Training your own service dog is by no means an easy feat. It takes time, consistency, patience, and a lot of compassion towards yourself and your dog. There will be great days where you see huge strides in your dog’s training, and there will be hard days too. To ease training frustration and better see your success, here are 5 tips to help you set realistic goals when training your own service dog.
1. Create a Training Plan
As you are working on training your service dog, you likely have plenty of ideas for what behaviors and skills you want your dog to achieve. But it can be daunting to think about all the end goals without breaking them down into smaller, more manageable steps. We suggest first defining the final goal of the behavior and then determining the status of the behavior: Are you introducing it, practicing it, or refining it?
Once you have the goals out of your head, think about how you will break down these behaviors and skills into smaller steps and what you need to do to make your training sessions successful. What are the small, clear steps that are realistic to focus on this week?
Once you have thought about your weekly priorities, create your weekly plan:
- What is/are the behaviors to work on?
- What criteria are you looking for in your dog?
- How will the environment be set up?
- What training tools will you be using? (target sticks, platforms etc.)
- What will you be using to reward your dog?
- How long will your training sessions last?
Create goals that are clear and easy to measure. For example, instead of “Rex will come when I call him” (which could mean many different things), try “Rex will come sit in front of me when I call him from 6ft away in the living room with no distractions”.
Plan to make your sessions as clear as possible and make sure to allow for breaks, resets, and flexibility. This will help increase success for you and your dog and help ease frustrations that sometimes occur when training.
There are a variety of ways you may want to keep track of what you are working on. You can use spreadsheets, keep journals or checklists, or create more structured documents and keep them in online or physical folders. We also recommend filming your training sessions. This will help you review your own training skills and will also help you see your long-term progress.
2. Train the Dog in Front of You
Sometimes the training session doesn’t go as planned. Even the most well-structured training plan may have to be switched up if you or your dog is struggling. Don’t be afraid to take a break, reset, or stop the session altogether.
Remember, it is crucial to “train the dog in front of you”. Being adaptable in your training plan will save you and your dog a whole lot of frustration. If you are training your service dog, chances are your dog is still in their puppy or adolescent phase (though they could, of course be an adult). The skill that your “perfect”, attentive, adolescent dog had yesterday could fly out the window today! This is a completely normal phase of adolescence. That is why you should work at the pace of the dog that is in front of you at that moment.
If your dog is having one of “those days”, it may not be the time to focus on obedience or public access skills. Instead, go for a sniffy walk, play some enrichment games, and remember that just like people, dogs have their off days too.
3. Train at YOUR Own Pace
If you are training your own service dog, you have probably experienced at least a day, a week, or maybe even months where you have felt a little defeated. Trust us, you are not alone in this feeling. Most owner-trainers have at some point in their training journey felt like they were not training well enough, fast enough, or were just not good enough.
Training a service dog while also managing your own physical and/or mental health can be exhausting. Sometimes, the training must be put lower on the priority list than caring for yourself. That is always okay!
Training a service dog is a marathon, not a sprint, and taking a few days, weeks, or even months off of training will likely not “ruin” your dog. However, doing more than is physically or mentally healthy for you, and putting immense pressure on yourself and your dog, will simply build up frustration and will not lead to successful training. Train at your own pace and give yourself some compassion.
4. Embrace Asking for Help
Allowing yourself to ask for help and using the resources available to you are key in helping you achieve your service dog training goals. Training a service dog, heck, training a pet dog 100% on your own, is incredibly difficult. Having a friend, a family member, or a neighbor who can help with some of the training components can be very beneficial, especially with skills like greetings, ignoring distractions, recalls etc.
On days where you are low on energy and training isn’t even an option, you may need some support taking your dog on a walk, or with grooming. Seek out the people in your life for help. We know that not everyone has family members or friends that are supportive, but there are other possible options:
- Neighborhood teens tend to be very willing to help (for a little cash, maybe). Take some time on your good days to show them how to properly handle your dog.
- Youth groups often have volunteer requirements, helping you with your service dog training can count.
- Consider hiring a professional dog walker.
There is no shame in asking for help. Your dog will not think less of you because you did not take them on a walk or brush their coat, and you are not a failure for not doing everything by yourself!
5. Don't Compare Yourself to Others
Yes, easier said than done, but really, don’t compare yourself to others! There are many service dog handlers on social media sharing their training journeys, raising awareness, and building community. That is wonderful. However, like anything on social media, most people will likely only share/post their successes (there are always exceptions of course). This can be very distressing for those training their service dogs who only see “perfectly trained” dogs as they scroll down through their feed. You might start to wonder why your dog can’t heel as perfectly as the other service dog you saw on Tik Tok, or why that 10-month-old Labrador your saw on Instagram was quietly laying down and ignoring children running around. Here’s the thing, you are only getting a snapshot in time. You are not seeing the moments when the dogs are not being “perfect”. You are not seeing the way they are being trained (a dog that has been punished can look “calm” but is in fact shut down). You do not know how many attempts there were to get that one perfect picture. And you have no idea what the handler’s journey has been. You are on your own journey, with your own goals.
As you navigate the rewarding journey of service dog training, remember to keep your goals manageable and realistic. Training a service dog does not happen overnight for anyone. Even dogs that have been trained by service dog organizations and professional trainers are in training for at least two years. By setting realistic and manageable goals for yourself and your dog, you will hopefully find your training more enjoyable and successful. If you found this article helpful and want to learn more about setting up training plans and giving your dog a great training foundation, check out our Teams Set in Motion course. Happy training!
About Atlas Assistance
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.
We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog as well as offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers. For more information about Atlas’ Client Certification program or other training services, please visit www.atlasdog.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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