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If you are an animal lover and also find fulfillment in helping others, you may have considered becoming a service dog trainer. That is, training dogs that work to assist disabled individuals in their daily life. But there is so much more to it than that.
As well as training the animals themselves, you need to have a deep understanding of disability and how it works, and you need to train the human too! The dog and the human form a team that needs to know how to work together.
Moreover, it is not just a case of training a dog, handing them over, and you are done. You are then committing to a 10-year relationship with the pair as you constantly assess whether the dog is still able to perform the required tasks and provide new training as disabilities develop.
If that sounds like the kind of challenge you would like to take on, in today’s article, we will take you through exactly what is involved in being a service dog trainer, the skills you must acquire, and where and how you can start working as a service dog trainer once you are ready.
What Are Service Dogs?
Service dogs are individual animals that have been specifically trained to work with a person with a specific disability or special need.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs as:
… as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.
Types of service dogs include guide dogs for the blind or visually impaired, hearing assistance dogs for the deaf or partially deaf, mobility assistance dogs, seizure response dogs, and mental health service dogs.
You can read more about service dogs, what exactly they do, and the best breeds of dogs to act as service dogs here.
What Do Service Dog Trainers Do?
When you imagine a service dog trainer, you probably imagine someone spending hours a day with an intelligent pup teaching them important skills and reinforcing their good behavior with treats. While this might sound like the montage you see in a movie, it bears little resemblance to reality.
The reality is that you are not training service dogs, but rather a team, a human and a dog that will be working together in the future. So you need to train the dog how to work with their human but also the human how to work with their dog.
Further, there is no question of “churning out” service dogs that then go on to help different people. Dogs must be trained to work with the individual person and the specifics of their disability.
So, before even thinking about training the dog, you need to spend significant time with the individual disabled person to completely understand their disability. Only then can you understand the skills the dog will need and start working with both dog(s) and human to train them on how to work together.
It is also not a matter of training a dog and then deciding that your work is done. You, or the organization you work for, is then committed to more or less a 10-year relationship with the team (which is about the working life of a dog). During this time you would be responsible for follow-up such as additional training, retesting of the animal, and so forth.
This is challenging work, but it is also incredibly rewarding. So, if this is something you are interested in doing, read on.
There are no official qualifications for service dog trainers. This feels like an oversight considering how much trust is put in the hands of the dog, and therefore, the trainer.
But most people who work within the industry know that it is a serious business. A distracted or badly trained dog can cost a person their life.
Because it is a relatively small and closed industry, reputation and word of mouth count for a lot. Organizations that provide service dogs and hire trainers are very selective in the hiring process.
There are independent trainers out there as well, but they will have usually built a reputation within the community working with organizations before going at it alone.
Required Skills And Experience
While there is no specific qualification required to become a service dog trainer, there are some essential skills and experience that will be required. These can be split into two categories:
- Experience and aptitude for training dogs to the highest possible level so they respond appropriately 100 percent of the time.
- Understanding of disability and how service dogs can be used as a tool to aid disabled individuals, and the ability to work with and train disabled persons.
Let’s take a closer look at the various skills and knowledge required in these two categories and how they can be obtained.
Dog Training Skills
Naturally, if you want to train service dogs, you are going to need excellent dog training skills. You are going to need to know how to train dogs to obey commands and respond in the way expected 100 percent of the time.
You will also need to learn how to determine whether a dog is suited to service work early in the training process. You do not want to spend a lot of time training a dog only to discover that they are completely unsuited to the task.
Bear in mind that 70 percent of dogs that start service training are deemed unsuitable for the task (don’t worry; they all get sent off to good homes as very well-trained pups). Here’s a list of service dog schools with adoption programs.
There are a variety of ways you can learn the skills of dog training.
The most common method is to apprentice yourself at an existing dog training academy. They will “certify” you as successfully completing the apprenticeship there, though this is not a nationally recognized certification.
There are also a number of higher education institutions that offer this kind of training. Probably the most well-respected of these causes is offered by Bergin University of Canine Studies based in California. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers also offer courses.
A number of universities across the country specialize in canine studies and dog training:
- University of North Caroline, Wilmington (NC)
- Northeastern Junior College (CO)
- Western Illinois University (IL)
- Florida Keys Community College (FL)
- Meredith Manor International Equestrian Center (WV)
- Moorpark College (CA)
- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (IL)
- Ashworth College (CO)
- Penn Foster Career School (CO)
- St Louis Community College (MO)
These courses can be a gateway into apprenticeships and entry level positions with training organizations that can reinforce skills and build your professional reputation.
Knowledge Of Disability And Working With Disabled Persons
Anyone who wants to train service dogs needs a good understanding of disability and working with disabled persons. So, one of the key skills you will want to acquire is working with disabled individuals.
If this is not a skill set you already have, you will want to consider activities such as volunteering with disabled groups, rehabilitation units at hospitals, and at similar locations.
You will want to learn how to speak to disabled people openly and respectfully about their challenges and learn how to build a rapport with them so they can trust you throughout the training process.
You will also need to learn about disability in general. For example, you will need to learn about static versus progressive disabilities, so disabilities that are consistent as opposed to disabilities that are getting progressively worse or perhaps better thanks to therapy and treatment.
You will also want to know about what other types of aid devices are available to the disabled person, so you can consider how this might interplay with their service dog.
You will also want to learn how to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the disabled person, so you can decide what a dog can safely be taught to help them with.
Training Your Own Service Dog
If you are looking to train your own service dog, rather than becoming a professional service dog trainer, there are a number of online programs available to take you through the process.
However, if you are looking for a service dog to assist you with a serious disability, this is not generally recommended. It is also not recommended to train dogs for others without appropriate experience using these types of programs. If something happens, you could find yourself liable.
The best online schools for training your own service dog include:
- Animal Behavior Institute
- Compass Key
- Doggy U
- E-Training for Dogs
- My Service Dogs and Me
- Service Dog Academy
- USA Service Dogs
- WAGS 4 Kids
While these are great resources, exercise care when choosing to train a service dog in this manner. If the dog is not appropriately trained, they can put the disabled person that relies on them in serious danger.
How Do I Become A Professional Dog Trainer?
There is no nationally recognized training or certification for becoming a professional dog trainer or a professional service dog trainer. Rather, success within the industry mainly relies on reputation and word-of-mouth as individuals recommend the services of someone they have used before.
This is especially important when it comes to service dog training. The service dog-disabled persons community tends to be quite tight-knit, and recommendations play a vital role.
The best way to gain skills and experience in dog training is to either apprentice with a dog trainer or take a dog training course at a higher education institution.
To become a service dog trainer, you must also have an understanding of disability and working with disabled persons. For this, it is recommended to seek specialized training and/or volunteer with relevant disability groups.
Can Anyone Train A Service Dog?
There is no qualification for becoming a service dog trainer, so technically, anyone can do it. If you want to train your own service dog, there are a variety of good online resources out there to take you through the process step-by-step.
However, considering the important role service dogs play, it is not recommended that you train them if you do not know what you are doing. A distracted or poorly trained guide dog could lead their owner into traffic or other danger.
If the dog was inadequately trained, you could be held liable for whatever happens.
What Degree Do You Need To Become A Dog Trainer?
There is no specific degree required to become a dog trainer, though there are a number of higher education institutions that offer courses in dog training. The most well-known of these is Bergin University in California, but similar courses are offered by institutions all around the country.
Apprenticing with an experienced trainer or training organization is also a common route to becoming a professional dog trainer.
Do Service Dogs Have To Pass A Test?
There is no specific test your dog must pass to become a service dog, and your dog does not need to be registered anywhere to work as a service dog. However, it can be useful to register your dog with a Service Dog Registry in order to get paperwork for your dog to ensure they get public access.
This may be unnecessary for guide dogs, as they are generally accepted everywhere. But if you have a dog for diabetes or a mental health issue, and therefore, it is not immediately obvious that your dog is a service dog, the documentation can be useful.
You are asked to complete a self-assessment of the dog before registering. This assessment is to help you determine that the service dog is manageable in public and that the owner has control over the dog. This is separate from the essential duties performed by the dog.
The key skills are:
- Controlled unload out of a vehicle
- Controlled entry through a doorway
- Heeling through a building
- Six foot recall
- Sit on command
- Down on command
- Coping with noise distraction
- Remaining calm in a restaurant
- Maintaining control off lead
How Much Does A Service Dog Trainer Make?
Earning potential varies greatly for service dog trainers and will be very different for those working for an organization and working independently.
The average cost of a service dog is $15,000-$30,000, and an independent service dog trainer can sell any animal for this amount. However, they must account for the cost of purchasing the dog, feeding and caring for the dog during the training period, and also the time spent training both the dog and the individual who will work with the dog.
Bear in mind that most puppies can only begin serious service dog training from the age of six months, and that it will take a minimum of six months to complete their training, and this can potentially take up to 18 months.
Moreover, once the dog is delivered to their owner, the dog trainer will be responsible for follow up training and assessment for a period of roughly 10 years (the average working life of a service dog).
There are also many organizations out there that provide discounted service animals and often at no charge to individuals who cannot otherwise afford them, making up the difference in cost through charitable donations and the like.
A service dog trainer may work for this type of organization on a salaried or freelance basis. But this can reduce the risks to a trainer as the organization can cover costs such as finding appropriate dogs and providing long-term monitoring.
Service dog training is certainly not an easy field to work in and is nothing like being your standard dog trainer. There is a lot of responsibility involved, and you aren’t just working with the dog; you are also working with the human being they will support so that the two understand how to work together.
If you do decide to pursue this as a profession, it is worthwhile to take the time to gather the training and experience you need. The market is very closed and reputation is everything, and you also don’t want to be held liable if something horrible happens due to a poorly trained service animal.
While there are a lot of things to think about, being a service dog trainer is highly rewarding work for anyone with a passion for animals and a passion for helping people.
Do you have any experience training service dogs?
Share your experiences with the community in the comments section below or via our social media.
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