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How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog: A Complete Guide

By Mawoo Pets · 16 Feb · 20 min read
How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog: A Complete Guide

Is your dog the best dog in the whole world? That’s a silly question—of course he is! If you think your amazing dog has what it takes to be a service dog, there are steps you can take to get him fully certified for work in the field. This might surprise you, but training for service duty doesn’t necessarily have to start in puppyhood. If your dog shows a lot of skill in what he does—whether that’s helping you monitor your blood-sugar levels, or helping you cross the street—read on to find out how to make your dog a service dog.

What is a Service Dog?

Officially, a service dog is a dog trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability. Service dogs are individually trained to do a specific job, such as helping an autistic child navigate social settings, or alerting a deaf person to important noises like alarms and doorbells. 

There are many kinds of services that dogs have been trained to do for disabled people, and the history of this relationship may even stretch back to the ancient city of Herculaneum, in Italy! In the ruins of the city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, archaeologists found a mosaic artwork that seems to depict a dog, fitted with a leash and collar, guiding a blind man who holds a walking stick.

In the 1920s, large-scale training began in the United States and England for “seeing eye dogs.” Trained service dogs make a huge difference in the lifestyle of blind people across the world, allowing them some much-needed independence. Over time, dog trainers and individuals with support needs worked with more dogs to expand the industry, and today there are service dogs to support hearing loss, vision loss and psychiatric needs, and perform crucial healthcare roles like ending seizures, bringing medication and calling an ambulance.

How is a Service Dog Different from a Therapy Dog?

There are many ways that therapy dogs and service dogs are similar. Both are notably calm, patient and very intelligent. Both are important to the health of their owners. The main difference is that therapy dogs mostly provide comfort and emotional support, while service dogs are trained in specific techniques to physically support their owners. Therapy dogs don’t always have special training, but they are good in social situations, kind to people and patient when being handled by humans—even if it’s not in the gentlest way. 

Usually, therapy dogs work in care homes and hospitals. Most visit regularly, as it’s uncommon for permanent pets to be allowed into most types of care facilities. All kinds of dogs can become therapy dogs or service dogs, regardless of their breed status. If you know your dog is great with people, you can ask the management of your local hospital or senior centre if they’d let you bring him in for a visit. After a certain number of successful visits as a therapy dog, your dog can be registered with a number of certification boards.

How is a Service Dog Different from an Emotional Support Dog?

We all know how comforting it is to have the company of a good dog during tough times. That’s why dogs are the most likely pets to become certified emotional support animals. Emotional support dogs are specially trained to offer support to humans suffering from psychiatric distress such as anxiety or depression. Certified emotional support dogs are able to accompany their owners or companions onboard many domestic and international flights. Like service dogs and therapy dogs, emotional support dogs can be any breed as long as they are able to provide comfort and stability to their owners. You may already know your own special emotional support dog!

Who is Eligible for a Service Dog and What are the Requirements?

Since technically, anyone can train a dog to perform a support job, that means anyone can turn their own dog into a service animal. Of course, training your own service dog takes years of work and a lot of experience. To obtain a professionally trained and certified service dog from a trusted organization, you must qualify to receive the dog’s services. 

Only people suffering from a physical or psychological disability are eligible to receive their own service dog from organizations like Assistance Dogs International, 4 Paws for Ability and Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. To prove your eligibility, you only need to talk with your doctor or psychiatrist or other primary care provider and have them provide an official recommendation letter. 

Depending on the organization you approach for your service dog, there may be specific documents you’ll need your doctor to fill out, confirming that your disability would be less burdensome with the help of a service dog.

Once you’ve connected with an organization and it has agreed to provide you with a service dog, there might be a waiting period. Though many dogs are usually in training to assist blind owners, more specific training—like sensing approaching seizures and bringing medicine—is often given on a case-by-case basis. So, the waiting period depends partially on what your service dog will do for you.

Characteristics of a Good Service Dog

If you’re still wondering, “How can I make my dog a service dog?” you’ll need to look carefully at your dog’s personality and character traits. A good service dog is, above all, devoted to his owner. He takes his job seriously and feels a lot of satisfaction in doing his work well. He is not easily distracted or stubborn, and loves learning new things and proving how useful and intelligent he is. 

As mentioned above, there is no exact template for a service dog—they come from many breeds and mixes. That said, there are a few specific characteristics to look for when considering candidates for service dog training. 

First, the age of the dog in question is quite important. Though some trainers begin selecting service dog trainees as puppies, many professional trainers believe it is best to select dogs nearer to a year in age, up to 2.5 years. At this age range, it is easier to see the true natural personality of a dog and make a well-informed decision about its future. 

The health of the dog is also very important, obviously! Any frailty might make it difficult for the dog to perform certain duties, but also, a poorly dog deserves its own share of attention and care without worrying about caring for someone else every day. So, look for a strong dog who can handle a demanding job! 

Here are a few more traits to look for in a good service dog candidate:

  • Eager to learn

  • Not shy

  • Non-aggressive

  • Not fearful

  • Submissive

  • Calm

  • Enjoys human company

  • Good social skills with animals

  • People-focused

  • Not overly sensitive to touch or sound

  • Not easily frustrated

  • Not overly excitable

  • Able to relax in a variety of environments

  • Low anxiety

How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog: Step-by-Step

There are two ways a service dog is made: Either it is trained by its owner, or it is enrolled in a formal dog service training program. In both cases, there are several distinct steps in the training process. Understanding these steps is essential to understanding how to make your dog a service dog.

Following basic training, dogs then go through specific training to serve their particular intended owners—including medical procedures and bringing emergency medication. This is what the process looks like: 

  1. Basic training

  2. Specialty training

  3. Certification

Basic Service Dog Training

So, about your question: “How can I make my dog a service dog?” It all starts with basic training.

At the start, all dog training looks the same. That goes for family pets and future service dogs alike. The elements included at this first stage include housetraining, socialization and leash training. Any well-behaved pet knows to go potty outside, be calm and non-aggressive with other dogs and animals (and people, too!) and how to go for a successful walk with a leash.

Like every dog, these skills are the building blocks of living and working with humans. Understanding how to meet their basic needs of going to the toilet, getting exercise and interacting with other creatures helps dogs deal with larger challenges down the road. Also, this basic training process lets trainers see the personality of each as it develops. Sometimes, problems at this stage can arise—and that could mean a dog is taken out of a service program. 

Socialization is key at this stage in training, to make sure that a dog learns how to be friendly and confident among other dogs, cats, people, and even unexpected animals. Social training should begin during puppyhood, when a dog is as young as three weeks old. Usually, puppies get to spend a lot of their early days with their siblings and mother, which is a fantastic way for all dogs to start life. As they grow, puppies should be handled by people frequently, so they get used to human interaction. 

Next up is potty training! Crate training is sometimes used as part of housetraining a dog, as they naturally want to keep their little “safe space” clean and comfortable. This establishes the boundary between “home” and “outdoors,” the latter being somewhere a dog can search for a good place to pee or poo. Potty training is about repetition and establishing boundaries that are easy to understand for the dog. It also helps them understand how to behave in other people’s homes and while in public buildings.

As for leash training, this helps a dog recognize that you (or whomever is on the other end of the leash) are in charge and making decisions. Part of leash training is getting the dog to focus on you, as the leader. Focusing on human commands and body language will be the most vital part of a dog’s future in service, so this is crucial. Part of leash training includes simple commands like “sit,” “heel” and “stay.”

Off-Leash Training

With solid basic training, it’s a simple thing to control a dog within its own home and while out on a leash. Most dogs with basic training are easy to handle during visits to friends’ homes, public spaces, and during meetings with other dogs and animals. The next step comes with off-leash training, and it’s all about eye contact and focus.

Service dogs need to be constantly attentive, so they don’t miss anything that’s going on with their owner. Focus is crucial! The best way to develop good focus in a dog is by using eye contact throughout training, as well as when giving commands. Meeting the dog’s eyes when communicating reinforces the link between human leadership and obedience in the dog. Eye contact is also a good way for trainers to measure the focus and attention span of a dog in training.

Throughout the training process, trainers can test a dog’s focus by having someone else come into the room to distract him. As the distraction takes place, you can tell by the eye contact of the dog whether he is still focused on you (as a trainer) or if he is having trouble concentrating on the tasks at hand. Reinforce good concentration skills with treats and try for longer periods of time with different kinds of distractions. The better a dog’s focus grows, the more activities you can attempt with him off-leash. That’s when it’s time to start specialist service training. 

Specialize

The final step in service dog training depends on the type of work the dog will be expected to do. Using basic commands like “sit” and “stay,” a trainer can build up an entire vocabulary of tricks and behaviors. Dogs in service do all kinds of things for their owners, and most of the time these learned behaviors are due to specialty training. 

If you need a dog to be able to pull your wheelchair, act like an emergency cane, call an ambulance, take the cap off your medicine, or bring you a drink of water from the fridge, he needs specialty training!

Mobility assistance service dogs are trained to help people with physical disabilities. That includes people who are wheelchair-bound, or who use a walker, or who might not normally move around much at all during the course of a regular day. Teaching a dog to link specific actions with certain physical realities (for example, to heel and stand steady, acting as a walking support when the owner wobbles) is one of the simpler roles of a service dog trainer. 

Service dogs for hearing-impaired owners will learn certain things during their specialty training process that other dogs won’t necessarily need. For example, they will learn to respond to a ringing phone, the doorbell, fire alarms and other types of alarm. Not only do they need to hear the difference between these things but respond appropriately by bringing their owner to the door, or bringing their owner a phone, or communicating the need to get out of a building, etc.

As for psychiatric service dogs, there’s a whole new set of behaviors and alerts to learn. Since this type of service dog is trained to support the mental health of the owner, the job is more about being aware of triggers and psychiatric symptoms than it is about looking out for physical obstacles. 

To teach a dog what a panic attack, or similar emergency, looks like, trainers actually have to pretend to experience one themselves. Dogs are curious and will normally approach a person in this state, even trying to comfort them. That’s ideal for trainers, who can give the dog a treat for the caring action and go from there.

Understand Your Service Dog’s Purpose

The purpose of all service dogs is essentially the same: To assist their owners with important daily tasks. Of course, every individual dog has a more specific purpose that is directly related to their unique owner. If you are training a dog, or if you have requested a service dog to assist you, you have to think very carefully about the role of the dog. How exactly can it help with daily tasks? What other duties could it potentially perform? 

For example, the obvious way to provide support to a person in a wheelchair is to train a service dog to pull the chair in emergencies, as well as to open and close doors. But, what if that person also suffers sometimes from low blood sugar? In that case, the dog should also learn to open emergency packs of food or juice and bring them right to the person’s mouth.

The uniqueness of every person’s needs is part of the reason why there is usually a waiting period to receive a service dog. That dog needs to learn commands and how to pay attention to that very specific set of needs, and the training process takes time to get just right.

Training Your Service Dog

Do you want to train your own service dog? If you do, you’ll absolutely benefit from the personal connection between yourself and your pet. You are also better qualified than any other person to understand your specific needs, which means you can be more creative in developing your dog’s helpful skills. On the other hand, if you aren’t an experienced dog trainer, the process will be challenging. 

Start just like a professional service dog trainer, with early socialization and basic commands, and go from there! Reinforce good behavior with treats and praise and repeat the lessons every day so they aren’t forgotten.

Conducting a Public Access Test

The Public Access Test is essential for all registered service dogs. The purpose of the test, which can be administered by one of several certification boards, is to make sure that your dog is properly trained and socialized, and that he does not pose a safety concern when out in public among other people and animals. The Public Access Test covers the following points, though this list is not exhaustive:

On-leash:

  • Controlled exit from vehicle

  • Heel once out in the open, regardless of distractions or lack of commands

  • Controlled entry through a doorway

  • Heel while moving through a building

  • Obedience from a distance of six feet

  • Sit, lie down and stay

  • Focus despite noise distraction

  • Restaurant etiquette (go under the table or sit next to owner)

Off-leash

  • Owner is able to get the leash back and maintain control, with or without it

  • Controlled heel while exiting a building

Registering Your Service Dog

To register your dog as an official, certified service dog, you have to contact an official certification body such as US Service Animals. Usually, there will be a form for you to fill out with yours and your dog’s information. Answer any questions they ask and provide extra documentation as requested, and if everything goes as planned you will receive an official certificate for your dog. Depending on the certification facility, you may also receive an ID badge for your dog to wear on his collar.

Identifying Your Dog as a Service Dog

Certifying your service dog is the best way that you can provide a respected piece of identification for him. It’s important to have an official service dog certificate, and even an ID badge for your dog to wear, for when people question the dog’s presence—for example, in a restaurant or hotel. In most cases, dogs and other animals are not allowed in public business spaces, so service dogs need to show their credentials to cut through that red tape. 

Picking the Right Service Dog Candidate

The most important thing about a potential service dog is his personality and temperament. Though all types of dogs are welcome in the service industry, there are some breeds that dominate the field. German shepherds, Labradors and golden retrievers are three of the top breeds in service today. In fact, there was a point when nearly all seeing-eye dogs were German shepherds. 

Intelligence and patience are the key characteristics of a great service dog. If you are interested in training your own service dog, or training a dog for someone else, put some thought into the DNA of the potential canine candidates. Take our Puppy Match Quiz for a better idea of which types of puppies will suit your needs the best!

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