So in this series on service dogs, I wanted to pause a little in my own narrative and offer some of the great training resources I found out there. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I hope any of you stopping by might share any good finds with the rest of us as well in the comments. Again, the main point of this series is to help inspire others who could benefit from this sort of companion to roll up their sleeves and get to work on it. Sharing resources and experiences is a big part of what is needed to help each other out.
I have a friend who has a service cat, and a few years ago lost her first service cat, then has had to find and train a new companion. From her, I learned that clicker training is the way to go when working with your fledgling helper–and I also learned from her that not all beasties have it in them to become this sort of bestie. Choose carefully, think about your needs, and then keep in mind what sorts of issues will be deal breakers for you–before you start your training!
I think training your own dog makes it more likely that you will have success with whatever animal seems to mesh with your own personality, simply because the two of you will develop ways to communicate for the long term. Part of why so many dogs wash out of more formal programs and are considered “not suitable” is that there simply isn’t time to backtrack training or slow the process down for an individual that hits a training bump.
However, there are some issues that can arise that make the animal you have chosen and are training unsuitable for your needs (unable to face a necessary task, violent/aggressive, too fearful…this list could go on and on). Decide before you make the commitment to an animal what will happen if the dog “washes out”, and be kind enough to yourself and your dog to make that decision early in the training/bonding process. With my friend and her cat, her vet cautioned her that not every feline is going to be very receptive or suitable to even clicker training, and that since the training process was a long one and she needed a replacement at work as soon as possible, that investing no more than a month in an animal that wasn’t excelling at the training was probably a good idea. After all, with her needs, it might take some time to find the right fit.
Dogs are usually not as training averse as cats, but still, this training process can take a couple years to really get the best helper–and they only have so many good years. Also, you deserve to have a partner who can deliver the work/tasks you need, so make some decisions about what things will be deal breakers before you start training so you don’t waste valuable training time and efforts in a companion that will never be able to deliver. Then cut your losses and move on–in my experience once you have a good 6 months with a dog, there is no way you are going to let them go (and vice versa). The bonding is far more intense than I anticipated. So…be warned that once you are in that far there won’t be any turning back, and plan to assess things regularly before you are committed life partners with a buddy who isn’t helpful.
Okay, so general cautions stated, let’s talk about training resources–particularly clicker resources.
First–why clicker training? It keeps things really positive, and motivates the animal with the carrot not the stick. This means they learn rapidly, as a general rule. A food and play motivated dog with a patient trainer and mutual esteem between them is really going to excel at this whole process. Also, if you apply clicker training according to some of the references I’ll talk about below, then you will also have an obedient animal who not only does well at their service dog job, but can also think for themselves–which is essential if you encounter anything unusual. We’ll talk more about the training process itself and things to keep in mind later.
1 & 2): The books I found most helpful in our training were by Lelah Sullivan (AKA Shana Cohen), Training Your Own Service Dog: Step by Step Instructions with 30 Day Intensive Training Program to Get You Started and Training Your Own Service Dog Book 2: Training Psychiatric Service Dogs – PTSD, Anxiety Disorders, and Depression. She also has a book on potty training your service dog and a planned book on training diabetes/epilepsy service dogs.
I chose these because they are clear, easy to understand, and provide not just an explanation of how to apply the principles of clicker training, but also break tasks into a 30 day curriculum. I found that having a puppy meant that it took us longer than 30 days to get through the list of training tasks, simply because she wasn’t developmentally ready that fast. The 30 days is more about the fact that there are 30 lesson plans, and you should take however long it takes to master the list.
Also, the second book focused specifically on some of my needs. Although I have never been specifically diagnosed with PTSD, the sensory overload and possibility of meltdown/shutdown from my autism are very similar. The second book helped a lot with tasks to add to her repertoire of work, and helped me figure out other ways she could be helpful to an autistic like myself.
Another plus is that these books are available for the Kindle, which means they are cheaper than paper books, and I can access them anywhere I need to while training without lugging a pile of books around.
3): Books by Karen Pryor are a very good place to find out more about the philosophy behind clicker training. Since I was specifically looking for service dog references, I delved deeper into this niche with Sullivan, but Pryor has more available than the basic reference listed here: Getting Started: Clicker Training for Dogs. Pryor is a reliable reference for dog psychology, and the basics of clicker training. This book has been around awhile and makes a great starting place if you are even considering getting and training any dog. It is also available in many formats, but of course I love the fact that you can get an instant e-copy.
4 – 7): I’m going to list more than one reference here, but what these all have in common are ways to solve obedience problems in anxious, excitable, or high energy dogs (did I mention I have a sled dog?!). I usually recommend these to folks who say their dog can’t behave for one reason or another, or that they are anxious/aggressive at inopportune times. The suggestions here were helpful in learning how to head off any training mis-steps. In other words, I knew I had a high-energy dog, who was very young and with very little self control. My plan was to digest these books for training ideas, and also to learn what to do immediately if any bad habits started to develop. So far, that strategy has paid off for me–but check back in a year!
Although I haven’t had to apply much from these books, reading them did teach me how to deconstruct behavior I didn’t want, and how to teach the more desirable behavior in a step-by-step orderly fashion. So…even if you don’t have an anxious or aggressive dog, these books are a great idea to have around to help YOU learn how to teach what you want in baby steps, even if you can’t find a reference to teach you how to do the training. I couldn’t afford to hire a professional trainer for that, so these books were invaluable for teaching me how to break things down to the puppy.
Service Dog Training – Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Working Dogs, Puppies, Pet Therapy, Emotional Support, Disabled, Clicker Training, Registration, Certification – All Covered by Richard Shaw: good starter reference if you don’t know what all the terms mean or you’re writing a report for school/4-H on working dogs (or if you haven’t read any of my other posts). It is well-written, cheap, and basic–yes, it is also an e-book. No real info here on how to train, but good basic stuff if all the terms are confusing to you.
Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out: Training Crazy Dogs from Over the Top to Under Control and Social, Civil, and Savvy: Training & Socializing Puppies to Become the Best Possible Dogs by Laura VanArendonk Baugh: these are good references, well-written, and Baugh breaks things down well. She writes clearly, and the way she approaches the issues gave me a lot of ideas when working with my little one.
Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog by Emma Parsons: another good reference to keep in the “what if” pile. Again, well written, good understanding of clicker training and dog psychology with a lot of stories to help you apply to your own situation.
Karen Pryor has a great website for her team of clicker trainers. There is a store, videos and information about national upcoming conferences for trainers. This is handy, because you can probably get connected to a trainer in your own area that is participating with Pryor’s organization or in these conferences.
International Association of Assistance Dog Partners is a professional organization for training experts that certifies and tests service animals for minimum standards of behavior. As stated in a previous post, such certifications are NOT required by law, but this handy list can help the beginner trainer/handler establish appropriate targets and training goals for their companion. You can also find some sample training logs there. These are helpful if you want to have evidence of your partner’s progress or areas that might need more work (although you likely already know this). However, if you are ever called into a court of law to defend your service dog, these logs could be essential for proving that your dog has received detailed, careful training–even if a professional was not involved. Personally, I find this task to be the one that wipes my slate clean, but I have put an effort into documenting what i can–just in case we ever have to defend our relationship.
Here are my three favorites for training ideas and just general service dog stuff:
Dog Training by Kikopup: good reference for training insights and instruction. She mainly works with what seems to be agility dogs, but is firmly a clicker training trainer. The dogs are cute, and her more recent videos are probably most helpful for the beginner (more instructive about the basics and less about showcasing the end results, better editing).
Zak George’s Dog Training rEvolution: Lots of content here, and it is presented well for people learning to train. There are some great lists. This is high-quality YouTube content with good editing, lots of different kinds of dogs, and all of it is based on clicker training. I enjoy the ideas on Kikopup, but with Zak George, we also get to see regular dogs learning these things from the outset. What I also like about Zak is he applies the concept of “no, thank you” letting the dog know that they are not providing what is desired (which then earns the treat or toy). Strict clicker training is always positive. I know from my own work raising children, that if you also communicate what is NOT desired, that communication will happen more quickly and succinctly. I find the same to be true of dogs as well, so I really like watching his videos.
Drew Lynch: this is a vlog by comedian Drew Lynch who documents his adventures with his service dog, Stella (a vizsla with resting bitch face–literally). He also comments on stories about other service dogs, and acts as an advocate–he isn’t necessarily family friendly or safe for work. He is amusing, and I like the subtitles he comes up with for his dogs as he rants on camera. Not really a training reference, but if you’re this deep in service dog stuff, you should go like, follow, and enjoy his vlogs. As you can see in this video, even when you have an obvious disability with a professionally trained dog, you can run into problems accessing services.
Thanks for coming along with me on this adventure. If you have more references that you really love, please do share them below! I hope to continue to expand this list as I continue to do my own work. Excited to see what some of you have to say or share.