Service Dog Hazel

The Skills Every Service Dog Should Master

Title image courtesy of Alicia Picon

The types of Service Dogs and the tasks they need to know are as numerous and varied as the individuals that they serve. Each person with disabilities will have different needs, a unique lifestyle and a special individual dynamic that their Service Dog should fit seamlessly into.

With that said, there are a few universal skills that Service Dogs must be taught and should execute flawlessly in order to fit in with our human society. A Service Dog should be as invisible as possible when working in public. Here at the Service Dog Society we consider these skills to be priority #1 and begin working on them from the first day our puppies come home.

*Note: If you are planning on your dog being an in-home Service Dog ONLY (no public access) #5 on this list is the only requirement. Keep in mind, having the other skills on this list will help with general dog ownership so it’s worth it to add them into your training no matter what.

Dogs aren’t born naturally having these skills. They must be taught and proofed extensively (practiced in many different environments and situations) so they become default behaviors, especially for a Service Dog.

If you don’t feel completely confident in your ability to train the following, it’s important that you enlist the help of a trainer that is experienced in doing so. Don’t wait, as the longer your Service Dog in Training practices bad behaviors, the harder it is to unlearn them and create better habits. Build your support system (trainers, veterinarian, people to help you practice) BEFORE you bring your new puppy or dog home. In doing so, you will be ready to start off on the right foot.

1. Loose Leash Walking

United States Federal Law requires Service Dogs to be leashed or tethered unless doing so interferes with a task or is impossible due to the handler’s disability. Those two situations are more the exception than the rule, so it’s more than likely your Service Dog will need to know proper leash etiquette.

Service Dogs should be comfortable on leash and be able to walk at your preferred side without any leash tension. Regardless of if you require tension for one of your tasks (guiding, forward momentum, etc), keeping a loose leash should be the default, with tension occurring only on cue (whether a verbal signal , hand signal, physical cue or equipment-based signal). For example, my Service Dog keeps a loose leash at all times, but will provide slight forward pressure if he feels me grab his guide handle. Check out Ember’s LLW below:

A leash should be used as a subtle communication tool, not as a desperate attempt to physically control your dog. When a dog can maintain a loose leash, it shows that they are aware of what your body is doing and their focus isn’t completely absorbed by something else in your environment. The state of your dog’s loose leash work can give you a good look into the status of your overall relationship and communication skills. On your next walk, take a minute to see what your dog is telling you about your partnership.

Here are some resources to help you train a strong Loose Leash Walk:

  1. Your experienced local trainer
  2. A quality obedience class
  3. Fenzi Dog Sports Academy
  4. Service Dog Training Institute
  5. Kikopup – LLW
  6. Training Levels (new)
  7. Training Levels (originals)

2. Settle/Relax

Service Dogs are working dogs; this may give the impression that most of their working hours are filled with activity. This isn’t usually the case. Contrary to popular belief, the days of Service Dogs are filled with “hurry up and wait”.

Each of the following situations requires your Service Dog to calmly and quietly lay still for quite some time:

  • Going to the movie theater
  • Eating out at a restaurant
  • Riding in the car
  • Completing medical procedures
  • Working a job behind a desk
  • Attending a class for school
  • Going to a therapist, psychiatrist, or similar
  • Riding on an airplane
  • Studying at the library
  • Visiting your doctor for a medical appointment

In order for you and your Service Dog to be comfortable in these situations it’s important that they be taught to relax in one place. You want your dog to be helping you fully participate in the activities of daily life, not causing you stress because they are constantly fidgeting, whining or trying to explore everything nearby.

The good news is that dogs do naturally spend quite a large amount of their day at rest, but eliciting this behavior at will is the tricky part. Some dogs are born with a great “off-switch” which makes this much easier to teach and should be sought after when choosing your Service Dog candidate. Even those dogs still need to have this character trait nurtured so it becomes an automatic response. We’ve worked on this a lot with Ember as you can see below:

Here are some resources to help you train a strong Settle:

  1. Your experienced local trainer
  2. A quality obedience class
  3. Service Dog Training Institute
  4. Fenzi Dog Sports Academy
  5. Kikopup – Capturing Calmness
  6. Kikopup – Capturing Calmness 2
  7. Training Levels (new)
  8. Training Levels (originals)

3. Leave It

The world is full of temptations. Service Dogs in particular are exposed to more of these temptations than pet dogs. In their working life, Service Dogs will encounter things that are very exciting, smell yummy, and some that are downright dangerous.

It’s possible to force your dog to physically avoid these items, but that is stressful for you and stressful for your dog. Depending on your disabilities you may not be physically strong enough to hold your dog back. Even if you are successful in restraining them, you can never force your dog to change their focus if they don’t want to. They might not be touching or looking at the temptation, but you’d better believe they are thinking about it! Some handlers could be in danger by losing their Service Dog’s focus if they rely on medical alerts or similar to remain safe.

An easier way to remedy this problem is to teach a solid Leave It cue. If you train Leave It correctly your Service Dog will happily ignore anything you wish, because they WANT to. Use positive reinforcement and move forward at your dog’s pace. Over time you will find that your dog will automatically turn or move away from anything tempting, even without a prompt from you. Check out SDiT Sam and SD Ember practicing their Leave It:

Here are some resources to help you train a strong Leave It:

  1. Your experienced local trainer
  2. A quality obedience class
  3. Fenzi Dog Sports Academy
  4. Kikopup – Leave It
  5. Kikopup – Leave It 2
  6. Kikopup – Safety Leave It
  7. Kikopup – Leave It from Dogs and People
  8. Training Levels (new)
  9. Training Levels (originals)

4. Name Recognition/Focus

Knowing all of the behaviors in the world wont do any good if you can’t get your Service Dog’s attention. A rock solid name recognition cue is THE most important skill that any dog, whether a pet or a highly trained working dog, can have.

Service Dog Attention

Photo courtesy of Kaelynn Partlow

Start teaching this the day your dog comes home and work on it everyday. Practice it in every situation you can think of. When you reach the point where your dog will turn away from their biggest temptation and give you their focus, you’re well on your way.

Here are some resources to help you train a strong Name/Focus cue:

  1. Your experienced local trainer
  2. A quality obedience class
  3. Fenzi Dog Sports Academy
  4. Kikopup – Teach Your Dog Their Name
  5. Kikopup – Building Attention
  6. Kikopup – Teaching Eye Contact
  7. Training Levels (new)
  8. Training Levels (originals)

5. Tasks

This isn’t one specific skill, but we consider it important enough to be on our list. A dog is a Service Dog because of their tasks (or work). No matter how well trained and amazing a dog is, no matter what vests or patches they have on, a Service Dog must be trained to perform tasks that mitigate their handler’s disabilities. Period, end of story. Without these tasks (or work) a dog is just a pet.

If you’d like to see what tasks dogs can be trained to do visit our Giant Task List to learn more. Our list is a good starting point, but in the end, it’s vital that you work with your doctor and your trainer to decide what tasks your Service Dog will need to know. Your tasks will need to be individually tailored to your disabilities, and may even be different from someone who has the same diagnoses as you.

Here are some resources to help you get started training tasks:

  1. Your experienced local service dog trainer
  2. Our Retrieve Tutorial
  3. Service Dog Training Institute
  4. Donna Hill’s Service Dog YouTube Channel

Take the Time to Build Good Foundations

Take the time to build good foundations for your Service Dog. The skills discussed in this article should be very high on your list. No matter how amazing a connection you have with your prospect or Service Dog in Training, you can’t succeed without knowing these skills. Work with an experienced trainer, set up a solid training plan, and work at it regularly. Work on these behaviors a little bit everyday and you will find that everything else in your Service Dog journey will be exponentially easier.







Service Dog Society
The Service Dog Society is dedicated to the education, training and support of service dog handlers, their friends and family, service dog trainers and programs, puppy raisers, businesses, the general public, and anybody else who has questions about these marvelous helpers.Our goal is to provide as much information as possible, in a centralized location and in an easy-to-follow format. We know first hand how overwhelming the process of getting and/or training a service dog can be, for everyone involved! Our hope is to alleviate some of the confusion and difficulty that is a part of the process.