Training Your Own Service Dog in Alberta

There is a great need for service dogs and up until last year you had to go through an approved organization and the wait list could be over 3 years.  The laws have changed to allow a person to challenge the exam with their own dog and have their dog certified.

We get a lot of people contacting us about training their own service dog so we thought this article might be helpful for anyone who would like to train their own service dog. Things you should know that you probably won’t find anywhere else.

In general the dog needs:

  1. Obedience – Should be proficient at their obedience commands.
  2. Distractions – Should be able to perform all obedience commands in the public and to fairly high distractions.
  3. Keeps to themselves and does not engage anyone else of the public.
  4. Stays within 24 inches of the handler unless part of the assistance dictates otherwise.
  5. Can perform 3 or more specialty tasks to help the handler.

One thing to keep in mind is that obedience is one of the easiest parts of training. Most dogs can be taught each obedience command in 5 days tops. From there it is a matter of distraction training where the dog will perform all of these commands in the distractions you would encounter in the public.

When a client comes here for training for a 4 hour session, 99% of dogs can prove they understand recall, heel, sit, down and stay, but that doesn’t mean they will do the commands everywhere. As we show clients when you increase a distraction level, mistakes go up. Then the dog starts to listen and perform well. We then increase the distractions again and the mistakes go up. This pattern will repeat itself all the way through training.

Which Dog To Pick?

Some dogs are going to be much easier than others to train for passing the service dog test in Alberta. Which dog you pick can make or break your chances of having your own trained service dog.

We classify dogs into 3 main types:

  1. Alpha – Top dog, will use aggression to maintain their position.
  2. Beta – Not the top dog but would take over if there is no suitable leader.
  3. Omega – Has no desire to be boss. Always wants to please and follow.

If you are going to train your own service dog, an Omega will give you the best odds of passing the test. Omegas naturally will not go to seek attention from others but they will accept attention from others. Ironically they are the least intelligent of the 3 categories, Alphas are the most intelligent and will give you the most amount of problems.

People mistakenly think they want a smart dog so they are easy to train, in actuality you want a dog with a high desire to please, they are the easiest to train. The saying “I hope I have a smart dog so they are easy to train” stemmed from the days when Force was primarily used for training. If the dog was smart enough they would figure out what you were trying to get them to do before you would break spirit in the dog. They could do the desired behaviour to get the corrections to stop. If the dog wasn’t quite smart enough and you were using forceful corrections you would often break spirit in the dog before they would figure out what you were trying to get them to do. These dogs would often go into avoidance to move away from you to show respect which to some looks like being stubborn so they would correct them harder.

This is why there is still the argument between Force and Reward trainers. It just depends on which category of dog you are working with as to which may be needed.

In order to be an organization that trains or tests service dogs this is the first requirement on the list from the Alberta Training Standard for Organizations to be Eligible for the Qualified List:

“The organization uses training methods that support the ethical and humane treatment of service dogs that do not cause fear, pain or other negative responses in the dog, for example, no shock collar, prong collar or similar equipment is to be used in the training or testing of a service dog.”

That leaves you with the option of Reward Training. The dogs that do best with only Reward Training are Omegas. Once they learn what you want they just want to keep doing that to make you happy.

If you did Reward Training only with a Beta they will learn very quickly but also learn to manipulate. They are smart enough to learn if they do a bad behaviour you will redirect them with a treat or a toy, in essence, rewarding the negative behaviour (we have friends that would offer their child a present when they were throwing a temper tantrum if they behaved – I’ve never seen a child throw so many tantrums and receive so many presents). Betas will need the tiniest bit of consequence to polish off their training but it sounds like none of that is allowed to train your own service dog.

Alphas are out of the question as a service dog. If a dog has shown any aggression towards other people or animals of any kind you would be best to not waste any time training this dog for a service dog position. These dogs are excellent as police dogs and guardian dogs but really unsuited for service dog status.

Ironically we had an organization in Alberta contact us to certify therapy dogs and the requirements were:

  1. 10 years experience as a dog trainer.
  2. Could not be a reward trainer.

Force training will typically give better obedience and respect. Dogs are taught there is a consequence if they don’t do as they are told.

Reward training will give spirit and character. They will be full of personality but they won’t necessarily respect you or have the obedience you wish to achieve (more true for Betas and Alphas but not Omegas).

In many cases when a service dog was being trained a vest would be used on the dog (actually required for service dogs) and the dog was taught when the vest was on the rules were strict and there was a consequence for not following through. Doing this training for a year or more the dog was conditioned to think if the vest was on they were in work mode and the rules were strict. When the vest was taken off they had freedom.

We had a client who paid $16,000 for a service dog out of province for her child (didn’t want to wait 3 years) and the dog was great with vest on but as soon as the vest came off the dog didn’t want to listen, would pull on leash and a list of other undesirable behaviours. She came for training to learn how to get the dog to listen better when the vest was off. This dog was a Beta. She wouldn’t have had an issue if this dog was Omega or possibly very low Beta.

Betas – have desire to challenge, will tug, go up to people, jump on people, nip, engage other dogs, try to take food, pull on leash among other things. All of these things can fail the dog as a service dog.

Omegas – have no desire to challenge, will not tug, do not go up to strangers on their own accord, will not jump on people, will not go up to other dogs, will not easily take food in your presence (often have to look away from them while offering a treat), will follow on leash. They are very naturally suited as a service dog for Alberta.

We specialize in training Betas because if you either use all reward or all force you will cause problems. You have to know the right amounts of each one to use to maintain a happy dog that is respectful and obedient.

The way the laws are written for training your own service dog make it extremely difficult to have a Beta pass the test. They don’t need a lot of consequence but they do need a little. If a person without dog training experience (even with) could train a Beta on their own to pass the test with no consequences we would be extremely impressed.

The Take Away

For the average person we would recommend:

  1. The less intelligent of a dog the better. They don’t have the intelligence to manipulate.
  2. Strong desire to please – Sometimes you can find dogs that have such a strong desire to please and have intelligence. We would call these the “unicorns” almost mythical type creature 🙂
  3. Low energy – They are required to stay with the handler. Typically walking or laying next to them. A highly energetic dog would not be suitable for this.

We have a lot of people contact us who want to train their own service dog for Alberta and already have the dog. Based on the dogs personality, many we can tell would be virtually impossible to have pass the test. So if you are reading this and wanting to train your own service dog make sure you pick the right dog because dogs vary widely in personality and traits. We hate to see people put in a lot of time and effort to only be discouraged when the dog cannot pass the test.

This can be like trying to get a Ferrari to win the Baja 1000 desert race. Fast car, great for some races, but not a desert race.