My service dog training program focuses on assisting people to owner train their own service dogs. The question “how long will it take to train my dog as a service dog?” is one that I hear on a regular basis.
The honest, simple, and true answer that no one ever wants to hear is this: I don’t know.
I really don’t know how long it is going to take to train your dog to become a service dog. On average it takes about 1 ½ - 2 years of work. This is our goal and is typically the best case scenario. However, there are a lot of different factors to take into account that can cause the process to take much longer. These are all important things to recognize and consider when training a service dog for yourself.
Delays caused by your disability.
- This is typically the very first thing you’re going to want to consider. If you, as a disabled handler, are trying to do the training yourself there are inevitably going to be delays caused by your disability. Whether it be sick days, hospital stays, etc. If you are not physically or mentally capable of working with your dog for a time due to your disability it will set you back in training.
If your dog has any pre existing behavioral issues that need to be addressed.
- Typically, a dog struggling with behavioral issues is not one I’m going to select or recommend be trained as a service dog. This can be anything from reactivity issues, guarding behaviors, confidence issues, etc. In many cases it will take longer to work your dog through the issue than it will take to just start over with a new dog. Some people may be very attached to their dog and not be willing to select a new one, in which case they need to be prepared for training to take much longer. Your dog is going to have to be closely worked with by a skilled trainer to overcome these issues. Working with a LIMA based Behavioral Consultant or Canine Behaviorist will be ideal. Depending on what the issue is and the severity of the issue, it may have to be addressed and fully corrected before you can even start service dog training.
Your dog’s energy level.
- If you have a dog with a high energy level training is going to take much longer. High energy dogs typically have to receive ample exercise before they can be taken out in public to work. They usually require much shorter outings to start with and must be built up to working for longer time periods. It can also take them much longer to learn how to Settle for extended periods of time (which is one of the main things a service dog needs to be able to do when out in public).
How much time you are willing to dedicate to training and management.
- I know many service dog trainers who recommend at least 1-2 hours a day of training, however, I understand that when you are trying to do all of the work yourself, and manage your disability at the same time, this can be very difficult to achieve, so I recommend to all of my clients to dedicate a minimum of 30 min of training per day as well as a minimum of 30 min every other day of public access training. This is the ideal once your dog is fully trained as well. If you don’t continue to use what you have trained, your dog will lose it.
- In a best case scenario your dog should be going out with you everywhere you go. Many people who live busy lives may find taking the dog out to train a hassle and not want to do it. Others may struggle to leave the house and only go out once or twice a week, if that. When you are training your own service dog it is necessary to put in the amount of work needed to work with and train your dog. If you are not willing or not able to dedicate the time necessary to work with your dog, your dog will not get trained.
Your dog may run into health issues.
- Dogs can run into health issues just like people can. In some cases a health problem may end up ruling your dog out completely as a service dog. In other cases it can greatly slow the training process down. If your dog gets hurt or injured and is unable to work for a week or two, it can easily take 2-4 weeks to get your dog fully back into working mode. If your dog is out for longer, it will take longer to get his skills back up.
- Keeping your dog on a high quality diet and making sure he is receiving ample and appropriate exercise for his age is an absolute must for your service dog! Making sure you are not putting too much stress on your dog’s joints while he is still growing is a big concern as well. Many people who are needing mobility dogs or mobility related tasks will try and start training certain tasks while the dog is still growing. This can cause massive damage to your dog’s joints and can end up causing your dog to be unable to work at all. Don’t get over eager for your dog to work for you! Make sure you are only training what is appropriate for your dog’s age, weight, and size; otherwise you could end up ruining your dog as a potential service dog all together!
Your task list and training goals
- What you are wanting to train your dog to do to assist you will have a big impact on how long training your dog will take. If all you have is 2 or 3 things you are wanting your dog to assist you with, training will likely go much faster. If you have a task list of 15, 20, or more different tasks training is going to take much, much longer. The complexity of the tasks will also have an impact on how long it takes to train. Some tasks are very simple and most dogs can learn them in a matter of weeks, other tasks can take several months before a dog can do it reliably. If you have a lot of tasks you’re wanting to train you will also slow yourself down if you try to do too much too fast. You can only train as fast as your dog can learn. It is important to always go at your dog’s pace.
How quickly your dog learns and picks up on things
- Is your dog a fast learner or a slow learner? How long is your dog’s threshold for training and work? Some dogs can go out and work for hours and do great. Others can only handle short outings and training sessions at first and have to be built up. Some dogs pick up on things very quickly, others my struggle to grasp a concept. How your dog works and learns is going to have a huge impact on how quickly your dog is going to progress.
Negative experiences out in public that have to be worked through.
- Unfortunately, things are going to happen out in public that can have an effect on your training and possibly set you back. These are things that you really can’t predict and often involve members of the general public doing completely stupid and asinine things. I had an incident with Basil when we were walking across an intersection and a car accident happened right next to us. He’s had some big struggles with sudden loud noises and large moving objects that we’ve been having to work through now. I’ve also had children scream in his face, grab his ears, and pull his head to the ground -hard enough to make him cry out in pain, as well as one girl that started mauling him and grabbing on to him so hard that it took her mother and I almost 5 minutes to get her off of him. Needless to say it has caused Basil to become standoffish towards children. For a long time he would try to run away when he would see a child, after a lot of hard work, now he just moves himself to the opposite side of me when he sees one.
- It is becoming more and more common for service dogs to be attacked out in public by fake service dogs. When this happens it is common for them to become fearful and reactive towards other dogs afterwards. Some become so reactive that they end up having to be failed as a service dog.
- I know of one incident that happened at Disney World where someone ran up behind a service dog, picked its hind end off the ground, and shook it back and forth as he aggressively barked at the dog. The dog became so terrified of people walking up behind it that it would jump on its handler and ended up knocking her over a few times. After that they decided it would be faster (and safer) to just fail the dog and start over with a new one.
Your dog failing and having to start over with a new dog.
- This is one that no one ever wants to think about or consider, but is always a very real possibility. Service dog work can be very hard and very stressful. Few dogs are actually cut out for the job. What you are going to do if your dog fails is something all service dog handlers have to consider. There are a lot of different things that can cause your dog to fail as a service dog, but 95% of the time (if not more) it’s going to be because of a Public Access/socialization issue. This can be anything from fear, aggression, reactivity, lack of confidence, health issues, etc. In many cases once a behavioral issue develops it is often going to be faster to start over with a new dog than trying to work your dog through the issue and then resuming service dog training. Taking your dog’s health and well being into account is of the utmost importance as a service dog handler. Even if you really want your dog to succeed as your service dog, sometimes you have to accept that this just isn’t the right job for your dog and that s/he will be happier just living as a pet. Should this happen you then have to decide if/when you are ready to start over with a new dog.
Many people are shocked when I tell them how long it typically takes to fully train a service dog. Once you have taken into account all the different factors that go into it, you can begin to get an idea of just how much work it really takes, and just how dedicated you have to be to train a dog to become a service dog.