So You Think You Want To Train Your Own Service Dog

So You Think You Want to Train Your Own Service Dog…

By Kristin Hartness, Canines for Disabled Kids & Service Dog

published in: So You Think You Want to Train Your Own Service Dog… ( April 2023

Almost every week someone asks me if their personal dog can be
trained as a service dog. The short answer is…maybe.
Training a service dog takes a long time, a lot of work, substantial money and
a willingness to risk a broken heart. While this is true of all pups-in-training, it
is hardest and personal when it is your puppy.
This experience of Owner Assisted Training can be rewarding and
heartbreaking. Understanding is key before you start down this path.

What is Owner Assisted Service Dog Training?

Owner Assisted Service Dog Training happens when the individual, or their
family, owns the dog that is in training. The person, or family, is active in the
training of the dog attending professional classes, socializing, doing
“homework” paying for health care, food, toys, treats and classes. This is a
small team, who is personally involved, and is taking on all the risk. They are
taking on the job which effectively is 24/7 for two years.
We would all like to believe that the devoted pet who sits by our side or sleeps
in our beds will step into the job of service dog, or that the puppy we pick from a litter with outstanding pedigree will fulfill all our dreams of the perfect service
dog. I know, I’ve been there. These immediate emotional benefits can be
incredibly rewarding to the human. While this gratification can enrich the
experience of the person handling the pup-in-training, this is emotional
support.  And emotional support is not a service dog trained skill; it is a
bonus—like frosting on a cupcake.
What are the common reasons why people say they want to train their pet to
be a service dog?

  • Your current dog is showing interest in your needs. It is possible that
    your pet smells chemical changes that indicate Diabetic changes or
    Seizure Activities, or your dog might be the best fetching dog,
    anticipating items you need, or alerts you to key sounds in your home.
  • You can’t find a training program to meet your needs.
  •  The closest training program is too far away.
  • Program trained dogs are too expensive.
  •  The wait is too long for a program trained dog.
  • You have to have a specific breed.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Your Pet is Interested in Your Needs

Your current pet is showing interest. Hurray! If you think your dog is nosing
around you before your seizure, for example, you might be right. All dogs
have the ability to smell and hear things we cannot.

Some of them are interested in using these abilities with their humans, but not
all of them. When you think this is happening, you should take steps to track
the behavior, using blood tests, or other medically trusted techniques, to
document the accuracy. Once you are confident, the next steps involve
isolating scents or sounds so publicly appropriate alerts can be taught.
Difficulty Finding the Right Program
You can’t find a training program to produce the dog you need. Here are
several common reasons you might have difficult time finding the right training

  • You don’t know the terms to identify the trained skills you need or have
    not identified the trained skills you need.
  • The internet search is overwhelming and the programs you have
    contacted were not a match.
  •  You do not qualify for a service dog.
  • You want a specific breed.

There are over 200 training programs in the United States. Many are non-
profits, which can help reduce your out-of-pocket costs. For-profit programs
and private trainers also specialize in producing service dog.

There are limited resources to track or compare all of them but here are a few
that can help:

  • Canines for Disabled Kids (helping children &
  •  Assistance Dogs International:
  •  Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT):

Closest Training Program Is Too Far Away

Depending on the skill set you need and where you live, you should expect to
travel for a program trained service dog. Have realistic expectations. You
should not have to fly across the country for this (unless you want to) but it is
unlikely you will have a program within an hour’s drive.
Be open—if you are uncomfortable flying, can you take a train? Or use a limo
or town car service where they drop you off for the first day and pick you up
when training is over (approximately two weeks later).

Most training programs require that you come to their facility for 80-100 hours
to learn how to use the service dog they trained for you. Some programs will

bring the finished service dog to you and teach you from your home where
you should have between 80-100 hours of training. In either case, you have
travel costs, either to bring the dog to you or you to the dog.
Program-Trained Dogs Are Too Expensive
Producing a service dog is expensive. The costs of producing a service dog
range between $35,000 and $55,000 per dog. You will cover the entire cost
when you do Owner Assisted Training. This will be paid in small week-to-week
expenses including food, medical, training classes and time.
This may feel less expensive because you are putting out smaller amounts
over an approximate 2-year period; however, most training programs require
that clients raise half or less of the training costs. A few programs pass no
cost on to the client.

Additionally, if you are working with a 501c3 training program you should be
able to fundraise all of the amount. Program-trained service dogs can be your
least expensive option with you paying little to nothing out of pocket.

The Wait is Too Long for a Program-Trained Dog

Time is always a concern. Training a dog takes about two years. It does not
matter if you are training the pup or if a training program is. Your personal pet
may feel like it took less time if you did not intend for it to be a service dog, but
this is only a feeling.

Dogs need to grow up and this takes about two years. You want your service
dog to be physically and mentally sound. You do not want to risk health issues
that could have been avoided if you had not rushed training, such as joint or
bone damage.
You do not want to work a “teenager” who some days will look like they have
it all together as professionals, but other days just can’t be bothered to get up
on time, if at all. These are normal development periods which most breeds
complete at about the age of two years old.
In addition, the failure rate is approximately 50%, meaning about ½ of the
dogs that try to become service dogs will not make it. While there are as many
reasons for this as there are dogs, failure impacts the wait time. At the time of
this article, the wait time of 2-3 years was average.

When you are working with a dog you own you must be prepared for this.
What will you do if your pup does not make it? Will you keep it as a pet? Will
you rehome it? What is your Plan B? Does this plan mean trying again for a
service dog or putting a service dog on hold until your pet passes away?
There are so many reasons a pup might fail that will prevent you from bringing
a new candidate into your home or even from bringing a program-trained
service dog in. Examples include expensive medical treatments or

You Have to Have a Specific Breed.


You should not set your heart on a specific breed. You should be focused on
getting the best tool possible. Would you refuse to use a wheelchair if you
could not get it in bright yellow with orange strips made by BMW? I hope not. I
hope you would want the best wheelchair for your independent movement.
Many breeds have higher failure rates because of what makes them the breed
they are. For example, breeds commonly called Guardian Breeds are dogs
that have been selected to protect their family, pack or herd generally do not
make good service dogs because they naturally want to protect you from

Ask yourself why you are determined to have a specific breed. Be honest. Do
you want/need a breed with hair vs. fur? There are several breeds that could
meet this need. Are you picking a breed because it makes you feel safe or

confident? Maybe rethink this; could you desire this breed as a way to
intimidate people, keeping them away? Service dogs should not be a silent
threat telling people to keep away.
One trained skill a service dog can have is “Space Blocking.” This is done in a
non-threatening way to provide comfortable space between the partner and
others. Access tools should not be used to intimidate others. Hitting someone
with your cane or suggesting you will crash into them with your scooter so
they do what you want is not ok. Service dogs are tools to help us access the
world, not directly or indirectly keep the world away.
Trained skills are only one piece of making a dog into a service dog and often
training skills are the easiest part of creating a service dog. They must also
have top public manners—no jumping, no barking, no playing in the lobby, no
aggression, no protection (keeping strangers away).

Consider Classes for Your Service Dog-in-Training…and for You

There are a number of training classes you can take, especially during the first
year, which are not specifically for service dogs. These classes can provide
structure with skilled trainers who are evaluating your pup in that level of
training. They can provide additional eyes on your pup which are not
emotionally invested in your pup.
Obedience classes and earning the Canine Good Citizenship will help prepare
your pup for work in places where pets are not allowed. Tricks classes provide
an opportunity to develop trained skills such as nudging buttons or carrying
items. Scent classes can build the basics for medical alert dogs. Classes like
these can also help determine if your pup wants to do what you need your
service dog to do.

Having different trainers and testers will not only help reduce the risk that
emotional involvement which will negatively impact the evaluations, but it will
also expand your dog’s experiences with strange people, dogs and
It is very easy for owners to make excuses for our pups-in-training or to think
a pup has been successful when they have not. This is natural. Loving the
pup can color the way we see their success and their mistakes. Use neutral
resources whenever possible to know your pup is making the progress it
needs to make.
One resource for classes like these is the American Kennel Club.

What Does the ADA Say About Pets in the Process of Becoming Service Animals?

All service dogs must meet the same standards, as defined by the Americans
with Disabilities Act (ADA), no matter who trained it.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not protect dogs training to be
service dogs. Check out not only the state you live, but any state you where
you plan to travel with your pup-in-training.
Many states provide pups-in-training similar access as finished service dogs
receive under the ADA, but there are differences. A state may require pups-in-
training to be clearly identified or they may allow employees of registered
training programs to handle pups-in-training in public, but not volunteers or
owners not working with registered training companies. You must comply with
state laws while training.
Selecting Owner Assisted Training is right for some people. Selecting the best
pup using a variety of training resources, knowing best practices, knowing the
federal law about finished service dogs and the state laws about pups-in-
training are all important pieces to your success.
If you select Owner Assisted Training, do so with knowledge of the work,
expenses, risk and joy it can bring. Be honest with yourself about why you are
selecting this path, no matter what those reasons are.
Do not rush the process. Be realistic—training a dog for 2- 2 ½ years is
realistic, but training a dog for 5 years is not. There is a time to “fish or cut
bait” as the saying goes.
Becoming a service dog partner is rewarding. The independence they bring is
hard to fully express. It is life-changing, no matter where it received its

About the Author:
Kristin Hartness is the Executive Director of Canines for Disabled Kids and a
service dog user. She has had two program-trained service dogs, one owner
assisted service dog, and has an owner assisted pup-in-training at the time of
this article.

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