Service Dog Training Options

When considering getting a service dog one of the first things you need to decide is if you want to owner train or go with a program. Here’s an outline of the benefits and drawbacks of both options.

Owner Training

  • Benefits
    • You can tailor the tasks and work your dog is trained to do for your specific needs and disabilities.
    • It’s a wonderful bonding experience for you and the dog.
    • It can be very empowering and confidence building to train a dog.
    • You don’t have to wait 2-5 years to get a dog (although it will take on average at least 2 years to fully train a dog).
  • Drawbacks
    • It can be very difficult to find a service dog trainer willing to work with owner trainers. This is especially true if you want to use Force Free Positive Methods and/or you don’t want to do a board and train.
    • Training a dog can be stressful, exhausting, and time consuming. The reality is that most people do not have the patience or ability to commit to training a dog for two years. It’s really important to be honest with yourself about your abilities and current life situation before bringing a dog home. Also consider your disability and if you feel your health will continue to decline to a point where training a dog is no longer realistic.
    • There is the chance the dog will wash out. This can happen because of medical or behavioral issues. I recommend that people who owner train go into it being ok with the dog becoming a pet if it doesn’t work out for them to be a service dog. 
  • Recommendations
    • Make sure everyone living in your home is on board with you getting a service dog and training him/her. Talk about your training plans and what your expectations of the dog will be. It’s important that everyone is on the same page so that your training efforts don’t get sabotaged. 
    • Enroll in obedience classes. I strongly encourage people to do at least a couple of manners classes and if possible consider taking a CGC class. It’s important for your service dog in training to get used to listening to you around other dogs and a structured training class is a safe way to work on that. The added support will be really helpful, especially during the challenging puppy stage. It can feel pretty lonely trying to train a service dog on your own and classes will help you feel much less alone.
    • Keep meticulous records. This is important for three reasons. First, it will be really helpful and encouraging to look back and see how far you’ve come. Second, it’s good to have in case of legal problems in the future. Third, it can be helpful if you are going to apply for a reasonable accommodation at work as your logs and records can provide proof of training. I have a file on my computer where I keep all my records (proof of vaccinations, scanned certificates from completed obedience classes, and all my logs and records of training).
    • Do as much research as possible before you actually bring the dog home. Decide on what type of training methods you’re going to use, find a basic manners dog trainer, make sure you have a vet and a groomer (if applicable for your breed), decide if you want to get pet insurance, learn as much as you can about the breed you’ve chosen, research dog behavior and look into different service dog support groups. 

Program Dogs

  • Benefits
    • The dog comes to you trained. You will not have the stress, time commitment, or pressure of training your own dog. 
    • You won’t have to go through the puppy stage.
    • The odds of the dog washing out are much lower. There can always be unexpected things that come up medically or there’s the chance the dog could develop behavioral issues but it’s much less likely if you go with a reputable organization. 
    • If your disability makes it difficult to physically train a dog a program might be the best option for you.
  • Drawbacks
    • The dog will have whatever standard training the program uses so it won’t be personalized for your needs and disabilities. 
    • You miss out on the bond that’s created when you train a dog. 
    • Wait time is usually between 2-5 years.
    • It can be very expensive to get a dog through a program ($15,000-$30,000 is pretty common). 
    • You need to thoroughly research the program and make sure it’s not a scam.  
    • You will be paired with a dog and you likely won’t have any say in breed or gender. 
    • Some programs have rules about what other animals you can have in the home or who the dog is allowed to interact with in the home. 
    • Many service dog organizations have age requirements for potential handlers.
    • Some programs retain ownership of the dog. If in the future you were to no longer need the dog or if something were to happen to you the program could then legally take the dog back.  
    • Depending on what your disability is it may be much harder or easier to get a service dog from a program. If you are blind, a veteran, or diabetic there are many more programs and scholarships available than if you are someone who has a mental illness. 
    • If you need a multipurpose service dog to help with multiple conditions there are very few programs that will assist you and it can be better to train a dog yourself to help with your specific disabilities. 
  • Recommendations
    • This is a great option for lots of people but it’s important to remember that a service dog’s training never really ends. You’ll still need to work with the dog and keep their skills sharp.
    • It’s important to be very careful about the program you choose. Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who try to scam others out of money. 
    • Make sure that you don’t just have the finances to pay the organization for the dog, you also need to have savings for veterinary expenses, food, grooming, etc…


Deciding whether or not to owner train is a very individual decision. What works for one person may not work at all for another. For me personally I knew that owner training was 100% the route I wanted to go. I recommend honestly examining your life, your abilities, and your disabilities to determine what the right path is for you.

Featured image by John Salzarulo on Unsplash

Leave a Reply