My future service dog: what should I train first, and next?

by Veronica Morris, PhD

As a bicycle whizzes by, a small white and sable Japanese Chin dog is framed by the front wheel, lying on the path in front of a power wheelchair user, watching the action.
Find your place in the service dog training cycle!

When people start out training their service dog, very often they feel overwhelmed at the number of things they will have to teach their dog, and the variety of things they have to teach their dog. So the first question is often “what do I train first?”, and then later on “what do I train next?”.

The answer is it really depends on what you need and what works for your dog. But we can provide a few cues that generally are a good idea to start with, and provide guidance for how to branch out from there.

Keep in mind this article is about the service dog part of the training. There’s also training your dog to be easy to live with, which may overlap with service dog training but is important in its own right. A dog might not make it as a service dog, but they’re probably always going to live with you!

Outside, a hand holds a Starbucks coffee cup next to a small white and black Japanese Chin dog that's looking into the distance, while a woman in the background is in conversation.

Should I train in a fixed order, or a la carte?

There are three categories of training that you might want to do with a service dog in training. They are (1) exposures, (2) basic obedience, and (3) work or tasks.

People often have the incorrect assumption that you must do all the training in one category before moving on to another category. But in reality, you can pick and choose from the three categories as you move through your training journey. You are in charge!

So it really depends on what you need in your life and your training journey as to what you work on. For example, let’s take the cue “down”. “Down” is a basic obedience cue that’s taught in pretty much every puppy class and basic obedience class. So oftentimes beginners think that “down” is essential for a service dog in training, and must be checked off the list when you’ve had your puppy only a few weeks.

A white woman sits on the concrete outside a store, smiling at a small white and sable Japanese Chin dog in a vest that's lying down and looking up at her as someone exits the store pushing a cart in the background and someone holds paperwork next to the woman.

But how important is it for your particular dog to know down right away? If what you’re focusing on is exposures, and you’re mostly standing around outside stores for 5–15 minutes at a time helping your dog enjoy being around the sights, smells, and sounds of people going about their days and shopping, you don’t really need your dog to lie down. It’d be fine if they did lie down, but it’s also fine if they stand calmly or sit.

So a cue like “down” isn’t really necessary in the first part of your service dog’s training, even if it’s toward the beginning for pet dogs.

But later on in your exposure journey, when you’re ready to start going to outdoor cafes with your dog, a “down” can be extremely helpful. So you might decide not to work on “down” at first. You may choose to spend a few months doing training without introducing the “down” cue, and only introduce it when you need it.

The beauty of training your own service dog is that you are the architect of your own journey. You can choose what to work on when it makes sense for you and your dog. This means you have to think about what makes sense! Even though you are the one in charge, planning is important if you want to have a good chance at successfully training a service dog.

Sitting at a patio table outside a coffee shop, a white woman leans down and treats a small white and sable Japanese Chin puppy that's walking toward her. The photographer in a power wheelchair is reflected in the glass behind them.

What is a recommended order for training a service dog?

In general, I recommend at least one training outing a week. This involves an outing to a place where your dog will experience things outside of your house or your pet training class—places that it may or may not have experienced before. See our exposure checklist for ideas of places to go and things to expose your dog to. It generally takes months to get your dog exposed to almost everything on the checklist, but the world will always have new events and objects to help you build (or test!) your dog’s resilience.

I want it to be easiest for my dog to be comfortable in his everyday work, so I like to start out with places I will be going frequently with my dog when they are ready. So I start by hanging out outside grocery stores and visiting pet-friendly stores to get the experience of shopping. As my dog is comfortable, I start going to more and more complicated places from the dog’s perspective.

A white woman in a wheelchair looks at the small dog in her lap as a "Round-Up" spinning carnival ride twirls people behind them.

My general order of exposures (in terms of places) is standing outside stores, pet-friendly stores, no-pet stores, outdoor cafes, doctor appointments, festivals, restaurants, and then public transportation. Your order may vary depending on what is available when in your area, and this is not a strict order. For example, if a really nice, relaxed festival happens when you’re still working on outdoor cafes, you might choose to move that up in the order.

Of course, there are a lot of new experiences that could put your dog over their learning threshold if they haven’t built up to it. To avoid this—and to understand dog training in general—it’s good to think about how they process the world. This includes you learning what enables or motivates them to learn, plus what shuts them down from learning. Dogs can have their quirks and preferences, just like people, but they also have a lot in common.

While you’re going through your months of weekly exposure trainings, you can also be working on things at home. I like to do two to three daily training sessions that last no longer than 5–10 minutes at a time. If you feed kibble, some people can easily do these with their dog’s meals at mealtime, but mealtime excitement is one of those things that can put some dogs over their learning threshold. If you want them to learn at mealtime (or any time), be sure to keep them calm enough so they can either try something new, or at least reinforce a behavior they’ve already started to learn.

As viewed through short, wooden scissor-fencing in a dog training building, a small white and sable Japanese Chin dog lies down calmly next to a power wheelchair while in the background, a large dog pounces excitedly in a heel position next to a woman.

As far as basic obedience, there are a few cues that are very helpful for you to have in your repertoire when you’re doing your exposures. They are some sort of attention cue (watch or touch), heel, and sit.

Those are the obedience cues I consider essential to me, but you should evaluate which ones are essential to you. Others find “leave it” and mat training (or “settle”) particularly useful.

I really like focusing on attention cues, because they can be used to position your dog in a crowd, gauge how much attention your dog is paying to you, help you get your dog’s attention away from distractions, and prevent your dog from sniffing things they shouldn’t. They’re kind of an all-purpose cue. So I like to teach both watch and touch very early on.

The other obedience cues can be added in as you need them. Or if you’re taking an obedience class, wait until they are brought up in class and then work on them then. That’s what I tend to do for most obedience cues. I just wait for them to be brought up in class, and work on them then.

A small white and sable Japanese Chin puppy walks in front of a person's legs while holding in his mouth a clicker with a spiral wristband.

Generally, work and tasks to help with your disability can be introduced at any age. Sometimes you’ll notice that your dog is doing something that you want to shape into a work or task item at an early age—like retrieving. So you might choose to start working on the retrieve very early on if you have a natural retriever. Or if you notice that your dog pays attention to you when you cry, you might start working on a crying response like pressure therapy.

This is an important note for training psychiatric service dogs and others that respond to distress. If your dog pays attention to you when you’re struggling, it’s a good idea to train them around it. You crying or struggling can be very stressful to your dog, so it’s important that they realize it’s a good thing when you’re having a hard time (for example, crying means lots of really tasty treats!), and it helps them feel like they’re doing something to stop the crying instead of being helpless.

If your dog doesn’t show a natural inclination to do any work or task items on their own, then you can start training behaviors as you and your dog are ready for them. For example, if you know you want your dog to do a paws-up to alert you, then you might start training a paws-up early on so that will be a behavior they have down pat when you’re ready to introduce the alert. (See how to train the alert here.)

Inside a light rail train, a white woman in a wheelchair wearing a flower headdress and respirator looks to her side at the camera and holds a white and sable Japanese Chin dog in her lap. In the background are another wheelchair user and a man standing and talking to her.

So just keep training, a couple sessions a day, in whatever order makes sense for you and that you and your dog enjoy. Add in new cues as you need them, and if you find you don’t use a cue in real life that you’ve trained, don’t worry about it—if you need it later you can retrain it quickly and your dog will remember it.

Service dog training is not linear along “one true path”. There’s no set order that you must train the things your dog will need to do. What order you train depends on what you need at the time, how soon you’ll need it in the future, and what works for your dog. We’ve provided a handful of cues that are good to start with, but you should figure out what order makes sense for you and your dog.

Most people who haven’t been dog trainers for years need some help, so be sure to consult resources like our Peer Guidance Group (for those wanting a psychiatric service dog) and a good local trainer. The earlier, the better!

In retreating sunlight from the side, in profile, a small white and sable Japanese Chin puppy has his front paws up on a balance disc and looks up off-camera at the face of a woman whose legs we see.