How to Train a Service Dog: Steps & Techniques You Must Know

How to Train a Service Dog: Steps & Techniques You Must Know

Jul 14th 2023

How to Train a Service Dog: Tips and Tricks from the Experts

Service dogs provide invaluable support to disabled people. According to recent research, these knowledgeable, loving, and well-trained canines significantly impact the health and well-being of their handlers.

Service dogs assist their owners with the tasks of day-to-day living, such as helping physically disabled handlers enjoy greater mobility. Service dogs also warn and protect those with chronic illnesses — such as seizure and mental disorders — so they can lead less encumbered lives.

Without their service animals by their side, many disabled people would miss out on access to various places and experiences that non-disabled people often take for granted.

If you want to learn more about these incredible animals, this article is for you. After offering insights into what makes service dogs so unique, you’ll find information on how to train a service dog, including what to look for in a potential service dog candidate and what essential gear you’ll need during and after training.

What is a Service Dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” For example, you may find that a service dog dramatically increases your quality of life if you:

  • Are deaf or hearing impaired and unable to hear warnings and other important sounds.
  • Are wheelchair-bound and need assistance with mobility.
  • Have a seizure disorder and need to be alerted to upcoming issues or help to notify before a fall.
  • Have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and need help remaining calm during an anxiety episode.
  • Have difficulty complying with medication protocols to treat your mental illness.
  • Have life-threatening allergies that you need to be alerted to.

To be considered a service dog, the canine has been trained to provide aid directly related to a particular disability.

Qualities of an Ideal Service Dog

Before considering how to train service dogs, it’s essential to determine whether the dogs have the attributes needed to excel on the job. When it comes to fulfilling the tasks of a service animal, not every dog makes the grade. A dog could be a great and loving companion but lack the temperament or physical attributes required to become a suitable service animal.

While any breed with the right qualities and training can become a service dog, it’s essential to consider size and suitability for the tasks. For instance, a smaller breed of dog, like a Papillon or Toy Poodle, could be trained to become an excellent hearing dog but would be unsuitable to pull a wheelchair or guide a blind person attempting to walk across a busy street.

Consider a larger dog if mobility assistance is needed. The most common breeds chosen as seeing-eye dogs are Labrador Retrievers, followed by Golden Retriever service dogs, and German Shepherds. At the same time, Cocker Spaniels and Poodles do well as hearing assistance dogs. Many mixed-breed dogs also make excellent service animals.

Best Age for a Service Dog

Before exploring how does a dog become a service dog, you’ll need to consider the dog’s age. Experts believe the most suitable age for a dog to become a service dog is around two. That is because most dogs would have finished growing by this age and have reached some maturity, ensuring that the bones are fully developed.

Putting a dog into service at a younger age — particularly when required to do physically demanding tasks — can result in skeletal problems. In addition, most dogs will have developed the ability to focus on required tasks without undue stress by age two. Typically, service dogs are retired after eight years of service or at around 10 years old.

Temperament and Behavior Traits

Another aspect of how to become a service dog involves its personality. Service dogs must have the right temperament to deal with stressful situations. The following are some of the most desirable temperament and behavior traits to look for if you plan to train to be a service animal.

  • Calm: A service dog must remain calm despite loud noises like fire alarms, fireworks, gunshots, and cars backfiring. It can’t display any signs of reactivity or fear.
  • Focused: Even if surrounded by distractions, a service dog needs to focus on the task. An animal that gets distracted by other dogs or certain noises won’t be able to do jobs like helping a visually-impaired person cross a street or alerting a person with epilepsy that a seizure is imminent.
  • Likes people: Service dogs must genuinely like people. Any dog that growls at strangers or shies away from them could be dangerous to anyone trying to assist their handler.
  • Tolerant: Even though nobody should bother a service dog, especially when it’s on duty, the dog must also be able to tolerate certain annoyances or situations that might come up beyond handlers control.
  • Wants to please: Service dogs should have pleasing personalities. It must be motivated by a desire to serve.
  • Energetic: Service dog work takes vigilance. That’s why service animals must have high energy levels without being too hyper to focus on the tasks at hand.

Health and Physical Requirements

Consider the size or physical ability when determining whether a dog is a good service animal. It’s essential to understand the demands on the dog and decide whether it is healthy and robust enough to meet those requirements.

While not all service dogs perform heavy physical work like pulling a wheelchair, bracing and counterbalancing, carrying items, or opening doors, most must engage in physically demanding activities. Depending on the disability, the service animal will need to be able to walk long distances, lay on hard surfaces for long periods, travel in all kinds of situations and modalities, and perform any additional required tasks.

Essential Training Gear

Before training a service dog, it helps to have some vital equipment to teach commands and prepare them for their jobs.

  • Service dog vests and harnesses help label your dog as a service animal. That is important so strangers don’t interfere with your service dog training. It also helps ensure that you can gain access to places that prohibit pets but are required by law to admit service animals.
  • Service dog ID tags and identification cards help to identify the dog as a service animal and the specific duties it is trained to perform. Some tags with medical alert information can help anyone assisting in an emergency and has ready access to critical information.
  • Service dog accessories — such as bridge handles for leashes and special identifying harnesses and leashes — can be helpful during training and beyond.

How to Train My Dog to Be a Service Dog

According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), it takes, on average, 120 hours over at least six months to properly train a service dog, but for some disabilities it may take much more time depending on the tasks required. In addition, at least 30 hours of training should occur in public places. Because training a dog younger than six months old to be a service animal is discouraged, it must be six months or older before any of its training will count toward these hours.

Whether you are working with an older puppy that has been bred and raised to be a service animal or an adult dog adopted from a shelter, every service dog must undergo certain types of training. In addition, service dogs must be trained in the specific ways necessary to service their handler’s disability. The following offers guidance on how to train your dog to be a service dog.


All service dogs must be correctly socialized and always maintain exemplary manners. Regardless of stimuli, service dogs must never exhibit aggressive behavior aimed at people or other animals. Prohibited behaviors include snapping or biting, snarling or growling, and lunging or barking.

Service dogs must never act intrusive when it comes to how they behave around food, strangers, and other animals. That means they must learn that begging for food, picking up food or other items dropped on the floor, or seeking attention from people they come in contact with is not allowed. Additionally, service dogs should not attempt to greet or sniff another dog while in service mode.

To properly socialize a service dog, expose them to strange noises, activities, and odors in various settings. Reward them when they don’t react and provide gentle correction when they do.

Teaching service dogs when and where to relieve themselves is also vital. Not only must they never do it indoors, but they should be able to do it outside anywhere on cue. They will learn commands that indicate when they are allowed to “go potty” in public situations.

Basic Obedience Training

When it comes to how to train a service dog, it all starts with basic obedience. The canine must respond perfectly to the come, sit, down, stay, and heel commands. In addition, service dogs must know a dropped leash recall in a public place in response to verbal commands, hand signals, or both.

Eye Contact Training

Eye contact training is valuable when you need to get and keep your dog’s focused attention so you can give your next cue to perform a particular task. On the other hand, eye contact training can prove counterproductive when a dog needs to stay laser-focused on a job.

The role that eye contact training will play in your service dog’s curriculum will depend on the work required. Work with your dog on eye contact training as needed.

Specialized Training

What distinguishes a service dog from companion animals is its specialized training in specific tasks to aid a person with a disability. The dog must be able to perform identifiable tasks when commanded or cued to do so. That requires the dog to be trained to alert to sounds, scents, medical problems, or situations and then perform an affirmative act to alleviate the situation.

Here are a few of the tasks that a service dog could perform:

  • Obstacle avoidance tasks: The dog navigates around stationary obstacles like lamp posts or hazards like potholes and low-hanging tree branches.
  • Intelligent disobedience: The trained service dog refuses to follow a command to move forward where danger is present.
  • Locating objects tasks: The service animalfinds entrances or exits to a building or follows a designated person, such as a waiter, to a table.
  • Retrieving objects: The dog must get a book off a shelf or pick up a dropped cell phone, medication or keys.
  • Alerting a handler: The service animal reacts to sounds like fire alarms, phones ringing, or doorbells.
  • Providing deep pressure: The service dog lies on a person experiencing a panic attack; the force of their body weight provides a calming effect.
  • Provide touch: The service animal provides a tactile distraction to disrupt a freezing episode.

How ActiveDogs Helps With Working Service Dogs

Training a service dog requires patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement. Begin with basic obedience commands like sit, stay, and heel. Gradually introduce specialized tasks based on the handler's needs, such as retrieving objects or opening doors.

Socialize the dog in various environments to ensure adaptability. Use rewards like treats and praise to reinforce desired behaviors. Regular exercise and mental stimulation are crucial for a well-rounded service dog.

Professional guidance and certification may be necessary. Remember, training is an ongoing process that strengthens the bond between the dog and handler, ultimately enhancing their quality of life.

For people with disabilities, training a service dog can provide vital assistance for greater participation in everyday life. Service dogs are essential lifelines for people who need help with issues like crossing a street, picking up dropped objects, reacting to sounds, and alerting them when danger is present.

At ActiveDogs, we are on a mission to help you acquire the information and equipment you need as you explore how to train a service dog. We offer information resources — like a service dog gear and supplies checklist and answers to your questions about service dogs and the ADA — and high-quality products for all types of working dogs. Our dog-loving customer service staff is ready to answer all your questions. Visit our website or give us a call at 1-877-302-1541 today.