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Five Mistakes To Avoid While Owner Training

Updated: Mar 2

Owner training your service prospect without the full-time guidance of professionals is often challenging. Too many mistakes can result in a prospect that is unable to work or washes out.

Service Dog laying in doggie bed

Owner training is tricky

Owner training your service prospect without the full-time guidance of professionals is often challenging. Handlers are guaranteed to make mistakes, but certain mistakes are riskier than others. Too many can result in a prospect that is unable to work or washes out early, due to a lack of motivation, prepping, or guidance. Here are the top five mistakes you should avoid while owner-training your prospect.

1 ) Rushing through training

Statistically speaking, the average service dog will go through two years of training. However many handlers who train their prospect themselves will tell you that the process can take upwards of six to twelve months longer. This is because owner-training a service dog means you will have a lot to juggle such as your daily schedule, and perfecting your skills as a trainer. And while training your prospect will be one of your most important priorities it often won't be your only priority. The struggle of balancing life's activities while also training can cause handlers to accidentally rush through the process so that they can move on. And unfortunately, this problem only worsens when the prospect is naturally gifted. Often handlers will notice that their puppy is doing so well at basic obedience that they may push them too quickly into public access or task training. Rushing through training can backfire and you will end up with a dog that may be unwilling or unable to work because they were not given the time it needed to fully benefit from the training process. The best way to combat this issue is to re-evaluate your training progress every few weeks and create a list of grows and glows. Focus on perfecting what you have already been working on with your prospect before you move on to your next phase of training. This will ensure you are not rushing the process.

2 ) Not taking breaks / inducing burnout

Being committed to the training of your prospect is important, however not having balanced work and play time will backfire and can induce burnout both for you and your prospect. The best way to combat this is by taking a break from training for a few days and allowing your dog to just be a dog. Focus on unstructured walks, bonding with them through playtime, and other low-stress high reward activities. During this time; however, it is important to maintain the rules and boundaries you have put in place, to ensure that your prospect does not latch on to bad habits.

3 ) Giving up during the adolescent phase

A good service dog has two main qualities: The ability to work, and the enjoyment of working. And the easiest way to tell if your prospect will graduate into a full-service dog is by observing their ability to learn and maintain what they have been taught during training. So for many handlers, when their adolescent dog suddenly stops responding to training and seems as if they have regressed, they assume this means their dog is unfit for work and they wash them. However, similar to humans, adolescent dogs will often go through a phase of defiance and reluctance during this time ( typically between the ages of 6-18 months). However, this does not mean your dog is unfit for service work. Instead, it means you will need to adjust your training plan. This is now the time to consult external resources such as a professional trainer, focus more on proofing (even the behaviors they have mastered), and most importantly maintain a structured routine. Your prospect is going through puberty and it will be normal for them to test new boundaries, so it is important for you as the handler to step up to the plate and set clear limits and expectations for them.

4 ) Not have a structured training plan

Having a structured training plan is key to success because it allows you to visualize and understand what each phase of training will entail. Without it, those who are owner-training their service dogs will often find themselves overwhelmed and unable to maintain or even hinder their prospect's progress. A structured training plan should consist of projected training timelines, a list of resources ( such as videos, literature, or the help of a trainer), training locations, socialization aims, and a clear overview of the exact commands and skills your dog will be learning. We even suggest keeping a binder with this information so that you can reference it as needed. Having a plan before you even bring your prospect home will make the process of owner-training them less stressful.

5 ) Not proofing behaviors

Behavior proofing is a key component to having a sound service dog. When your dog learns a behavior, such as a direct command or learning how to walk on a leash, it will need help with learning to generalize that behavior in different settings. This is called proofing. Proofing ensures that your dog can perform even when around different distractions, people, settings, and from different distances. For example, when teaching recall, you might start training within the setting of your own home with few distractions. However, this does not mean your prospect will be able to maintain their recall while outside and being tempted by chasing a squirrel or playing with other dogs. So you would need to actively practice this skill with them while in different situations until they can generalize the behavior and do it anywhere even with distractions. A well-proofed service dog will task more efficiently and accurately.

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