With such long waiting lists for assistance dogs from registered charities, it’s no wonder many people consider whether they could train their dog themselves. It has become increasingly common for people to go down the route of training their own dog, either because they happen to have a dog who seems ideal, or because they’ve specifically sourced a puppy for this purpose.
However, there is a reason why these charities exist. Training assistance dogs is not easy. Even with the most specialised breeding, socialisation and training programmes, not every dog makes the grade and it takes a huge amount of time and money to develop these dogs into the best assistance dogs.
Despite this, there is a great need for more dogs and there are benefits to people training their own dogs. Not everyone needs a dog who can perform a range of complex tasks, for some people it is perfectly possible to train their own dog for what they need.
It’s not straightforward though, and you need to start by choosing the right dog. You also need to know when your dog simply isn’t suitable…
“All dogs have their own personalities and behavioural tendencies. We can build their confidence, teach skills to cope with stress, train alternative behaviours, and strengthen their bond and trust with their owners, but we can’t change who they are. Work on the things you can change but accept you are working within a pre-existing genetic blueprint and that may require some lifelong management and different expectations for your dog.”
With every dog, you will be working within the limits of their genetics or their past learning experiences, which means it’s not always possible to ‘train’ a dog to be an assistance dog. You have to think about what you want from your dog and whether they are capable of achieving it, while keeping their own welfare at highest priority. Trying to train a dog who is nervous of people to be a reliable support dog in busy locations may not be the best idea, because while your dog may do everything possible to support you, he could be way out of his depth and struggling to cope with the situation. Equally, a dog who is too focused on wanting to greet everyone he meets, will struggle with the idea of ignoring everyone and keeping his sole focus on his owner.
Having the wrong dog will only make your life harder and more stressful, or lead to years of trying to mould your dog into something which is unrealistic for them. Knowing when the dog isn’t right for the role is very important. It’s a decision which assistance dog organisations have to make on a regular basis and one which as an owner training their own dog, can be extremely challenging but also really essential.
When you’re choosing a dog, you need to consider lots of factors:
Size of the dog
What will the dog’s role be? Does he need to be big enough to reach items on shelves or strong enough to carry large items? Are physical abilities irrelevant to his role?
Breed of the dog
Certain genetic lines of dogs are more prone to traits such as nervousness, excitability or vocalising. When taking a dog into public places or different environments, you need to think whether the breed or genetic line is suited to this.
Public perception may be important too … there’s a reason why the police don’t use pointy eared breeds as sniffer dogs, floppy ears are less scary and therefore more acceptable in public places.
Being an assistance dog can be physically demanding so considering the health of your chosen breed is important too. A puppy should come from health-tested breeding lines, or if you adopt a mature dog then consider the possible health problems for the breed. Think about the role you have in mind for your dog and make sure their physical abilities match this, not every dog is designed to be active for long durations, but equally, not every dog is designed for a quieter lifestyle!
Puppy or adult
Puppies require a lot of work and it could be a couple of years before they can actively participate in tasks, depending on their role. Socialisation will be vital and there can be an added pressure to ‘get it right’ when you’re bringing a puppy up with a specific purpose in mind.
Adopting an adult dog could be another option, one which hasn’t been suited to a particular home may actually be ideal for a working lifestyle. In a mature dog, you should be able to see a better picture of the dog’s temperament and whether it’s really suitable. However, adopting a dog can mean you don’t know the full history and true behaviours aren’t always seen until the dog has fully settled in. Adults may be less mouldable to different lifestyles compared to a puppy who is bought up in the environment.
We expect a lot from our dogs, even most pet dogs are expected to cope with many different environments and situations which they may not always be well-prepared for. Assistance dogs are often placed in challenging environments and required to carry out their tasks and roles under high levels of distraction. This means they need a stable temperament and they need to be able to cope with a wide range of situations.
No one wants to put their dog into situations where they feel uncomfortable so making sure your dog is happy and relaxed is really essential. They should be able to complete temperament tests which will indicate whether or not they are suitable for their role.
These basic temperament tests could include aspects such as:
Recovery time in the event of something aversive. Do they recover quickly if something spooks them or do they need time to adjust again?
How do they cope in a busy environment? Can they relax, are they tense and alert, can they cope for long durations or do they become progressively more stressed?
Response to cues in public settings … are they able to respond reliably? Can they complete tasks in different environments?
What environmental stimuli cause distractions? Are they distracted by other dogs or people?
What is their general reaction to noises, dogs, people, novel items and overall environments? Are they excited by some stimuli or worried by things?
It’s important to think about what elements you can work through with your dog and which ones will limit their abilities as an assistance dog. Every dog is different, so while one dog may be capable of learning to relax in a busy environment, another may never be able to adjust to this type of situation. Behaviours or reactions can be changed to some extent but whether that’s enough for your dog’s role is an important consideration.
Written by Naomi White
If you need support with training your own dog to be your Assistance Dog, we are accepting a limited number of applicants for our Owner Trained Assistance Dog Programme Online.
We provide training through all stages of development, from puppy training and early socialisation, temperament testing, basic to advanced obedience and teaching tasks. We regularly assess members on their training level, mirroring the same high standards being used for assistance dogs around the world.
You'll gain instant access to over 350 video tutorials which will help you with passing your 'in person' assessments from Puppy to Gold level, as well as your Access Test.
You'll have our continued support, as well as the opportunity to use our customised Assistance Dog jacket with your dog in training.
Alongside the above, you'll find Task videos such as:
Deep Pressure Therapy
Chin rest for anxiety
And more! All of our task videos are created based on the needs of the applicants, so if we don't have a video you need, we'll create one!
The programme is accessible worldwide, with Assessments available to UK residents only. Overseas residents will need to find a local trainer to help them with assessments.
Sign up here: https://www.adolescentdogs.com/assistancedogs