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Frequently Asked Questions - Training

Service dogs can come from many different backgrounds. Some are intentionally bred for service work, some are career change dogs bred for other work, some are rescues, and yes, some started out as pets.

However, the odds of any given dog having all the "right stuff" and actually completing training to become a service dog are about 1 in 100. The vast majority of pets, even lovely, well-behaved pets, aren't going to be suited, though it is possible.

No. It's handy but doesn't really mitigate a disability even for a person with social issues who feels uncomfortable excusing themselves when they need to leave the room. Why? Because they still must be able to excuse themselves, they just use the dog as the excuse. Actually no training is required. Most dogs will react positively when you ask them if they need to go out. Even if the dog doesn't naturally react, you can still act like he gave you some subtle signal, or just plain say you need to potty your dog without coming up with a justification for doing so. The potty excuse, even when trained, is a bonus, not a task. However, a person with anxiety that severe would definitely have need of several real tasks so it's no barrier to such a person being able to have a service dog who coincidentally can be used as an excuse to get out of awkward situations.

Each guide dog program has its own policies and procedures for acquiring puppy raisers. Nearly all will require that you live close enough to their facility that you can make weekly visits to the facility for training classes. So the first step is to find a guide dog school near you. See the link below of guide dog schools in the U.S. to see if one is near you.
Nearly all programs will require that at least one person work in the home so that the pup is not left alone during the day. Since most puppy raisers are children, this means having at least one parent who is home during the school day and willing to take on responsibility for the puppy's training during that time. There is a link to the Seeing Eye's puppy raiser information below as a representative example of puppy raising programs for guide dogs.

Also check with your local 4H organization. Most have a Guide Puppy affiliate.
Look for a guide dog program near you. Nearly all programs require that their puppy raisers live nearby so they can attend weekly training sessions at the facility. Each program will have their own requirements as to how to apply to be a puppy raiser.

Several organizations for the blind maintain lists of guide dog training schools. Here are a few:
National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
American Foundation for the Blind
Guide Dog Users Incorporated (GDUI)
American Council of the Blind (ACB)

Where are guide dogs trained in the U.S.?
International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF)

To puppy raise for the Seeing Eye (the most recognized guide dog school in the world), you must join 4-H, which requires you to be at least 9 years old. You must also have the support of your parents as someone must be at home during the day to care for the puppy and with you at school that means mom or dad.

The actual trainers, as opposed to puppy raisers, are adults.

The first part of guide dog training is usually done by puppy raisers who socialize and habituate pups in their care and teach them basic manners and obedience under the supervision of a trainer from a guide dog school. This process typically takes 12 to 18 months. At the end of that time, guide dog candidates are returned to their schools for advanced training in obstacle avoidance, directed guiding, and intelligent disobedience.

Directed guiding ("left," "right," "forward," "wait") is taught by pairing the commands with the actions. It's the easiest part of the advanced training, but also the most used.

Intelligent disobedience is the process of recognizing when there is an exception to a command and disobeying out of duty rather than disobeying because the dog would rather do something else. For example, if a guide dog is given a command to "forward" into a street, but he sees a car coming, he will intelligently disobey the command to "forward" because it is dangerous to the handler to step in front of a moving car.

Obstacle avoidance is the most important safety skill of guide dogs and the one that most fascinates people curious about guide dogs. Once an obstacle is recognized, the dog is instructed to navigate around that obstacle. He must do so regardless of whether the best path lies to the right or left of the obstacle, and while taking into account not only his own path, but the path of his human partner. Guide dogs are also trained to recognize low hanging obstacles, such as tree branches, that could injure their partner and to navigate around them as well.

Here's one example of how obstacle avoidance might be taught:

Avoiding low hanging tree branches

The trainer approaches a low hanging tree branch with a cane held in front of her face. When the cane hits the tree branch it makes an audible cue to the dog that something has happened. The trainer might also say "ouch" or otherwise indicate an injury has occurred (good acting on the trainer's part is essential for this to work). The team will repeat this exercise with the same tree a few times until the dog is consistently navigating around the branch. Then the trainer finds another branch in another area for additional practice. Because dogs don't generalize well, it is important to practice the same concept (avoid low hanging branches) in several different locations and situations until the dog realizes all low branches and not just specific ones are to be avoided.

It depends on the age of the dog and where the dog is in training. If he has the fundamentals down and is working on proofing (performing learned behaviors in spite of distraction) then an active place like a busy shopping center might be a good place to find those distractions to practice ignoring.

If it's a pup being socialized and he's confident and outgoing, a busy shopping center gives ample opportunity to meet new people.

The key is to do it at the right points in the dog's development or training. Overfacing a dog by putting them into a situation too stressful or too distracting for them to process will only slow or damage socialization or training.

A large portion of the cost is absorbed by volunteer puppy raisers who teach the pups basic manners including where and when to toilet, how to walk on a leash, basic commands like "sit" and "down," and how to live among humans without jumping up, bolting out doors, or mooching food.

Formal training with professional trainers who teach the dogs how to actually guide a person who is blind typically costs around $20,000. If puppy raisers were paid, this cost would probably double. Most guide dog training programs are funded by charitable donations so the cost to the blind owner is modest compared to the actual cost of training these highly skilled dogs.

From the official Seeing Eye website:

"Quite frequently, people ask us, "How can I become a Seeing Eye instructor?" Staff instructors are full-time employees who hold college degrees from various fields of study and have successfully completed three years of specialized on-the-job training. They relate well to dogs and people and are physically fit, since their jobs are physically demanding and involve working outdoors in all weather. Some of our current instructors came from teaching, business consulting and rehabilitation fields. Some were in the military and worked with dogs before, and many started out as kennel assistants here at The Seeing Eye."

Pups in the Seeing Eye program are typically 7-8 weeks old when they are sent to live with 4-H families to receive socialization and training in manners and basic obedience. They are typically 14 to 18 months old when they are returned to the Seeing Eye for advanced training.

The Seeing Eye is just one of many programs that train dogs to guide the blind. Individual programs may do their puppy raising differently.

The Seeing Eye is the oldest and most recognized guide dog training program in the world.

There is no federal law in the U.S. that gives service animal trainers the right to access public schools with their trainees. Some, but not all, states have such rights for trainers. However, they would only apply to the public areas of a public school, such as the gymnasium during a basketball game where any member of the public is permitted to attend.

In order to take a trainee into private areas of the school, where the general public are not permitted, such as classrooms while school is in session, the trainer would need to get permission from the school administrator first.

It typically takes 18 to 24 months to fully train a public access service animal. However, something like a hearing dog that the owner doesn't need to use outside the home might be trained in as little as 6 months.

First and foremost, he must learn to ignore distractions. He must also learn all the things that a dog learns to live among humans, such as where and when to toilet, not to beg or pester, and basic house manners.

Guide dog candidates are intentionally selected from among animals who already have a low prey drive which makes them naturally less likely to chase things like squirrels. They are selected to have calm personalities and sound nerves as well as good physical health .

U.S. federal law recognizes an animal as a service animal once it is trained to perform tasks that mitigate the disability of a disabled owner, without regard for how that animal got trained. It is therefore possible to train a service dog without a license. However, in some states only licensed trainers from recognized programs are afforded the same public access rights as people with disabilities with fully trained service dogs. Consult your state's Attorney General for information on whether private trainers have public access rights for training. If not, you may only train in facilities that have given you permission.

In the U.S., yes, but in most other countries, no. Regardless of who trains the dog he must be correctly trained. Few pet owners would have the level of skill required to produce a true working dog.

A service dog must receive adequate training in three areas: obedience, tasks, and public access. He should be reliable in obeying commands at least 90% of the time on the first command.

He should sit, down, come, stay, and heel properly. Dogs must show manners including:
no aggression
no inappropriate barking
no biting
no snapping/growling
no inappropriate jumping on strangers
no begging
no inappropriate sniffing of people.

Many people don't understand what proper heeling is, and it's actually the hardest thing to train a dog to do properly. It doesn't mean pulling a dog around on a leash. It means the dog knows where he is supposed to be relative to the person and maintains that position with a loose leash, or with no leash at all. Typically this position is next to the handler's left leg, with the dog's ear at about level with the leg and without varying more than 24 inches in any direction from that position regardless of how the handler moves (starting, stopping, turning, stepping back, etc.).

By legal definition, he must be trained to perform tasks which mitigate his handler's disability. In order to mitigate the disability, these tasks must be something the handler cannot do because of his disability. For example, opening doors for a person unable to use her hands. Any dog, no matter how well trained, who does not perform tasks that mitigate his disabled owner's disability, is not a service dog. Note that the owner must be legally disabled. That means they have an impairment that substantially limits their ability to function in things considered to be of central importance to people's lives, like seeing, hearing, thinking, walking, and using their hands.

Finally, the dog's training must be proofed and generalized so that he continues to work reliably, obeying commands on the first command at least 90% of the time when working in distracting environments, such as stores or restaurants. Proofing (distraction training) is actually the bulk of service dog training and it starts at home and at the dog training facility with distractions like food, toys and noises. Once the proofing is solid the dog is taken to various venues for generalization, or learning to apply what he has learned in different locations.

The ADA does not give public access rights to trainers. That means that unless your state gives public access rights to trainers and also recognizes private trainers or owner-trainers (as opposed to trainers for recognized programs), then you must ask permission of a store or restaurant before entering with a service-dog-in-training. See link below for information on state laws concerning service animals.

Minimum Standards for Service Dogs
IAADP Minimum Standards for Public Access
Minimum Standards for Training Service Dogs

The American's with Disabilities Act does not apply to service dogs in training. Some states have laws which permit trainers to take service-dogs-in-training to the same places fully trained service dogs can go. However, most states require service-dogs-in-training to be accompanied by a trainer from a recognized program for training service dogs and that they carry credentials which they show on request.

Most service dog trainers are volunteers. Those who are in paid positions receive an average wage of $10.60 (U.S.) per hour ($21,200 per year). It isn't a good job if income is important, but it can be very rewarding in other ways.
Guide dogs are placed at significantly below fair market value for the amount of work that goes in to them. Part of the difference in what they cost and what the blind person is charged for them comes from charitable donations. Part comes from donations of time. most of a guide dog's training is done by volunteers.

Those that do the finishing training and the instruction of the blind person in how to use the guide dog might make about $10 per hour.

In short, if you are worried about how much money you'll make, working at a guide dog school probably isn't for you. It simply isn't a high paying job.

Be sure to check out our series of articles entitled Tips on finding a program or trainer and evaluating the one you've found.

There are several lists of service dog providers on the internet. That's a good place to start, but remember that just because they appear on one of these lists doesn't mean they are qualified or even legitimate. It is still up to you, as the consumer, to do your research and make sure they are what they appear to be.

Service Dog Central also maintains a list of clients from our online community and the programs they've worked with so you can talk with real clients of some programs and get the inside scoop.

Some resources for finding service dog programs:
Assistance Dogs International
The Delta Society
American Dog Trainers Network
Wolfpacks

Resources for finding other dog trainers who might have experience with service dogs:
Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers
National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors
Karen Pryor Academy
Association of Pet Dog Trainers

Please note that the above organizations do not screen the programs that they list. You'll have to do that for yourself. I am aware of rip-off organizations in the database, so be careful.

Get additional tips from Delta's National Service Dog Center under Consumer Information for People Considering a Service Dog.

Lists of Guide Dog Schools:
American Foundation for the Blind
National Federation of the Blind
Guide Dog Users, Inc.
American Council of the blind
International Guide Dog Federation

All puppies, whether they are intended to become service dogs, other working dogs, or pets, should be socialized.

Socialization involves introducing the puppy to new people and animals. Socialization should be carefully planned so that the pup experiences nothing that scares him. He should meet people of all ages, including children. He should meet people of as many different ethnicities as possible.

He should not meet strange dogs until his veterinarian says he is sufficiently immunized. Even then he should meet only puppies his age and very calm adults known to enjoy and not just tolerate puppies. The puppy should never be permitted to pester adult dogs. The best place to meet similar puppies is in a puppy kindergarten class.

He should also meet other domesticated animals, like cats, pet birds, and rodents, and farm animals if available.

A sample socialization schedule is available online. Please note that on this schedule puppies only enter public accommodations on field trips, with other puppies and under the supervision of program trainers.

The puppy should not be taken out for socialization or habituation in any situation where the trainer is not in control of what the pup will encounter and can give the pup the trainer's undivided attention. Pups should not be taken to work or school during primary socialization.

Some programs encourage their puppy raisers to take their puppies everywhere. These programs experience a very high failure rate. Carefully planned and supervised socialization results in a greater success rate.

No. Socialization has nothing to do with going to new places. Socialization means introducing the puppy to new people and to other animals.

Getting them used to new places is called habituation. Habituation should be done on a carefully planned schedule. Young puppies are not ready to go everywhere. They should visit only carefully controlled venues known to be calm. A fearful experience at a young age, and particularly during a fear imprint period, can permanently damage a pup's confidence.

A dog becomes a full service dog when he meets the requirements of a full service dog.

1. He is reliably obedience trained.
2. He is task trained
3. He is distraction trained for public access.

Most programs evaluate their candidates before placing them as full service dogs with a public access test. Public access training involves teaching the dog to perform the tasks and obedience commands he has already learned, despite distractions commonly found in public accommodations. Since it is the last phase of training, passing a public access test is used by those programs as an indicator the dog is ready to work.

There are three basic areas of training for a service dog: manners, obedience with proofing (aka public access skills), and task training. This training typically takes 18-24 months.

While a pet may be taken for a walk to toilet, a service dog must be prepared to toilet on command, on any surface. A friendly pet greeting visitors to the home may be cute, but a service dog must ignore everyone but his owner. That means he must ignore them when they call to him or offer him food. He must ignore food he finds on the floor, and food that falls right next to him, as well as food that is left unguarded right at eye-level.

A pet might be asked to lie down and praised for doing it for a whole minute. A competition obedience dog is expected to do it for five minutes, even when the owner leaves the room. A service dog, on the other hand, may be called upon to hold a down stay for up to four hours at a time.

Organizations such as Assistance Dogs International and the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners require a minimum of 120 hours of training for each dog trained by a member or member organization. Remember that this is a minimum and reflects the amount of training required of an experienced trainer to produce results and does not reflect the amount of training it would take a first time service dog trainer to achieve the same or similar results.

The Delta Society has published a comprehensive guide to the "Minimum Standards for Service Dogs," available for download in PDF format. This document breaks down all the core skills every service dog has in common. Individual tasks can be constructed by applying one or more of these core skills to specific situations either alone or in combination with other skills.

"Heeling," which, contrary to popular believe does not mean "let's go," is probably the most difficult thing to teach a dog. For them it is an abstract concept, to maintain a relative position to the handler, regardless of how the handler might move. It is as much an exercise in attention as anything else. If the handler moves forward, the dog also moves forward, maintaining his position relative to the handler's hip or the wheel of his chair. If the handler steps back, the dog also steps back, still aligned with his handler. When the handler turns, the dog also turns: automatically. No additional commands are given to direct the dog once he is instructed to remain in heel position.

"Proofing," is the most time consuming part of training a working dog like a service dog. It means patiently inoculating a dog against distractions, one distraction at a time. Proofing is usually started with the dog in a sit-, down-, or stand-stay, and then progresses to distractions while heeling and during recalls. Distractions may start out as mild as clapping one's hands and progress until the dog will remain on command even while other dogs are playing around him or fighting, while a squirrel or cat dashes by, while bystanders offer food and call to him, and when his leash is dropped, all at the same time. A service dog is of no real use to his partner if he cannot be relied upon to resist distractions.

"Task training," again contrary to popular belief, is the easiest part of training a service dog. Once he has a firm foundation in core skills, heeling/attention, and proofing, putting together trained tasks is as easy as teaching a dog a neat trick. At their core that's what tasks really are, from a training stand-point. That's why task training is the test of whether a dog is actually a trained service dog. If the trainer hasn't been able to teach the dog legitimate tasks, then that means the owner probably hasn't got the basic training skills needed to adequately prepare him for obedience and public access either.

Each dog and each handler are individuals. What may be a task for one person, wouldn't necessarily be a task for another person, even if they have the exact same disability. For example, carrying medications in a pack for a person capable of carrying the medications in a purse, pocket or pack of their own would not be a legitimate task because it is convenient but not truly needed. You can add on as many bonus conveniences as you like later but you should start with tasks you actually need. That's the whole reason for having a service dog in the first place.

Shopping lists of tasks don't work because they short circuit the natural process of choosing tasks for training by encouraging the selection of trained behaviors that are useful, easy to train, or otherwise appealing but not truly needed. A person reads a check list of possible tasks and selects any that might apply to them, rather than ones they truly need. Need, and need alone should drive the selection of tasks. Not what anyone else has done and not what is possible.

There are several pieces to the puzzle in defining a task.

1. It must be trained, and not a natural behavior of the dog (such as
showing affection).
2. It must be to compensate for something the person cannot do for
themselves due to their disability, and something which cannot be
compensated for using ordinary means (such as using an actual alarm
clock instead of training the dog to act like an alarm clock).
3. It must mitigate the person's disability by making it possible for
them to do something they could not otherwise do in terms of a daily
life activity.

Medical providers, friends, and family, who know you well, are in the best position to help you identify what exactly you can and cannot do because of your disability. Those are your impairments. The help you need because of your impairments are your needs. Tasks meet your needs in overcoming your impairments. So start with impairments, then needs, and *then* consider tasks.