Service dogs are amazing animals. They provide a lifeline for people with disabilities, allowing them to retain their independence as well as reducing the burden of everyday tasks. They are utilised for a whole range of people, from those who have long-term physical health conditions, to those struggling with their mental health. They’re also loving companions, offering a friendly face and unconditional love no matter the situation.
But how are these incredible canine assistants trained? How do they go from playful pups to steady service animals? We take a look.
To start, the little miracle pups have to learn the same skills as any pet dog – how to sit, stand, lie down and stay, as well as toilet training. Assistance puppies often start their lives in foster homes, with a volunteer puppy raiser, and it’s these people that will teach them the basic skills they need to know. They will likely have support from a qualified trainer, as well as attending regular puppy training classes with other pet dogs.
Learning these commands at a young age will set the pup up for success in later life – it’s much harder to teach a dog a new behaviour once they’re set in their ways. This is particularly true for service dogs, who may need to learn specific verbal or physical cues that go along with the skills. It’s important that these are consistent, so that once they go on to live with their partner, everyone is using the same commands.
There are many different theories around dog training, focusing on how to praise and reward good behaviour, as well as how to stop habits or naughty tricks that you don’t want. Many charities that train service dogs focus on positive reinforcement – rewarding the puppy for good behaviour, and redirecting or ignoring bad behaviour, rather than regularly using the word ‘no’. This is why you’ll see dogs in training being rewarded with treats for remaining calm and following commands, rather than being told off when they do get distracted.
The idea is that dogs learn what good behaviour looks like, and they repeat this in the future. It helps build a strong bond and make training fun, rather than something to be nervous about. It has also been suggested that positive reinforcement helps teach dogs to think for themselves, as they work out what behaviour their owner wants from them.
A key part of any assistance puppy’s training is getting them used to new environments. Unlike regular pet dogs, service dogs are able to accompany their partner everywhere, including on buses, trains, in supermarkets and cinemas. Whilst we as humans know that these environments are safe, a puppy does not, and there are lots of new and startling noises and smells for them to get used to that they won’t be able to experience in the home. A dog’s hearing is far better than humans – they can hear a wider frequency of sounds.
Even before they’re allowed out on a walk, service puppies will be carried around by their foster carers to get them used to all the sights the world around them has to offer. The earlier this happens, the less overwhelming it is when the puppy can finally go out and explore on foot.
Once the puppy has completed their basic training, they’ll go into an advanced training programme to help them develop the range of skills they need to be a particular kind of service dog. They’ll learn how to best support their new owner and may even be taught specific skills to suit the person they’ll eventually be paired with, although this tends to happen further down the line. From there, they’ll go on to change someone’s life – and all the hard work in their first few years will be worth it.