Monday, January 31, 2022

New Environment Training for Service Dogs

Helping Service Dogs be Successful in Early Public Access Training Sessions

Public Access Training should be among some of the last training sessions that you do with your Service Dog in Training!  Be sure to read my previous posts in this series, especially posts 9 through 11 about new environments.  This is the final post in my January series: Plan for Success and it targeted specifically at my Service Dog training clients.

Start slow by getting used to the environment before the environment!

The Car:

After getting my puppy used to riding in the car, some of our first pre-PA training sessions happen right there in the car.  We go thru drive thru's at restaurants, banks, and such, pay at the pump gas stations, and hang out in parking lots together from inside the car.  This can be done with young puppies before they are fully vaccinated and older dogs as well!  Pair the car outing with some great food and simply reward for being in the environment.  Then as the sessions advance, reward only when the dog looks toward a potential distraction such as a car driving passed, a person moving, another dog, a shopping cart, etc.  You can also start out in 5 min sessions, slowly building up to 20 minute sessions.  As you add time, you slow down your reinforcement rate and only deliver treats when something unusual happens or if you notice any fear or discomfort setting in. 

The Parking Lot:

The next step is to start some training sessions outside of the car.  Practice basic manners and obedience cues in the grassy areas on the outside of parking lots, slowly moving through the parking lot.  The first thing I do when I get out of the car with a dog is give them some time to sniff around, getting familiar with the environment and taking a moment to go potty.  Before I leave the grass, I will do a few simple behaviors and make sure that my dog is calm enough to listen to my cues.  This helps you to determine if your dog is stressed or overly distracted.  If your dog is not able to listen to your cues, you are in an environment that they are not yet ready to be in so find a quieter location.  If your dog is able to follow your lead, you can continue with your training session.


Once my dog is comfortable on the outside edges of a parking lot, I start working on parking lot manners, mainly walking on a loose leash, stopping for traffic, and walking near people & carts.  Depending on your dog, you may be able to do this type of training for just a couple of sessions or it may take longer.  I've had dogs that needed to work in parking lots for a few months, slowly progressing to busy, more active & distracting parking lots.  Take it at your dog's pace paying attention to their emotional state and you will progress much more quickly then you think.  As you are working in parking lots, choose a slower location and time of day to slowly make your way towards the door.  Pausing outside the door to watch some people coming and going.  Take some time to run through some basic cues in this location too.  

Pet Friendly Stores:

Then when you think your dog is ready, take a few steps into the store. This should be a pet friendly store even if you are training a dog to be a Service Dog!  There are a lot more pet friendly stores then you would think, you just have to look around your community.  Hardware stores, craft stores, and sporting goods stores tend to be pet friendly, so call or stop in without your dog and see if they allow dogs in the store.  Plan your first session to be outside the store for about 15 minutes and inside the store for only 5 minutes.   With time, at your dog's rate you can start slowly transitioning it to be the opposite, 5 minutes outside and 15 minutes inside.  Stick to just one or two stores to practice in until your dog becomes extremely comfortable in those stores.  Then you can slowly add in new locations, new distractions, and longer visits.  But don't forget to stop in the grass and let your dog sniff for a few minutes then capture focus before going into any store.

Service Dogs Public Access Situations:

There is no set formula or stage that your Service Dog in Training is deemed "ready" for public access training.  But every trainer has their own guidelines or things they want to be able see in a dog before beginning public access training.  Here is a short list of my preferred behaviors that I want my dogs to know and have a history of achieving in pet friendly locations:

  • The ADA states that Service Dogs must be fully potty trained before being taking into any public access related environment.  Sure accidents happen, dogs get sick, etc.  But this should be a rare occurrence that your dog has an issue in the store.  I want to see that all my dogs can potty on cue before I start working in pet friendly locations & I want to see that they have generalized that to multiple environments before I start PA training.
  • The ADA also states that Service Dogs must be under handler control at all times.  While this can mean a lot of different things, but bare minimum I want my dog to be able to walk nicely on a loose leash.  I don't expect a perfect competition heel, but I want my dog to be able to follow my walking lead matching my pass and direction changes accordingly.
  • I also want my dog to feel safe, calm, and comfortable walking with other people nearby.  And while this is a process that can be perfected during PA training, I want to see that my dogs remain fairly stress free or the handler is prepared to take whatever steps necessary to help the dog feel safe.  I won't take any dog in training into a place where I'm not prepared to leave immediately if they start to show signs of stress!
  • Lastly, I want to have a few cues generalized to be able to use as needed in the environment; sit, down, under, wait, etc.  Each handler needs to decide these cues for themselves as there is no hard and fast right set of behaviors that are dictated by laws.  If you are not sure what you want to have in place for your Service Dog in Training I suggest you review the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test as a bare minimum standard of training.  Your dog may not be 100% perfect on all behaviors, especially if they are in the adolescent phase, but you want to be happy, comfortable, and confident in their skills before you take them into a public access environment.  Remember to practice all new skills in pet friendly environments so you can begin the proofing process before you ask your dog to do a behavior in a public access situation.
Federal laws do not cover Service Dogs in Training, only Service Dogs.  So be sure to research your state and local locals involving Service Dogs in Training before you decide to take your dog into a public access setting.  If your state does not cover Service Dogs in Training, you will also have to have your dog trained to do at least one task that mitigates your disability to meet the ADA requirements before you start Public Access Training.  If you have additional questions about how I work in new environments, please reach out to me by leaving me a comment or sending me an email.


  1. So question I know the Service dog law and everything but how do you know when your service dog in training is ready to go in to public training, like for example I’ve slowly been trying to get Dakota to that point where she can go with me in public place. But cause I’m unable to drive I’ve slowly been working on this when I walk to the gas station up the road. And the few times I’ve went I took pictures of her being well behaved and laying down while we waited for the cashiers to help us. Unfortunately the lady that works there throw a fit with me wanting doctor page and what not so I haven’t been back since that day. So I know Dakota is getting ready for the next training session. Plus Dakota almost 2 hrs come July 29 this year. So my ending question is I guess when would be the right way and everything.

    1. That's a really great question! It's all about starting small. The gas station is small and a great way to start. If you want to continue to train there, call and ask for a time to meet with the manager and see if they can't help you with the clerk. Then when you can get a ride to other locations start outside just like in the blog post. Each time your dog is successful in one environment 3-5 different training sessions you are probably ready to bump up to the next type of environment.


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