The First Skills Every Service Dog Should Learn…
*I point out clicker training multiple times in this article but I am not explaining it because it is something I personally struggle with. I have linked my favorite trainer’s explanation online for you to review!*
Potty training is one of the most important skills you will teach your pup. A service dog cannot pee or poo indoors and eventually should learn how to eliminate on command. This is one of the things that causes me most anxiety because a puppy is still a puppy and a dog is still a dog therefore if they in need of elimination they will do it…and that’s ok! One of the most important things is to remember that elimination is always ok. It’s up to the owner to help the dog with this, and if this happens indoors do not get angry with you pup because it means that you weren’t there for them when they needed to go outside. Let’s see how we can get started…
Potty training is the first step to training any type of dog. It requires 24/7 watch of the puppy and is one of the most frustrating things to train, however, it is essential that your pup becomes potty trained. A service dog should be able to eliminate on command but for phase one we’re going to just focus on peeing and pooping outside. Training pads are useful but should be used sparingly, you don’t want your dog to become dependant on these devices because it will become harder to train them in the long run.
Caution: Going to the bathroom is a natural thing for all beings so don’t get angry or scold your pup if they go to the bathroom indoors, that just means you weren’t there for them at the time, you are a team and have to work together.
Step One: Follow your pup around when they wander or get a playpen so you know their whereabouts all the time. Click here to look at my favourite playpens for your pup *not sponsored* When you notice your pup is circling or starting to go to the bathroom, pick them up and bring them outside. This could get messy but is essential for training. As soon as they eliminate outside congratulate them with a “good boy/girl” or a word you have decided will be their positive feedback. You can also click if you have clicker trained your dog.
Step Two: If you are using training pads, perhaps the dog needs to stay at home when you work, that’s ok! Congratulate your dog when using a training pad instead of the floor. When you are home, put a training pad near the front door, this will encourage your pup to start going to the door automatically when they need to go to the bathroom. As soon as the pup is on the training pad, take them outside. That way they will get used to knowing that outdoors = potty time.
Step Three: Continue this training until your dog automatically goes to the door or alerts you when they need to use the bathroom. If you are using a training pad, remove after a few times/days and affirm your dog when they go to the door. This should take a couple weeks of consistent training but could take from 4 months and up to a year to master. Remember mistakes happen so don’t get angry with your pup. They are new to the world and are doing the best they can.
It’s funny because sit is usually the easiest trick to teach a dog, but Peach really struggled with it. Teaching your dog to sit is essential because it helps calm them down and reestablish themselves if they get too excited, start barking, or misbehaving. A firm “sit” has the ability to teach your dog to focus which comes in handy in later training modules.
Caution: As I said before, Peach really struggled with sit. She is a very excited dog soo she loves to move, therefore, “paw”, “come”, “mat”, etc. were easier for her to master. It became really frustrating when I would watch videos and trainers would say “put your dog into a sit” because guess what…Peach couldn’t do that yet! Every dog is different and don’t get angry at them for learning things differently, training a dog takes both time and patience.
Step One: If your dog is clicker trained prepare your training session by starting with a few clicks resulting in treats automatically. Once your dog becomes accustomed to the clicking sound they may automatically start to sit. If they do, start to say sit before every click. Reward with a training treat when they complete the command. After a few dozen times of successfully completing the sit command with the clicker start to phase into longer pauses after saying sit. Wait 2-3 seconds before clicking and rewarding the sit.
Step Two: Start to take a step back, create a distance between you and your pup. Command, click, treat. If your dog is no longer sitting at the command it means you created too long of a distance, so take a step forward until your dog is able to complete the command. Start to create a larger distance with time and practice.
Step Three: Start to phase in some distractions. If you have friends or family, they can start to walk into the room, hold some treats in their pockets, or talk loudly to distract the dog. Continue the command, click, treat process with these distractions. Your dog should be focussed on you and ignore the surrounding distractions. If you don’t have friends or family available to you, you can go onto Youtube and click on a video of sounds such as dogs barking, trains, people talking loudly, etc. for an audio distraction or you can go out to the front of your lawn for visual distractions. This command should take 1-2 weeks of consistent training for the dog to master the skill.
The explanation for come is pretty straightforward. You want your service dog to be able to return to you at all times, this comes in handy when teaching “leave it”, “drop it”, and several other commands (almost all, to be honest!) This can be one of the scariest things to teach since it requires a little faith from you, remember to be safe and cautious at all times.
Caution: Many first-time pawrents fear letting their dog go off leash which I understand completely, I’ve had dogs before and I was a professional dog groomer yet I still struggle to let Peach off her leash. But it is so important they learn how to come thoroughly.
Step One: Have high-quality treats ready for this task, Peach personally likes chicken and cheese. The most important tasks for your dog to learn should always include high-quality treats. Some dogs like apples, potatoes, ice cubes, chicken, cheese, peanut butter, and for those that aren’t food motivated often respond to their favourite toys. You should practice this skill off leash so your dog has the ability to learn not to wander, I suggest doing this in a fenced area or in your house with little distractions to begin with.
Step Two: Start slow and only take a few steps away from your dog, say “come” and follow the command, click, treat ritual. It’s vital to say the same word for your dog to learn what it means. If you say “come” once and “go” another time the dog will become confused at the sounds you are making…remember they don’t speak English! They are learning and hearing all these sounds for the first time, so have some patience. If you don’t expect a baby to tell you how it feels, you can’t expect a puppy to understand you.
Step Three: Dogs are one of our only fellow species that can understand pointing, therefore, I like to point to where I want Peach to come, which is usually in a sit in front of me. Having both hand signals and words make it twice as easy for your dog to understand because they are creating the combination of these commands on both visually and auditory levels. Continue the command, click, treat, ritual while starting to take steps further back creating a longer distance for the dog to come. If you are at a distance where the dog stops coming, it means you are too far and need to take a few steps closer.
Step Four: Once you are at a good, long-distance try and incorporate some distractions. Take a few steps closer when using distractions so the dog can have an easier transition and then start to back away again. As I said before distractions could be youtube videos with dogs barking, friends with treats, people talking loudly, sitting in a highly populated area or even your front yard, or surrounded by other dogs. This type of training is dependant on the breed, age, personality, etc. of the dog for the length of time it takes to train with an average of 2-3 consistent training weeks but could take up to a year.
Teaching a dog to stay is one of the most useful tasks you can teach. It helps with food aggression, running out of doors, jumping on visitors, and getting themselves into dangerous situations. Peach was a natural at stay, however, I used the word wait. I started her training ASAP by making her “wait” before she could eat her meal after she caught onto the fact that without waiting she won’t be fed, she started to apply it to all of her training. She is only 6 months old and now she won’t eat, even if I leave the room until I say “ok.”
Caution: The sit skill must be mastered before attempting this skill
Step One: Start this training early. If you read over the why section above you will see that Peach caught onto this skill right away and mastered it. To train your pup, I suggest starting with making them stay while their food is put down in front of them. Automatically the dog will run up to the food and try to eat it, when it does this you must pick up the food, put them into a sit, and do the command again. Continue until the dog is able to wait at least 3 seconds before you say “ok” to release them from the command. Remember to follow command, click, treat (in this case their regular meals would be the treat).
TIP: I find it helpful to point at the bowl when I say ok because it easily transitions Peach’s attention from me to the bowl of food. Dogs are one of our only primates that can understand the meaning of pointing.
Step Two: Start to bring the practice into daily situations, such as when you use the bathroom or going outside but make the intervals a short time such as 1-2 minutes in the different room. Get your dog to stay while you do these daily tasks by closing the door between the two of you and asking them to stay in a seated position. Follow command, click, treat.
Step Three: Start to make the intervals longer and start to create a larger distance between you and your dog. Make them sit outside and stay as you water the garden. If your dog moves, he does not get a click or treat. Again, if your dog is no longer obeying you, take a break and then shorten the distance.
Step Four: Once your dog starts to master the skill, you can start to get people to ring your doorbell or come inside while making the dog stay in a seated position. Release the command by saying “ok.”
TIP: It is crucial for this to be a slow transition, REMEMBER if your dog is no longer obeying you they do not get a click or treat and YOU must shorten the distance. This can take up to a year to master depending on the dog!