by Zan Raynor, certified dog training and CEO of ELLAS Animals INC
The temperament of the trainer, rather than the dog
The temperament to train a service dog may not lie completely where you expect. We see plenty of statistics about how high a percentage of dogs that begin service dog training are then “washed” from the goal of becoming a service dog. Certainly, there are dogs who won’t succeed – most notably those with health conditions or who are aggressive and therefore dangerous. However, focusing on the people instead of the dogs, we can identify a number of factors on the part of the trainer that are at least as important as the temperament of the dog, which gets so much more attention.
Time to train a service dog
It takes a daily commitment of time to train a service dog. Recommendations vary on how much time per day, but many suggest roughly 30-60 minutes per day. Sure, an owner-trainer might miss a day here and there but for successful service dog training, this time commitment has to be almost immovable, every day, regardless of other commitments, seasons, holidays, weather, etc. In addition to these formal training sessions, once a service dog in training has advanced to working on their skills in public access, owner-trainers should plan for an extra hour or two every week to train in restaurants, stores, and other businesses.
If that looks like a reasonable time commitment, remember that’s on top of the time it takes just to have a pet. Dogs still need to be fed and walked to relieve themselves and, depending on the breed and the age, they may need up to an hour of exercise every day (remember: a dog walking on a leash may be exercise for the human but it’s probably not for the dog). They need quality time interacting with their humans, like snuggling and playing games. Some dogs need regular grooming and all dogs need at least occasional baths and nail trimming. There are shopping trips for food and supplies as well as trips to the vet for vaccinations and checkups. If starting with a puppy, don’t forget the months of waking up throughout the night and the seemingless constant trips outside around the clock while the puppy is still potty training.
In addition to the daily time, when we talk about the time it takes to train a service dog, we have to think about the year and a half to two years that most owner-trainers agree it takes to fully train a service dog. The work’s not done after that, though. Like elite athletes, service dogs train for the rest of their careers. Regardless of how “fully trained” the service dog is, owner-trainers continue to put in time maintaining that training, fine tuning skills with greater and greater nuance, precision, and accuracy, as well as constantly watching for any problem behaviors that may develop and need to be addressed. Finally, and hopefully, there will be the retirement years where the service dog still wants the attention of it’s handler and mental stimulation.
Focus to train a service dog
A service dog’s focus will develop naturally through the training process but that’s not what we’re talking about. While the dog’s focus is still on every squirrel, bird, and piece of trash, the trainer’s focus has to be rock solid. For those formal training sessions of 30-60 minutes per day, the trainer has to be focused solely on the dog, not on the children, the other pets in the house, answering the phone, watching the TV, or any number of other distractions that we all face every day. Like any coach, the trainer has to be able to push aside thoughts of work, dinner, friends, hobbies and focus on what the goals are for the training session. At any point, a trainer should know where they are in the training process and what they’re specifically working on that day.
In order to train efficiently, that is not to waste time or need to retrain, a trainer should always have a good strategy. This begins with a vast amount of knowledge about dog training in general, service dog training in particular, and service dog laws, both federal and state. It amounts to much more than random YouTube videos or following some service dog trainers or groups on social media. If an owner-trainer introduces their dog to things that draw their attention on the internet at random, they’ll never reach their goals. A trainer needs a systematic plan of attack, an overview as well as details about each command, skill, and task. A trainer can take years piecing knowledge together from various sources before they can outline a specific course of action. Many choose to follow a thorough book or a comprehensive training program and to supplement either with the support of a professional dog trainer. At any point, a strategic trainer should be able to point to where they are on their road map to their destination, identify which stage every particular command or skill is currently at, and justify their plans and actions with sound theory and reasons.
Along with a strategic plan, every dog trainer has to be flexible. Trainers often have to experiment with different treats or other rewards. Sometimes they need to shift to different training equipment. We often hear the expression, “Train the dog that shows up that day.” A good trainer has a lesson plan, so to speak, every day, and sometimes that plan goes out the window when a dog isn’t performing as we expected. It’s important to pivot and suit the training to what the dog is capable of in that moment. Sometimes particular skills will take longer to master than was anticipated. Fear stages are bound to happen and they are developmentally appropriate, but tend to slow down training. Similarly, long term plans will be modified by things that happen, like the development of problem behaviors or the introduction of some trauma (only the dog can decide what is traumatic like that new bundle of joy that has suddenly taken over their home or that scary dog that lunged at them), health issues (on the part of the dog or the trainer). The important part is to never give up but be flexible enough to find a way to move forward and adjust the long term plan as needed to still achieve the goal.
Patience to train a service dog
Dog trainers do the same things over and over again, sometimes for a year or more. It’s tedious and boring. We hear constantly that “slow is fast” in service dog training, which is true, but also takes enormous patience. Dogs have to start with the basics and work on heel, sit, down, stay, etc. when what owner-trainers really want and need are the tasks and work that mitigate the symptoms of their disability. We see something cool in a video or in person and we want our dog to do that because it’s showy but we have to have the patience to keep walking in endless squares to keep developing “heel”.
With “patience” and “faith”, we sound like we’re talking about theological virtues, and in truth, these go hand in hand. Trainers have to trust the process. We train the same things for weeks and months on end, not really seeing much progress, or at least not really seeing how the boring stuff we’re spending so much time on is going to lead to the cool stuff service dogs can do. It’s easy to give up, believing it’s not enough, it’s hopeless, it’s never going to happen. It takes a lot of faith to keep going, every day, not really seeing any proof that the goal of a service dog will ever be reached.
“No man is an island” and neither is a dog trainer. Even a trainer who lives alone and never socializes with friends or family may need to ask for help from someone to video record their training or tests or to find other dogs to train near or to socialize their dog to different types of people. Much more typically, owner-trainers live with family members or roommates and have colleagues or friends who interact with their dog. It’s crucial for the entire unit to be on the same page. Outside the home, it’s often easier to educate people on how to behave around the dog, but inside the home, every individual needs to be depended on to follow the same plan and to support the training methods, reinforce desirable behaviors, and avoid encouraging undesirable behaviors. It’s possible to lose the game before it’s played if the trainer is being undermined by someone in the same camp.
Whatever we want to call this, it takes tremendous strength of spirit for a trainer to force themselves to stick to a plan and train every day. Professional dog trainers may have the benefit of punching a clock and getting paid, but owner-trainers have to galvanize themselves to train before and after work or school, fitting it in between homework or making dinner, to train when it’s cold and raining or snowing, to train when they’re tired or depressed, to train when they’re happy and want to celebrate, to train when they’re having a low point in their faith or patience, to train when they’re not feeling well, to train when that new TV series that everyone’s talking about is calling their name. Some people are good at this. They get the job done, whatever it is and however long it takes. Some people aren’t so good at this and find they need to rely more on external motivation and structure because they tend to procrastinate, make excuses, and find themselves months down the road wondering why the training isn’t coming along. A trainer needs to know themselves and whether they have the personal skills to keep themselves working, without fail, every day, for years.
Equipment to train a service dog
Yes, this is quite low on the list. Inexperienced trainers often think that the success of training lies with the equipment. They are constantly on the lookout for the magic wand that will instantly transform their dog into Lassie. Spoiler alert: no fancy equipment will replace solid, strategic, consistent training. Escalating to more and more aversive equipment is the lazy and impatient approach to dog training and the risks are high. A balanced trainer knows it’s worth the time to train with as much positive reinforcement as possible and as little correction as is effective.
All a trainer needs is a collar and a leash. In fact, dog training was obviously done before either of these even came into use. There are better collars for training, such as a limited-slip martingale or a head halter. There are worse collars for training, like flat-buckle or, heaven forbid, any sort of harness. Everyone has a favorite leash, and probably different ones for different uses. Treats are useful as motivation and rewards, but not indispensable for training. Arguably, a crate is irreplaceable for management while training and for crate training itself. Beyond that, individuals find tools and conveniences that they find helpful but a dog can still be trained without them.
There is an endless array of “equipment” that is draped all over social media. The vast majority of it is either unnecessary or actually harmful to training. Service dogs don’t need boots unless they are genuinely, in that moment, working on far colder or hotter surfaces than dogs have been walking around on for thousands of years. Similarly, service dogs don’t need sunglasses or goggles to protect them from the elements that dogs have always existed in, unless the dog is working in a lab environment where PPE is required. Service dogs don’t need to wear clothes unless they are helping to keep them warm enough to be able to focus on their work. Service dogs don’t need pop culture themes on custom vests with yards of warning text. If owner-trainers are focused on all of this cute fashion instead of strategic training, they may actually be introducing stressors into their dog’s life, work, and training that can cause them to be overwhelmed and eventually burnout. Just like training the boring and unexciting “sit” before training fascinating and fun “retrieve”, it’s important to focus on the basics and then the more advanced skills before spending crucial money, energy, focus, and stress on fashionable but unnecessary accessories.
Purchasing a fully-trained service dog or paying a professional trainer to train a service dog tends to run from $10,000 to $50,000. However, owner-trainers don’t get off cheap either. There is the cost of the dog and even rescue/adoption fees tend to be in the hundreds with purebred dogs in the thousands. Puppies generate hundreds of dollars of vet bills in the first 4 months alone. Even healthy adult dogs require annual vet visits with tests, vaccinations, and monthly preventatives and there is always the chance of illnesses and accidents requiring emergency funds. Food is an ongoing expense and there is undoubtedly equipment that needs to be replaced from time to time (including the shoes and whatnot that the puppy chews up). Even without planning for any financial contributions to professional trainers or behaviorists, the costs of caring for a dog add up, so owner-trainers have to consider the expenses and whether they are in a situation to be responsible about the dog’s care.
Professionals vs Amateurs
When statistics are being thrown around, they tend to suggest that professional dog trainers succeed in fully training a service dog about twice as often amateurs, e.g. 20% of owner-trained dogs will succeed as service dogs while 40-50% of program-trained dogs will succeed as service dogs. Certainly part of this is that programs often breed their own puppies from proven lines and quickly eliminate puppies that don’t displace the optimum temperament at 7 weeks of age, before they begin training. Those programs that don’t breed in-house still generally purchase purebred dogs from reputable breeders that have already been temperament tested. Whereas, many owner-trainers are working with rescue dogs or mixed breeds from private rehoming or questionable breeders and often may begin training dogs that aren’t in the freshness of puppyhood. In these ways, the quality of the dogs themselves certainly affect the statistics.
However, an important factor that is overlooked is often the trainer rather than the dog. We understand that professional dog trainers generally have much more knowledge and experience training dogs, but they also likely have more time, focus, patience, faith, support, and structure/self-discipline/motivation than amateurs training their first service dog. That doesn’t mean amateur owner-trainers can’t succeed or even that they have a much lower chance of success. It merely means that amateur owner-trainers need to want it even more than the professionals. They need to think of themselves as professionals. They need to think of their training as work that is nonnegotiable. They need to have the mindset that any dog and any behavior can be trained, and that no dog is going to reach the goal if they give up or expect the dog to just do what the trainer wants. When an amateur owner-trainer “washes” a service dog in training, it likely reflects more on their own mindset than on the dogs themselves. With a commitment to learning and developing and training, amateur owner-trainers can achieve the same statistics of success as professional trainers, often even higher rates of success because they are committed to training the dog they have and making it work, no matter what it takes, even if that is longer than expected.
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