Any breed of dog can be a service dog provided they meet the criteria. Even a miniature horse can serve as a service animal. (think about pulling someone in a wheel chair or helping someone walk) They main issue is whether the animal is trained to perform work for people with disabilities. Dogs that perform mobility tasks tend to be larger breeds. Golden Retrievers and Labs are popular because they are easy to train, like to please their owner, and are calm around people. Other large breeds like Shepherds, Rottweilers, Saint Bernards, even Great Danes can make good mobility dogs. Smaller breeds also serve disabled persons. Border collies are extremely smart and easy to train. Smaller dogs can retrieve objects, remind a person to take their medications, detect the onset of a diabetes or epileptic event, even intervene in a panic attack. The classic service dog is the Seeing Eye Dog that most people are familiar with. This is quite specialized training. More recently service dogs are trained to help autistic kids and people who experience PTSD. These dogs must have the basic training of a service dog (tadsaw.org/how-tadsaw-works/service-dog-laws/)
Specialized training takes time and money. Depending on the training, the breed, and the organizations doing the training, a service dog can cost anywhere from $3000 to $35,000 +. Training is every day, beginning with basic obedience and socialization and shaping the specialized tasks the dog must perform. Considering the time spent by a trainer, plus the cost of veterinarian care, food, equipment, and daily exercise, it is not difficult to see why these dogs are so expensive. There are long waiting lists for these dogs and each dog must be matched with an individual that the dog can serve along with the means to support the dog.
The cost for service dogs is why many people choose to train their own. This is perfectly legal provided the dog is individually trained to perform specific tasks for a disabled person. Most organizations that train and sell service dogs have their own breeding programs, that is, they breed dogs with certain genetic traits and temperaments. Then there are organizations that pick rescue dogs that test well for certain traits. Wherever the dogs comes from, training is key. From obedience and socialization to specific task, the trainer must know, or learn, how to do the training.
Dog training often means “handler training” – teaching the handler to use leashes properly, give reinforcements and corrections correctly, and to be consistent. A handler must have patience. Dogs learn through repetition. The handler must have the time and perseverance to practice commands over and over. It can take a year or more to train a service dog.
A handler also needs a basic understanding of dog motivation or drives. All dogs have food drive; they like to eat. So one of the best times to train a dog is before a meal when they are highly motivated to get that treat. Most trainers agree that food is the best reward for training dogs. Some dogs work for a favorite toy, praise and affection, or just a pat on the head. Most dogs, especially those suited to service work are eager to please their handler.
For correcting misbehavior, a strong NO will usually suffice. Use pressure (like a prong collar) sparingly and time out in a dog crate will help settle an out of control dog. Proper crate training should start with puppies and the crate should be their safe space, not used as punishment. Never hit a dog – that will only make them fear you or freeze up, and could cause aggression. A calm and confident handler is the best behavior modifier for a dog.
These are tips of course, things I have learned in the ten years I’ve trained my personal dogs. I started doing this when I was given a large and gentle American German Shepherd. Having worn out the cartilage in my knees, I discovered that holding onto him while we walked helped me. So I bought a vest for him and used him to assist me with mobility. In 2014 I had a spinal cord injury that affected my balance, so his mobility assistance became doubly useful. Unfortunately dogs don’t live as long as humans and he passed, leaving me looking for another dog. After looking around a bit and talking to breeders and trainers, I found Milo. He is an east European working line shepherd. These dogs have been selected and bred for working ability, and find their way into K9, protection, and military roles. Milo however flunked his temperament test – he was not aggressive enough for that work so I bought him to train as my next service dog. It’s been a long road with the occasional pot-hole, but he has taken well to the training. I’ve tested him in crowds, businesses, around children, Doctor’s visits, many places. He is still a bit reactive to other dogs if they challenge him first, and, well, cats or squirrels are a no-go. But with people he has progressed wonderfully. He is a sensitive dog and would probably do well helping someone with PTSD. It would break my heart to sell him, but if he can help another person in need, so much the better.
All this is to say that I am a novice trainer; I do not train dogs for other people at present. If you want training for your dog, be it a pet or potential service dog, talk to a professional. Two that I have worked with in Galveston Country are Jason at http://transformmydog.com/ and Trelle at http://www.muttswithmanners.com/ . Each have their own approach to dog training and a prospective service dog trainer should learn as much as they can before taking on the task of training a service dog.
And of course there is YouTube. Not as good as personal training, but you can get a sense of what it takes to properly train a dog. Like lots of people, I started with watching Cesar Milan. One professional trainer, when asked what he thought of Cesar said “I agree 100% with about 50% of what he says”. There are better options though. For general training, search for Mike Ellis. For specific training of service dogs look for Donna Hill. There are others that are probably just as good, but these two folks are widely recognized as experts. For a novice trainer it’s a good start.