Skills of a Service Dog

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Service dogs are trained to help people who have some form of a disability.  The dogs can help people with physical impairments, certain mental illnesses, neurological disorders, and many other things.  Many Americans rely on service dogs everyday so the handler may live a more independent life.  Service dogs require years of training to be able to help someone and sometimes are taught specialized tasks to fit their future handler.


All service dogs are trained in three general areas; manners, obedience, and task training.  Training time normally takes 18-24 months for each dog.  During this time a trained person teaches the dog all the skills they will need to know for their future job helping someone.  The Assistance Dogs International and International Association of Assistance Dog Partners requires that the potential service dog is trained by a member or member organization for at least 120 hours.

A future service dog’s training is meant to be a reflection of how much training they received.  The results of training are based on the experience of the trainer so it is not expected that a first time trainer has the same results as an experienced trainer.

No matter the amount of experience the trainer has to be able to train the dog to have certain skills.  Some of this would include training the dog to only acknowledge their handler.  The dog will not become distracted by anyone or anything around them.  Another would be teaching the dog to lie down for an extended period of time without getting up until the handler says so.


The most difficult skill that a potential service dog must learn is “heeling.”  When most people say “heel” to their dog they want the dog to stop or slow down because they are pulling on the leash.  For service dogs in training, “heeling” means that the dog needs to stay in relative position of their handler.  Possibly at the handler’s hip or the wheel of their chair.  Over time the dog learns this skill and know that if the owner steps forward they are too.

One of the most time consuming skills a service dog will have to learn is “proofing.” The trainer slowly teaches the dog to ignore distractions around them and the handler.  The goal for the trainer is to train the dog to ignore every possible distraction they may encounter.  Initially , the dog will start to learning this skill in a stationary position like sitting or lying down.  As time goes on the dog will keep learning to ignore things while they are walking around.

The easiest and most important skill that a future service dog needs to know and learn is “task training.”   It builds on the foundations of the core skills, heeling, and proofing.  Essentially, task training is nothing more than glorified tricks for a service dog.  Though task training is what may be used during a service dog’s final examination.  If the dog can’t perform the task it is asked or a series of certain task it is most likely that the dog doesn’t have the basic skills needed to be a service dog.

Eligibility and Programs

Brian Boone, 39, who lost his lower left leg while serving as a soldier in Afghanistan in 2011, holds the leash to Brindle, his two-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix at Home Depot in Irving, Texas on Sept. 3, 2014. He was part of a group taking part in a field trip to learn how to work their dogs in public. Brindle holds a woman's wallet in his mouth until Brian takes it from him. The nine-day training session took place at Baylor Health Center at Irving- Coppell, in Irving, Texas. (David Woo/The Dallas Morning News/MCT)

It is important to recognize that service dogs are not like therapy dogs or other trained dogs.  Service dogs are not meant to be for protection, emotional support, or companionship.  The dogs are for people who want to live more independent lives if they have some physical disability.  A service dog is meant to lessen the difficulties of a disability if the disability impedes major life activities.

There are certain criteria that a potential or future owner must follow in order to be eligible for a service dog.

  1. The person must be at least 12 years old.  The only exception is children with autism.
  2. The person must be diagnosed with a physical disability.  Such as anxiety like PTSD, a debilitating chronic illness, or a neurological disorder that affects at least one limb.
  3. The person must be in a stable environment.
  4. The person must be able to participate in the training process of the service dog.  Training may last up to one hour a day so the person must be capable.
  5. The person must be able to command and handle the service dog on their own.
  6. The person must be able to provide and care for the dog physically, emotionally, and financially.
  7. There are to be no other dogs in the home, but other pets are allowed.

The exception for children with autism are as followed.

  1. The child is between 6 and 12 years old.
  2. There are no other dogs in the home.
  3. The child is to be enrolled and going through an education program.
  4. The child is to be enrolled and going through some form of therapy.  Such as speech, physical, occupational, or recreational.
  5. The child is to have a strong, supporting family.
  6. There must be at least one permanent parent, guardian, or sibling that are over 18 years old who also live in the home.  This person is also to be a trained facilitator.

Different programs may have different eligibility requirements that are more detailed.

Canine Partners for Life


CPL is a program that offers service dogs to help people with a wide range of disabilities.  This can include…

  • Mobility Impairments
  • Balance Disorders
  • Difficulty with use of the arms or hands
  • Certain health related fatigue issues
  • Seizure and Cardiac Syncope
  • Type I Diabetes.

Their dogs are trained for two years to ensure that they are sound, stable, and happy.  Almost all of CPL’s trained dogs are Labrador retrievers, but they have also trained golden retrievers, poodles, and labradoodles.

CPL receives their dogs from responsible dog breeders that are a part of their breeding program.  Though there have been times where they have received dogs from shelters and rescues if the dogs have potential to become service dogs.

PAWS Training Center


PAWS trains and services people with service dogs.  Their dogs are trained to help clients by training the dogs in one area of expertise or the dogs can be trained to assist the client in multiple areas.  PAWS focuses their dogs to help people either with physical and/or neurological needs or for medical alert assistance.

Dogs that are trained to help clients with physical and/or neurological needs can help either with mobility assistance or sensory development/tactile pressure.

Clients who need mobility assistance are ones who’s disability or disabilities make mobility difficult including limitations in movement and vertigo or balance issues.

Clients with sensory development/tactile pressure have developmental disabilities.  Clients with that form of a disability receive a service dog that is trained to sense the handler’s tics and alert a nearby caregiver if the handler is being triggered.

The other way the service dogs are trained is for medical alert assistance.  Clients may need psychiatric assistance, allergen detection, incident response, diabetes alert, narcolepsy alert, or hearing alert.

Clients who require psychiatric assistance get service dogs to help them more independent lives.  The handlers may suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, sexual trauma, and other personality disorders.  For example, a dog may be trained to search rooms before the handler enters them.  They also may be trained to alert handlers when someone is approaching them from behind or to interrupt any nightmares.  The tasks the dog is trained to do can vary.

Dogs can also be used for allergen detection.  The service dog is trained to detect a certain scent that the handler is allergic to and get the owner away from it.

Incident response dogs are trained to alert or retrieve something if the handler suffers from some disorder where they immediately need help or medicine.  The dogs will alert a family member or caregiver, press a medical alert button, or be trained to quickly retrieve emergency medicine.

If the handler has type I Diabetes the dog is trained to identify and alert their handler that their blood sugar is low.

For narcolepsy a dog is trained to keep their handler safe.  Some handlers may enter a narcoleptic fog where they are unaware to somethings and the dog is to keep them from wandering off or getting hurt.  The dog may also be trained to alert the owner to take medicine or wake the handler at the sound of an alarm or another sound.

The most common thing service dogs do is help people who are deaf or blind.  The dogs alert the handler to oncoming or nearby things the handler would otherwise be unaware of.  They also will alert the handler to certain noises if they are deaf like someone calling the handlers name or the doorbell.

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