Have you ever considered the length of time it takes to fully train a reliable service dog? In this article, we’ll look at the length of time involved, from the initial testing phase, all the way to socialization and delivery.
When do you start training a service dog?
The journey starts at a very young age for prospective service dogs.
At eight weeks old, the tests begin. Loud noises. Sudden movements. Strange objects. Slick floors. Every attempt is made to lure a reaction out of the puppies.
Some of them bolt, scared out of their minds. Others boldly stride towards the ‘danger’, attacking it with needle-like puppy teeth.
But a few – a special few – only flinch mildly before approaching the curious object. Those special few will suddenly find themselves in the running as a possible service dog in the future.
If they pass the first few tests then they begin the next step. Socialization.
The importance of environmental socialization
As humans, we often find ourselves in situations that make us nervous or uncomfortable. A new area, a busy street, or a crowded bus can put a lot of people on edge. In these types of circumstances, we sometimes get fidgety or distracted, focusing on the wrong things and becoming overwhelmed.
It’s normal for new things to be a little scary or disconcerting for us, but when it comes to service dogs, that discomfort or lack of focus can make or break the dog’s ability to assist the handler. If a dog is spooked by something, they are no longer focused on their job. That means they could miss a cue or perform badly, and that creates a whole new set of problems.
Socialization is the key to ensuring a service dog does not lose focus in situations of intense stimulation or distraction. Beginning at the prime age of eight weeks, socialization is a process that takes months. A service dog puppy needs to be exposed to as many new situations and stimuli as possible. From something as small as a pen hitting the floor to something as large as a blasting train horn, these puppies need to be slowly introduced to everything possible. Every new environment and situation must be as positive for the puppy as it can be.
Socializing service dogs with humans and animals
Alongside environmental socialization comes socialization to animals and other people. A service dog who is nervous or aggressive towards people is not acceptable, as it then becomes a danger to the public and will make a lot of situations nearly impossible for the handler and dog.
In addition, if a service dog becomes overstimulated by other dogs or wants to chase a cat, that drags their focus from their handler and can create huge problems in public areas.
Worse yet, if a mobility dog, walking beside an unstable-on-their-feet handler were to tear off after a cat, they could drag their handler down and cause injuries. Ensuring that these service dogs do not become overstimulated by animals is crucial to their handler’s safety.
Training service dogs for tasks
Up until around seven or eight months of age, the puppies are trained only in basic obedience alongside their socialization. At this time, the puppies are analyzed based on their temperaments and personalities to decide what kind of service dog they would be best suited for.
Often, mobility dogs need to be a little more low energy and calm to keep pace with their disabled handlers, whereas a seizure alert dog can be more hyperactive because their job doesn’t demand a slow and gentle approach.
A family with a lot of kids and a busy lifestyle will need a dog who won’t give out on a long and eventful day. Every single detail needs to be absolutely perfect. Once the dog’s personality is determined, they are chosen for their future and often paired with a family at that time. Based on each family’s needs, the tasks are chosen and the dog begins training for their tasks.
In general, it will take an additional four to eight months to train the tasks and generalize. Not only does the dog need to be able to do its tasks at home, but also at the grocery store, the airport, at a school, in the mall – everywhere.
How long does it take to train a service dog?
In total, it takes a year and a half or more to train a service dog completely – but if you take into account the rigorous socialization and training put into these dogs, the time can seem to fly by.
Service dogs have to be fireproof. Nothing can faze them or prevent them from their jobs. A lot of work goes into ensuring they perform in any situation – and that work takes time.
By the time a service dog’s training is fully complete, they will be able to assist their handlers and improve their quality of life immeasurably – and the time invested in proper training and socialization is more than worth it.