Service dogs – they’re trained for many different tasks to aid in a number of different disabilities. When people think of a service dog, they often picture a seeing-eye dog first. However, an immense range of different service dogs exists today to aid in all sorts of tasks for their owners!
What is a Service Dog?
A service dog is a dog that has been trained to assist a human with a disability. They are taught a specific task, or multiple tasks, that helps the person manage their disability.
For example, a seeing-eye dog helps a blind person navigate safely. However, service dog tasks don’t stop at navigation! You can train dogs to perform all manner of tasks and many types of service dogs exist today.
What Are Service Dogs Trained to Do?
Service dogs can be trained to perform an immense range of tasks for their human companion. Some tasks aid specifically in a single type of disability. Other tasks have a wider range of usage, and you might find that service dogs for several types of disabilities perform the same tasks.
Some of the different types of tasks you might find in service dog training include:
- Alerting their owner to blood sugar changes, which they can detect via smell;
- Retrieving objects for their owner, such as medications or items they might have dropped, particularly for owners who have impaired mobility;
- Compression therapy for owners who have anxiety or panic disorders;
- Alerting their owner to the onset of a seizure;
- Using their body to block strangers from approaching their owner too closely;
- Alerting their owner to increases in heart rate, as associated with panic attacks;
- Interrupting repetitive behaviors or self-harm;
- And much more!
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals are similar to service dogs, with a few key differences. An emotional support animal is not trained to perform specific tasks for its owner.
Instead, their presence provides emotional comfort to their owner. An emotional support animal typically has a written note from the patient’s doctor stating that the animal is an emotional support animal where a service dog does not need formal certification.
Emotional support animals do not undergo any specific training, and thus do not have the same allowances that service dogs do.
Support animals are legally required to be permitted in housing situations and on transportation but do not have legal access to public spaces. Service dogs, on the other hand, have full access to any public space.
What Goes into Service Dog Training?
Service dog training varies drastically based on the types of behaviors the dog must perform for its owner. The mechanics of each behavior varies, as the dog needs to learn different slews of tasks depending on the owner’s individual needs. However, all service dogs must have thorough socialization and desensitization to various people, locations, and situations.
Most people acquire service dogs through service dog training organizations that teach the dogs the behaviors necessary for their job. However, these programs often incur large costs for the owner, who is often on disability which can mean a restricted income.
For this reason, some people are opting to spend the time to train their service dog themselves by hiring a trainer to help them do so.
Can You Help With Service Dog Training?
Training a service dog is an incredibly tricky situation. Not all dogs have what it takes to be service dogs. Many dogs “flunk out” of service dog training.
That means that your dog might not necessarily be up to snuff when it comes to having the potential to be your service dog. It depends entirely upon the dog and its disposition.
Even when starting from scratch with a puppy, some dogs simply don’t have the personality or disposition to be successful service dogs.
If you’re hoping to train your own dog or your new puppy as a service dog, it’s important to keep this in mind and be prepared in the event that your dog doesn’t have what it takes.
With that said, several different elements go into starting your dog on their basic service dog training.
Service Dog Training: Where Should I Start?
When possible, service dog training should begin at the time you select your puppy. Puppies personalities can absolutely change from the time that they are weaned to when they become an adult.
However, choosing a puppy with an overly rambunctious disposition can put you in a position where you are starting off behind. The same goes for a puppy who is blatantly fearful or distrusting of strangers.
When choosing your new pup, look for a puppy who is confident but not overly assertive – calm and inquisitive but not fearful or cowering. Though the natural disposition of your puppy is bound to change a bit as they mature, starting at the right place can give you an advantage in their service dog training.
Training Your Service Dog – Socialization and Desensitization
Before worrying about any specific behaviors, you need to focus on the basics. Your dog should have their foundations down solidly before you can begin to work on teaching them service tasks. Socialize them with people of all ages and ethnicities and dogs of all sizes and breeds.
Make sure they are having brief, positive, low-key interactions where they learn that people are not to be feared. Even at this point, you should not encourage lengthy interactions with strangers or any jumping or roughhousing.
You should also begin to desensitize your dog to handling, travel, equipment like harnesses and to new locations. Your dog will need to have full confidence no matter where you take them, so they should be familiar with all sorts of locations and operations.
Using pet-friendly establishments or with the permission of otherwise non-pet-friendly locations, begin to bring your dog into retail stores, public spaces, and other areas you might expect them to encounter in their day-to-day tasks.
Most importantly, unless you are an expert in behavior, you should move through all of these steps with the help of a professional dog trainer to guide you and adjust your training plan as needed.