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The First Five Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

The First 5 Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

If you are overwhelmed and unsure where to start, let me reassure you that you’re in the right place! It is entirely possible for you to effectively train your own Service Animal. One perk of the internet is finding information and resources on any topic. The downside of the internet is the plethora of opinions you have to sort through on any given topic to find what you need. It can be easy to be overwhelmed by how many skills your Service Animal needs to master. Training a Service Animal should not be a source of anxiety, so let’s take the pressure off right from the beginning and start with the basics. American Service Pets offers tons of resources to help you get started on the right foot…(or paw!) with 5 skills to teach a Service Dog in training.

Table of Contents

What Skills Should I Teach My Service Dog in Training First?

While every Service Animal’s job may vary slightly, there are foundational behaviors and concepts every working dog should know, no matter their specialty. When you begin training your Service Animal, the first step is building a foundation of good behavior. Opinions are varied on what behaviors are best to kick off your training. Regardless of what tasks a Service Animal is needed to perform, the following are some concepts and critical behaviors that a Service Animal should master before receiving any specialized training.

These First Five Skills will help to lay an essential foundation for more technical training and task-specific skills. This list isn’t comprehensive. It is just a starting point to help you reach a point where you can easily communicate with your Service Dog in Training, socialize them and prepare them for interactions in public. When you begin, the goal is simple, teach the most critical skills necessary to ensure that your Service Dog in Training enjoys learning new skills and being around people.

The First Five Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

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Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.

The First Five Foundational Skills To Teach

1. Clicker Conditioning
2. Name
3. Sitting Quietly For Long Periods
4. Sit
5. Leash Behavior 

1. Clicker Conditioning

Clicker training has been around for over 40 years and is a positive reinforcement form of animal training with its base in behavioral psychology. Clicker training is a mark and reward method that brings accuracy to task training a Service Animal. You can teach your dog to master basic skills using a clicker followed by a treat.

First, you will need a clicker and plenty of soft treats ready to use as rewards. You will need a lot of treats when you are starting out. It’s ok to cut the treats into small pieces to make them stretch.

Next, you need to condition your dog to the clicker. Stand near your pet in a quiet spot without distractions. Push and release the clicker, then immediately give your pet a treat. Repeat this 20 times. On the 21st time, click and wait to see if your dog looks for the reward. If he does, this indicates that he understands that a reward is connected to the clicker. If not, continue to click and treat another 20 times.

Keys to Successful Clicker Conditioning

  • When pressed, the clicker makes a distinct “click” sound. The click marks the precise moment your dog performs the desired behavior.

  • The timing of the click is critical to the success of this method. Think of it as taking a photograph of the exact moment or behavior that is desired.

  • Every click must be followed with a treat.

Using a clicker makes communicating with your Service Dog in Training simpler and is an effective way to train dogs for complex tasks. Clicker training is favored by trainers because of the consistency and accuracy it brings to training.

The First Five Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

For example, if you want your dog to sit down, hold out your hand and press the clicker, signaling him to sit down. If he sits down, give him a treat. If he doesn’t, keep trying — simply repeat the process until he performs the desired behavior. Eventually, your dog will be conditioned to the clicker, meaning they will learn to associate the sound with positive reinforcement and will not need treats.

2. Teach Your Dog Its Name

After clicker conditioning, this is the next most important step. You may be tempted to skip past this because it sounds so simple, but it is an absolutely foundational skill for training, and some people actually forget about it! Skipping this skill will have an unwanted spillover effect and negatively impact your dog’s ability to learn future skills. This is especially important when beginning training with a puppy because if he doesn’t know his name, you can’t communicate with him or get his attention when needed.

The fastest way to teach your Service Dog In Training (SDIT) his name is to connect his name with something that will have a high reinforcement value to the animal. For this example, you will need a dog bowl and food. It should be the same kind and amount of food you’d feed him at a meal. 

Put your Service Dog on a leash and sit or stand near him. Say his name and simultaneously offer him a small amount of food. Repeat this at least 5 times (you can do it more if you feel the need for additional reinforcement).

After the 5th time, wait for him to move away from you. After he has moved to a new position, say his name. Press your clicker when he looks at you and offer another handful of food. Repeat this process until your SDIT responds, immediately turning toward you when he hears his name.
Reinforce this skill over the next 3 days and always offer him an immediate reward for the desired response (when he looks and then immediately moves toward you). Give your dog opportunities to practice the behavior by calling his name and looking for his reaction while doing regular, daily activities like hanging out around the house or on a walk.

The First Five Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

Keys to Successfully Train Your Dog to Respond to Its Name

  • Be sure to offer your pup an immediate reward. 

  • Hand-feeding creates a stronger bond and focus on the handler and will result in quicker training sessions in the future without the need for treats. 

  • Anytime you need to help your dog redirect their attention to focus on you, hand-feeding can help achieve that. You may consider implementing a hand-feeding once a day for a few weeks to reset your dog’s focus on you as the handler.

A note on over-feeding.
During the first stages of training, you can prevent this by pre-measuring your dog’s daily meals into a baggie. Keep the bag with you and use it for impromptu training sessions or to re-orient your pup’s focus throughout the day. 

3. Tether Training: Sitting Quietly for Long Stretches

Tether training is a crucial foundational skill for an SDIT to master. A tether is a short, indestructible steel cable with a snap on both ends. It can be up to 24 in length and is a tool that helps dogs learn to lay quietly for long periods. When tethering is used with positive reinforcement, it can be very effective in the success of your Service Animal training.

One end of the tether links to your SDIT’s collar. The other end must be wrapped around a heavy object that can’t be easily moved. At home, this can be the leg of your table or couch. The tether allows your Service Dog in Training space enough to move or change positions but prevents them from moving away or engaging in any other activity. A tether-trained dog learns how to settle in for however long it’s required of him.

To teach this skill, you will need to make practicing Tether Time daily for several weeks. It won’t take long for your dog to discover how to settle into a comfortable position that it can hold for an extended period without constantly being reminded to lie down or stay. Depending on your dog’s temperament or experience, this concept may take a few weeks to learn. 

The First Five Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

How to Begin Tether Training

Your first few sessions will only last for 5 minutes. Eventually, you will build up to a longer stretch (up to 30 minutes). Using a short leash or indoor tether (about 4 feet in length), attach the tether to a heavy piece of furniture, such as a couch leg. Initially, you will need to lay down a mat (to help mark the spot) and give your dog an activity to keep them occupied during tether sessions.

  • Place the mat where you want the dog to settle. Invite your dog to sit on the mat and reward him with a treat. Attach the tether around the foot of your couch to their collar or harness. Then, give him an activity like a long-lasting chew, bone, etc. Remain close, but stay just a few inches out of your dog’s reach to help him feel secure.


  • The next step is to ignore your dog, which can be more challenging than it sounds! You can read a book, check email, etc., while they are tethered. Your dog may initially resist settling in place, but he will eventually wear himself out. If your dog whines or barks, continue to focus on your activity without distraction. Before long, your dog will learn that tether time is a cue to settle in and get comfy.


  • After 5 minutes, untether your dog when he finishes his bone or chew (whichever happens first). Remove the tether very casually without giving your dog a lot of attention. Don’t push him in a particular direction. Let him choose whether to move about or hang out a little longer.


  • After about 5 repetitions, begin gradually increasing your dog’s tether time length. Add a minute or two to each session until you reach 30 minutes. As your sessions continue, you want to begin to position yourself a little farther away from your dog. If you notice signs that your dog is stressed (continued pulling at the tether, steady barking, or stress panting), move back to a distance where your dog is comfortable. 
The First Five Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

Once your dog is comfortable with a greater distance between you, test the boundaries a little more by occasionally getting up to grab a drink from the kitchen or to go to another room to grab something. Then return to your seat. Continue ignoring your dog as you do this. To help make this concept concrete for your dog, practice at different times of the day and get your dog used to settling and remaining focused even in the presence of distractions.

When working in public, your dog will need to maintain control of himself in many different and sometimes unexpected situations. Training your dog to handle distractions takes practice and patience. However, it is crucial to your dog’s ability to remain in control when in public.

Keys to Successful Tether Training

  • Never leave your dog alone on a tether. If left unattended, the cable could become a dangerous choking hazard to your dog.

  • Before beginning a session, ensure that your dog has received mental stimulation and that its physical needs have been met (exercise, food, water, restroom). 

  • During training, always tether your dog with an activity they enjoy, such as a bone, a stuffed KONG, or a favorite chew. 

4. Teaching Your Dog to Sit

Sit is the most straightforward obedience command for your SDIT to learn. Sit also gives you a reference point for teaching other positional commands such as down or stand. You will need a treat to “lure” your dog into position. Put the treat directly in front of your dog’s nose, then lift the food slowly above its head, bringing him into the sit position. At this point, your dog will likely attempt to eat the treat. Depress the clicker once your dog’s behind is entirely on the ground, and then reward them with the treat. Once your dog responds consistently to the lure, add the phrase “sit” to cue your dog’s behavior.

When your Service Dog in Training consistently responds to the sit cue, switch hands with your lure so that he begins to respond to your cue instead of the lure. Repeat this exercise one or two times with a treat as a lure. Then switch hands with the lure. The next step is to remove the food and use only your hand to lure your dog. Continue to reward your dog after he sits.

The First Five Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

Once your dog can reliably sit without the assistance of a lure, you want to wean them from needing a treat for their behavior. You can accomplish this by placing your treats further away so that you have to reach for them, which means the reward is not as immediate. Once your dog gets used to a longer lapse between their performance and receiving a reward, only treat your dog randomly. You want to offer praise constantly but begin to treat only sporadically until he can perform the command without a treat.

Keys to Successfully Training Your Dog to Sit

  • Never physically put your dog into the sit position. This can cause confusion or upset some dogs.

  • Pay attention to your dog’s demeanor. If you notice that your dog is stressed, stop and respond appropriately. This might mean minimizing the distance or trying again at another time.  


5. Leash Walking

Service Animals need to learn to walk nicely on a leash at all times. Your SDIT should not be pulling on their leach and should be able to stay by your side and not wander. Your dog may not always perform perfectly. Distractions happen, but you must always remain in control of your dog in public. 

To practice proper leash walking, start by walking your dog indoors on a leash attached to your dog’s collar. When your dog reaches the end of the leash, turn and go in the opposite direction. Click and treat your dog when he comes to the desired position at your side. Continue to do this until you notice that your dog is watching to see where you go so he can better follow you.
Once you have your dog’s attention, you can take the exercise outdoors. Be generous with praising your dog’s good behavior and treat every time you use your clicker to reinforce good behavior.

Continue your outdoor training using the same method. When your dog is at the end of the leash, turn and walk the other way. If your dog lags behind, you can encourage them to hurry and catch up. Once he is back in the proper position, greet him with a click, treats, and lots of love!

The First Five Skills to Teach a Psychiatric Service Dog in Training

Keep practicing loose leash walking until your dog can remain focused on you despite any distractions in the environment. To level up this exercise, try it out in a public place like the park where there will be distractions. Each time your dog loses focus, turn and walk the other way. This will cause your Service Animal to re-orient himself back to your side. Your SDIT will learn that he only gets to walk when he walks nicely at your side. There can be no exceptions to this rule.

Keys to Successful Loose Leash Walking

  • Reinforce and reward your dog’s good behavior by offering plenty of treats and praise. 

  • Learning this skill can feel tedious because it may take several weeks for your dog to master. It requires both time and patience. 

  • Similar to driving in bad weather, teaching your dog to focus despite distractions can feel draining to your dog. Pay attention to your dog’s body language and cues to know when it’s time to stop. 


When your Service Dog in Training masters these first few skills, you can easily apply them to other situations and behaviors. For example, the sit command is incorporated into the behavior needed to learn to “leave it” or “come.” There are many other ways that these few commands can be built upon. Training is a process and takes time. Have realistic expectations for training your Service Animal. Navigating life with a disability comes with its own challenges, so remember to give your dog and yourself a lot of grace as you learn together.

One of the most significant benefits of having a Psychiatric Service Animal is the improvement of your quality of life. You don’t have to be a professional trainer to see the same results that professional trainers do.
These essential skills lay the groundwork for everything else. Keep your approach to training your Service Animal simple and start with these five critical skills. As you and your Service Animal experience some victories mastering these skills, you’ll build your confidence to continue learning. Soon you’ll be ready to learn public access skills and tackle task training. The process requires time and consistency. You and your service dog are a team, and nothing is quite as rewarding as the feeling of accomplishment as you watch your dog master new skills.
ESA or PSA Certification?

The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!


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