A service dog must be trained to perform tasks that will assist a specific individual with a disability. Each service dog and handler must meet precise criteria before qualification to work as a team. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects individuals with physical, sensory, intellectual, mental and psychiatric disabilities who use service dogs trained to perform specific tasks. United States federal law does not require service dogs to be legally certified; however, because service dog laws vary from state to state, you must know your state’s laws before beginning the lengthy service dog training process with your dog.
Keep a training log with notes about all aspects of training your service dog. Documentation is important because the federal and state laws differ. Laws regarding service dogs are somewhat vague and may be open for interpretation. You never know who may question you when you are out with your service dog.
Pay attention to any health issues your dog might be having. Does she have any problems that concern you? Discuss any issues with your dog’s veterinarian or with a professional trainer you are consulting.
Work on your dog’s socialization skills. Note her responses to unfamiliar places, new sights, sounds, smells and tastes, changes in weather and the types of environments she was exposed to.
Review obedience lessons and basic commands, such as come, stay, sit, down and leave it. Combine these familiar commands with unfamiliar situations involving new people, places and activities.
Follow humane dog training methods when teaching your dog. Use encouragement and reinforcement to help your dog learn, enjoy and remember tasks and behaviors. Make note of methods that work best for your dog.
Complete and document about four months of basic obedience instruction. The professional trainer who supervises obedience training can give your dog the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test, which is a good way to document that you have trained your dog to be safe working in public around other dogs and people.
Increase socialization with people and dogs. Practice commands, such as sit, stay, down, come, heel, off, leave-it and back. See how your dog responds to being bumped or having her tail touched, and, if necessary, help her become desensitized to experiences she may have when working in public.
Give your dog time to master basic obedience, and make sure she understands your commands and can do these behaviors easily before progressing to the public access phase of her training. Do not rush your dog into public access training.
Train your dog to reliably perform obedience behaviors while on and off leash. Service dog training requires that you maintain control of your dog, and you must be prepared for any situations you may encounter.
Try to eliminate behaviors that arise during training that may delay or prevent your dog’s advancement from service dog in-training to a trustworthy, fully qualified service dog . If your dog behaves rambunctiously, growls, snarls, lunges, nips, bites or shows excessive fear or aggression, she is not ready to work in public. Remember to always use positive training techniques.
Public Access Standards
Work on getting your dog prepared for the Public Access Certification Test. This is the time when collaborating with a professional service dog trainer will be invaluable.
Ask your trainer to help prepare you and your dog for the Public Access Test, which will provide documentation that you and your service dog satisfy standard criteria. Documentation is not required by law but may provide support in case your dog’s training or your qualifications as a service dog-handler team are ever questioned.
Practice the skills required to pass the Public Access Test until you and the trainer believe that you and your dog are ready to embark on this challenging test. The test consists of tasks and behaviors you may encounter when you and your dog are working together. The trainer who has been working with you can supervise and score the test.
Unload your dog from a vehicle. The dog should not exit the car until given the command you have taught her. When you approach a building, your dog should walk beside you on a loose leash. Service dogs should not stop to smell objects, interact with people or dogs or pull on her leash. Your dog should be able to stay by your side as you enter a building.
Move through a busy store that has many potential distractions. The dog should not touch or walk too close to merchandise. She should stop when the handler stops and not become startled or fearful when in the presence of shopping carts, small children or strollers. While in a grocery store, pushing a shopping cart, your dog walks next to you. Handlers with mobility issues may use a scooter or wheelchair. Tiny dogs on your lap must sit quietly without trying to climb down.
Observe your dog’s behaviors in a highly distracting environment. Put your dog in a down-stay in a busy public space and watch her reaction when an assistant steps over her. The dog should not react, break the down-stay, vocalize or become startled. The dog should tuck its tail when in tight or crowded spaces.
Practice boarding and riding all available forms of public transportation. Your service dog always rides on the floor of a taxicab, subway, city bus, para-transit vehicle or an airplane. Service dogs should remain calm and disinterested when people enter or exit.
Bring your dog to places where she will have to walk on a variety of surfaces, including asphalt, gravel, cobblestones, metal gratings, linoleum and polished wood. Service dogs of all sizes should be comfortable walking on many surfaces.
Place your dog in a down-stay at a restaurant. She should be silent, not pick up crumbs and stay under the table, if possible, for the duration of the meal. When you go to the restroom, your service dog should follow you into the bathroom stall, if physically possible. The dog should not squirm, look into the next stall or try to escape.
Enter and exit an elevator. The dog should sit, stand or lie down and ride calmly both up and down on the elevator. The dog should be unobtrusive and attentive to her handler while waiting, entering, riding and exiting the elevator.
Climb up and down stairs with your dog, if that is physically possible for you. Work as a team until you have mastered ascending and descending stairways. The dog should not be anxious or hesitant on stairs, and she should never run up or down the stairs.
Fake certification, harnesses, vests and special ID are available over the Internet. Faking a disability or trying to pass off a dog not trained as a service dog is illegal and may result in prosecution, fines and jail time.
In 2010 the U.S. Justice Department made it illegal to ban service dogs from any municipality because of breed.
Any breed of dog or any mix of breeds can be trained to be a service dog, but not all dogs are temperamentally suited to coping with the stress of working in public.
You must meet the ADA definition of having a "disability," and your dog must be trained to perform tasks directly related to your disability to be considered a service dog.
Items You Will Need
- Notebook for training log
- Leash or harness
- List of service dog trainers
- Book on obedience training
- List of public access standards for service dogs
- Document confirming legal disability
- Veterinary records
- U.S. Department of Justice: Americans with Disabilities Act: Service Animals
- International Association of Assistance Dog Partners: IAADP Minimum Training Standards for Public Access
- Delta Society: Pet Partners: Service Animal FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
- Service Dog Central: Frequently Asked Questions
- german shepherd seeing eye dog image by Stephen Orsillo from Fotolia.com