Self-Training a Service Dog

We often get inquiries about people who want to train their own service dog. I realize that writing (or reading) the full story about raising and training a service dog would take a whole book, but here are the highlights--the absolute "must know" items.

Goose, a service dog in training, who is an English Cream Golden Retriever

First, it’s good to know the statistics. 50% of professionally-trained service dogs fail out of the training program. This is the statistic that’s true for all service dog organizations. It’s good to know this fact going in because you then know that there’s a good chance the dog you start training will not graduate, and will “career change” into a pet. What’s the statistic for self-trained service dogs? There’s never been a study, but anecdotally, I’ve heard about a 90% fail-out rate.

Note: A service dog should never work more than 2 hours a day. If you ever see a working dog at the airport, sniffing around to detect explosives or bug-filled produce, note that you’re seeing them during their 20 minutes of working, then they get an hour off. So if you want to bring a dog to work, note that they should only work 2 hours per day.
We recommend NOT bringing a service dog to school. We believe that the dog should be used as a reward when the child gets home. Why? A child does not have the capability of handling a dog all day.
Also, in the case of autism service dogs, the child should never handle the dog alone—the parent is the “third party” handling the dog, which then helps the child (this is called a “third party handler”). Plus, of course, as mentioned above, a service dog (or therapy dog, or any sort of working dog in this category) should never work more than 2 hours a day.
If you want to reduce the high fail-out rate of service dog training, we recommend the following:
  • Start with an English Cream Golden Retriever puppy, 8 weeks old. We recommend this breed because they are so people-focused and tend to have lower energy levels. 
  • Use a breeder that uses “Puppy Culture” to raise properly-socialized puppies. The vast majority of breeders breed for “show” and thus are concerned with how the dog looks and thus raise for looks, not for temperament. Very few breeders breed for temperament and used the “Puppy Culture” program to socialize the puppies, but it’s worth finding a breeder that does so. Note: Our breeder just stopped breeding (sigh) and we don’t know of another English Cream Golden Retriever breeder that uses the Puppy Culture program. If you hear of one, please let us know!
  • Use a breeder where you can meet both the momma dog and the father dog. You want to make sure that both the mamma dog and the father dog are not hyper.
  • If you do want to train your own service dog, we recommend not having another dog. If there is another dog in the house, the service dog in training will usually become too dog-focused and will be difficult to handle in public because the service dog will want to play with other dogs in the world. You want your service dog to only focused on you (not other dogs), and this happens best when there is no other dogs in the home and thus the dog, since puppyhood, doesn’t quite realize that other dogs want to play—if the service dog wants something, they have to go to the handler or family, not be outwardly looking for stimulus. Another way to think of it is that you don’t want a service dog in training to ever chase squirrels. If they chase a squirrel even once, they’ll be that much more likely to want to chase squirrels in the future. The same situation is with having another dog in the house.
When you get the English Cream Golden Retriever at 8 weeks old, the first 4 weeks you have the puppy is critical. It’s basically a full-time job to socialize the puppy correctly in this first 4 weeks, and if it isn’t done properly, the puppy will grow up to be fearful of things. The number one thing to do is have the puppy meet 5-10 strangers a day for those first 4 weeks, and have each of those 5 strangers a day hold the puppy. It’s super important to do this, but it’s also super hard. Ideally, you should do 10 strangers a day for EIGHT weeks, but it’s the first 4 weeks that are the most critical. Also, visit many floor surfaces, and get cued to come to dinner by banging pots and pans. For more details, see our blog post about socializing a puppy that will be trained as a service dog.

After the first 4 critical weeks, I recommend taking dog obedience courses. Both Petco or The Canine Coach have terrific dog obedience courses which are very reasonably priced (and much cheaper than one-on-one dog training). Their weekly classes start with simple obedience. After you go through a level, you then take the next set of weekly classes, which get more advanced as you go through their classes. By the time you’ve got through all their classes (which would take over a year of weekly classes), you will have a strong understanding of dog training and then you can continue any training yourself. Also, this option gives you a lot of positive time with your pup, which strengthens your bond.

I hope the above is some good information for your journey.