What Commands Do You Teach a Service Dog?

Service dog training can be an involved process that takes a significant time commitment to fully complete. If you are interested in training your own service dog, it can be done, but you will need an idea of the commands that you want to teach your pup ahead of time. To help you get organized as you undertake this task, we have compiled a guide of the service commands you may want to teach your dog.

Below, we will be discussing how exactly a service dog can help you out during your day-to-day life. We’ll also be giving you an idea of the legal protections that your service dog may be afforded once they are fully trained and answer some important questions about selecting and training your dog at home.

How a Service Dog Can Help

In the general category of service dogs, there are three different types of service animals – psychiatric service dogs, medical assistance dogs, and guide dogs. Each of these animals works to complete tasks for their owner that help assist or relieve specific symptoms of a diagnosed disability. When combined with other treatments such as medication and therapy (where applicable), service dogs can greatly improve their owner’s overall quality and ease of life.

Legal Protections for Service Dogs

All service dogs that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability,” are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This act grants service dogs the legal protection to enter into all public areas and stay in housing with their owners regardless of whether pets are allowed into that space. It also ensures that those with disabilities will be treated fairly despite the presence of their service dog and that the owner is not charged any additional fees for bringing their service dog into an establishment with them.

You should keep in mind that dogs that are not trained to perform specific disability-relieving tasks but only provide comfort to their owners are not considered service dogs. Instead, these animals are considered emotional support animals (ESA). While there may be ways to ensure your ESA lives with you without discrimination (see the Fair Housing Act for more information on this), emotional support animals are not granted the same public access protections as service dogs.

What You Should Keep In Mind When Training Your Dog

As you start to train your dog in both basic and advanced commands, keep in mind that training should be a fun and relaxed time for you both. There should be no punishment-based training (yelling or hitting) for not learning skills as quickly as you would have liked. Every new skill needs to be reinforced with positive affirmations and high-value treats.

You will likely have to practice with your dog daily to ensure that they keep up their skills and can build on commands consistently over time. Training should be started in quiet, calm areas (especially if you are starting with basic obedience training), and you can work up to more public areas as your commands require.

It is also important to note that you shouldn’t overwhelm your dog with long training sessions. While too little training will make for slow learning, too much can overwhelm, frustrate, and confuse your pup. Stick to training your dog once or twice a day in 15 minutes sessions to maximize their learning.

Basic Commands to Teach Your Service Dog

Before starting any advanced commands, you will need to teach your dog basic obedience and service dog tasks. It is crucial that your dog listens to you and can complete all of these basic tasks without hesitation or reaction to outside distractions before you move on to teaching more complex skills.

As you browse this list of commands, you can consult internet training tips, YouTube videos, or specific service dog training books to learn how exactly to teach your dog each skill.

  • Name – this command will help to get your dog’s attention. It is better used on puppies that don’t know their name yet.
  • Watch Me – this command is to get your dog to make eye contact and keep their focus away from any outside distractions.
  • Sit – this command is to ensure your dog sits down at any time when asked. It is very important as your dog will frequently need to sit calmly when you are both out in public.
  • Down – this command is for getting your dog to lay down on the floor—another important command for spending time out in public.
  • Stand – this encourages your dog to get up from the sit or down command and prepare to follow you. It may also help with grooming or vet visits.
  • Come – this command is for getting your dog to move to your side. You can then tell them to sit or down.
  • Stay – this is for encouraging your dog to stay put in its current position.
  • Under – this command tells your dog to get under an item and out of the way (such as a table or chairs). It is very helpful in restaurants or other service establishments.
  • Careful – use this command to teach your dog to approach you carefully and take something from your hand or elsewhere gently.
  • Quiet – this command should be used to stop your dog from making inappropriate barking, whining, or howling sounds.
  • Wait – this command indicates that your dog will stop moving forward and wait for your next command.
  • Go Now or Get Busy – you can use either of these phrases to indicate that it is time for your dog to use the bathroom. More information on potty training can be found here.
  • No – this command gets your dog’s attention and lets them know they are behaving incorrectly. This should not be yelled at the dog but firmly spoken, and then the command you want the dog to perform is repeated.
  • Don’t – this command can stop your dog before they engage in unwanted or inappropriate behavior.
  • Off – this word will encourage your dog to stop jumping on you or another individual and keep all of their paws on the floor.
  • Let’s Go or Go – this will tell your dog that you both need to move.
  • Heel – this tells your dog to be in position on one of your sides, keeping exact pace with you.
  • Leave it – this command stops your dog from touching or attempting to touch something you don’t want them to (such as food, trash, or another dog).
  • Settle – this can be used to tell your dog it is time to calm down and be serious. It can also be used when your dog is running around or overly excited.
  • Back – this tells your dog to take steps backward.
  • Follow – this command is used to keep your dog following behind you. It can be helpful if your dog will be tethered to a wheelchair.
  • Go Around – tells your dog to move around a person or object to arrive at a position on your other side.
  • Closer – this command tells your dog to move close to you. It is helpful for when your dog has retrieved items.
  • Go To – follow this command with a person’s name so that your dog understands to move over to that specific person.
  • Release – you can use this to tell your dog that they are done with work for the day.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a complete list of all the basic commands out there that you can teach your service dog. Many basic commands depend on what you need your service dog to help you with and your dog’s learning style; you can alter the words you use for each command based on preference, but try not to use anything that could confuse your dog. Make sure to start slowly with the simplest of tasks and reinforce skills often for maximum learning.

Advanced and Disability-Specific Service Dog Commands

After your dog has learned many of the basic service dog commands, you can move on to teaching them advanced and disability-specific skills. Below, we give you an idea of the tasks that you may be able to teach your service dog that can help you in your daily life.

  • Guiding: Guiding helps those with hearing or vision impairments and can help those with psychological disabilities get to a safe place.
  • Retrieving Medication: Your service dog can be taught to retrieve emergency medication or medication on a regular schedule.
  • Balancing: This skill teaches the dog to support its owner when they are dizzy or have other mobility issues.
  • Grounding/Deep Pressure Therapy: Grounding involves your dog placing their paw or head on your body and calming you down. When your dog lays their whole body on you, this is deep pressure therapy and can be used to alleviate panic attacks, flashbacks, or other anxious episodes.
  • Alerting: Your service dog can be taught to alert for medical conditions such as seizures, low blood pressure, low blood sugar, or psychological conditions such as anxiety attacks.
  • Hallucination Detection: For use with conditions that cause hallucinations, a service dog can be taught to greet any individual that enters a room. If the dog does not greet something, the individual can be assured that what they are seeing is a hallucination.
  • Searching Rooms: For those with conditions such as anxiety or PTSD, a service dog can be taught to search rooms before an individual enters, check around corners, or scout out the owner’s home. The dog will bark if any unexpected person is in the area.
  • Interruption and Redirection: A service dog can be taught to interrupt self-injurious behaviors and bring items to the owner (such as a brush, leash, or toys) to redirect the individual’s attention to something more positive.
  • Acting as a Buffer: To help calm and support its owner in public, a service dog can sit down and act as a buffer between the individual and others.
  • Seeking Help: In cases of emergency or an unconscious owner, a service dog can be taught to dial a phone or push a button to call help. They may also be able to guide first responders to where their owner is located.

You may find that teaching advanced or disability-specific tasks take more training time and can be a little more difficult for your dog to learn. During this point in your dog’s training, it can be helpful to consult with online training courses or an in-person professional trainer to ensure that you are going the right way about training your dog.

Keep in mind that many advanced skills are specific to an individual’s disability. If you aren’t sure which skills you should train your service dog to perform, it can be useful to create a list of all the tasks you will need help with regularly. From there, break down a large task or command into smaller basic ones. Once you figure out the basic steps, you can train your dog in a routine and slowly put all the tasks together into one command.

Can Any Dog Be Taught Service Dog Skills?

German shepherd puppy in training

Any dog can be taught service dog skills, but you may want to consider several factors that make a dog a prime service animal candidate.

  • Obedience: While prior obedience skills aren’t required before starting official service dog training, it helps if your dog has a natural affinity for listening to you. It may be harder to train a dog that is stubborn or out of control.
  • Intelligence: All dogs can be taught tricks with the right amount of effort, but possessing intelligence and quick learning skills make for an easier time training each service command.
  • Motivation: Stubbornness and an unwillingness to learn don’t make for an easily trained service dog. The best service animals are highly motivated to help their handler, eager to please, and love learning new things.
  • Calm and Nonreactive: A service dog will need to put up with many variables daily. Any pup you train should be calm and friendly in public in addition to being nonreactive and nonaggressive to others.

Many people think that age is also an important factor in training a service dog. While it is true that the younger the dog is when you start training them, the faster they will learn each skill, you can train a dog of any age as long as they do not exhibit negative traits like aggressive behavior or a complete unwillingness to learn.

However, breeds known for making especially good service dogs as they typically meet all of the criteria above include golden retrievers, German shepherds, poodles, and Labrador retrievers.

Can You Completely Train a Service Dog by Yourself?

It is possible to completely train your service dog by yourself as there is no specific requirement by the ADA for your dog to be professionally trained, but it may take a significant time and discipline commitment. Your dog will need to be trained on an almost daily basis and given several reinforcement exercises in addition to building new skills.

In general, it can take between 1 and 2 years to train your own service dog fully. This timeline does vary depending on your dog’s age, their willingness to learn, and how motivated they are by the training treats that you offer – be sure to pick something with high reward value to encourage training enthusiasm.

What Is the Service Dog Public Access Test?

As you train your service dog, you may come to know about the service dog public access test. While the ADA doesn’t require this test for your dog to be a legally protected service dog (remember your dog just needs to be trained to perform a specific disability-relieving function), it can be helpful to train your dog to complete the public access test.

This test covers necessary public behavior skills and evaluates whether or not your service dog is ready and well-behaved enough to be out and about in public with you. You can find an example of the service dog public access test being performed here.

How Much Is Service Dog Training?

Training your service dog by yourself will not cost too much. Your only real needs will be for training treats, a clicker if you want to invest in clicker training and an optional service dog vest. You will be spending a significant amount of your time working on commands with your dog, but as this is done all by yourself, it will not cost you anything.

If you decide to use professional help while training your service dog, you could pay between $150 and $250 per hour, depending on the trainer. This can add up to be a significant amount if your dog needs lots of reinforcement for certain skills or if you are trying to teach them more complex skills that you need assistance with. However, investing in an occasional personal trainer will cost less than the $10,000 to $50,000 it can cost to purchase a fully trained service dog.

Where Can I Adopt a Service Dog?

If you are planning to train your own service dog, you can adopt a suitable dog from pretty much anywhere. This includes a local rescue operation or visiting a breeder for a specific dog breed (make sure that any breeder you use is reputable and ethical). You may adopt any age or breed of dog, but it is important to consider whether or not the pup has the traits that make for a good service dog.

If you want to adopt a pre-trained service dog, you can contact a local organization or national service dog training facility; your primary care provider may also be able to point you in the right direction. Keep in mind that there may be certain requirements that you have to meet when adopting a pre-trained dog, including being able to provide full financial care and participating in some of its training.

Investing in the Help You Need

Training your own service dog is no easy task, but the investment of time and energy can be worth it as your dog becomes able to assist you with any disability that you may have. Once you decide to start training your own service dog, you should take a careful look at our suggestion of basic service dog commands. Work on building up your pup’s obedience before moving onto more complex service actions and you will have a fully trained service dog in no time at all.