Training Your Own Assistance Dog

I work with a lot of Assistance Dogs, these are often brought by people who are training their own Assistance Dogs, but other times I may be working with already certified Assistance Dogs that are displaying behaviour problems.

This article though is aimed at those people who would benefit from the assistance of a dog and are considering the self train option.

I personally feel this is a very viable option as many people who could benefit from the assistance of a dog, may not be able to purchase an already trained dog.

Many outsiders will doubt that a person who needs assistance would be able to successfully train a dog, but that is far from true (in my experience)

Now this doesn’t mean that all those that embark on this journey succeed, many don’t, but I am going to try and give you what I think increases your chance of success more than anything else.

The RIGHT dog

There is no substitute for the right dog in a working role, anybody with real world experience will tell you that you always need to start with the right temperament.

Assistance Dog
Selecting the right dog is critical

Now this mostly falls back to genetics when we are talking about puppies but once we are talking about an older adolescent or adult dog, then that dogs life experiences will play a major role when it comes to determining if the dogs suitable for your needs.

YOUR NEEDS is the big factor here.

If you need a dog to sit in your room at home so that you don’t feel alone and that is the only role your Assistance Dog needs to fill, then almost any dog could meet meet your needs with some basic training.

If you need a dog that will accompany you everywhere you go, sit with you in public settings in which anything in the world could walk by and your dog needs to remain calm and focussed only on you, learn and execute tasks to help you and or recognise psychological or medical changes in you and do something about it, you are going to need to source a dog that is likely genetically suitable for this work and work quite hard to make sure that this pup learns the right things you need it to.

The scale can be that wide, a dog that has very low requirements right through to a dog of the highest requirements.

Know that in 95% of the cases in which we are asked to help someone who is having trouble with their assistance dog or assistance dog in training, the dogs temperament was never ideal for the role and this is what is causing the issues now.

Many breeders may believe that their pups would be very suitable, but if they don’t train dogs for these roles, they may not be experienced enough to make that call.

Start young or pick very well

Starting with a pup will give you more control of what the pup has been exposed to, who bred the pup and what imprinting has been done.

With the help of an experienced person you can get help selection testing and reduce the risks of poor temperament.

You can carefully set socialisation values and prepare the pup for your life better than someone who is not in your life.

The pup will know you and love to be with you and this will give you the choices to how and where the pup lives, sleeps and how it forms the relationship with you.

Assistance Dog
Training must start early on

Due to critical development periods that occur in young dogs between the ages of birth and 15 months of age, there has always been some concern that self training an assistance dog may not manage these periods effectively.

There is some merit to this and if this is a real risk, we for example when breeding dogs can offer to raise the puppy from 8 weeks through until 20 weeks or later so that the pup will be given the exposure and training it needs to be balanced in its emotions when it lives with the owner.

By 20 weeks, we would have extensively exposed the pup to all forms of life and experience and managed well the fear period that occurs at 4-5 months of age.

This can allow the owner to avoid the highest risks and continue on our good work.

Although not necessary in most cases, it does help avoid the major trouble periods and still gives you a puppy to train.

Get the right help at the start

This is a message for everyone who ever gets a dog but as you may want this dog to help you through life, it is incredibly important you get it right.

There are many well meaning, helpful and genuine people out there that will help you, maybe even for free, but honestly you have to find a person or company that has done this many times before.

If something doesn’t turn out right, you are simply left with a dog that cannot meet your needs, this is a big risk.

I mentioned the right help but the AT THE START part is also make or break in this situation.

Your trainer will need to understand how to effectively expose your dog to people, animals and situations and create a neutral value for all but you and how to raise your pup to be calm and focussed on his or her job regardless of the environment or what is in it.

This is not easy to achieve for most, so remember this is why you need help.

My best advise is get help to head in the right direction rather than hope for the best then scream help when your lost with a dog problem.

Never underestimate the importance of what you are aiming to achieve

I have helped hundreds of people with assistance dogs and I believe self training a dog for this purpose is very possible, but you need to start prepared and give yourself the absolute best chance you can from the start.

This dog will need to be thought of as your assistance dog first, a pet or dog second.

This is how everyone in the dogs life must think or they may compromise your goals.

It’s not a race

Starting with a puppy means that you have the benefit of helping your dog grow into his or her role.

Assistance Dog
Assistance dogs can have different purposes

But this takes time, how much time before your pup can help you through some tough times?

Maybe just his or her company or needs may draw your attention meaning that some of your emotional problems may be sidelined, so perhaps right away!

But a dog that you can rely on to escort you through life, putting his or her own needs aside to help you with yours is going to take some time, years in fact, but that’s ok unless you expect this to be trained in several weeks or months.

If your starting with a pup, it will need time to develop some maturity where it will be able to make good choices, whilst there could be benefit from this dog from puppy hood, dogs for these roles come into their own between 2 & 4 years old, breed and training dependant.

Benefits of an assistance dog

An Assistance dog can provide incredible benefits to people who have difficulties with certain situations, environments and emotions, there is no question about that.

Assistance Dog
Assistance dogs can provide real value to their handlers

Assistance dogs will gain more popularity as time goes on also, because of the support they provide those that need them.

Having a dog with you at a time in which you may not normally cope can make the difference between a meltdown and a normal day.

This can give back the world to people who will not leave their homes due to these debilitating symptoms they suffer, freedom, adventure, relationships and happiness all become real possibilities provided you do it right.

So if you are thinking about getting a puppy to raise as your assistance dog:

  • Speak to someone who can help you select the right breed, litter and puppy from that litter before you choose with your heart.
  • Have a puppy program in mind and be ready to start the day the puppy arrives home.
  • If you are going to get help from a trainer do so pro actively. In other words before it goes wrong, rather than after it does.
  • You will likely find training expenses will be limited to the first year of the pups life and probably not necessarily after that.
  • Commit to this as the only goal for your pup and then you will be able to add other goals.

If you already have a dog and you are training it to be an assistance dog or you want to start:

  • Whether you have problems or not, get a temperament assessment from a person that can train dogs to meet the same goals as you.
  • Find out now if there are any problems you will need to work on now. Early intervention is key with these issues.
  • Get onto a training program that has steps and milestones and these will all equate to the dog you want to assist you.
  • Be honest with your trainer, if you can’t overcome the existing problems with your existing dog now is the time to mention it.
  • Other options may be better for you long term or perhaps some changes made to your program.
  • Help with your current dog
  • If you have an assistance dog in training or certified assistance dog that is displaying some undesirable behaviour, don’t persevere.
  • Find a behaviourist who understands your assistance dog needs and is also capable of rehabilitation of the problems your dog has.

If you have trouble working out your next step, shoot us an email on and we can give you some advice.

All in all, careful planning and execution can put a dog right next to you who can support you in life. It won’t be easy, there will be work, but it can be done.

We currently source and supply dogs with exceptional temperaments for this work and have planned our own breeding in 2018.

As always feel free to share this article or comment below!

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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