Let me just begin by saying this: training your own service dog is a lot of work. Like, a LOT.
My girl is energetic and playful, and she loves to train. Mostly she loves it because she’s powerless against cookies (ha!), but also because training means she has my undivided attention. We are “playing” all these cool games together. And there is food! And loves! And pats! And praise!
Training is just downright fun for Peabody. Sadly, it isn’t always as fun for me.
I don’t say that because I don’t like training (because I do!). Or because Peabody is annoying (though sometimes she is). I say that because there are lots of days I don’t have enough stamina to train. It’s very hard to keep up with a puppy that has an endless amount of energy, especially when you are struggling to cope with a disability that means you require a service dog in the first place.
BUT, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And there are ways to train that will make your life so much easier, even if you’re having a bad day. The truth is that every moment can be used to train. You don’t have to set aside special time-slots everyday or follow a strict schedule (though I do this most days as well. Those sessions are important too!). Sometimes you gotta improvise and go with what works best for you. If I only have so much energy in a day, and I have lots to accomplish besides dog training, then how do I make it work?
Well, I’m going to tell you…
- Don’t think of training as something you only do with a professional – every moment in your home, your pup is learning something. And it’s not always what you want them to learn! Example: Peabody has a very rotten habit of trying to jump on my counters. I don’t allow this, but she tries to do it anyway. I correct her each and every time, and someday we will get to the point where it stops. But this is a trainable moment! It’s something I can do everyday (sadly, because Peabody is so stubborn, it is sometimes many, many times in a day). It’s not part of a session, and it isn’t planned, but it is still training.
- Use household chores as training moments – this is my favorite thing to do! Regardless of dog training, my laundry still needs to be done. Why not use this as a way to train your pup? Example: On laundry day, I tether Peabody to me and we start in my bedroom. We practice a “down/stay” while I load the basket. Sometimes we practice “leave it” when I drop socks (or do this on purpose!). We practice “up” and “with me” (walking beside me) as I go to the laundry room. Then we “down/stay” again while I load the laundry. Even the sounds of the machine working may be something your dog needs to adjust to, which is…. you guessed it, training! You can use this concept all day long with a variety of tasks.
- Nothing in life is free – Oh, your pup is hungry and wants breakfast? Ok. Sit first. Wait patiently while I put the food in your dish. Look at me. Maybe lay down. Or give me a high five. Something. Okay, now you can eat. Easy, right? Remember, everything is a training moment! I’ve done this since Peabody was little, and she is so good about not jumping me to get her food. Not only is she learning manners, but I’m re-enforcing other behaviors by asking her for them before she gets the thing she really wants. Why waste the opportunity?
- Sit on your dog – This is the BEST THING EVER. No lie. When Dee first brought this up to me, I thought it sounded like some kind of torture training. But the technique actually makes a lot of sense! And it isn’t exactly what it sounds like. Basically, you sit on your dog’s leash wherever you are (not on your actual dog, haha). Only give them enough length to sit and lay down. And then… ignore your dog. Don’t look at them. Don’t talk. Don’t play. Nothing. At first, your pup will be annoyed. And confused. They will try all kinds of things to get your attention. Like this:
Peabody has been known to jump in my lap, bark at me, try to dig me (or my husband) out of the chair. She whimpers. She acts like she is dying, or has to pee, or desperately needs a drink of water before she expires from extreme thirst (drama queen!). Ignore it all. Because eventually, this is what happens:
BEST THING EVER, am I right? Who doesn’t want an adorable puppy that is behaving and laying down quietly? Not me! I like to use this on days when I really just don’t have a lot to give. Even though it doesn’t seem like it, this is also training. You are teaching your pup patience. You are teaching them that their crazy antics won’t get them anywhere. You are teaching them to just be with you. Combine it with other activities to boost that training. For example, once Peabody got the hang of this I added my breakfast to the mix. I eat while she is expected to stay still. No begging. No climbing in my lap. Nothing. Eventually I will start this in other locations in my home. And outside of my home. This is super easy to incorporate into everyday living, and it is so, so useful.
- Touchy touchy – You know what a super easy way is to incorporate training into your day? Touch your dog! Like, all the time. Pick up their paws. Flop their ears over and look at them. Rub their legs and bellies (like a vet would). Open their mouth and look at their teeth. Get your pup used to being touched! This is super important, and it is so easy to do. Who doesn’t love loving on their dog?! You might as well get useful training out of all that loving, yes?
- Be patient with your dog and yourself – If I manage to keep my pup alive, don’t let her learn any new bad habits, get in a 5 minute training session, and also keep myself functional for a whole day? Sometimes that is a check in the win column, and it’s all I need. Cut yourself a break once in a while! Training a service dog is a LOT of work, remember? Being patient with your pup, showing them you can be counted on for that, is training too. Your pup is going to learn your habits. He/She will start to know when you are having a good day versus a bad day. Show your dog how you want them to behave when you are having a bad day. Call in a dog walker if you need to. Ask a neighbor to let your pup out to pee. Your dog learning it is ok for someone else to walk them when you are having a bad day? That’s training too! Talk to the people in your support system. Get them on board with what you and your pup need. Use them to help with that everyday training when you need it.
Don’t forget: every moment you are with your dog, they are learning something. Make sure that “something” is what you want them to learn, not a bad habit! That means training all the time, and using those moments in the best way you can to help train the best service dog you can have. You’ve got this!
At the time of this post, Peabody is a year old.