Steps to Become a Service Dog User


by Veronica Morris, PhD

Thinking “How do I train a service dog?” or “How do I get a service dog?” Short and step-by-step, Dr. Morris’s article below gives you a great idea of just how the owner-trainer process should work!

In the blurry foreground, a yellow Labrador Retriever wearing a blue vest is getting a treat from someone in a wheelchair. In the background and in focus, a small white and black Japanese Chin in a yellow vest is looking at the other dog with interest.

Follow a plan to increase your odds of owner-training success!

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Stage 1

You must have a disability—a major, life-limiting condition—to have a service dog. We recommend talking with your doctor to verify you have a disability, and to discuss what work or tasks the dog might be trained to do to assist with your disability.

Talk with other service dog owners about the pros and cons of living with a service dog, reading PSDP’s answers to common questions for more information.

Stage 2

Find a trainer and have your dog temperament-tested to make sure they are likely to make it as a service dog—any sign of aggression in a dog’s past (towards humans or other animals) is unacceptable in a service dog prospect.

Talk with the trainer and/or a vet to be sure your dog can safely do the work or tasks needed to assist you. Also have your dog examined by a vet to make sure they are healthy enough to work.

If you don’t have a dog, or your dog is not suitable for service work, read PSDP’s information for help deciding on a breed and where to get the dog and hire a professional trainer to help you pick a dog.

Stage 3

Master basic obedience in a variety of places, beginning in easier environments. Start at home, in dog training classes, in local parks, in pet stores, and in other dog-friendly stores—some hardware stores and bookstores will allow pets; call and ask.

It is very important during this time to also work on socialization and other exposures, making sure your dog is used to people of every color, shape, and size, and other animals, etc.

Make sure to start keeping a training log of what you are doing, how your dog is doing with obedience, public access, and assistance behaviors that mitigate your disability.

Consider buying at least a cheap vest early to get your dog comfortable with wearing working gear.

Stage 4

Research your state laws (using the Animal Law Resource Center’s search tool) to determine your public access rights with a service dog in training.

Gradually visit more and more difficult environments in pet-friendly places, saving situations with lots of crowds, food, etc. for later. Start training to PSDP’s Public Access Standard.

Stage 5

Once you and your dog are able to pass the Service Dog in Training (SDIT) Manners Evaluation, you are ready to transition to more challenging places and situations.

If local laws or store managers allow it, begin training in no-pets places. It’s a good idea for your dog to wear a vest or other gear marked with an “in training” label or patches.

Slowly increase exposures in places with food and other distracting elements for dogs. Work on staying relaxed while stationary for longer periods of time, always keeping the stimulation under recovery threshold so your dog will not be overly stressed.

If you haven’t already started training work or tasks to help with your disability, be sure to start that now, too.

Stage 6

If you do live in a state with service dog in training protection, spend another few months in training just to make sure you’re both really comfortable with whatever comes up. Really, it’s not a race!

Your job in public access training is to develop your dog’s psychological shock absorbers. There are so many unplanned new experiences you can only have if you spend more time out in the world.

Stage 7

Once you’ve mastered public access and disability-mitigating work or tasks, take a public access test and have someone videotape it if possible. If you ever have a court case, video proof of your dog’s good behavior may be helpful, or at least an evaluation from a trainer showing that you passed a public access test. If you don’t have a trainer who can give the test, have a friend do it.

A public access test is just a snapshot in time. If you don’t pass on the first try because one of you is having a bad day (not due to something like aggression), you should feel free to do more training and take it again when you’re ready.