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When you first bring home a new Service Dog candidate, it’s easy to become overwhelmed at the sheer volume of “stuff” that needs to be mastered. While every Service Dog’s end job may vary, there are foundational behaviors and concepts every working dog should know, no matter his or her specialty. Teams should be adept at skills in addition to the ones presented below (this list is not at all all-inclusive), but these are, without a doubt, the first five skills you should teach any Service Dog in Training.

Opinions will no doubt vary widely as to the “best” foundational behaviors to begin teaching a Service Dog in Training, but this “First Five Skills” list was developed with input from several nationally-recognized Service Dog trainers to focus on the skills necessary to enjoy your Service Dog in Training’s company, communicate easily with him and begin additional, vital socialization and training as quickly as possible, both in and out of public.

First Five Skills: Clicker Conditioning

First Five Skills

Using a clicker will make communicating with your Service Dog in Training much easier.

While not a “requirement” for training, clicker training introduces a level of precision into obedience training and skills performance that otherwise couldn’t be achieved. The click takes 1/10th of a second to complete and it marks the EXACT instant you want repeated. In essence, it takes a “snapshot” of the behavior and freezes an exact instant in time so your Service Dog in Training knows exactly what to do again. As such, there is little room for error. Timing, of course, is crucial – if you click a “stand” as your bouncy puppy rolls from a stand to a down, then you’ve rewarded the wrong thing!

Before teaching your new Service Dog in Training anything, you need to “condition” the clicker so it has meaning to your SDiT. Simply click and hand your SDiT a free treat, 20 times in a row. For the 21st time, click and see if he looks for the treat. If your SDiT does, congratulations; he equates the click with the treat. If not, click and treat 20 more times.

Always follow a click with a treat; there are no exceptions. If you click, then treat. For more detailed information on clicker training benefits and uses, check out Karen Pryor’s explanation and resources.

First Five Skills: Name
The very, very, very first thing your new Service Dog in Training ALWAYS needs to learn after clicker conditioning is his name. If your new (potential) partner doesn’t know his name, you can’t communicate with him, get his attention, or re-orient his focus to you easily.The quickest and easiest way to teach your SDiT his name is to link his name with something highly reinforcing. Grab a bowl of food (the same amount you’ll feed in a meal) and with your Service Dog candidate on a leash, sit or stand close to him. Simply say his name and immediately offer a very small handful of food. Repeat 5 to 10 times in a row, then just wait patiently for him to start to look around or to move away. Say his name, click when he looks at you and offer another handful of kibble. Repeat until your new Service Dog in Training immediately re-orients to you the instant he hears his name. Do this exercise daily for 2 or 3 days, and then begin using his name while on walks or just while hanging out. Always be ready to offer a quick reward for the correct response, which is to immediately look at, focus on and move to you.

First Five Skills

Hand-feeding your potential partner offers great benefits like quick bonding, creating strong handler focus and presenting a ready-made opportunity for training sessions without the need for additional treats. Consider hand-feeding your partner at least one meal a day for several weeks while he’s working on mastering the basics or any time you need to gently re-orient his focus, attention and drive to you. If you measure out your Service Dog in Training’s daily allotment of food into a bowl or baggie and carry it around with you, you can utilize it throughout the day for training, impromptu reinforcement of attention or good manners, and for bonding.

First Five Skills: Settling Quietly For Long Periods

First Five Skills

SDiT Dragon hangs out on his tether while his trainer works.

Laying quietly and minding one’s own business for long periods is a necessary and vital skill for every single working dog, and one of the most important foundation behaviors an SDiT will need to master. Beginning the day your new Service Dog in Training comes home, you should start “tether training” him. A tether is a short (14″ to 24″), indestructible steel cable with a snap on either end. One end snaps to your SDiT’s collar, and the other end can be wrapped around a sturdy, immovable object, your own ankle or connected to a ring drilled into a stud or baseboard. The tether provides your Service Dog in Training with just enough space to change position, but not enough room to get into trouble, have an accident, move away, or do much of anything except settle quietly.

By tether training your (future) partner, you allow him to discover for himself what works and is the most comfortable (laying quietly) without having to be the “bad guy” continuously asking for or forcing a down or a stay long before he’s ready or able to offer those types of behaviors. A tether trained dog always knows what’s expected when he’s presented with a mat and a tether (or leash/other restraint) and will settle beautifully for however long it’s required of him to do so. Tether trained SDiTs are a dream to teach formal “stays” to, they possess excellent impulse control, self-control and manners and they’re never presented with the opportunity to get themselves into trouble.

The following is an excerpt from the Gimme Grace Dog Training Puppy Raiser Handbook:

The tether is a useful tool in order to teach your puppy to calmly accept boundaries and how to settle in one area. The tether also assists in teaching your puppy how to maintain control of himself and to maintain decorum when presented with tough situations, such as riding on public transportation, when guests come over or sitting through a class or seminar. However, you can’t just hook your puppy up and expect everything to go well. Tether training takes time and patience and is accomplished much the same way as crate training.

Always tether your puppy with a fun activity, such as a raw bone or a stuffed KONG. For the first couple of weeks, your puppy will just have to throw the fit and wear him/herself out. The end goal of tether training is that your puppy learns to accept boundaries gracefully and to quietly entertain him/herself in one spot without a lot of movement. This skill is CRUCIAL to your puppy’s success as a dog with public access.

Work on tether training daily.

Your puppy may NEVER be left alone on a tether. You must be in the room while your puppy is tethered. Your puppy could potentially hang him/herself and it is too dangerous for your puppy to be tethered alone.

First Five Skills: Sit
Sit is the easiest obedience command for your Service Dog in Training to master and as such, it should be taught first. Having a command you know your SDiT will respond to under any circumstance provides you with the ability to easily secure and keep his attention by giving him a job to focus on, and “sit” provides you with a reference point and foundation to teach other positional commands like down, stand, laying on side and sitting pretty/begging.

Use a treat to lure your SDiT into position and click when his bottom is firmly on the ground. Give the puppy the treat after the click. When your puppy responds quickly and consistently to the lure, add the cue “sit” to the behavior. Use a drawn-out “s” (“Ssssssit” )

in order to distinguish the command from any other command. Once your Service Dog in Training responds consistently to the cue, start by holding the lure in your other hand so he isn’t being lured into position. Once your pup performs reliably at that level, place the treats in a bowl on a table so that you have to reach into the bowl in order to treat your SDiT. Once you’ve reached this stage, treat your puppy randomly. Ensure that you always offer verbal and physical praise for a job well done.

First Five Skills: Leash Walking
If your Service Dog in Training doesn’t walk nicely on a leash (as a young puppy, most of the time, or as an older/more experienced trainee, all of the time), then he shouldn’t be in public, period. As such, he needs to master leash manners quickly. Your SDiT should stay by your side, stop when you stop, start when you start and not wander. Keep in mind that distractions are a learning opportunity and while he may be interested, you need to be far enough away you can easily redirect, reward and keep his attention.

First Five Skills

Start by taking a nice walk with your puppy indoors with your puppy on a leash attached to his collar. When your puppy reaches the end of the leash simply turn and go the other way. Click and treat when your puppy comes back to your side. Continue this drill until you notice your puppy watching you. Always praise your SDiT exuberantly and slip him a treat after clicking for him being in proper position. Gradually migrate this activity outdoors. Always, always, always respond to your Service Dog in Training ending up at the end of the leash in the same way: turn and walk the other way. Encourage your SDiT to catch up with you with an excited “hurry, hurry, hurry.” Once he’s back by your side in proper position, always greet him with praise, a click, treats and lovies.

Even if you are in public and your trainee’s focus wavers, turn and walk the other way until your Service Dog in Training re-orients and moves back to your side. Your SDiT will VERY quickly learn there are no exceptions to this rule and he only gets to go places when he walks nicely.

Gradually add distractions into the loose leash walking, always ensuring to reward proper position and to turn and walk a different direction if he moves out of place.

First Five Skills: Applications
Once your Service Dog in Training has mastered the First Five Skills, it’s easy to apply them to other behaviors and expectations for Service Dogs, like sitting politely for greetings. If your pup will sit and immediately focus on you when his name is said, you have, in essence, laid the foundation for “leave it” and sitting nicely. If your SDiT always moves to you and looks for direction when you call his name, there’s your “come” foundation. You can apply these first five skills in so many ways we can’t even begin to list them here, but you’ll find yourself using them and falling back on them time and time again.

Have fun with your new potential partner and remember, this is only the starting point — there’s always something new to learn, master and delve into, so enjoy the journey! If you’re looking for additional guidance and training resources, check out the Top 10 Best Service Dog Training Resources.

What did your Service Dog learn first? Would you do things differently if you could do it over? Have something you feel should be on this list, but isn’t? Chime in with a comment and let us know what you think!