Owner Training Service Dogs

The concept of owner training a service dog was new to me, up until about a year ago.  Society is still catching up with the notion that service dogs play a valuable role in the lives of the disabled, so knowledge of alternative routes of training or acquiring service dogs is not widespread.

Opinions about owner training service dogs vary significantly.  Some people who hear about it for the first time are both fascinated and impressed, while others think it’s a responsibility best left to the “experts”(i.e. programs like Guide Dogs for the Blind).  There’s no question that I’m in full support of owner training.  However, I’m a firm subscriber to the “to each his own” school of thought.  Even more than I support owner training, I believe that the right to choose between owner training, private training or program training is the most important issue.

It saddens me that the most intense division is among service dog handlers themselves.  While there are plenty service dog handlers who share the viewpoint that different methods are better for some handlers than others, some are just as biased against the “opposing” group as some people are against the use of service dogs in itself.  There are some owner trainers who have an elitist air about them because they may think that there is more honor in training your own dog than having someone else train him.  Alternatively, there are some handlers of program trained dogs who find it reckless or unrealistic for disabled people to train their own dog.  My firm position is that neither is the case.

Realistically, I can only look at the issue from one perspective, as an owner trainer.  I’m also new to the game so my viewpoints are probably more representative of the non-service dog-user than of a seasoned service dog handler or service dog trainer.

I’ve experienced, what I interpret to be, grave hypocrisy, from some other service dog handlers. Maybe I’m just naive, but I expected a lot more support and comradery than I’ve encountered upon disclosing my status as an owner trainer.  Maybe it’s because these interactions have taken place online? Failure to remember that there’s a human being at the other end of internet communication is no new phenomenon, so it’s possible. Regardless, I was surprised to receive such harsh judgments from other SD handlers.  Recurring responses are either of disbelief that a visually impaired person can train a guide dog or that I must not be blind enough to need a service dog.  Either way, these are mindsets that one would expect from someone who has no experience with SD’s; not from someone who should have heightened sensitivity to the issue. Oh well, c’est la vie.

On the other hand, I have no problem with members of the non-service dog-using general public who are taken aback by the concept of owner training.  It’s a subject matter that one shouldn’t expect everyone to be well versed in.

My grandfather asked me a question a couple weeks ago that was interestingly phrased.  He asked, “Is it considered good etiquette to train your own dog?” This represents a perspective from which I never would have thought to approach this subject.  My answer was something along the lines of, “Of course! It’s legal to do so and although it’s not common knowledge, it’s not uncommonly done.  When you see a service dog out and about, there’s no way to know whether he was owner trained or not.”

So…not only is it legal and acceptable to train your own service dog; it’s also good etiquette!

There’s a huge difference between owner training a service dog and putting a vest that says “Service Dog”on your pet dog so you can take him out in public.  Trying to pass a pet dog off as a service dog is neither acceptable nor legal. There are people who do this, however, and owner trainers should never be associated with this pathetic minority. Those who try this will get their reality check sooner or later.  At the very least, they’ll realize what an unbearable inconvenience it is to be accompanied by a dog who is barely trained in basic obedience when they can’t get anything done because the dog is out of control.  If Karma has any say in the matter, it will be clear that the dog is not a service dog and the owner will be prosecuted for their crime.

Owner trainers tend to be more sensitive to the scrutiny placed on service dogs than handlers of program trained dogs.  There’s no denying that when presented with a public access challenge (meaning a business owner illegally prohibits access to the business to a service dog team), the handler of a program trained dog will have an easier time asserting their rights than an owner trainer.  Business owners, the general public and, unfortunately, even law enforcement are more likely to give validation to a program trained service dog than an owner trained service dog.  Because of this, many owner trainers put more substantial emphasis on their dogs’ flawless behavior in public than may be necessary.

While the legal definition of a service dog doesn’t specify a particular level of training, owner trainers hold themselves accountable for training their dogs to the standards one would expect from a program trained dog.

There are two ways many owner trainers evaluate a dog’s status as a service dog.  The first is by assessing the dog’s behavior in public places, under normal circumstances.   While the law dictates that service dogs may not act aggressively, destructively or in a disturbing manner that significantly alters the nature of a business, there are no legally mandated minimum standards of behavior in public.

However, without certain standards, it is possible to live in a vacuum.  That being said, many people choose to administer a public access test (PAT).  There is no universally recognized public access test, but many organizations use their own and most are very similar.  If a dog is tested by a particular organization and passes, he may be considered certified by that particular organization.  Service dogs are not legally required to be certified by any organization. Administering the PAT is personal choice and may simply act as a means to gauge the dog’s level of training.  PAT’s are geared to evaluate the dog’s behavior under normal circumstances and a dog who passes is unlikely to manifest behaviors that could get him legally restricted from a public place.

The second, and most important factor in determining a dog’s status as a service dog is task training.  This is the only factor considered in regard to the legal definition of a service animal. A service dog must perform a task that mitigates his handler’s disability in a significant manner.  There is no particular set of tasks or method of performing the tasks, as long as they are specific to the handler’s disability.  No task training certification is legally required for the dog to be considered a service dog.

Going back to what I said earlier: There is a huge difference between owner training and putting a service dog vest on a pet dog.  Owner training is not an endeavor to jump into impulsively.  The level of knowledge and time commitment necessary to successfully train a service dog is inconceivable until you actually do it.

The decision whether or not to owner train needs to be left in the hands of the most important person in the equation: the owner.  Just as program trained dogs are an invaluable asset to some people with disabilities, the benefits of owner training to those who are willing and capable are insurmountable.

November 4, 2009:

It was brought to my attention, in a response to this article, that I made the implication that public access training is necessary for a dog to legally be considered a service dog.  This is not the case.

Public access training is left entirely to the discretion of the owner trainer.  With the exceptions of dangerous, destructive and disturbing behavior, standards of public behavior are subjective and it is not necessary for the dog to pass a public access test.

As I discuss in a separate article, service dogs are held to a high standard, both by their handlers and by the general public. The single, most important role a service dog plays in the life of his handler, is to mitigate a disability.  Many service dogs help their handlers the most away from home.  This inherently means that the dog must perform reliably in a variety of environments.  This is why the majority of service dog handlers put almost as much emphasis on training the dog to work in a wide range of settings, under differing circumstances.

It’s important to realize that each service dog team is different and one of the best parts of owner training is customizing the dog’s skills to meet the individual’s specific needs.   Not every person will handle her dog in the same manner as others with a similar disability.  While there are certain skills that one may think logically come with the territory of performing service work, not every dog needs to perform in the same manner as another.

Thanks to Ayana for bringing the need for clarification to my attention.  I encourage anyone who finds an achilles’ heel in one of my entries to point it out.  I’d rather by corrected than others be misinformed!


12 thoughts on “Owner Training Service Dogs

  1. Very good blog. I have undertaken this task and you’re right, it is very time consuming and requires infinite patience. My dog has had ease and great success with tasks in our home, no longer requiring commands to perform, even instinctively doing things we haven’t practiced.

    We have experienced a set back as my dog has become more and more insecure, sensitive to strangers and sounds, having had a couple of difficult encounters.

    I have a couple of local businesses who are willing to allow me to bring him inside in an effort to desensitize him.

    I am getting long distance help from a service dog training organization, but thus far, their assistance hasn’t been very beneficial, as they don’t understand what and how we’ve done things to date.

    Thanks for posting this.


    • Hi Robin,
      I’m sorry to hear that Kodi is having some setbacks. How old is he? It’s too bad that you can’t work with someone who lives closer by. I almost ran into the same problem but, at the perfect time, I crossed paths with a local trainer who has trained her own PSD’s. If she didn’t reach out to me, I’d be in quite a precarious position since I have zero experience with service dogs in general- much less training a guide dog!

      There was another guide dog trainer who lives one state over, who would have charged $800 per month to board and train him, or I could have payed to have her come to me, which I’m sure would not have been cheap. About 9 months ago, she stopped returning my e-mails so I was really stuck. I contacted some pet dog trainers and none were confident in their ability to prepare a dog for service work.

      How much public access training have you done with Kodiak? Are you familiar with the laws in your state relating to service dogs in training? Maybe he would benefit from exposure to a wider variety of environments?

      I wish you and Kodiak great success in the future and hope he can conquer his insecurities soon!


  2. Lissi,
    Kodi is 21 months old. I’ve been working with him on assistance commands since he was about 8 or 9 months old.

    It’s been really weird. When we first started going out in public together, we went into the bank, the pharmacy, and he did wonderfully. He sat next to my chair, didn’t vocalize inside, he was wonderful. As time has progressed he’s become more and more panicked when strangers approach us, especially from behind. He wants to go inside with me, but once inside, he seems to feel somewhat ‘trapped’, trying to get away from anyone he doesn’t know, tangling himself up in my leg rests, hiding.

    I can’t think of any event that occurred that would have caused him to react this way. He did have some poor experiences with some children in the local park, as one girl has grabbed him from behind several times.

    I try to take him to local festivals, carnivals, the park, and walk past the local ball field when games are going on so he’s exposed to strangers and large groups of people.

    The problem with getting help from an organization so far away is they don’t understand how we’ve been training. They gave me a suggestion which I tried and succeeded in traumatizing Kodiak and myself. I felt horrible. After, I realized their suggestion couldn’t have worked because there were other variables they hadn’t considered.

    Huskies by nature are stubborn and high strung which is why they are not typically used as Service dogs, but they are extremely intelligent and Kodiak really has a natural desire to be of assistance to me, doing some things we’ve never even practiced, intuitively knowing what I need from him.

    Looking forward to keeping in touch. Thanks for the good wishes.


  3. Hi Robin,
    Up until March 2008, I had a Husky, so I’m very familiar with their “quirks”. We adopted my Husky, who was very poorly bred so she had some serious temperament issues. Even so, there are several characteristics that are prevalent in the breed that could prove as obstacles in service training. While Huskies are strong willed and independent minded, they’re also incredibly sensitive and tend to be drama queens. Do you think Kodiak’s insecurities could be related to the typical Husky temperament or more serious anxiety issues? Even if you don’t work with a service dog trainer, an experienced, competent pet dog trainer should be able to help you make that determination and offer possible solutions.

    What did the long distance trainer advise you to try with him that didn’t work out? How old was Kodi when you got him? Did you get him from a breeder?

    Sorry for the barrage of questions! Tell me if I’m overwhelming you with them (smile)

  4. Pingback: Service Dog Training Certification

  5. I love your site and I love your article. It just irks me when I find websites or people who promote that their program is the best because blah blah blah, or that owner training is the best because blah blah blah. In reality, you need to do what works best for you. Some people are not up to the task of training their own dog, so what? And some people enjoy and are really good at training their own dog, so what?

    I have worked with a program that trains service dogs, but not guide dogs. I love the work, and hope to do more in the future.

    • Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for the comment! And hats off to you for giving your time to service dog program; you’re helping a lot of people in a very powerful way.

      I’m glad you liked my article and hope you’ll come back soon!

  6. Thanks so much for your article. I completely agree. Well, almost. I think the most important factor in deciding whether a dog is a service dog is task training. The ADA doesn’t say that public access training is required but it does say an animal must be individually trained to work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.

    I do agree that public access training is implicitly required since out of control service dogs can legally be asked to leave. However, it isn’t required to meet the definition of service animal.
    I know this seems like hair splitting. But look at it this way. If your dog is trained to perform a task that mitigates your disability, such as alerting to seizures, that gets him in the door with or without pubic access training. However, the typical service dog will need public access training in order to have the right to remain on the premises or to avoid getting kicked out for unruly behavior.

    Do you see my point? If anyone has legal cases that say that public access training is required for an animal to meet the definition of service animal, please let me know. I haven’t seen any but I’m always looking for more information. Thanks again for your article. It was encouraging.

  7. What are laws concerning taking dogs “in training” wearing vests that identify them as such into establishments as part of their training? They need to be out and about to get used to the different situations, smells and sounds.

    Thanks for this great blog.


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