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Pros and Cons of Training Your Own Service Dog

Are you considering training your own service dog? It's not a decision to take lightly! Owner-training is a huge commitment -- not something that you can do "on the weekends" or "when I get around to it." Good owner-training takes a substantial amount of time, energy, and good old-fashioned hard work. If you have a disability and are considering training your own service dog, here's the quick-list of pros and cons.

Pros

1) No wait time. Many service dog organizations have a wait time of several *years.* In particular, if your disability is one which will be helped by the mere presence of a dog, you will start to get some emotional and companionship support of the dog before it is even trained! (Note: Providing "emotional and companionship support" is not considered a "trained task" by the ADA...but service dog users know that this is a huge part of the dogs' benefit.)

2) The dog can be trained to *your* specifications. For example, many parents agree that the "stimming" behaviors of an autistic child are not harmful and should be tolerated as long as they do not involve self-injury (I agree with this, BTW -- long live neurodiversity!) but many autism service dogs are trained to interrupt stimming. If you do not *want* your son or daughter's dog to interrupt stimming, an owner-trainer simply doesn't train that task. You can concentrate only on the tasks that you actually need.

3) Owner-trainers develop better handling skills. Most program-trained dogs come with a handler training portion ranging from a few weeks at a campus to a few days (!) with an instructor, and many programs include at least some follow-up and troubleshooting if there are problems. But successful owner-trainers understand the entire process, have already dealt with most of the problems, and are usually more self-sufficient throughout the dog's career.

Cons:

1) It's HARD to find the right dog. In my experience, expect to spend at least six months locating a suitable candidate. One of my current teams spent over a year finding their candidate. It's a very specific temperament that you're looking for; the perfect balance between calmness (for public access) and drive (for taskwork.) Oh, and don't forget about good health!

2) It's a LOT of work. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partnerships recommends 180 hours of training over a period of 6 months. Are you prepared to work your dog for 1-3 task training sessions every day for six months as well as public access practice?

3) It might not work out. Estimates for owner-trainer success rates range from 10% to 30%. This is a VERY low success rate. (For comparison, success rates for program-trained dogs are between 50-85%, and these dogs are usually specially-bred, specially-trained from puppyhood, and professionally trained and matched.)

Still with me? Here's my advice from almost 10 years working with owner-trainers and their dogs:

1) Choose your dog candidate with your head, not your heart. I know you're excited to get started training, but slow down, tiger. This is NOT the time to get bleeding-heart and want to "rescue an abused, aggressive dog and turn its life around" or "prove to the world that pit bulls are really great dogs." You deserve the most appropriate candidate you can find. Don't make it harder than it needs to be -- I promise, it will be hard enough.

2) Take your disability into account when training. This especially applies to people with Psychiatric Service Dogs. Yes, sometimes you are going to have a bad period and it will be hard to get out of bed. On those days, you are going to attend to the dogs basic needs, congratulate yourself for doing that, and not -- NOT -- freak out about training. On those other days, when you're functioning better, you're going to train and practice. Yes, that might add weeks to your training plan. Yes, that's okay.

3) Connect with others. There are many owner-trainer message boards, Facebook groups etc! Take huge advantage!

4) Know in advance what you're going to do if your dog does not complete training. Remember the low success rate? Ideally you should decide this before you even get your candidate. You can keep the dog and give up on the idea of service dogs. You can rehome the dog and try again with a different candidate. Or you can keep the dog and then get a second dog as a candidate. Only you can make this decision, but you do need to make it, and hopefully before you NEED to make it.

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