If there is a Service Dog (SD) organization in your area that has many dogs that are visible in the community with standard-colored vests (blue or red) then you may be facing a struggle to educate them why your vest is a different colour. If there aren't many dogs or the vests vary, then it may not be an issue. Keep the vest looking professional to avoid questions about it's legitimacy.

What wording should the vest have on it? 

As few as possible. Keep the lettering large and easy to read. We recommend "Working Dog" rather than "Service Dog in training". Many people don't know what a service dog is and this brings up questions. Everyone knows what 'working' means. In states where SDit are not protected by law, then you are not breaking a law by labelling your dog an SD or SDit (which in these states is not a legal standing.)

How big should the lettering be? 

Letters need to be about an inch high with spacing between. Black on white background is easiest thread from a distance. This allows it to be read from 30 feet away. Smaller letters or more words cause people to come closer to your dog thread them. 

When my dog wears his/her vest, she is on her best behaviour! That's great right? 

If your dog shows significantly different behavior the first few times you put a vest on without doing any training or conditioning, your dog is probably not being well-behaved. He is more likely uncomfortable in it. Uncomfortable dogs appear calmer, may not eat, will move more slowly, respond more slowly to cues, may not want to sit or lay down, may not want to get up once they are down etc. In reality, they are stressed (some to the point of shutting down). I can't tell you how many service dogs in training I've seen where people say their dog is great when vested, then when I see the dog in person, the dog is scared of the harness, vest or head halter. The key thing is to watch the body language. A suddenly stiff or still dog is not a good thing.

How do I make putting on the vest a cue that the dog is working? 

You add the vest like adding any other cue: Train the dog to the behaviour level you want, then add the new cue (the vest) just before you do a training session. Start with very short sessions at first so it is obvious that you need his attention when the vest is on. At the end of each session, take the vest off and encourage your dog to be a dog (tell him to go sniff, potty, or play with him). Pairing the vest cue with the working behaviour many times, will teach your dog that when it is on, he is working. When it is taken off, he can be a dog. 

Can I introduce my dog to the vest if I am not going to use it until he is ready for pubic access?

Yes, it is important that your dog feels comfortable in the vest before he starts wearing it in public. Put it on for very very short periods before and during training sessions at home. Take it off as soon as the session is finished. If your dog is fearful of wearing a vest or harness, then consider taking our harness and vest class that addresses how to carefully introduce it to a fearful dog.

Be prepared for people approaching by using a standard answer that your dog is working, please do not disturb. Or that your dog is in training and not ready to greet people yet. Holding your hand up in front of you like a stop sign can help. Non-verbal body language such as stepping between your dog and the person can be very effective to deter people from interacting with your dog.