How to choose a service dog trainer?
In my early days as a service dog trainer, the only way to get a service dog was to apply to an organization and wait for your turn to get a dog. Today there are many more options, from getting a fully trained service dog to getting your pet dog trained for you or learning how to do it yourself. But before you consider any one of those options, it’s important to get some insight into the dog training industry and understand how to choose an organization or a trainer to work with.
This is an unregulated industry. In other words, anyone could start an organization or claim to train service dogs without any particular degree or license. As service dogs have become more popular, more trainers have started offering that service, quite often with no previous experience in this field of work. So, it’s very easy to fall for good advertising, and finding a competent trainer can be tricky.
1/ The first thing to be aware of, is that training a service dog is different than obedience training for a pet dog:
- Service dogs require a lot of training
I’m sure you already know this: to get a dog to work in all sorts of situations, takes a lot of work. Training a down-stay at a dog training center is different than asking a dog to stay calm in a restaurant with strangers constantly passing by. Dogs do not generalize, so what they learn in one situation must also be taught in other situations. If we don’t carefully work in different locations and at different levels of distractions, the dog might not be able to respond, even to simple cues. How far you need to push the training goes way beyond what a typical pet dog class would offer.
- Service dog training is different than pet dog training
Service dog training is meant to be practical. Some behaviors are done differently than pet dog training. let’s take an example. If we teach a dog to sit automatically when we stop, as in obedience training when we’re in a busy place, the dog’s tail could be stepped on. If we need the dog to help with balance issues, we might be pulled down whenever the dog sits. The training is meant to make it easier and safer to take the dog out in public places. Obedience for pet dogs or competition was never designed to do while you’re busy doing other things. With your service dog, however, you’ll be carrying a bag at times, shopping, opening doors, paying at the cash registry, etc. If a trainer has never worked with a reputable service dog organization before offering service dog training, they might not be aware of those differences.
- There are standards that are specific to the service dog industry
Service dog standards were developed over time to protect the people who need such dogs. When the dogs meet those standards, they are better service dogs. But there is another reason why those standards are important. With a service dog, we are allowed to go to public places where other dogs can’t go. That’s because service dog organizations have made sure the service dogs do not disturb anyone and don’t give reason to others to complain about them. If we drop those standards, we run the risk of seeing regulations become tougher. That has already happened to emotional support animals. We cannot assume that service dog laws can’t be changed if they are abused. Here again, unless a trainer has worked with an organization, they might not be aware of those standards.
2/ After making sure a dog trainer or an organization has the experience you need, the second, but most important consideration you will need to make is in the training methods. Professional dog trainers apply different methods of training, and those methods are not equal in how they will affect your dog. If you don’t understand those differences, it’s going to be difficult to make the choice that works best for you. Those differences are so big between schools of thought, that you can’t just go from one trainer to the other and expect you and your dog to adapt easily. There are in fact some real incompatibilities between methods.
Dog training falls into 3 different categories:
When I first started as a dog trainer, some 35+ years ago, that was the only method available. Dogs learned the “Do it or else” method. Sit “or else” I’ll give you a quick leash pop or push your hindquarters down. The dog learns that if they sit as soon as they hear the word “Sit”, they avoid the unpleasant feeling around their neck or on their hindquarters. No one likes to be pushed or forced into position, so dogs will learn to comply. Traditional trainers will use tools such as choke chains, prong collars, and shock collars (that can cause physical damage to the dog). These tools make it more effective to apply positive punishment (giving the dog something they don’t like to decrease a behavior), like a leash correction when the dog pulls, or negative reinforcement (taking away something they don’t like when they do what we want), like releasing the pressure once the dog sits.
This type of training is based on the idea that the dog needs a leader. Like in a wolf pack, dogs need us to be the alpha, the leader of the pack. We need to show them who’s boss through a set of rules and attitudes. The problem with traditional training is that the premise relies on a theory that has long been debunked. The assumption that dogs need us to be the leader based on wolves simply isn’t true anymore.
Most trainers today are what we call balanced trainers. The approach is to use whatever method works best for the dog they have in front of them. All tools will be used, from prong collars and choke chains to clickers and treats. Some behaviors might be taught using punishment and intimidation as in traditional training, while others will be taught with treats and positive reinforcement (giving the dog what they want when they do what we want). Trainers using this approach feel that the dogs learn faster this way and that every dog learns differently. Unfortunately, this might be true if every tool was equal in how it affected the dog. But giving a treat or a leash correction will have a very different impact on the dog’s feeling of safety, confidence level, trust, and welfare.
Positive reinforcement-based trainers rely primarily on 2 strategies to teach the dog how to behave in a human world:
- Management. Just like we must child-proof our house when a baby is born, the dog’s living space is set up to help the dog develop the right habits from the beginning. A puppy will for instance naturally go chew on a bone if that’s all that is available for him to chew on. We’ll do our best to avoid giving the dog a chance of developing the habit of chewing on a shoe. As they learn, they gradually get more and more freedom around the house, exactly like we would with a toddler.
- Training. The dogs are not punished for making the wrong choice but are instead rewarded when they chose the right behavior. When the dog sits, they get a treat. When they walk in position and look at us, they get a teat, etc. There is no pressure, punishment, or intimidation in training, only rewards (mostly in the form of treats) for doing the right thing. The premise of this type of training is to encourage the dog to take initiative. This not only helps the dog gain confidence, but this method also promotes problem-solving and a relationship based on trust and understanding.
Having been a trainer for a few decades now, I have tried every method available. My goal, like most trainers, has always been to help dogs and owners and I was willing to try anything new. I started as a traditional trainer and had good results, but I have also seen how such methods do not work well with every dog. Many dogs shut down from the pressure and develop problem behaviors as they are trying to cope with the stress. In many aspects, and no matter how we try to justify some of the tools that we use on dogs, the “do it or else” approach is nothing more than bullying them into obedience. Of course, it works, but should we?
There is plenty of evidence that physically forcing dogs into positions will work but will also affect them negatively and will also affect our own behavior (Hiby & al., 2004). Dogs are much more like us than we often recognize. Could we learn that way? Could we be taught under the threat of being scolded, spanked, or punished? Of course, we would, we have done so and still do. But how does that make us feel about the person who treats us that way? Do we enjoy math better when we are forced and punished until we finish our homework or when we are encouraged and helped along the way? Dogs and people are much more performant when they feel safe to try, fail, and try again without harsh consequences. Training should never only be about results, it’s also a matter of welfare.
I chose to be a positive trainer and will only occasionally resort to mild forms of punishment in everyday life when I don’t have another option. In training new behaviors, I never see a reason to scold or punish a dog and haven’t needed a choke chain or prong collar in over 20 years. I am a big advocate for the dogs’ right to be treated with kindness. Life will give them plenty of reasons to be stressed and anxious already as they have very little say and control over what is going on. When dogs enjoy training with us, they are not only happier, but they are also in a better mental place to make decisions and learn. We also know from studies a recent study of veterans and their service dogs, that the relationship that develops between a person and their service dog, is closer when positive training methods are used (LaFollett, M. & al., 2019)
At Medical Mutts, all our methods are based on helping dogs and people collaborate without resorting to intimidation and force. These methods are the same that are applied in zoos and marine parks with wild animals taught to cooperate in their veterinary care. We use a lot of treats at first and gradually decrease as the dog develops the habits that we need. This approach is how we teach dogs complex behaviors like alerting us of a seizure, a hypoglycemic episode, or a panic attack. We want dogs who don’t hesitate in taking initiative and breaking a command to alert us of an imminent crisis. In those situations, the dogs need to be autonomous and make the right decision, often without any guidance. They might hesitate if they are concerned they’ll get corrected for making the wrong choice.
When you’re looking for a trainer to help you either get a service dog or train your own dog as your service dog, it’s important to try to get as much information as you can about that trainer’s experience and approach to training. Pictures on their website or social media will give you some insight into what methods are applied. What type of equipment is on the dogs? Does the trainer wear a treat pouch? Do they disclose their training methods on their website? How many service dog teams are featured? What kind of reviews do they have?
You’ll find more information on service dog training, including the standards, the laws, and how to choose the right dog in my book “Selecting and Training Your Service Dog, How to Succeed in Public Access Work”. This is a complicated and somewhat controversial subject. Every trainer believes strongly in the approach that they chose. What’s most important is that you find an organization or a trainer whose methods you will be comfortable using. You will have to continue the training with your service dog as that never really stops. Behaviors are always influenced by their consequences, so how you manage them will either make them stronger, change them or extinguish them. So, finding an approach that you can stick to and believe in is essential.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. is an author, researcher, dog trainer, consultant, and Executive Director of Medical Mutts, a non-profit organization specialized in the training of medical alert dogs for conditions such as seizures, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, etc.